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Brockton's Celestial Forge

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It was hard enough being a college dropout in a city with a half dead economy. In Brockton most people were either ignoring the reality of the situation or had given up hope completely. Realistically the only growth industry was cape work, and if you weren’t a cape that meant tourism, the PRT, or henchmaning for the truly desperate. Most of the city would have given their right arm for superpowers. Too bad they don’t understand what you have to go through in order to trigger, or how the powers you get don’t exactly match up with what you dreamed about.

 

If I thought the current level of what my power was capable of was all I would ever get I would probably be pretty frustrated. Back when I was in college everyone dreamed about being a tinker. When you were in an engineering program in the same city as Armsmaster it was really inevitable. When I finally got powers they didn’t exactly match what you’d expect from a tinker. Then again, from what I’d learned most tinkers didn’t exactly function on the level of what you’d expect from a tinker.

 

See, technically I had only made one thing so far. It was a doozy, but still not exactly the stuff heroes are made of. I might have been able to leverage it into some obscure application, especially the secondary effects, but it would have been a challenge. Still, it’s not as bad as it could have been. Or would have been.

 

I’d had my mighty pseudo-tinker powers for all of a week and had not accomplished much in that time. Mostly I’d been focusing on sorting out the mess of my life that had resulted in my trigger event. I wouldn’t exactly say bridges were burned, but there were some close relations that it would be awkward to deal with for a while. Triggers don’t really fix anything. Well, they might if it’s one of the ones that turns you super strong to deal with being crushed by a car, but for anything that has a longer buildup there’s no amount of power that is actually going to fix the problems with either you or your life that led to that situation. Accepting that at least let me start to move on.

 

I was riding the bus home after a grueling week of work. They say there are no jobs in Brockton Bay. That’s not exactly true. There are plenty of jobs as long as you’re relatively young, clean, willing to put up with abuse from the general public, and don’t need to support anyone else or have any serious obligations beyond basic survival. Which is how I was able to land a job as a part time retail worker in the rich side of the city. In a store where everyone other than the manager was part time, since that let you avoid all those pesky benefits that would have to be paid.

 

It was how I was able to afford a truly terrible apartment in not quite the worst area of the docks. I was currently living in the part of the city they had warned us against when I first moved out of dorms. It at least got me away from Captain’s Hill and thanks to my power was just bearable. The apartment was about a five minute walk from the nearest bus stop, which it this neighborhood was a somewhat harrowing experience. The apartment was part of an oversized house that had been divided into five units, which placed mine as a long thin studio apartment.  My theory was it had been assembled out of left over space. The fact that it had to be accessed from what must have been a converted fire escape only did more to convinced me. It was clearly a case of ‘we have this extra space. Can we get someone to pay for it?’.

 

I know there were much worse places. I’d looked at what they offered in my price range Downtown and this was totally worth the half hour bus commute. Plus, thanks to my power, it had one advantage.

 

Once I got home I dumped my jacket and headed for the closet. This would probably wear thin eventually, but for now, after just a week of having my power it was still a blast. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my key.

 

It was the first thing I built, if I could count as the person who built it. There were two kinds of things I could make with my powers. Things made out of normal material, and things like this. I couldn’t recreate the key if my life depended on it, but that doesn’t matter because it will always exist. I’ve essentially made it a universal constant that I will always have this key. Destroyed, lost, or just separated and it will turn up in a few minutes. That effect, and what it could accomplish was enough that if I didn’t know the full scope of my powers I probably would have assumed the key and what it could do was everything. Then it would be off to the PRT to let them try to figure out how to brand me as a door based superhero.

 

I slid the key into the closet door and turned it. Rather than open into a small and musty collection of shirts and winter coats the door revealed a blank white cube of a room exactly five meters on each side. Safe and mobile access to an extradimensional space wasn’t a terrible power and could probably have any number of applications. I mean, if I wanted to go villain it would have let me clean out entire stores without anything weighing me down. I was putting it to a much more mundane application.

 

Right now the cube contained a duffle bag, mattress, work desk, small bookcase, two storage trunks, and an old office chair. There was also a battery lantern on the desk since the lighting level in this area left something to be desired. At least it was dark enough that it was possible to sleep here, and the place had less temperature and odor issues than my own apartment.

 

I wasn’t here just to get away from my living conditions. Aside from the entry way there was a single door on the left side of the cube. Before I headed that way I set up the crude door bar I had built earlier. One downside was I couldn’t close the door while I was inside. That was probably a safety measure since I didn’t know what would happen if the door I used was opened when I tried to get out, or worse destroyed. I had no intention of getting stuck in here forever, but I wasn’t going to let anyone wander in behind me. Between my locked, bolted and chained apartment door and the chunk of steel wedging this door shut as far as I could get it I was reasonably secure. It wouldn’t stop most of the capes in this city, but I was thankfully off their radar by virtue of not doing anything superhero related.

 

I walked through the inner door into my workshop. It wasn’t exactly what you would expect when you heard the words ‘tinker’ and ‘workshop’. The place wasn’t bedecked with the blistering technology of a science hero. It wasn’t even a top quality manufacturing facility. This was more of what you would get from a high school metal shop. There were tools and machinery, but it was fairly basic stuff. Not even a proper numeric control lathe. I was lucky I had a manufacturing component in my college courses otherwise I’d be completely lost here. My high school had phased out shop class long ago so it was only thanks to a single college class offered more as a formality that I knew what I was doing.

 

Fortunately the place was stocked with materials and safety equipment. Unless I wanted to work with exotic alloys or bring in high tech equipment the whole place was designed so I wouldn’t have to go out for anything. That was a very good thing. I don’t know if it was true, but there were rumors about people who triggered as tinkers started buying random stuff like loads of silly putty, old microwaves, or cleaning chemicals only to get exposed by various agencies or gangs on the lookout for behavior like that. I had my doubts, since that seemed like it would generate loads of false positives, but who knew how good the thinkers working for people like that were.

 

I didn’t want to end up exposed, especially not with my powers at their current level. So the fact that I had a private, personal, and well stocked workshop was a blessing. It was just too bad I couldn’t build anything worth a damn.

 

What I had produced in my after work hours over the last week was nothing more than curiosities. Honestly it had been more about trying to get used to working with this kind of equipment again. The closest thing I’d made to a useful tool was that door jam, and that was just a matter of measuring correctly and working the right tools. I had rough tinker facilities, but I didn’t have any tinker knowledge.

 

That is, I didn’t have any yet.

 

I closed my eyes and felt out the potential extent of my power. Over three hundred flares of lightning burned in my mind, all but one completely beyond my reach. The only mote I could touch was the single piece representing my workshop. The embers were arranged into twelve general constellations each along a different theme, but I could barely glean what it was at the moment. These were what I was working towards. These were the reason I hadn’t given up and sulked off to the Protectorate. These were tinker powers.

 

Every one of them represented some level of crafting ability, power, knowledge or resource. I could just barely feel them now, but I knew how strong they were. Even the weakest among them was significant and the highest tiers were world shaking. These were hero powers. More than that these were Hero powers, powers on the level of the first, legendary, and unlimited tinker. Powers that would let a person be the kind of technology superhero that used to appear in comic books, not the stripped down nonsense that was currently running around.

 

There but for the grace of god and all that.

 

My reach had been slowly building in the week since I got my powers. It was gradual at first, but had accelerated recently. Soon I would have a chance to link to another one of the points of light. The constellations shifted and changed so I had no idea what I would be able to reach, or even if what I had built up would be strong enough for whatever spark swung close at the time. This was the first time this had happened, but being able to feel it coming was incredible. I was lucky to have the level of understanding of my power that I’d been blessed with.

 

Like pretty much everyone in school I’d taken electives on parahuman studies. There were rumors that the cape population of the city took those courses in their secret identities, and the younger members of New Wave showed up occasionally. They were the cool courses that everyone was interested in. Get a chance to learn about the history of capes, cape impact on society, and theories on how powers worked. With the insight I’d gained since triggering I could say most of what they were teaching was pure crap. That may have been intentional since people trying to self-invoke a trigger event was a nightmare in terms of self-inflicted harm. Some of the other stuff was so far off the mark that I had to wonder if there was an intentional attempt to conceal it. Passenger theory had barely been touched on, and that was mostly to dismiss it. I kind of understood, it seemed ridiculous, and it was a lot more likely that anyone who thought their powers came from an outside intelligence was crazy rather than uniquely insightful.

 

I was definitely in the latter category. I could feel my passenger’s excitement as my reach grew for the final grasp. A mote swung close from one of the mid-sized constellations. My power tried to grasp it, but the energy was too much. The flare of energy spun away and out of reach. There was mild disappointment from my passenger, but not despair. My reach was growing. Another mote would come, and I would be able to handle a stronger power by the time it arrived.

 

The emotional reassurance of my passenger was probably the most comforting thing in my life. My connection with him didn’t go any further than what he was feeling, but that was still incredibly enlightening. I trusted that he had my best interest at heart, or at least my survival. The reason I trusted that was because of how badly he wanted this set of powers complete.

 

I didn’t have much information from my passenger, but I did understand my power. Generally people have a roughly instinctive understanding of how their powers work. Mine were a little more in depth than that. I understood the nature of how powers were gained and what they meant. I knew the name of the power I had, Metalwork Workshop which was from the Toolkits constellation of powers. And I knew the name of the entire array of powers and how badly my passenger wanted it to be complete.

 

My power, or the array of my potential powers, was the Celestial Forge. From what I could tell it was the ultimate tinker power and my passenger’s combined Holy Grail and Mount Everest. His emotions when considering the breath of the powers were complicated, but mostly centered on a longing to see them in action. He wanted this to be completed and was heavily invested in me being the one to finish it. All his guidance and support was for the purpose of turning me into the greatest tinker that had ever existed. I just hoped I could live up to those expectations.

 

I wasn’t likely to see any new powers tonight. I’d completed a circuit of the various pieces of borderline scrap metal that represented my crafting projects from the previous week. A persistent infinitely restocking workshop really was incredible, but without the skills to make better use of it all I had was a hobby room. I checked my watch. It was getting on past six. I had kind of blocked out this evening for dealing with any new ability I got from my power, but that was a wash. That left me some time to prepare for the other aspects of being a superhero.

 

There’s a common impression that tinkers make something of a soft target in cape fights. That might be true for anyone who doesn’t show up with power armor or a personal force field, but the fact is most capes out there have no physical boosts at all. Brutes are common enough, but outside of that category everyone is as vulnerable as a normal human. The problem for tinkers is that they have time commitments that keep them from being able to train to the level expected from capes.

 

See, if you don’t have some power that makes training unnecessary the amount of physical conditioning necessary to just survive a cape encounter is insane. Fortunately I had already been running regularly before getting my powers. That was great for endurance, but there was the whole issue of muscle growth and combat skills to think of. I was lucky enough that my neighborhood had a solution to both of those problems.

 

I left my workshop and closed the door to the extradimensional space. The transition from pristine room to dingy apartment was stark, but at least my apartment got slightly more livable now that I didn’t need to allocate space for sleeping or storage. I headed to the small kitchenette area and grabbed a high protein snack before gathering my workout gear and leaving the apartment.

 

Another load off my mind thanks to my powers, not storing anything of value in the apartment made me a lot less concerned about leaving it. I effectively had access to all my worldly possessions anywhere. As long as I could access any kind of door and I’d never have to worry about them being compromised. There were tinkers who would kill for that kind of security and my powers provided it as a near afterthought.

 

My destination was only a couple of blocks away and was in a fairly active part of the neighborhood. This was an area of the Docks where the people who still lived here were holding out hope for the city turning around. It was an endearing investment in the community that probably only persisted because there was minimal value to be found here for any of the local gangs. I was heading for an old building dating to the fifties that probably hadn’t been meaningfully updated since then. Still, having a boxing gym within walking distance that only charged forty dollars a month for membership was worth the potential fire hazard. Actually, fire was unlikely considering this place was probably stuffed to the gills with asbestos.

 

I checked in and got changed. The place was practically a time capsule, but it worked for what I needed. I had no illusion about being ‘fight ready’ after less than a week, but I was getting into a decent routine that would generate meaningful improvement eventually. I grabbed one of the jump ropes for a warm-up along with a set of push-ups, squats and crunches. I spent about fifteen minutes practicing the basic combinations from my introductory lesson before switching to the heavy bag.

 

I pushed as far as I could but there were hard limits I was still struggling with. Endurance from running didn’t translate perfectly to this kind of workout. Eventually I was catching my breath with a water bottle while half collapsed on one of the side benches. That was when I saw Doug wandering over from the main ring.

 

The best way I could describe Doug was if someone took Mickey from the Rocky movies and scaled him up to about six foot five. The guy was pushing sixty now but had apparently been an absolute terror in his youth. He had transitioned into coaching with all the grace of a rabid bull and would typically serenade the entire gym on deficiencies in your technique in a voice worthy of a drill sergeant.

 

He was in something of a good mood when he approached me, apparently having shouted himself out during his earlier training session. “Joe! Good to see you again. Too many young guys vanish after their first class.”

 

“Well you know,” I took a sip from my water bottle. “Don’t want to embarrass myself the next time I see Mr. Laborn.”

 

He nodded at that. “The man knows his boxing, though he’s probably a good part of why guys vanish after their first class.”

 

The gym gave a free training session with signup. Given how intense the coaches were I think that was a strategy to weed out anyone who wasn’t serious about this kind of thing. Doug was a good example of that, but Mr. Laborn was on a whole other level. “He around tonight?”

 

“Na, doing something with his kids. You looking for a practice round?”

I emphatically shook my head. “Not even close to ready for that.”

 

“Stick with it and you’ll get there.” He nodded contemplatively. “We don’t get too many guys from the college down here. You’re engineering, right?”

 

I suppressed a wince. I had danced around my enrollment status when I filled out my application. Dropping out of college hadn’t been a smooth process and until recently I had still held out some hopes of finishing my degree.

 

That was gone now.

 

“Was engineering. College didn’t work out for me.”

 

“Sorry to hear that, kid. What happened?”

 

No one would ever accuse Doug of having an excess of tact. That said there was something about the guy that made him easy to talk to. There was a decent chance that no matter what I said he would tell me to suck it up and head back to school, but that was just his nature. There wasn’t real malice behind it.

 

He also wasn’t going to let this go without some kind of answer. “A bunch of stuff. College, well it looked better from the outside. Like, it’s supposed to be this fresh start where everything’s different, but you just run into the same problems as the rest of your life.”

 

He snorted. “Problems never go away. They’re part of life. You just get to pick the window dressing.”

 

That brought a weak grin to my face. “I guess. Things just kind of fell apart for me. Can’t really name a single thing that set it off.”

 

“Uh-huh. Was it a girl?”

 

“What?”

 

“With guys your age it’s usually a girl. Or there’s a girl somewhere in the equation. That what happened?”

 

“No.” Doug’s expression said he didn’t believe it. I let out a slow breath. “Ok, I had a pretty bad relationship that fell apart spectacularly, but I didn’t drop out over that.”

 

“It’s never only a girl, but I’ve seen dozens of guys your age trying to get their lives together. There’s always a girl in there somewhere.” He paused. “Or a guy, but they’re usually quieter about that.”

 

I nodded. Colleges had a certain social mentality that didn’t exactly mesh with having super powered neo-Nazi’s running around. Brockton’s solution seemed to be dressing up everything with just enough deniability to avoid attracting attention.

 

Doug was looking at me expectantly. I glanced around. No one was that close to us and his students were savoring the brief respite from his tutelage as a chance to catch their breath and desperately rehydrate.

 

I hated talking about this. It wasn’t just that the entire relationship was cringeworthy in retrospect.  What really got me was everyone looking at it and assuming that was where everything went wrong. They thought that the rest of my life was fine and I’d let it all fall apart over some girl. Still, Doug was legendarily bullheaded but not known for making snap judgements.

 

“So I was in the engineering program. It was pretty small, like twenty five people. Mostly guys as well. Just three girls in our year.”

 

“So you went after one of them?”

 

“Not at first.” He gave me a look. “Ok, there was this girl who had transferred from math to engineering in sophomore year.”

 

“Really. What was her name?”

 

“Sabah.” Doug raised an eyebrow. “She was Iraqi. Really good at math but her English wasn’t perfect. That gave her some trouble with parts of the course work. I helped her out with that.”

 

“And one thing led to another?”

 

“Not exactly. We spent a lot of time together but it never really went further. I suggested stuff but she was always really demure about it, like a whole bunch of non-answers and putting things off.”

 

“That was probably a hint.”

 

That stung. “Yeah, I got that in hindsight.”

 

“So what happened?”

 

“It wasn’t going well, but one of my friends convinced me to give it another try, just ask directly and put it behind me.”

 

“Not bad advice.”

 

I actually flinched at that. “Uh, so I tried and it went bad. She tore into me and we had words. It was public and messy and I figured that was it.”

 

“I’m guessing there’s more?”

 

I nodded. “I tried to avoid her after that, but six weeks later she comes to me, apologizes and says she had a bad day and wants to work together again.”

 

“So what did you do?”

 

“I tried to go back to the way things were, but it was really awkward. And she ended up transferring to the fashion program pretty soon after.”

 

“Seriously?”

 

I shrugged. “Everyone was surprised. She didn’t talk to anyone about it, she just left. I found out later she had lost her dad to a heart attack. I guess that’s the kind of thing that makes you reevaluate stuff.”

 

Doug nodded grimly.

 

“Look, it was a mess, but that’s not why I dropped out.”

 

“Not saying it is, but that kind of thing usually contributes.” He looked around the gym. “I’m not going to give you some bullshit speech about how boxing is like life and how what you learn here will carry you through. Boxing is boxing and life is life. The only thing they have in common is they’re both hard, painful, and take a lot of work. College might not have worked for you, but you’re a bright kid and are willing to put in the hours. You’ll be fine.”

 

“Thanks, I appreciate that.”

 

“Don’t let it go to your head. Now I’ve got to get back to those slackers before they think this is some kind of holiday.”

 

While Doug stomped off to terrorize his students I wrapped up my workout with a marathon of pushups, squats, and crunches. I figured if I buried myself in exercise I might be able to drown out the horrible feelings the conversation had dug up. It was basically the same principle that had gotten me into running. By the time I showered and slunk back to my apartment my body was burning but I had managed to put my college years mostly out of my mind. I threw together a cheap but high protein dinner, mostly beans really, before opening my workshop and crashing for the night.

 

Chapter Text

My watch alarm woke me up early the next morning, demonstrating my absolute commitment to becoming a hero. For a chance at a cape career I was willing to endure two six o’clocks in the same day.

 

I am not a morning person. I have never been a morning person. Before I got my powers I would run in the evening. It was nice, peaceful, and I had all the time in the world. Now that I have to do more than just cardio I needed to find another time to run. That turned out to be the ungodly hour of the day where no sane person would be active.

 

After downing a piece of toast and enough coffee to silence the voices telling me this was a terrible idea when I had a warm bed in a pocket universe waiting for me, I left my apartment and headed for the Boardwalk where the other mad people were exercising. I hated them all. Some had the ill manner to smile at me when they ran past. I know it’s a Saturday, but there is no place for smiles at this hour of the morning. This is an hour of grimness that only the desperate would use for exercise.

 

Oh God, that person had one of those jogging strollers with them. You can subject yourself to the madness of early morning workouts but please spare the next generation. Break the cycle of abuse. Save your children from this hell.

 

My morning run was a straight shot to the coast then a loop up and down the boardwalk before swinging back to my apartment. It was roughly the same route I had taken when I ran during sane hours, but now I got to enjoy the piercing rays of the rising sun stabbing at me as they reflected off the bay.

 

I took a short break when I reached the road access to the Protectorate HQ. It was a glittering strip of the same force field that protected the Rig extending over the water to shore. The amount of traffic it saw was always light and at this time of day it was completely empty. It was an impressive piece of tinkertech, both in scale and in how long it had been maintained. That was true for most of the Protectorate headquarters as it hovered above the waves sending shockwaves out across the surface of the water from each of the emitters at its base.

 

If I was a typical tinker I would probably be reacting to all kinds of aspects of this technology. I wonder if that’s another way tinkers expose themselves. Does the Protectorate have some kind of monitoring program that watches for people drooling glassy eyed over their installations? Maybe, but for me it was just some pretty looking sci-fi themed architecture.

 

The sound of a motorcycle rumbled from the city and I turned to see a man in blue and silver armor peel off the main road onto the force field. As Armsmaster vanished across the way various people cheered or fished out smartphones. It was early for tourists but even locals didn’t see the heroes every day. I took another minute to watch as he reached the Rig and disappeared into one of the garages.

 

That could be me someday.

 

Well, not exactly. Judging by my passenger’s emotional reactions he was not in favor of the Protectorate. I had initially worried it was some kind of aversion to heroics, but there was no reaction on that level for other teams. In fact the Guild got a significantly positive response. The thought of any of the city’s gangs got various negative reactions with the most intense being connected with Coil. I don’t know what it was about him that caused a mix of fear, hatred, and rage that overshadowed even the local Nazis, but it was enough to make me warry. Given the situation I was in I had decided to trust my passenger’s judgment. It hadn’t steered me wrong so far and considering it was where my powers were coming from it seemed like a good idea to listen to it.

 

The sighting of Armsmaster was the most interesting thing to happen on my run. Beyond that it was just a tour of the visitor friendly parts of the Bay at a time of day nobody should have to endure.

 

Did I mention I don’t like mornings?

 

As I left the Boardwalk and was heading back through the docks to my apartment I considered how to spend the day. I didn’t have enough of a handle on where my power was going to try to plan out anything meaningful about my hero activity. Until it settled enough for me to have a vague theme to work with anything I planned would be total speculation. I wasn’t dumb enough to try cape work with my current powerset, so that left training and conditioning, since that was likely to pay off regardless of what I got from my next power.

 

I had just arrived home when I felt the excitement build from my passenger. I quickly focused on the Celestial Forge and felt a constellation swinging. This time my reach was twice what it had been last night.

 

I felt myself latch on to a mote of power. It was from one of the smaller constellations and a little less powerful than the mote that I had missed on my previous attempt. As my connection solidified I felt my knowledge of the power and its constellation expand.

 

This was not a tinker power. This was something better. This was a brute power that required tinker support.

 

That constellation was called ‘Clothing’. I didn’t have a good sense of the other powers within it, but this power was called ‘Fashion’. Despite its name it had nothing to do with clothing design, other than the fact that it would allow me to wear anything as my cape costume. That was because what it did was extend the defensive properties of the toughest protective item I was wearing to both my clothing and body. I could wear a kneepad and have my entire body and every piece of clothing be as tough as the material it was made out of.

 

It was absolutely incredible in terms of mobility, not to mention cost. I could put resources into a single piece of armor, just enough to cover a tiny fraction of my frame, and I would get that level of durability for my entire body.

 

I needed to test this out. Not because I doubted it. That was one thing I was sure of. Every power I would get was as reliable as my key had proven to be. I had complete faith it would work precisely as described. The only limitation was that the item needed to be designed for protection and had a lower size limit of the aforementioned knee pad. Outside of that caveat it could be anything.

 

All my plans for the day were done. I needed to work on this. I could head to a thrift store and see what I could find, but I had a full magic metal shop to work with and just enough technical knowledge to get started.

 

I am not a master smith, not by any measure. As such the product of my morning’s labor in the workshop would not be winning any design, beauty, or craftsmanship contests. It consisted of a steel wrist bracer that hinged and clasped around my left forearm. The whole affair had involved some less than perfect shaping and welding, meaning the seams were raised and lumpy and the fit was uncomfortable.

 

That was not important in the face of its effects. I had made the bracer out of the thickest, toughest steel I had in stock. Despite only covering half of my forearm it was noticeably heavy. I would have to replace it with something more ergonomic once I had a chance to refine things. The point was that now my entire body and everything I was wearing had the same level of reliance as the half-inch steel plate that made up the bracer. 

 

I did not test that in the workshop. For one thing everything there was designed to work the same material I was using as a durability standard. Instead I hit the kitchenette and tried to see if I could prick my finger with one of my knives.

 

The end result of that experiment was that knife not having a point anymore.

 

A pair of scissors also completely failed to cut the fabric of my shirt and I found myself unable to tear even a single loose thread. A bit of cautious experimentation with the element of my hotplate confirmed the same level of resistance that steel would have to heat was applied to my body and clothing.

 

This was incredible. The big thing was it showed these weren’t just crafting abilities. There could be all kinds of powers waiting in the Celestial Forge. The second thing was I now had a power significant enough to allow me to actually function as a cape. I wasn’t completely sure I was bullet proof, but I was probably bullet proof. Maybe high powered rifles would give me some trouble, but I don’t think most handguns would be a problem.

 

I still needed to figure out the limitations. I got the defensive properties of the strongest piece of equipment I was wearing. Theoretically that could apply to things like chemical and biological protection as well, but that was starting to approach fairly exotic levels. I’d need specialized equipment for that. Still, being able to carry around a selection of wrist guards that were each tailored to a specific type of danger had a certain appeal.

 

There were other limitations to consider. Obviously the defensive bonus was based on the item that was providing protection. If the details of this power got out it would be relatively simple to target or otherwise focus on removing that item. Also it was defensive properties only. It would probably protect my knuckles when fighting but it wasn’t going to provide any increased offensive capacity beyond my willingness to fight recklessly by weathering more attacks. No increase to strength either, so if I got grappled, pinned, or otherwise swarmed I would be screwed.

 

So it was a powerful ability but not a perfect one. It did mean I could get better defense than a tinker in full armor without the bulk of an extensive suit or the time and resource requirements needed to make it. One downside was it only extended durability to my body and clothing, so any equipment that didn’t fit the definition of clothing was still vulnerable.

 

I wonder if it would be possible to track down a piece of tinkertech armor. I’ve heard most of the sites selling tinkertech are scams, but there has to be some kind of secondhand curio or collectable market for old hero armor. All I’d need is a piece of some kind of advanced alloy and I’d get the full effect of its durability. But if something like that did exist I could safely assume it would be well beyond my budget.

 

My first tinker power had arrived and it worked out to effective invincibility as long as I played things smart. I would still need to worry about suffocation and probably chemical and biological attacks. Good thing there wasn’t any cape in Brockton who specialized in the use of poisons.

 

Why was my passenger feeling nervous all of a sudden?

 

Maybe it would be good to go over some matchups. I got out my now seriously long in the tooth laptop and logged on to the PHO wiki. I’d gotten this thing in my first year and time had not been kind to it. It was a budget purchase back then and despite my attempts to look after it the screen had a tendency to flicker and the internal speakers were totally shot. I’m pretty sure I would end up laughed out of any serious cape organization if I showed up with this thing and claimed to be a tinker.

 

Still, it served the purpose for basic internet use. I was obsessively cautious about doing anything cape related online from my own computer and especially from my own apartment but a little wiki walk wouldn’t raise any flags.

 

I had the added advantage of my passenger’s insight while browsing cape profiles. I didn’t know exactly how accurate it was, but things like the seriously negative reaction to the newest member of the local Wards team yielded some interesting results. She seemed to be a dependable if slightly edgy hero, but a little digging into cape forums produced some fairly convincing evidence that she had a history of excessive violence and a rumor that she joined the wards as part of a probation deal to avoid being charged with attempted murder. None of that had been on my map beforehand, so it lent some credence towards trusting the passenger’s judgement.

 

Some of the insights were still completely mystifying. I had no idea what the weird feeling of offense that was shared between Battery, Triumph, and Gallant meant. It was similar to what he seemed to be feeling when I reviewed Faultline’s crew and looked at the listings for Newter and Gregor the Snail, though it was much more sympathetic for the Case 53s.  Any browsing of reports on New Wave triggered a mess of emotions, mostly concern, fear, and compassion that spiked when I focused on Panacea. Also my passenger did not like Armsmaster, but it was more a level of distrust than actual hostility.

 

I started with the page for the Archer’s Bridge Merchants. No surprise there, general disgust, though the feelings connected to Skidmark were more wary then I had initially expected. That confused me enough that I had dug into cape theories and found someone who had done the math on the effect of Skidmark stacking his propulsion fields. Calculations based on various video clips and the movement rate of different sized objects suggested that there were no diminishing returns with his power. If the man layered a field enough times he would be able to launch something into orbit or create a mass driver that could wipe out anything in the city. Brocton was only kept safe by the restraint and limited ambition of a drug addict that kept him at a shaker 2 rating.

 

So, defense against the Merchants. Assuming that durability worked as advertised and wasn’t just skin deep I could probably survive anything short of a massive layered field launch from Skidmark or one of Squealer’s larger vehicle mounted weapons. Nothing else should be able to seriously injure me, but I could end up trapped by Skidmark or Mush fairly easily.  In short, I should be alright if I ran into them and needed to escape, but taking the fight to them was out of the question at this point.

 

I looked into the ABB next. Lung would be able to scale to a point where he could literally rip me apart, but if I kept fighting him long enough for him to reach that point then it’s my own fault. As far as I could tell I should be able to endure most of Oni Lee’s arsenal, providing he doesn’t shove a grenade down my throat. The Wiki page had been updated with a new member since the last time I had checked it. They had a new tinker in the gang. Bakuda.

 

The scream of fear from my passenger was incredible. I quickly clicked the link while trying to parse through the mess of emotions. Whoever this was she was incredibly bad news. This was nearly the level of response that Coil triggered.

 

The Wiki page was sparse, mostly focusing on her assault on Cornell. Her activities with the ABB had been limited to a few appearances mostly to show the flag to other gangs rather than any demonstration of new technology. That probably meant she was still setting up. Not everyone carried their workshop around in their pocket. The loss of tools, research, and materials could take a tinker nearly back to square one. Once she was set up, that’s when things would get serious.

 

There was a limitation in the fact that she had to build consumable devices. I didn’t know how good her manufacturing was, but if the ABB was willing to throw enough resources behind her things could get messy. There had been something of a stalemate between the gangs for years but every time a new cape showed up there were flare-ups. If they were strong enough then territorial lines could be redrawn, but things would usually settle eventually.

 

Tinkers were different. They were pure force multiplier. Tinkers were capes that didn’t typically operate based on a limited set of powers so counters were only effective to a point. Squealer was probably the only reason the Merchants were still a proper gang rather than a couple of parahuman thugs operating out of the bad part of town. If Bakuda was half as good then the city could be heading for a gang war.

 

I clicked on the video link ‘Bomb Threat @ Cornell’ and watched it play out. The video did little to reassure me, particularly the effect of the detonations.

 

So, tinker that triggered in relation to their college life. That hit close to home. Well, she might not have triggered due to that but somehow I doubted she’d make the college her first target if it hadn’t had some connection to how she got her powers. I knew how messed up tinkers could get, the long drawn out nightmare that lead to their triggers and how nightmarish the powers could actually get. When I think about what kind of power I could have ended up with it makes it hard to sleep.

 

The variety of the explosion types either means that she is an incredibly versatile tinker or she has little control over what she is making. Knowing what I do about tinker powers I’m leaning towards the latter. Unknown crafting is a dangerous combination with any tinker ability, but combine it with an explosive specialist and you have a nightmare.

 

I felt my power try and fail to latch onto a mote from a new constellation. The rate my reach was growing wasn’t constant, but it seemed to be getting faster on average. As the mote of power moved past me my reach continued to grow in preparation for the next chance to gain a new ability.

 

Not for the first time I thanked my lucky stars or whatever gods had blessed me to allow me this ability instead of the tinker powers I would have had coming to me. A passenger obsessed with crafting was a million times better than the alternatives waiting for anyone who triggered conventionally.

 

It was clear Bakuda was going to be a problem. With those effects I couldn’t rely on any level of physical durability to hold me together. I needed a better way of countering her, or I needed to stay out of her way. Right now that seemed like the best option.

 

I navigated away to the E88 wiki site. There was the common level of general disgust my passenger felt for all members of this gang. The emotions around Purity were a bit more complicated, but no less negative. From what I knew she had somewhat split from the main group and had been doing independent raids. Still, that wasn’t what I was here to figure out.

 

My defensive prospects against Purity weren’t looking good. She could bring down buildings and was rumored to have blasts that hit like Legend. I doubted anything short of full tinker tech miracle armor would save me from that. She was the worst of the possible match ups though. Rune, Kreig, Hookwolf, Night , or the twins could probably overpower my defense, though it wouldn’t be easy for them. I didn’t know how I would stand up against Crusader’s ghosts. They apparently worked on some weird Manton Effect interaction, so probably best not to risk a confrontation. Storm Tiger could probably hurt me, but not that badly. With Victor it would depend on how Othala juiced him up. I think I could handle the pyrokinesis she could grant, but I didn’t know the limits of the super strength she bestowed. People like Cricket and Alabaster could be difficult to deal with but probably not that threatening.

 

I probably had nothing to worry about directly from Kaiser. From what I could tell he had limited ability to direct his blades through people. Without significant force I would be looking at a few scratches at worst. Of course, he would also have the easiest time capturing me. That was something I would be doing my best to avoid.

 

Of the major gangs that just left Coil. My passenger’s reactions had convinced me he was a threat, but not why or how. His wiki page still had no hint on his power and just a few clips of the mercenaries he used. His men were at least well equipped. The high powered rifles they used could be a problem on their own, but I didn’t like my chances against the tinkertech lasers they had attached. Fortunately they limited their actions considerably and I wasn’t likely to run into them at random.

 

That covered the major threats in the city. I could keep digging through every third string villain or hypothetical matches against the heroes, but that wouldn’t be a productive use of time. Likewise I decided against jumping over to the forums. That was a time sink that I couldn’t afford anymore. I had a limited amount of time off and still had a huge amount of preparation to do before I was ready to be a hero.

 

I started making a basic lunch and considered how to spend the rest of the day. I needed to keep working on my physical conditioning, so that meant keeping my diet and getting to the gym. I had to be careful about overdoing my workouts, but I could manage that by lowering intensity and focusing on different muscle groups. I had pretty much stolen my entire training and diet program from a fitness forum and those places tended to have people shouting down any stupid risks in training.

 

Also, as good as the bracer was for overall defense I could use a subtler option. I would hit the Market and see if someone was selling old kneepads, wrist guards, or some other similar type of protective equipment. If I could get a basic kneepad I might be able to wear it under my jeans to get some constant level of protection without attracting attention. It wouldn’t do much against guns, but should boost my durability to the point where melee weapons wouldn’t be much of a concern. I didn’t want to get my cape career cut short because of a mugging gone badly.

 

The Market would have to be my first priority. It was already noon and the stalls would have been set up for hours. They would already be pretty well picked over so I’d need to go there right away to have a chance at anything decent. I wolfed down my lunch and headed out.

 

Because of the nuances of Brockton Bay’s public transportation system if you were starting in the Docks it was actually faster to walk to the Market than take the bus. The road access to the Lord Street Market looped around the outside of the city through seldom used and poorly maintained back roads. Bus service to that area was a trial that used the weird fifth color on the bus schedules and varied based on time of year, day of the week, and probably whether Mars was currently in retrograde. Unless you were hauling an amount of goods that made walking impossible it was better to just cut through fields along the coast past the north end of the Boardwalk. It wasn’t a clear route, but it wasn’t a route for anyone outside the city. You live here long enough and eventually someone would show you the shortcut across abandoned lots, old industrial areas, and the weedy fields in the no man’s land between the Docks and Lord’s Port.

 

The Boardwalk disappeared behind me with its designer boutiques and twelve dollar ice-cream and the reality of the city opened before of me. Fifteen years ago this would have been the heart of the city’s industry. Lord’s Port would have been running constantly and the surrounding region existed to support and sustain the shipping industry. Since that dried up the entire area had decayed to a shadow of its former self. There was still the odd business still active, probably too invested in their equipment to be worth moving and just profitable enough to squeak by, but abandoned lots and decayed buildings were a much more common site.

 

However, when you approached the market you could be forgiven for overlooking all of that. Gradually the human element of the city started to grow, beginning with the cars of people who parked further out to avoid having to deal with the nightmare that was the Market’s parking situation, then the occasional person that had begged off from the crowds for a smoke break. Then the sound started. The subtle roar of hundreds of people in the same place, talking, laughing, bargaining, and haggling. You heard the Market long before you caught site of it.

 

The place was packed today. It made sense that it would be. Brockton didn’t have horrible winters but it wasn’t exactly comfortable in February and March. A clear Saturday in early April would be one of the first good outing days of the year and it looked like plenty of people shared that mindset. The people running the stands seemed to have seen it coming since there didn’t seem to be an unmanned stall in the entire Market.

 

I started working my way through the crowd. Most of the stands I could skip after a glance. Handcrafts, surplus designer clothing, costume jewelry, vintage records, or artwork held no interest for me. Unfortunately there wasn’t a stall labeled ‘Loose Athletic Protective Equipment’ that I could make a bee line for. Some people were selling old electronics and tool sets that held a lot of appeal, but I had committed myself to holding back on the tinker scrounging until I had some crafting powers to work with.

 

It wasn’t that I was worried about being exposed. I’m pretty sure whatever hypothetical thinkers monitored purchasing habits wouldn’t be tipped off by me buying an old game console and vcr/dvd combo. The thing was I have very limited funds to work with. I didn’t want to invest in electronics only to end up with a specialization in vehicle engines or chemistry. Case in point, before I got my last ability I would never have considered the need for isolated pieces of armor.

 

It was a shame because there were a lot of tempting possibilities here. Even without power assisted crafting abilities there was an appeal in taking apart old machinery. I guess I would never have ended up in an engineering program if I didn’t have those instincts. Still, I pushed them down and pressed on.

 

A quick, and I use that term loosely, circuit of the market didn’t reveal any stand specializing in protective sports gear. That left me hunting through individual stalls. For a good portion of Brockton Bay the Market takes the place of a yard sale when the time comes to clean out the garage or declutter the house. It’s easy to spot the people using it for that purpose. People who make their living from the Market have a professional attitude. They have well-made signs, neatly organized merchandise, and proper cash boxes. Some of them even have those new smartphone card readers. They provided a stark contrast to people with optimistic expressions and a table full of random junk. Those people were my best chance to find what I was looking for.

 

 It also turned what should have been a simple shopping trip into an ordeal. If I wasn’t being strictly conservative with my finances I could have walked into a department store and picked up a whole set of pads in five minutes. Instead I was hunting around through a heavy throng of flea market shoppers trying to find a budget piece of skateboard equipment. It was not exactly the shining start to a cape career I would have envisioned.

 

Still, given what some tinkers had to go through for supplies this counted as a cake walk. An hour sorting through junk was nothing compared to tinkers who ended up having to rob chemical depos or required rare earth elements to be able to accomplish anything.

 

I didn’t have a problem finding skating pads. The problem was every set I had found so far was child sized. And by that I mean designed for preteen or younger. I don’t know if I was seeing the residual equipment from abandoned skating hobbies, or if once they reached teenage years their parents stopped insisting on full sets of pads. Sizing was going to be a problem for me. I had my growth spurt late, but it had decided to make up for lost time in spades. Even stuff sized for teenagers wouldn’t work for me.

 

I felt activity in the Celestial forge and moved out of the flow of shoppers to focus on it. One of the largest constellations was swinging towards me and my power latched onto a small mote from it. I took a moment to focus on the new power. The constellation was ‘Quality’ and this particular power was called ‘Bling of War’. This power didn’t strictly speaking give me any new crafting abilities or technical knowledge. Instead it allowed me to design and build things in a much more ‘stylish’ manner.

 

It was an aesthetic upgrade. I could add style or even a certain theme to what I built. While it wouldn’t help me with the practical requirements of construction or design it would allow me to sidestep the early tinker cliché where they initially debut in a set of gear that looks like it was the product of a junkyard screwing a trash compactor.

 

Hell, most capes outside of the Protectorate and major gangs fell into that category. I’d seen forum threads joking about the number of capes whose debut costume was either a ski mask or a hoodie. I thought back to the bracer currently resting in my workshop. The bulky hinge, the crude weld lines, the ill-fitting bend of the material. My mind was suddenly filled with a thousand ways I could have done that better. None of them would have improved the protection or accessibility of the item, but it would make it look like the thing was made by a professional rather than a twelve year old left unsupervised in a metal workshop.

 

I badly needed more crafting skills. I had a very limited ability to make things, but with this power at least everything I made would look excellent, even if it wouldn’t function any better than whatever crude thing I could pull together. I made a point to check some of the book stands before I left. If I could get a couple of how to books I might be able to make decent progress on a costume. Since my durability boost extended to my clothing it really didn’t matter if the costume I pulled together was terrible quality or poorly made. It would hold up as long as I had a piece of armor to buff it. I knew enough metal work to get something functional bashed together and this power would make sure it looked good.

 

This did mean I would have to completely rebuild my bracer. It should be a bit easier this time now that I’m not making things up as I go. Still, that was hours of work wasted. That’s the life of a tinker, I suppose, it never stops.

 

One interesting thing was that connecting with this power didn’t take all of the reach I had built. Rather than start from zero I still had about half of what I had accumulated. The next time a constellation came within range I would have a much better chance of making a connection to a new power. It was an interesting aspect of the mechanics, and anything that helped me get on my feet faster was good by me.

 

In the end the best I was able to find were a pair of soccer shin guards. They weren’t that tough, but I should be able to wear one without attracting attention. I could probably copy the design and make something out of steel when I had a chance, which would give me better protection, close to what I got from my bracer, without attracting attention. The book search turned up dry. The only ‘how to’ book I found was on the basics of carpentry. I would really do better at a used book store for that, and that’s assuming I didn’t end up with my power giving me enough technical knowledge to make everything in those books redundant.

 

So I had killed two hours and gotten a pair of shin guards out of it. Grant it they came at rock bottom prices, but I had to get better at managing my time. I actually had some projects now, considering I had a crafting boosting power, if a completely superficial one. But I also needed to get to the gym. I promised myself I wouldn’t let my workouts lapse because of tinkering. If I wanted to exist outside the workshop or lab I would need to be able to handle myself in a fight. That meant training was essential. Which meant not skipping my workouts just because I had a shiny new ability.

 

So I left the chaos of the market, looped back through the docks to my apartment and grabbed my gym bag and a snack. The food requirements for trying to build muscle were absolutely insane. When you had to eat, what you had to eat, the ratios, before or after workout, it was nuts. I honestly miss the days I would just focus on distance running.

 

The gym was fairly quiet and I was able to power through my training without much issue. I finished with a long cooldown and set of stretches, then headed back home. I made an early dinner, then headed straight into my workshop.

 

The first thing I did was try to recreate my bracer. Fortunately the stock of materials constantly refreshed. I don’t know if it would be possible to deplete it with a major project, but none of the light works I’ve done so far have made a dent in it. All the metals I have in stock are basic stuff. Standard grades of steel, aluminum, and other metals. I have sheet and bar stock and a small supply of simple mechanical parts like hinges and latches. Nothing high tech or even cutting edge. No exotic alloys or treated metals, nothing fiber reinforced, nothing more advanced than the higher end of hobby work.

 

It did mean I didn’t have to worry about restocking. With the state of my finances this was a godsend. Once I got some better crafting abilities I could only guess at what I would be capable of. Most likely I would run into a block in terms of tools and supplies. This was fine for simple projects like this one, but I would need a supply of more advanced components to put out things on the level of a professional tinker.

 

With an idea of what I was doing the project went a lot smoother but I still couldn’t get the fit perfect. I suspected I’d need a lot more experience with metal shaping or specialized equipment for that. Despite sitting a bit awkwardly on my wrist and not being any more durable than my first attempt the bracer looked amazing.

 

The formerly chunky placement of the hinges and latch now smoothly blended into the design. The weld seams looked so professional that it could be mistaken for being molded in a single piece. There were little touches on the edges that added a sense of sleekness and the surface was beautifully finished.

 

All the little stylistic touches had taken some extra work, but nowhere near the amount they should have. If I tried to build something like this before getting that last power it would have taken weeks and not come out anywhere near as finished. It was beautiful and it was only my first attempt.

 

Once I had a theme, an idea of what kind of hero I wanted to be, then I would have to rebuild it to match. For now it was just a beautifully made wrist guard that, thanks to my other power, effectively made me bullet proof.

 

It was getting into the evening, but I decided to take a crack at another project. With my durability boost I could theoretically head out for hero work. The thing was I would need at least some kind of offensive ability. I may have had access to a magic metal shop, but my knowledge of how to work with it was limited. I’d considered trying to throw together some basic weapon, but given how crude my earlier work was I’d decided to wait until I had some ability to facilitate things.

 

Well, I had an ability now. Not one that would help with anything advanced, but one that would at least stop me from embarrassing myself when I showed up with a basic weapon.

 

I was making a baton. It was absolutely the simplest weapon I could make, a metal club. I was adding a little more flourish than just taking a piece of bar stock onto the streets. A bit of work on the grip, some rounding on the top, texturing on the handle, but generally it was a foot and a half of metal that I would be able to hit people with. I wasn’t expecting much from this project.

 

Once again my new power came through. While the function was no better there were little design touches that added a professional air to it. A sense of sleekness and elegant craft seemed to exude from it, despite the incredibly basic design. All the little shortcuts I’d taken were made to look completely intentional rather than as cheats for someone who barely understood what he was doing.

 

I took some experimental swings with it. The solid metal had a heft to it that would probably mess someone up badly if they caught a blow. The balance was a bit off, probably to be expected what with my complete lack of weapon smithing experience. I had gone for the design because it was the most basic thing I could think of. No worries about technique, grip, or proper form. Hold and swing. I’m sure there were ways to improve upon that, but mainly I wanted a weapon that I couldn’t screw up, and this fit the bill.

 

So there I had it, basic cape equipment. Significantly heavier towards defense than offense, but that was better than the alternative. With this I could actually do it, I could go out and be a superhero.

 

That led to another problem. Two items, no matter how powerful, did not make a costume. I had a power that could pull together any style I’d want to go with, but I didn’t have much to work with on that front in terms of skill, materials, or even a theme.

 

I had not given much thought to what my cape debut would be like. Sitting before the Celestial Forge had been so intimidating that I kind of assumed whatever I ended up with would create a self-evident identity. Well, now I kind of had one, but what identity was I going to go with? If I went out now I’d be debuting as a highly durable low strength brute with a couple of pieces of nicely made equipment. That was a far cry from the technology hero I had been imagining. It was by no means a bad powerset to have, but considering most of my other powers were going to be tinker based, did I want to go with that?

 

Not really, but I didn’t know what I was going to end up with next. If I got another couple of support or utility powers before I landed something that let me start making high tech items would I be comfortable waiting around for whatever my first crafting power would be? Probably not. I didn’t have the burning need to head out and seek combat that some passengers created. All mine wanted was to complete the Celestial Forge. While that would normally make him risk averse there was better growth of my reach when I was active. It had sped up over the last week as I settled into my hero prep and had been getting much faster recently. I knew that getting active in the cape community would be my best bet for landing new powers.

 

As I considered things I felt my passenger’s excitement as a constellation swung close. I closed my eyes and focused on it. It was the same constellation I had failed to connect to with my first attempt. This time my power was strong enough to latch onto a mote as they flew past. Unlike last time this took every ounce of my stored energy to secure the link. Finally I had the connection and could tell what that constellation was.

 

It was the ‘Alchemy’ constellation and the mote I had connected to was ‘Evermore Alchemist’. With the connection made knowledge flooded my mind. Specifically knowledge of how to combine twenty two mundane materials in thirty five unique combinations that would produce instant effects on the level of a parahuman’s abilities. I had not gotten a crafting ability. I had gotten a combo platter of superpowers. And they were serious powers. Some of these could duplicate blaster effects that were strong enough to maim, if not outright kill. I would need to be very careful about how I used them.

 

The formulas were divided into light and dark alchemy, essentially offensive and defensive. The defensive formula had combinations that could be used to heal. Heal! I was new to the cape scene, and having Panacea in the same city kind of skewed perception, but healing powers were incredibly rare. I’d read a theory that there were no healing powers, that all healing that happened was either a side effect or creative application of another type of ability. That was definitely not the case here.

 

I took a breath to calm myself down. This was something I would need to assess carefully. I had been expecting maybe some kind of mechanical expertise, or the plans for a set of ray guns or jetpacks. I was not expecting thirty five new powers to be dropped into my lap.

 

Actually, reviewing the nature of the formula it wasn’t right to call them powers. There was a mechanism to this that was a lot more nuanced than most powers. I knew how to trigger base effects by combining reagents, but there was an immense amount of space for improvement and refinement of technique. I would need practice to be able to get the full potential of this ability.

 

Fortunately, in most cases, the required reagents are fairly common. There was one formula that required a specially built amulet and another that needed a specific and obscure breed of pepper, but most of the rest could be managed with things like wax, water, vinegar, or grease. Some would be harder to find but still relatively easy. Gunpowder was the only one that would be likely to raise red flags and that was only needed for one formula, though that formula was a doozy.

 

One of the trickier reagents to supply would be the plants. Aside from the aforementioned obscure pepper the formulas also used roots, mushrooms, and acorns. Getting a good supply of those would take some doing.

 

So, what did I have to work with now? My workshop had replenishing supplies of grease and iron that I could raid. That alone was enough for a couple of defensive formulas. I had water to work with, but that didn’t open up any new possibilities. Likewise, cooking oil could work in formulas, but not as well as petroleum products. Still nothing possible there without additional reagents like wax or roots.

 

Still, I wasn’t going to let this go. I got some stock and milled off a small piece of iron. Then I got two lumps of grease. In a movement that felt both completely natural and totally alien I mashed them together and threw the mix into the air above me. It burst into light and coalesced around me, wrapping my body in a reflective barrier.

 

The Reflect formula created a field that reflected any supernatural effect back at its source. It only lasted a minute, but it was a phenomenal defensive ability and I could pull an effectively infinite source of reagents to power it.

 

I decided that was enough for now. I had a major power here. Tomorrow I would head out and seriously stress my finances. I needed reagents and more importantly a way to carry and access them in the field. The components of a formula weren’t that bulky, barely a handful, but they were consumed on each use. I would have to go out well supplied and would be on the clock in any drawn out fight. Also, if anything would trigger tinker warnings it would be my upcoming shopping spree. There were not that many mundane reasons to buy large quantities of sulfur.

 

Still, limitations or no, I had an incredible ability. This was a serious power that someone could build their entire career on. For me it was just an incidental part of the Celestial Forge.

 

I went to bed that night with more optimism at my situation than I had felt in the entire week since my trigger.

 

Chapter Text

After another terminally early run I spent the next morning wearing out my shoes and stressing my bank account in an attempt to track down as many reagents as I could. I would have to describe the success of the entire venture as ‘mixed’.

 

While I could use any item that technically met the description of the reagent the quality of what was used significantly affected the efficiency of the materials. For instance, I could use tap water for any formula that called for water as a reagent, but purified water without the chemical additives required much less, and if I used distilled water I only needed a fraction of the volume. Considering the quantity I would need to carry I grabbed a couple of jugs of distilled water from a pharmacy.

 

Ethanol was going to be difficult to track down. I could in theory use something like vodka, but with that concentration and the impurities present I’d be using insane quantities for each formula. Something like Everclear would do the trick, but it was illegal in New Hampshire. Without ethanol I was losing access to my strongest healing formula and one of my most powerful blasts. I could work around it and had enough other options that it wasn’t crippling, but it was still disheartening to run into that obstacle.

 

Of course, I could always order it or pick it up from a specialty store or chemical supplier. Then I would end up on all the tinker lists. Also I was pushing things as much as I could as far as cost was concerned. I just didn’t have the budget for special orders.

 

A bit of research and a trip to a garden supply store got me a bag of sulfur that would cover enough of my fire formulas to burn down half the city. I stopped by a gas station on the way back and picked up a couple of bottles of motor oil. After that I went straight to the largest grocery store I could find.

 

Grease and vinegar were easy to find in the volume and quality I needed. I only had one formula that called for mushrooms, so a single carton would hold me for the foreseeable future. I dug through their entire pepper selection but couldn’t find anything that would work with my formula. The produce section did have a lot of roots that would do for my assortment of healing formula, though it wasn’t as simple as just raiding the root vegetables. It would have been great if I could just buy a bag of baby carrots and call it a day. There was a quality requirement that was kind of aggressive with this reagent. The ginger root worked best, but there were some other options amongst the less common produce that would also do the trick. I was able to stock up, but not for the rock bottom price I had been hoping for.

 

The butcher counter was able to get me some excellent beef bones properly cleaned and everything. I’d have to break them down to formula size, but otherwise it was a perfect source.

 

Craft stores turned out to be a godsend for the more obscure reagents. They had clay in spades, though I had to spring for the natural stuff rather than the more processed modeling clay. A huge selection of feathers was stocked, which was good considering I needed a specific type and quality for my alchemy. Wax was as simple as finding the cheapest candles in the store. It would take some processing, but nothing too labor intense. They even had a collection of quartz that could function perfectly for formula that called for crystal, and the last store I checked even had bags of acorns for sale. Seriously, god bless crazy craft people.

 

The last two reagents I needed to track down were limestone and ash. Fortunately a cashier at one of the craft stores was able to direct me to an even more obscure supply store that had bags for sale for the purpose of soap making. I picked up a sack of wood ash that would keep me for months.

 

Limestone would be tricky. I couldn’t just buy it off the shelf, but a single good sized chunk would cover me for ages. It was part of my best defensive formula, so I didn’t want to abandon it, but I didn’t have a decent source.  I decided to sort it out another day considering I’d made more than decent progress. Fifteen out of twenty two wasn’t bad, especially considering two of those didn’t exist and two more were highly obscure.

 

Ah, yes. Meteorite and dry ice. The combination would let me synthesize a call bead. That thing was pretty much the philosopher’s stone for this system of alchemy. It let you ‘call’ on the supernatural power of other people. In theory I would be able to access the powers of other capes with them. It would be incredible if I could pull it off, but the procedure for making the connection was esoteric and the ingredients for the formula weren’t easy to come by.

 

I had also given up on gunpowder at this point. I could combine it with grease for my strongest attack formula but I didn’t want the hassle of trying to acquire some without any background in fireworks or explosives. That was just asking for a visit from the police.

 

If I was going to go on my first patrol tonight I needed to address the pressing problem of how the hell I was going to carry all the reagents I needed for my alchemy to function. There were twenty four formulas I could mix with my current materials. Without a better way of organizing things I’d be lucky to be able to have nine ready to go in the field.

 

Thus the second half of the day was spent hunting through thrift and army surplus stores for an effective way of managing fifteen different reagents, which had to be grouped into clusters for my available formulas. Not every one of my formulas needed to be on hand, and frankly for most of the dark alchemy I would need to be in a seriously bad spot to break it out. It was a horrifying mix of acid, decay, force, lightning, five flavors of fire and for some reason that I can promise you made perfect sense even if it seemed insane, a summoned swarm of bees. None of those were anything close to non-lethal. I was still going to keep them ready, but they wouldn’t be my quick draw options.

 

My design ability proved to be at least partially active in the area of selecting items for my costume. There was a limited amount it could do if I wasn’t making the equipment myself, but it did help me arrange the belts, holsters, and pouches in a way that looks planned and professional rather than slapdash.

 

The fact that I was rushing out my costume during the same shopping trip was the real burden. I had honestly anticipated staying in the workshop for another couple of weeks, but that was because I assumed my early powers would be design and construction based and I would need a serious amount of buildup time. I didn’t imagine I would get immediate defensive powers and a serious array of offence and utility formula so early. If I’m being completely honest I didn’t expect to get powers like this at all.

 

I was browsing through a thrift store when I felt my passenger’s excitement as another constellation swung close. My power latched on to one of the smaller motes and secured a connection. The constellation was ‘Vehicles’ and the mote was called ‘Black Thumb’. It was a mechanic based power. Mostly the ability provided me with the full skills of an expert mechanic. An entire lifetime’s experience at my fingertips. Not just the abstract or theoretical stuff I’d seen in class, but real world ‘diagnose the problem by the sound of the cylinders’ master level mechanic work.

 

The ability also allowed me to upgrade vehicles in a lot of crazy ways without adversely affecting performance in the slightest and meant I could repair and tune up engines even as I was operating them, because powers were crazy like that. It was insane, but that seemed to be the standard for cape powers.

 

It was also useless to me at this point. Even with the master level of skill I had it would take days to get a vehicle together. Less for something like a motorcycle, but the mechanical expertise didn’t come with any improved operational skill. I would be lucky to avoid killing myself if I got on a motorbike. Wait, I had enhanced durability. So I might be fine, providing the effect also stopped my brain from splattering against the inside of my skull during my first collision.

 

This was a good power, but it was presently badly overshadowed by what Squealer was already churning out on a daily basis. I could guarantee my vehicles would look a lot better than the ones she built, but that was a very low bar. Give me resources and time and I might be able to pull something together that looked like it belonged in the same league as Armsmaster’s bike, though it would be nowhere near that level of efficiency.

 

On the other hand I might be able to make some money on the side doing off the books car repairs. This ability seemed designed to keep engines operating in horrible conditions with almost no resources. I bet I could patch up most car problems with minimal parts and even less time. That application would actually turn the fact that this was mundane crafting to an advantage.  I was capable of good work, but aside from a few eccentric upgrades it was all standard stuff any competent mechanic would be able to do. I should be able to pull off the whole ‘guy who knows about cars’ thing and leverage that to some part time work.

 

But that was something for later. Still, the prospect of more resources, or at least useful skills helped me justify a bit more splurging than I would have otherwise been comfortable with. I indulged on a longer coat, something with plenty of pockets for reserve storage without being heavy enough to be unbearable once warmer weather sets in. I’d need some kind of head covering and was determined not to start with a hoodie as my only concealment. Hats and helmets could work, but they got expensive and I’d already made a major expenditure with my coat. Instead I picked up a couple of large bandanas that would do the job. Normally that kind of thing would look worse than a hoodie, but I trusted my design ability to pull it together.

 

The shopping trip was also made easier by my mobile storage. Being able to duck into an alley or side hall and throw all my purchases into the entry room of my workshop made the entire process mostly painless. It would also allow me access to all my alchemy supplies no matter what happened, which was another relief. By mid-afternoon I had accomplished as much as I was likely to without either spending myself into debt or ending up on a series of government watch lists. I headed back to my apartment to prepare for my first night out as a cape.

 

That night out didn’t begin until after eleven o’clock. I may not have a full suite of tinker powers, but it seemed I had enough that it is disturbingly easy to lose track of time in my workshop. The technical knowledge and machine skills from black thumb allowed me to work to a much higher level of quality, even outside of vehicles. There was enough experience with detailing and body work in that skillset that, when combined with the aesthetic skills from my previous ability, allowed some truly impressive design work.

 

That was why I had a mask now. In my own opinion it was actually a pretty great mask. It contoured to my face perfectly and matched the vaguely sleek and streamlined theme I had managed with my bracer. The entire thing sat close enough that my vision wasn’t significantly affected and when combined with one bandana tied over my head and another across my nose and mouth it gave me a striking appearance. It was kind of like a modern take on a knight’s visor, though the protection aspect was less important than the ability to conceal my identity.

 

I’d added a few metal details to my coat as well. Not enough to weigh myself down, just enough to communicate that I was in costume. For some reason the skills from Black Thumb really liked the look of shiny metal, particularly chrome. I’d done the best with what I had in my metal workshop and found a balance. Enough metal to create a distinct look, but not enough to turn me into the walking hood ornament Black Thumb would have wanted.

 

Walking was an apt word to use here. I had only been out for a few minutes when I decided foot patrols were for chumps. Unfortunately none of my alchemist formulas helped with mobility. Well, one might have, but that was what I needed that weird pepper for.

 

As bad a reputation as Brockton Bay had for crime it seemed you couldn’t just take an evening walk and hope to stumble across it. After an hour of wandering around I started to wonder what the point of this was. I guess I was showing the flag, so to speak, but other than spooking a few people on the street I hadn’t done much. I could always head into the heart of a gang’s territory and hope that my presence triggered some kind of response, but as good as my defenses were I didn’t want to risk that. I might be highly resistant to damage but I could be captured or locked down fairly easily. If I got swarmed I would have to resort to dark alchemy to get out of it, and that meant a series of maiming at the very least. The kind of energy I could throw out was not something to be used lightly.

 

So the ‘walk around randomly’ plan was definitely a bust. If I wanted to actually make a difference I’d need to go out with proper objectives. That meant research, scouting, information gathering, and planning. All stuff I didn’t have time for with my work/training/crafting schedule. I see why so many tinkers end up on teams.

 

Maybe I could get a police radio. If I listened to dispatches I might be able to use that to respond to serious incidents. Were dispatches even sent over open broadcast anymore? It was probably encoded, or at least digital. If I had better tech abilities I could probably crack it, but my current skill set wouldn’t be helpful.

 

So all I was accomplishing tonight was walking around in costume and feeling like a badass. Frankly I was ok with that. I might not bring down a villain or stop a major crime, but I know that I could have. Being out here was something positive, both for the city and for my cape career.

 

All that rationalization fell away when the sound of breaking glass reached me. Yes, I was ok with nothing happening, but if something did there was no way I was going to miss it. My coat flew behind me as I broke into a sprint. My belts, bandoleer, and holsters were secured enough that they kept stable while I ran but the reserve reagents in my coat pockets were bouncing uncomfortably with each step. I’d need to scale those down in the future.

 

I rounded a corner and nearly collided with a man in a black body suit and red demon mask who appeared in front of me. Literally appeared, as in teleportation. Rather than turn to face me he kept his attention on the mass of shadows that concealed a nearby alley mouth and damaged store front. Instead a copy of him appeared facing me as the first kept watch on the shadows.

 

I could see large shapes moving within the dark mass and hear the scraping of claws on pavement and broken glass. But I could also see the demon ninja in front of me. Oni Lee. I knew how dangerous he was and his reputation for violence. I didn’t know if this was a hero-villain fight or if he was going up against another criminal. Either way he was still a threat, both to me and the city.

 

Did I want to do this? Was I ready to do this? Probably not, but that wasn’t going to stop me. I stared down the demon mask for a handful of seconds as neither of us made a move. Then I shifted my stance, drew my club, and suddenly it was on.

 

Oni Lee was a much better fighter than me. It was evident by the way the fight opened with an arm reaching from behind me and drawing a knife across my neck. With the steel hard durability of my bracer extending through my body the blade came away without drawing blood, but the sensation was distinctly unpleasant. I swung my club back and tried to catch the ninja, but he rolled out of the way of my clumsy swipe and lunged forward with repeated strikes. The knife bounced off in every instance without so much as fraying the fabric of my coat and deftly stepped out of the reach of any return blows from my baton. More clones started appearing around me, swinging with different weapons. Stilettos, combat knives, machetes, and a hatchet all bounced or skidded off as I weathered the hail of blades and desperately tried to score a return hit.

 

On more than one occasion I considered reaching for a prepared mix for my attack formulas. Clones were dissolving as quickly as they were appearing and a single fireball should be able to clear the crowd. Still, I held back. I had no way of knowing which of these was the real Lee and didn’t want to end up with a corpse on my hands.

 

That conviction was severely tested as a pair of thin knives snaked through the gap of my mask and found my eyes. I don’t care how tough you are, that is not something you can walk off. An attack that would have pierced my brain was no worse than accidently poking yourself in the eye, but it was enough to completely take my mind off the fight. My legs were swept out from under me and four copies of Lee piled on, pinning me to the ground.

 

I thought that this was just about the worst situation I could be in. Then I heard the pin drop. Pins. All the pins from all the grenades of the clones that were piled on top of me. And the heavy thuds as dozens of small egg shaped metal objects hit the ground around me.

 

It was simple really. What do you do if you’re an experienced parahuman murderer and you’re fighting someone too tough for conventional weapons? Escalate. Escalate hard. And in Oni Lee’s case that meant grenades. All the grenades. I may have been as tough as steel at the moment but I didn’t like my chances against that much explosive. I don’t think there’s a cape in the city that would be comfortable in my position right now.

 

I’m rather proud of how I managed to respond to my first legitimately life threatening moment. In the scant few seconds before the grenades fuses triggered I managed to grab one of my prepared formulas from a belt pouch. I spilled every other set of the same formula from said pouch, but I was not worried about the cascade of clay and ash that spread out across the street. I was worried about being able to complete this formula before I got splattered across the entire block.

 

I mashed the two ingredients together in the precise mixture and channeled the essence of the reagents into the desired effect. The knowledge I had gained from this ability put me on good footing in terms of managing the process under stress. Alchemy was normally a complex art and required careful concentration. I doubt most people would have been able to pull off any result in this situation. What I managed wasn’t my best effort, but the formula combined successfully and settled into my body, reinforcing me against harm. I managed it just before the first explosion triggered.

 

It’s a unique experience to be in the middle of a pile of grenades as they detonate. Fragmentation grenades combine the fun of a pulverizing shockwave with the effect of dozens of chunks of sharp metal launched at high velocity. Funnily enough I had considered not prepping the Defend formula. I figured my bracer would give enough durability for everything but cape powers and I had Reflect to counter them. I did not see this situation coming, and it made me very grateful that I decided to play completionist in terms of what I carried with me.

 

It hurt. It hurt a lot. It was like being in a storm of thunder, beatings, and stabs. I could feel the blasts in my ears, my throat, my lungs. Shrapnel pelted me and the fact that it wasn’t penetrating my coat was small comfort when I could feel a bruise bloom with every impact. The fact that my bracer’s durability extended to both my clothes and body was probably the only reason I was able to endure. The reinforcement of my alchemy held off just enough of the damage that I was still conscious and mobile once the series of explosions ended and the smoke cleared, but that was not the same as unharmed.

 

At this point I was ready to break out the dark alchemy and reduce that bastard to a puddle of smoking flesh, but I held back. I had been playing this stupid and it was time to level the field. In the smoking crater I pulled a prepped formula consisting of a piece of wax and two measures of water, held in a small pouch together. I saw the shadow of Oni Lee approaching through the smoke and mashed together my speed formula as I lunged towards him.

 

This was one of my stronger enhancement formulas and one I would have preferred to field test before using. It did allow faster movement, but only slightly. Mostly it accelerated perception and reaction. It was essentially a bullet time formula. At my level of proficiency it wasn’t quite enough to dodge bullets, but it provided an overwhelming advantage against a normal human, regardless of the difference in skill.

 

Oni Lee’s skill level was still damn impressive. Probably the only reason I didn’t end the fight in one swing was his reactions that turned with my strike, resulting in a spider web of cracks across his mask rather than the concussion I’d been going for. I ignored the Oni Lee in front of me as another appeared to my right. My baton came around and swiped a knife out of his hand, then continued past to glance off the chest of another copy. Two more appeared within a fraction of a second of each other and I ignored their attacks, instead spinning and bringing my weapon towards the empty street behind me.

 

My precaution paid off as the form of Oni Lee flickered into being with a silver and red orb in one hand. I brought my club down onto his forearm with all my strength. The light composite of his wrist guard folded under the heavy impact of my solid steel club. I felt a pair of snaps as the club continued down with all its force and watched in slow motion as the assassin’s lower arm flopped like a strand of overcooked spaghetti.

 

The metal object fell from his useless fingers and one by one the copies collapsed into dust until even the version of Lee that was cradling his broken arm disappeared. My speed boost wore off and time resumed its normal pace. I was panting hard enough that the bandana around my neck was flaring with every breath and my body felt like a giant bruise. The surge of adrenalin that had carried me through the end of the fight was crashing and every bit of pain, exhaustion, and overexertion was coming to the forefront.

 

My attention was drawn to the sound of a slow clap in the direction of the dark alley. The ominous black clouds had faded revealing three monstrous creatures of bone and meat pacing back and forth. The clap was coming from one of the riders, a young man in ren-fair clothes with a stylized mask and small crown.

 

“Nicely fucking done. You really bruted your way through that fight.” He was wearing a slightly sarcastic smirk, but there was a cautious edge to it. “Ten out of ten, full points.”

 

“Not a brute.” A blond girl in a purple and black outfit with a domino mask chimed in. “More of a tinker really. He buffs himself to fight.”

 

One of the last two riders, a guy in motorcycle leathers and a skull helmet cleared his throat. “We appreciate the help. Oni Lee is a serious threat and you really helped us out there.” There were clouds of darkness leaking around the seams of his helmet and his voice had a strange echoy resonance.

 

There was a growl from the last rider, a muscular girl with a cheap dog mask. Her growl was echoed by the three monsters. “We could have taken him.”

 

“Maybe,” The guy in biker leathers clarified, “but we still appreciate the help.”

 

I continued to stare at the four capes. The reason I hadn’t replied wasn’t because I recognized them as the Undersiders, a smash and grab villain team so minor I hadn’t even bothered to research them since getting my powers. It wasn’t because I was squaring up for another fight. It wasn’t because of the exhaustion I was feeling. It was because my passenger was basically going nuts.

 

The emotional link I have with my passenger is complicated. It’s always there, but unless I’m dealing with something cape related it tends to be fairly muted. Cape responses vary considerably, but generally villains trigger some kind of negative emotion. That was most certainly not the case here.

 

 The reactions I was getting were complicated and a lot more nuanced that anything I had picked up before. Mostly the feeling was sympathetic, though in different ways for each Undersider. As I swept my gaze across the four of them I felt spikes of compassion, amusement, admiration, respect, and small levels of caution. Before I could respond or try to parse the information I was getting the girl in purple spoke up.

 

“Grue, we need to leave.” Her face was ashen.

 

“Tattletale?” He glanced around as if looking for a threat.

 

“Full black out. We need to move now.” His body language seemed confused. She spoke again, her voice taking on a desperate edge. “He’s reading us!”

 

The biker, Grue, went stock still for a fraction of a second, then snapped up both his arms and let out a roiling wave of black mist. As it flowed over me I could hear the sounds of the creatures scrabbling over the pavement, but the noise was delayed and sourceless. The cloud of darkness was pitch black and had a murky feel to it. It also didn’t seem to be dispersing any time soon.

 

Did that girl know about my passenger? Was that part of her power? Should I be worried about other people picking up on the connection and information I was getting? I focused on Tattletale and gauged the emotions that were being sent to me. There was the sense that she was dangerous. Well, not physically dangerous but still a threat. There was also a certain amount of faith in her, and admiration. It felt like it was both for her abilities and her character. Concern was there as well. She was in a bad spot. I couldn’t pick out what she was being threatened by, but it was something my passenger felt she needed help with.

 

That was a lot to deal with, and it significantly more detailed than what I’d gotten from any other cape. It felt like other Undersiders had as much information attached to them as well, but this wasn’t the time to place through that. I was currently standing in the middle of the road in a cloud of supernatural darkness. Luckily I had something that might help with that.

 

I reached into my pouches and started fishing out individual reagents. I hadn’t prepped this formula for obvious reasons. It had no combat utility and I couldn’t imagine a situation where it would be necessary.

 

Well, that situation was now. I separated out two units of ash and one of wax and combined them in the Revealer formula. I wasn’t sure it would work, but it was my best chance of getting out of here without having to feel my way along the walls of buildings.

 

It worked. Well, it sort of worked. The darkness didn’t vanish, but I could make out the shape of things. It was like looking at a wireframe model of the world. Not full vision, but immensely better than trying to stumble my way out of this mess.

 

It also gave me a chance to appreciate the scene of my fight with Oni Lee. The grenade cluster had created an actual crater in the middle of the street and shrapnel had pockmarked the surrounding walls and broken more than a few windows. That was probably why the Undersiders had stayed back. I was in serious discomfort from that mess. Any normal human would have been reduced to a smear. I doubt even the monster dogs they were riding would have been able to stand up to that.

 

Speaking of which, I was done feeling like I’d been shoved through a meat grinder. I dug out one of my prepared formulas, a feather and a piece of ginger root. It was the most powerful healing formula I had with the only downside being that I could only use it on myself. I combined the ingredients and tossed the reaction into the air. The restorative effects settled over me and instantly I felt the pain vanish. It did nothing to help the frays and tears of my clothing, but that was a lesser concern. I had been at ground zero for dozens of grenades and managed to walk away from it with nothing but a bit of clothing damage. What must Oni Lee have thought after that?

 

Actually, what was he thinking? A few seconds of searching had me locate the silver sphere he dropped when I broke his arm. It was basic in its design, simple metal with a single seam and an activation switch protected against accidental triggering. You didn’t need mechanical expertise to figure out what this was. When conventional weapons weren’t enough Oni Lee had broken out one of Bakuda’s tinker tech devices. This was almost certainly some horrible kind of bomb.

 

It was dangerous just to be holding something like this. I didn’t doubt a bomb tinker would have some method of remote detonation. The thing was, how did I dispose of this properly? Tinker tech would be beyond the means of the bomb squad and I didn’t have any way of contacting the Protectorate. Also, it may have been a very bad idea, but I didn’t want to just get rid of it. This was the very first piece of tinker tech I had held in my own hands. The potential that I could learn from this was making me seriously consider the risks of holding on to it.

 

If there was a remote detonator then it would have a signal to trigger it. There was also the possibility it was on a deadman’s switch and would go off it a signal dropped away, but I doubted that. The chance that Oni Lee could end up somewhere when the signal would drop out and end up at ground zero was too high. It’s possible it was on a timer that would detonate if not reset after a fixed amount of time, but that was less likely than there just being remote detonation built in.

 

One thing I was certain about was nothing could reach my workshop when the door was closed. That was a piece of absolute knowledge that came when I got the power. I had enough steel in stock to build a container that would block any type of conventional signal. It’s possible Bakuda uses something exotic and tinker based for her triggers, but I doubt it would be universally implemented in handheld grenades. Not with how recently she triggered.

 

I felt the Celestial Forge move again as a constellation approached. During the fight with Oni Lee my power had failed to latch onto one of the larger motes from the Vehicle constellation. This time it connected with a small mote from what turned out to be the ‘Time’ constellation.

 

The ability my power got wasn’t specifically connected with time, but the mote had a link to another much larger mote in the same consolation. Whatever that was, the first ability was necessary for whatever time power the second one represented. And I wasn’t exactly disappointed with what I had connected to.

 

The ability was called ‘Scientist: Machinery’. It represented doctorate level understanding of the actual science behind a specific field, in this case machinery and mechanical applications. It also carried an intelligence increase, though what that meant exactly was difficult to gauge. It would definitely help with my pseudo tinkering, but it wasn’t some kind of serendipitous power that would let me crack the secrets of tinker tech explosives.

 

Actually, it was possible that whatever caused this darkness to block light also interfered with other signals. That would mean I had a window to lock down the bomb that would last until this cloud dissipated. I just needed to get to my workshop.

 

I moved into the alley and hunted around until I found a door that would serve my purpose. I fished out my key, opened the way to my workshop, and barred the portal behind me. The inside was still lit, but wisps of eerie darkness slipped through the gap in the door. I ignored that and headed straight for my lab.

 

Using every ounce of my new skills I started tearing through my stock of materials to cobble together the most secure container I could manage. Multiple redundant faraday cages, thick plates of steel and an extensive grounding system covered it. The resulting structure would have to be disassembled for it to be moved and was wedged in the furthest corner of my workshop to minimize any damage that could be caused. It was absolutely the best containment system capable of being constructed with my skill set and resources. Unless Bakuda uses some trigger mechanism completely removed from electromagnetic communication this would be able to block it.

 

I still did all the work with my Force Field formula active and elected to not sleep in my usual workshop adjacent bed.

 

Force Field was seriously powerful for a defensive formula. It would completely block a single attack regardless of strength. The reason I picked Defend over it this evening was once that first attack was blocked it was completely spent. It would have helped me against only one of the dozens of grenades I had been pelted with. Against this bomb it would be able to save me providing the effect didn’t have multiple stages, or a persistent effect, or some kind of environmental change, or a chemical or biological vector. In short it provided some security, but nowhere near enough.

 

By the time I finished work and changed back to my civilian wear the darkness was fading to occasional wisps of shadow. It was getting to be late enough at night that it could technically count as early in the morning and I had the ill fortune of having to work tomorrow. I trudged back to my apartment in civilian wear, opened my workshop just long enough to grab my blankets and pillow, then collapsed in my apartment in an attempt to get as much sleep as possible before my alarm. I could sort out the rest of this mess tomorrow.

Chapter Text

Interlude: Brian

 

Brian climbed the steps to the hideout with the rest of the Undersiders trailing behind him. On paper this looked like a great victory for the team. Lung was captured and Oni Lee had been crippled. Unfortunately circumstances were more complicated than that.

 

This had been the first major offensive the Undersiders had conducted and it had been a hard sell for the team. Before tonight he would have thought that hitting Lung’s casino was the biggest risk he could live with. The take from that job had been excellent, but it had kicked the hornet’s nest as far as the ABB was concerned. Lung was on the warpath and they’d already had to cancel two jobs because of ABB spotters that Lisa had picked out.

 

Taking the fight to the gang had been a dicey proposition. Alec was in favor of waiting a few weeks for things to die down. It wasn’t a terrible plan, and honestly Brian probably would have gone along with it in any other circumstances. Unfortunately that just wasn’t an option right now.

 

He was so close to getting custody of Aisha, but there were expenses that went along with that. He knew his mother was circling and looking for any excuse she could take to contest the case. A drop in income from his ‘job’, a delay on setting up Aisha’s room in his apartment, even extra debt if he tried to use credit cards to bridge the gap, any of those could torpedo his chances of keeping his sister safe. He couldn’t afford to sit back from jobs for weeks. Actually, with how vindictive Lung was known to be those weeks would likely spill into months.

 

Fortunately Brian wasn’t alone in pushing for the attack. The boss wanted the Undersiders back in the field and Lisa was in his corner on that. Brian knew Rachel was caring for far more dogs than the three she took on jobs. Because of that her expenses well exceeded what their base salary could cover and she was both hungry for work and defensive of her share. She could not afford to sit things out until the ABB decided they weren’t a priority.

 

They had talked Alec around eventually, but he kept voicing his doubts the whole time. Brian had a sense everyone was feeling the same way, but Alec was the only one complaining about things. Heading out that night had been a terrifying experience. No one was letting their fear show, but the dogs were picking up on it and they were agitated as the team rode out to face the ABB capes.

 

Brian had planned things out as well as he could with Lisa. No one in the city would have taken the odds for the Undersiders in a fight with the ABB, but he felt they at least had a chance. By striking from ambush and keeping their opponents off balance and separated they could do this. Oni Lee didn’t do well in darkness and Lung was outclassed by Rachel’s dogs for the first few stages of his growth. If everything went well they could get the drop on their opponents and either finish this or make them cautious enough that they wouldn’t risk a confrontation.

 

Then the night had proven the old adage that no plan survives contact with the enemy. Two new capes in one night. It wasn’t unheard of. Brockton had a larger community of fresh triggers, c-listers, and mercenary capes than anyone really gave it credit for. With Lung, Kaiser, Armsmaster, and Dauntless in the same city it was easy to overlook a guy running around in a budget costume doing work on the periphery of the scene.

 

Hell, until last year Brian would have met that definition himself.

 

It would have been unusual to just run into capes by chance but no part of this operation was subtle. The tinker had followed the sound of their fight with Oni Lee and the bug cape had found Lung’s staging point. It could just as easily have been protectorate heroes as that pair of green capes.

 

What was unusual was how well both of them had faired against the powerhouses of the ABB. The tinker had taken over a fight that was pushing the entire team to their limits and walked out of it with only a frayed coat while Oni Lee slunk off with a broken arm. The bug cape may have been in a bad spot when they arrived but Lung had been worked over on a level that would normally take an entire team of capes to pull off. If he hadn’t been drunk on venom the dogs would have had a serious fight on their hands and Brian couldn’t have guaranteed all the Undersiders would have walked away from it.

 

In theory things went better than they could have hoped for. In practice things were a lot more complicated. Rather than the elation of a successful job the morale of the group was mixed.

 

Bitch was in her usual foul mood. This job had been purely defensive. It countered an imminent threat to the team, but didn’t have any pay or loot. Bitch was here out of obligation and to ensure continued work. With the appearance of the two new capes the normally wary girl was on edge.

 

Alec was as irreverent as ever, heading straight for the couch and grabbing a controller with one hand and some leftover pizza with the other, looking to all the world like he was completely content with how the night turned out. Brian knew better, but the question of just how much of that was an act was something he was never able to nail down.

 

Lisa was most concerning. She had recovered from what looked like a real moment of panic and settled into her usually smartass role when dealing with the bug controller, but whatever happened with the other cape had clearly shaken her badly. She had been quiet on the way back and Lisa was never quiet unless something was going very wrong.

 

Alec glanced over from the couch and smirked. “What’s the big deal? Tonight went great. We should have more missions where other capes do all the work for us.”

 

“We didn’t need their help.” Rachel was in the kitchen getting some food for the patiently waiting Brutus, Judas, and Angelica. Brian knew what she was concerned about. Rachel felt takes were being split too many way already. She would oppose any recruitment attempts, both to protect her share and out of general distrust. The thing was the Undersiders needed new blood. They had reached the limit of what they could handle with four people. Lisa might be spooked, but Brian doubted that would matter as the boss had been pushing for recruitment. A master who could take on Lung was a seriously valuable asset. Whatever the other guy’s deal was he had taken an attack that would have put down any bruiser in the empire and come out swinging.

 

“Are you kidding? Did you see that first guy at work? Oni Lee’s lucky to still have a hand after that hit.”

 

“Lucky shot.” She paused. “And Lisa didn’t like him.”

 

It was rare for Rachel to show any concern for the feelings of another member of the team. Brian wondered if she was actually worried for Lisa or just using it as another excuse to put off recruitment. It could easily be both. The girl was cautious enough regarding candidates everyone supported. Seeing Lisa react like she did probably raised all kinds of fears as far as the tinker cape was concerned.

 

“Oh yeah. Hey Lisa, what was up with that? Did you start feeling tingly when he looked at you?” Lisa stopped rubbing her temples and shot Alec a seething glare. “That’s perfectly normal for a girl your age. You see, when a man and a woman…” Brian’s thrown cushion hit him hard enough to knock him clean off the sofa. The idiot laid on the ground laughing to himself and Rachel looked on in disgust.

 

“Lisa, conference. Now.” She gave a quick nod and they headed for the rooms. After a seconds hesitation she went for her own room rather than his. Another bad sign.

 

Lisa’s room was sparse and felt more like an office than a living space. There was a filing cabinet in one corner and a laptop on her desk. Papers were strewn across the room, some unorganized, some in neat piles. The bed looked as untouched as it had when he helped her move it in here. Lisa took a seat on the edge of the mattress and peeled off her domino mask. Brian considered, then perched on the edge of the desk while facing her.

 

He took a breath. “I need to know what got you so freaked out back there.”

 

Lisa seemed to consider her phrasing, then shook her head and remained quiet.

 

“Ok, what did you mean when you said he was reading us?” He hadn’t wanted to bring this up in front of the others but the possibilities had him in a cold sweat. “Are we compromised?”

 

“No.” Her voice was nowhere near as confident as Brian had become accustomed to. “I don’t think so.” He took a breath and gestured for her to elaborate. “It wasn’t like what I do. It was like someone was feeding him impressions of us. And they were all accurate. Like someone who knew each of us really well was telling him how to respond.”

 

Brian’s chest tightened. “How bad is this?”

 

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything else like this, ever. And whatever it was is unrelated to his other powers.”

 

“Do we have to worry about him coming after us? How much does he know?”

 

“He barely knows anything. That’s not what set me off. All he has is this emotional impression of us. Whoever gave it to him is another story.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“I mean whoever is feeding him this impression knows all about us. Us specifically. The stuff he was getting was nuanced and specific to each of our backgrounds. His source, they know everything.”

 

Brian let out a slow breath. “You have any idea who they are?”

 

She shook her head frantically. “Who, what, I have no idea if they even really exist. I’m flying blind here.” He could see how much it pained her to admit that. “It could be some weird thinker power, or it could be someone connected with him, or it could be something even stranger. I can’t get information on them and that frankly terrifies me.”

 

“Is he being sent against us? Is that it?” This could be bad. They might be able to outmaneuver him, but there was nothing they had that would be able to counter that kind of toughness. Oni Lee had dropped enough explosives to level a building. Without Lisa’s warning to take cover the shrapnel alone would have turned them into Swiss cheese. He was at ground zero and only ended up a little battered.

 

“No, it’s...” She paused as if considering her words. Then a sour smile crossed her face. “That thing? The person, power, whatever. The thing that’s feeding him information? It likes us.”

 

“What?” Brian couldn’t keep the shock off his face.

 

“Yeah. Whoever, whatever this is. It likes us. The Undersiders. It likes us as people, as a team. Even Rachel and Alec.”

 

Brian blinked. “Alec?”

 

“Yeah, even knowing everything about him.”

 

“Well, that’s...” He was at a loss for words. Concerning? Comforting? What the hell was he supposed to make of this?

 

“Both reassuring and terrifying at the same time?”

 

“Sounds about right.” He let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “You report any of this to the boss yet?”

 

She shook her head. “Standard mission complete text but no details on the new capes. Though he probably already knows a good chunk of it.”

 

Here came the hard part. “He going to want us to make a play at recruitment?”

 

She nodded slowly. “Almost certainly. After we blew it with Spitfire he’s been pushing heavily for it.”

 

Which meant he wanted bigger jobs. Brian didn’t have Lisa’s level of contact with the man, but he could tell the direction his team was being steered. “What do you think?”

 

She considered. “Bug girls more likely. We give her some space from Rachel for the introduction and I’m sure I can talk her around. She’s new but she’s powerful. We’d be lucky to land her.”

 

“After facing down Lung I doubt anyone would argue with that. We’ll have to put it to a vote, but I can’t see there being any issues.” The caveat ‘Except for Rachel’ went unsaid. “What about the other guy?”

 

“After that performance there’s going to be a big push to get him onboard, if just to keep him from being scooped up by the competition.” Lisa’s voice betrayed how she felt about that idea.

 

“What did you get from him? I mean beyond all that insight stuff?”

 

Lisa considered. “New cape. Newer trigger than bug girl. She’s had her powers for months and has been building towards heading out. Getting equipment, costume, that kind of stuff. He’s had his powers for maybe a week. A lot of what he was using was newer than that.”

 

“You said he was a tinker?”

 

“Sort of. He made his gear, but it was really low tech stuff. It just looked nice. The way he uses his powers is probably closer to Dauntless than Armsmaster. Totem cape stuff, items as a conduit for his power. What he had works for him but not anyone else.”

 

“So basically useless for team support?” Not that that would be enough to kill the pressure to recruit. Not with how he fared tonight.

 

“There was some mechanical knowledge there. You can tell from how his gear was made. Access to a decent machine shop too. But no, he’s not going to be churning out ray guns for anyone.”

 

“With what he pulled it’s not like he needs to sell himself on the prospect of propping up a team.”

 

“That was closer than it looked.” Brian raised an eyebrow. “He managed a last minute boost that saved his life. There’s some continuous durability, but not on the level of that many grenades.”

 

“That what he pulled after the blast? With that weird glow?”

 

Lisa nodded. “Some kind of enhancement effect. He has the materials for it in those pouches.” She paused to consider something, then shuddered. “Early in the fight he was considering going for one of them that would have ended things.”

 

“What, he had something that would have put down Oni Lee?”

 

“Put down as in six feet down.” Lisa’s voice was grave. “He was trying to stay nonlethal, but he had some big guns in reserve.”

 

That was concerning. Knowing about it was better than going in blind, but if recruitment went badly they would be facing serious firepower as well as someone they couldn’t drop.

 

“What are we talking about here? How bad could this get.”

 

“I don’t know.” She waved him off before he could respond. “I don’t know because he doesn’t know. He hasn’t had a chance to test out that stuff. Whatever it is he knows it’s dangerous, but he’s not clear on the specifics.”

 

Brian winced at that. In terms of ‘how bad’ that was pretty fucking bad. On the cape scene there were few things scarier than a tinker pulling out some device and saying something to the effect of ‘Ok, I’m not sure what this does.’

 

Then again, he had held back from using them even after Oni Lee dropped an Easter basket worth of grenades on him. That was better restraint than most capes. It was a serious contrast to the bug girl throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Lung in an attempt to bring him down.

 

Brian had seen the effect of a brown recluse bite once. Once. That was enough for a lifetime.

 

Still, that was the kind of thing you very much wanted on your side if just to keep it from being directed towards you. Plus that was a significant level of firepower that was precise and tightly controlled.

 

Brian knew the value of intimidation. He had built his entire reputation around being the monster in the dark. A giant swarm of insects had its own power. It was the kind of thing people would react to before they were consciously aware of what their bodies were doing. Everyone knew the threat of an insect and their minds could easily scale it up. That had a lot more impact than someone who may or may not be carrying around whatever vaguely threatening thing was in his pocket.

 

“We’ll go forward with the bug girl, take a vote once everyone’s calmed down. The other guy, we’ll play that as it comes.”

 

Lisa shook her head. “The boss is going to push for him. Hard.”

 

“I know.” He needed the support to keep Aisha safe, but sometime this whole arrangement was just infuriating. “We see how things progress with the bug girl. We lock her down and maybe we’ll get a bit of breathing room on the grenade sponge.”

 

She grinned at that. “Your optimism is adorable.”

 

He winced. “Any chance that this mystery thinker power or whatever he has going on will convince the boss we should stay hands off?”

 

“No.” Lisa’s answer was immediate and devoid of emotion. “In fact, with that kind of power if we don’t manage to land him the boss will probably make a play of his own.”

 

As much as Brian hated to admit it that seemed pretty likely. Despite working for the boss since the team was founded he still didn’t have much of a sense of the man or what his long term goals were. One thing he had picked up was there were serious long term plans in the works. Whoever their boss was, he was either a thinker or playing in the same league as one. Few capes were as territorial as those with that classification.

 

“Can you manage this? It’s going to fall to you to handle the contacts and plan the approaches. With how you were tonight...”

 

“I’ll be alright. Mainly it just caught me off guard.” She let out a sigh. “I’ll contact the boss and update you when I have a better idea of where this is going.”

 

Brian nodded. “I’ll head back out, start floating the idea of recruitment. Might go better if I can ease Rachel into it.”

 

Lisa checked her watch. “Looks like neither of us will be getting much sleep tonight.”

 

“What’s that they say, no rest for the wicked?”

 

That got a slight grin from Lisa but Brian could tell this was wearing her down. He didn’t like this. She was right about how hard the boss would push. An unconnected tinker was too tempting a prize and that thinker effect, whatever it was, would push things over the top. They needed to find some way to at least get on good terms with him.

 

He could leave that to Lisa. In the meantime he gently opened the possibility of recruitment to Alec and Rachel. With Rachel he had to restate every argument they’d used for Spitfire’s recruitment and then some. Alec was less than helpful in that regard, but at least wasn’t trying to actively sabotage anything. By the time he’d gotten her to at least entertain the idea it was too late to even consider going back to his apartment. As he crashed in his room in the hideout he hoped Lisa was having better luck than him.

 

They’d need it.

Chapter Text

4 Recovery

 

I woke up on the floor of what used to be my bedroom before I had shifted to sleeping in a pocket dimension. Well, less bedroom and more the bed area of my weirdly shaped studio apartment. It was easy to remember why I had moved as I took in the smells, textures, and general dinginess of my surroundings. I had spent the night with a meager amount of bedding between me and the questionable carpeting of the apartment. It was the best I could do without trying to fit my mattress through the closet door again. That had taken too long the first time and turned into a game of furniture Tetris in my attempts to get the damn thing to fit. Still, with how my back felt right now sleeping one room away from a tinker tech bomb didn’t sound as bad as it had the previous night.

 

My alarm had sounded, but with my limited sleep I was seriously considering skipping the morning run. I figured frantic melee combat has to count for cardio right? I was probably due for a rest day.

 

That was when I felt a constellation approach within the Celestial Forge. I still had extra reach from my last connection and it had grown further since then. A link solidified to a small mote in the ‘Knowledge’ constellation.

 

The ability I latched onto was called ‘Not a Stupid Grunt’. The odd name was kind of appropriate because I definitely was not stupid now. My Scientist ability had boosted me to genius. That was a bit abstract since genius is a pretty broad range and quantifying intelligence is a difficult process. I was more focused on the doctorate level knowledge I had picked up from that ability. This ability didn’t come with any new information. It was just a straight cognitive booster and it was considerably more pronounced than anything I had picked up before.

 

This ability would let me out strip any non-parahuman scientist in the world with only moderate effort. Combined with the boost I had already received and my mechanical knowledge from Scientist and Black Thumb and I was probably as good at mechanical systems as most tinkers. Certainly better than any who didn’t specialize in the subject.

 

One thing I had been concerned about was the prospect that this power would alter my mind. My passenger had been open about that. I didn’t have the conflict levers most parahumans did, but there was a certain amount of mental alteration that was necessary if I was going to be able to operate at the level of a tinker. It seemed that this was the first significant step in that direction.

 

Somehow the idea of going to stock shelves for eight hours seemed laughable. This wasn’t a ‘too good for menial labor’ way of thinking. Over the last day I’d gone from moderate understanding of mechanical engineering to career mechanic to the kind of person who would lead an industrial design team to the kind of person whose research would be distributed to industrial design teams. There was no reason for me to keep my day job at this point. My finances would take a hit, but I was pretty sure I could fish a car out of a river and have it running perfectly within a day. I would be able to find a way to capitalize on my powers if just from highly efficient repairs.

 

It would result in a short term hit to my savings, but I could endure it for a couple of weeks. Quitting two hours before the start of shift was a dick move, but if they weren’t going to pay for full time employee’s benefits then they shouldn’t expect loyalty.

 

That phone call was less than polite on my manager’s part, but the deed was done and I had the full day ahead of me. I started it with the absolute best possible use of my time and went back to sleep.

 

Three hours later I was rested, fed, caffeinated, and ready to try running at a time other than stupid o’clock. Given it was a Monday there was a different tone to the mid-morning foot traffic, but enough people apparently had flexible enough schedules that they were able to exercise at this time. I wonder if there’s ever a time of day when the nice part of the city isn’t beset by joggers. Maybe it’s just the natural background for a place like this. Clean open area means you get joggers. Cramped dirty areas means drug dealers and homeless people. Though it was probably the boardwalk enforcers who maintained that particular balance.

 

After my run I effectively took it easy for the rest of the day. After lunch I made my way to the library and spent the afternoon reading. I wanted to gauge the effect of whatever my new intelligence was doing. Information was definitely easier to retain and my reading speed had increased substantially. I wasn’t exactly speed reading my way through the entire library but I could see how it would be possible to quickly master a field of study with these abilities. I wouldn’t get there overnight, and an afternoon of browsing various subjects hadn’t resulted in that much improvement, but a few months of dedicated effort would have me outstripping people who devoted years of their life towards a specific field.

 

When it came to machinery I was already well ahead of what any non-tinker would be able to manage.

 

The current issue was there was a limit to what I could pull off with the resources I had available. I could work more efficiently, but the time required to fabricate anything from base components, not even considering the comparatively limited tools available, effectively barred me from anything more advanced. I would need to start hunting down better materials and tools. So far I had been able to hold off tinker scavenging, but unless I got another source of materials and equipment soon that would be my only option.

 

If I could find work as an auto mechanic, even under the table, that would address my financial and supply problems. I did have some concerns about being able to keep my abilities secret. It would have been hard enough with just Black Thumb on display. Combine that with my Scientist ability and my intelligence booster and I would be setting off every tinker alarm they had. Particularly bad seeing as the only place that would hire someone without experience or credentials would be barely above a chop shop. Get outed as a tinker in one of those places and you’re headed straight for gang recruitment.

 

Those were problems for later. Right now I had to get to training. Proper training, seeing as I had a boxing lesson with Mr. Laborn.

 

Mr. Laborn didn’t precisely run the boxing gym, but he was the most respected coach there. He was also a stickler for respect, punctuality, and proper dedication. Thus I showed up half an hour early for stretches and warmup. I didn’t think I was actually going to become a great boxer, but last night proved that without combat buffs I was fresh meat for any decently trained fighter. Oni Lee didn’t have any power that boosted him physically and he would have taken me apart about a dozen times if not for my durability power. Just because I could do some pseudo tinkering now was no reason to neglect my training.

 

Five minutes before our lesson Mr. Laborn arrived. He was an older black man built like a linebacker with an attitude that demanded respect. Doug is the kind of person who’s on a first name basis with everyone he’s known for more than five minutes. I’m pretty sure Mr. Laborn is still Mr. Laborn to people he’s known since his childhood. I moved to greet him, but he waved me off.

 

“Finish that warmup. I’ll be with you soon.” It was at that point I noticed the teenage girl trailing behind her with a bored expression on her face. She was wearing work out attire heavily at odds with the rest of the gym. She had on a neon green racerback top that left her stomach exposed and a set of leggings. There was a purple streak in her hair and she had multiple piercings on display. Her attention was mainly focused on the smartphone in her hand with only enough attention paid to the rest of the gym to avoid bumping into anyone. Even when Mr. Laborn went to speak with her she barely raised her head.

 

The family resemblance was there, if muted. That meant she was his daughter. His teenage daughter. His barely teenage daughter who had apparently started developing very early.

 

That wasn’t what concerned me. The main thing that had me on edge was that my passenger apparently knew her. He had emotional resonance to that girl that was as strong as anything from the Undersiders. I mean, I could quickly rule out the possibility that she was secretly one of them, not unless there were significant shapeshifting powers at play.

 

Was she secretly a cape? If my passenger could pick out capes in their civilian identities that was a problem. If it got out the violation of the unwritten rules would effectively make it open season on me. Still, I couldn’t imagine who she could be. There were some independent heroes and villains in the city that I hadn’t read up on, so that was a possibility, but then why was the reaction so close to the Undersiders?

 

I finished my warmup and cautiously approached them. She looked less than thrilled to be here and Mr. Laborn seemed none too pleased with the arrangement either.

 

“Joe, I don’t believe you know my daughter Aisha.” He somehow made the statement in a way that implied ‘you will not know my daughter Aisha’ so hard I could almost hear it beneath his words.

 

“No, I don’t.” I didn’t leave any room for misinterpretation. I stayed focused on Mr. Laborn and ignored the highly amused feelings from my passenger.

 

He gave a curt nod. “Her brother was going to watch her tonight, but he had a work obligation. She’ll be working out here during your class.”

 

From the tone of his voice I honestly felt bad for her brother. From everything I’d learned, Mr. Laborn liked order. Mr. Laborn meshed with this gym like they had been made for each other while Aisha could not be doing more to stop from fitting in. I mean, her outfit would maybe have worked in one of those upscale mall fitness centers. Compared to this relic of a building she practically looked like a time traveler, and I’m guessing it was deliberate on her part.

 

Mr. Laborn seemed perfectly aware of what she was doing and looked about as happy to have her here as she was being stuck in the gym. With the surprise of having this dropped on him I doubted his son was in for a happy reunion the next time Mr. Laborn saw him.

 

“Hey.” Aisha glanced up at me, then back to her phone, then back up with her eyes lingering. The mess of emotions from my passenger wasn’t helped by the approach of the Knowledge constellation within the Celestial Forge. My power failed to latch onto the nearest mote, but the combined distraction of all of those things happening at once threw me off balance in a way that seemed to entertain Aisha to no end.

 

Mr. Laborn’s expression was anything but amused. I’m not sure what he saw, or thought he saw, in that exchange but he clearly wasn’t happy about it. “I heard you’ve been training. Let’s see how that’s working out for you. Vince! Joe’s going to need a sparring partner.”

 

I held off a gulp as Mr. Laborn called over the gym’s top junior heavyweight fighter. Technically we were in the same weight class, but let’s just say Vince wore it better. Vince looked momentarily confused, then spotted Aisha and the penny dropped. He gave me a sympathetic look but proceeded to the ring anyway.

 

Meanwhile it occurred to me that this was the furthest my power’s reach had ever grown. The next time a constellation came by I might have a chance of landing one of the stronger powers, providing this training session didn’t kill me first.

 

“So I see you met Aisha.” He started lacing up his gloves. I grabbed one of the well-used sets the gym stocked for newbies and joined him.

 

“Yeah. So, is she as much trouble as she seems?”

 

“Worse. She’s smelled the blood in the water now. She’ll be messing with you until you either run off or she finds a more entertaining target.”

 

I glanced over to see Aisha staring at me. She quirked her lips and her father’s frown deepened.

 

“Or Mr. Laborn kills me.”

 

“Oh, he won’t kill you. He has an entire gym full of people ready to do that for him.” He saw my expression. “Look, just tough it out and try not to engage her. If you’re no fun she’ll eventually stop coming around.”

 

“Speaking from experience?”

 

He shook his head. “Thankfully I’ve been able to dodge that bullet. Everyone here kind of knows how to manage around her. You’ll be ok.”

 

“That mean you’re not going to rearrange my face today?”

 

He looked over at Mr. Laborn, then back to me. “Yeah, that’s not happening. Strap in, this is going to be rough.”

 

It wasn’t an actual beatdown, but it was probably as close to it as Mr. Laborn could get while still technically being an actual training session. It didn’t help that Aisha kept shirking the workouts her father tried to assign her in order to hang around the ring and try to get my attention. My passenger was just amused by this to no end, which only made things harder to deal with.

 

It was easy to see why Vince was the star of the gym. The guy hit like a freight train and probably would have put me on the mat after two punches. My slight height advantage was meaningless against someone who moved like lightning and punched like he was trying to blow out the back of your skull. I was saved by my abilities, and fortunately in a way that wasn’t blatantly obvious. I got the defensive properties of the best piece of gear I was wearing. In this case that happened to be my gloves. Now boxing gloves aren’t exactly heavy armor, but they do cushion blunt impacts. Not enough to negate them, just enough that I wasn’t being dropped with every hit.

 

I’m pretty good at toughing out bad situations. Actually for me that’s probably more of a character flaw than a virtue. It did mean I was able to make it through a full training session of sparing against a rising contender while remaining on my feet. Not unhurt, just still upright. I think I actually impressed Mr. Laborn, though he’s not the kind of person who would typically express that openly. About half way through Aisha transitioned from teasing to cheering on the amount of damage I was taking. By the end of it I was sore as hell, exhausted, but considering the guy who had been using me as a punching bag didn’t look much more energetic I counted it as a win.

 

“Not bad.” High praise from Mr. Laborn. “I’m glad you’re taking this seriously. Your footwork needs practice. Make sure to work on that before next week.” He paused and looked at my face. “Get some ice on that when you get home. You did good.”

 

He intercepted his daughter who was heading my way in earnest and half dragged her out of the gym. I let out a long breath and looked over as Vince approached me.

 

“Here.” He handed me a water bottle which I took gratefully. “Nice work tonight. You’ve got some potential if you stick with this.”

 

“What, my talent for taking punches?”

 

“That’s most of what boxing is about. No matter how good you are you need to be able to take a hit. I think we can say you have that down.”

 

I nodded slowly. “Well, not that this wasn’t great, but I think I’m spent.”

 

“See you next week.”

 

I froze. “What, seriously?”

 

He just shrugged. “Me or another guy. Mr. Laborn isn’t exactly subtle about his daughter.”

 

“Great. Any idea how long until she loses interest?”

 

“No idea. That girl is kind of all over the place. Could be a couple of days, could be months.”

 

“Hey,” This was awkward to ask but I kind of needed to know. “She’s like, really young to be playing at that kind of thing. Is everything alright there?”

 

He clammed up and the good humor he’d shown earlier faded. He quickly glanced around and his voice dropped as he responded. “Ok, you did not hear this from me. Apparently her mom got custody after the divorce. She’s a complete piece of work, anyone here will tell you that. Nobody knows exactly what went down, but three years ago she lost custody of Aisha to Mr. Laborn. I wouldn’t ask about it, but you should know why Mr. Laborn acts the way he does concerning her.”

 

“Got it.” I swallowed. “I hope I don’t actually have to say I’ve got no interest in anything regarding her, right?”

 

“Trust me, if anyone here got that sense you would be in much worse shape and wouldn’t be coming back for another lesson”

 

That was small comfort. I gave him a nod and he stared off for a bit. “Everyone has stuff they’re dealing with. This is just one of those things.”

 

“Right.” I climbed to my feet. “Well, I need to get cleaned up and try to sleep this off.”

 

“Ice is going to be your friend there.”

 

I nodded and headed off to think. Three years ago Aisha would have been ten, possibly nine depending on how the dates lined up. For a mother to lose custody things would have to have gone seriously bad. There were only a few things that could justify something like that and from Aisha’s behavior it was easy to guess which one was most likely.

 

I hoped I was wrong. I really hoped I was wrong, but I couldn’t see how. The way she acted, the reactions of everyone in the gym, the hushed tones when Vince talked about it. This put a new and depressing spin on how everyone in the gym was treating this. No wonder Vince had been willing to work me over to squash even the hint of something inappropriate. This wasn’t some comedy situation with a girl teasing someone to make him uncomfortable. This was a god damn tragedy.

 

And for some reason my passenger found the situation funny. He had been entertained by it from the moment Aisha had walked in. Beyond the surface level what the fuck was supposed to be funny about this?

 

That’s why I was staring into the locker room mirror trying to dig through every emotional resonance my passenger had associated with her. On the surface it looked really bad. I was standing in a bathroom using what amounted to a thinker power to dig up information on a thirteen year old girl. But fuck it, I had to know. I had to know there was something else there than the irreverent amusement I’d been getting all night.

 

My body ached and my face was starting to swell, but I wasn’t leaving until I got to the bottom of this. Carefully I considered aspects of Aisha’s life one at a time and felt the reaction from my passenger. The lack of severity from his emotions was shocking. I was horrified by the entire situation. He seemed to feel she was fine. She wasn’t in danger, and he believed she would be safer in the future. Digging back there was serious distaste for Aisha’s mother, but not the level of revulsion I felt at the situation. But at least there was something.

 

I shook things off and started getting cleaned up. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this. Maybe my passenger knew more about the situation than I did, but I couldn’t see any way this could be anything less than appalling. When I had thought about the exact circumstances that led to her father getting custody there had been concern for her, but not on the level that it seemed there should be. It felt like she had some level of protection, or safety, but even if that was true the situation was still a nightmare. I don’t know how you could look at the aftermath of something like that and be amused by the girl’s antics.

 

Maybe I was biased. It could be it wasn’t as bad as I was assuming, or it could be she really got the help she needed and there wasn’t any trauma tied up in her current actions. It still felt like for the first time since I triggered there was an emotional disconnect between me and my passenger.

 

There were doubts here that I didn’t like to dwell on. I’d had a sense of the breath of my passenger’s knowledge since my trigger event. Until now I had honestly been fine following his lead. It made sense that he wouldn’t feel as strongly about some things as I did, but I didn’t expect the first divergence to be over something like this.

 

I had to remember who I was dealing with. What I was dealing with. Thanks to my passenger’s intervention I had managed to avoid being plugged into one of those continent sized extradimensional meat computers with a conflict obsession. As comforting as avoiding that fate was I had to remember the reason it had happened. The point of all of this was building the Celestial Forge. My passenger was concerned about me, sure, and that was comforting, but primarily that was because I was necessary for that project. My passenger’s guidance was great for keeping myself alive, avoiding threats, securing resources, and even predicting disasters. All of those things would impact his primary goal. Moral judgements on the other hand were a bit more suspect.

 

I was not in a great mood after I showered and trudged back to my apartment. My passenger had been such a source of reassurance that having it called into question risked me falling back into pre-trigger mindsets. The ache of my body didn’t help and frankly all I wanted to do was curl up and sleep until noon the next day.

 

I felt the gentle prodding concern from my passenger. It was comforting. That was what made it so easy to follow his lead. Reassurance, compassion, and resolve even when I wasn’t able to muster those feelings myself. I was basically a walking bruise right now. I may have felt low enough to leave things like that, but my passenger cared about my health. A part of my mind said that was only because of my work on the Celestial Forge, but that didn’t change the end result. Self-care was important. Leaving these injuries would do no one any good.

 

I headed for the kitchenette, immensely grateful I had stored extra reagents there. I dug out a feather and chunk of ginger and made sure my windows were covered. As I mixed the formula together the gleaming healing energy suffused me and all my aches and pains vanished. The exhaustion stayed, both physical and mental. For that I needed rest.

 

I looked over at my pile of blankets disdainfully. I still wasn’t secure enough to open the portal to my workshop in my own apartment. I didn’t know how well the potential signal was blocked and didn’t want any chance of being exposed in my own home. The risk I took last night to grab my bedding still had me on edge. On top of that I also didn’t know if there had been a timed detonation yet, and given some of the more aggressive agents she had used in the attack on Cornell I wasn’t opening that door without the benefit of several layers of concrete and as many protective formulas as I could manage.

 

So, isolated from my easy storage I instead committed myself to a quiet night of food, recovery and mindless web surfing. Dinner was the same discount muscle building meal I’d been eating for the last week. It was boring but I’d been focused enough on prepping my cape work for it not to matter. It was a rather sad meal while standing at the kitchen counter, but as soon as the food hit my stomach my mood improved and I felt a sense of relief in my body. Afterwards I got as comfortable as I was able given my lack of furniture and settled in with my laptop.

 

I considered a night of youtube videos and browsing memes, but decided to try to put the evening towards some productive purpose. I had been putting off my examination of the Undersiders. My passenger clearly knew something significant about them and I had to do my best to figure out what.

 

It was always tricky to translate the mess of emotions into something actionable. Panacea, for example, was a damn mess that I had intentionally put off sorting through after a full evening analyzing New Wave had only made the situation more complicated. After tonight it was also clear that at least the intensity of feelings didn’t always match up to how I would see them. I didn’t get the sense that the information was wrong, just a from a different perspective.

 

I think the problem was trying for a deep dive. That required trying to parse the information I was getting without context or a real understanding of the perspective they were coming from. Surface level reactions were good for now and I could try to break down the emotions triggered by associating them with certain people or actions at a later time.

 

I went with Tattletale first. Her wiki page was nearly empty. She clearly had some analysis power, though I wasn’t sure what precise shade of thinker she was. There was a sense of impressiveness connected to her, so she was probably either wielding a very strong power or had a standard one that she utilized to some incredible extent. There was affection in kind of a familial sense, as well as both caution towards her and concern for her. It felt like she was threatened by something. Strangely I didn’t feel that when I thought of any of the other Undersiders.

 

I moved on to Grue. He had more info, as appropriate for three years in the villain business. His history escalated from petty crime to corporate theft and major robberies. No detail on his power beyond darkness generation. I was really lucky that my Revealer formula let me see through that. Well, sort of see. I would need to refine my use of it before it could be considered able to fully counter that effect.

 

The emotions connected to Grue was interesting. There was some admiration there, but it felt personal rather than directed at his abilities. There was the same level of sympathy, protectiveness, and affection that seemed to be shared by all the Undersiders. The concern for Grue wasn’t exactly directed at him. Something he was doing was important? Well, at least something my passenger felt was important.

 

I moved on to Bitch. Or Hellhound. Rachel Lindt. Public identity known after she triggered at age fourteen. She could turn dogs into those monster things, though there weren’t any precise details on how it worked.

 

Bitch’s reaction had been surprising. Looking at her I’d expect the same level of stuff as Grue, respect for strength and maybe some kind of professional courtesy. What I got was pure affection and sympathy. Given what I knew about trigger events and the fact that she triggered in foster care with a master power there was definitely some level of tragedy there. There was caution, but not any sense of malice with it. She was dangerous but not bad.

 

I didn’t want to keep dwelling on my passenger’s reaction to Aisha, but it was interesting that there was more sympathy for Bitch than for her. The sense was whatever happened to Bitch was still in play, that she was still struggling with it, while Aisha had the worst of her situation behind her. No trigger came from a good place, but masters needed a special kind of isolation and trauma to come about. I seriously doubted she had gotten the help she needed after her trigger and there was even the possibility that mental effects from her power or passenger had made things worse.

 

Still, that was my passenger’s judgement. And even with all the sympathy he was feeling there wasn’t any reduction in the sense of danger. She might have come from a bad place, she might not want to hurt people, but she still had a body count attached to her name.  

 

When I moved on to Regent’s page the reaction brought up all my previous questions regarding my passenger’s perspective. There was some admiration, but it was framed in a way that connected it with some serious levels of disgust, but those in turn were linked to sympathy and anger directed at someone else. Whoever he was he had come from a very bad place, much worse than Bitch. The details of that were a bit too much for a lazy night of websurfing and I was approaching a limit to how much of this I could process. I closed the tab and was ready to switch back to the forums when I felt my power activate.

 

The Celestial Forge moved and focused on one of the arrays of powers. The Toolkits constellation was swinging towards me and my power latched onto a small mote, securing the connection. It was called Laboratorium. I had a new addition next to my workshop.

 

Specifically I had a full lab that specialized in the analysis of any technological device. It was practically tailor made for cracking the mystery of tinker tech and in a stroke of serendipity I got it right after I acquired my first tinker tech device.

 

So to hell with the peaceful night in. I had work to do. Nothing like a clear objective to get rid of those niggling doubts. Of course, I still wasn’t going to open the link in my own apartment. Fortunately Brockton Bay had loads of abandoned buildings. Since I wasn’t looking for comfort I just needed to find the least habitable one I could and open the door in the deepest part of the structure.

 

The areas of Brockton Bay with those kinds of buildings aren’t exactly safe to travel in the late evening. I headed out while wearing a shin guard under my jeans, but that only provided minimal protection. As I walked the ABB tags had given way to Merchant ones and the concentration of homeless seriously increased. Sticking to dark alleys helped me avoid notice but also put me at risk for anyone who might be lurking in those areas.

 

Thirty harrowing minutes of walking led me to a boarded up and condemned factory. The place had a severe enough chemical smell to it that I doubted anyone would seriously try to live here. I found an unsecured window and slipped inside. The durability boost from the shin guard was enough to not worry about broken glass or loose nails that jabbed at me as I crawled into the building. Inside was pitch black, but navigating by the light of my cellphone led me to the moldering door of a supply closet. Quickly I slipped my key into the door and opened the link to my workshop. And now my lab.

 

A new door had been added to the entry room across from the access to the workshop. I quickly secured the main door and walked towards the new addition. Clearing a path to it required shifting my mattress and desk slightly, but once that was done I opened the door and examined my new lab.

 

It was not what I was expecting. I knew everything that would be inside, the computers, the scanner arrays, the documentation. That information was included when I got the power, and to be fair it was all there. What I didn’t expect was the particular aesthetic of the lab. Cyber-gothic would be one way of putting it. Techno-Catholic would also work. The computers were closer to shrines than workstations. There were engraved icons on the walls, incense burning in small dishes, and a feeling of reverence to the entire place. Anything that wasn’t designed to look like a religious icon was crammed to the gills with technology. Cables, diodes, mechanical arms, tendrils, sensors, optic lenses, and every other piece of exposed machinery imaginable.

 

Also the place was big. Really big. The church analogy was apt because this was like being inside a cathedral. There had to be two dozen different analysis bays that seemed to be designed to accommodate items ranging from the size of a fingernail to things that would be too big to fit through the door. The largest of them looked like it could hold a small aircraft.

 

Then there were the skulls. At first I thought they were just part of the décor, an odd and tasteless addition. Then one popped out of a wall as I approached and started chirping at me with a vaguely digital sound. It shifted from one direction to the other, suspended on the trail of cables that linked it to one of the computer stations. At the sound of its keening dozens of other skulls emerged from their resting place. The thing is was they weren’t device designed to look like skulls. There were actual human skulls with attached cybernetics.

 

Where the hell had they come from? This place had just appeared, like the workshop had when I made my key. None of the machinery in my workshop was connected to any real manufacturing company, so it wasn’t like this effect was grabbing things from the world to populate it. That probably and hopefully meant that I hadn’t just killed several dozen random people for the sake of whatever the purpose of these cyber skulls was.

 

Actually, taking in the full scale of the place and the number of skulls it was probably a lot more than ‘several dozen’.

 

So where did they come from? On closer examination this place looked old. There was a sense of the ages to it. The skulls had clearly been skulls for years and years. I would guess decades if not centuries, but that made no sense. There were no parahuman abilities dating back before the early eighties. There had been claims but they had all proven to be either bogus or a hoax. How did you get something this advanced and this old?

 

The answer was obviously the same as questions like ‘how does my key work’ or ‘what was the mechanism behind my Fashion power’. It just worked. There was a fiat declaration that these abilities would work and these things would exist. I’m not sure why a technology analysis lab required a host of integrated human skulls in order to function, but it did and thus they were here. I would have to deal with it.

 

Once the initial shock faded they lost most of their creep factor. The skulls didn’t act like some menacing swarm of reanimated human parts, they acted like a bunch of over-eager puppies. I still had my cell phone out with its flashlight active. Three skulls spun around it, the lenses in their eye sockets flashing. A projection of the phone appeared as a hologram above one of the computer altars and the team of human remains gestured towards one of the scanning beds with as much enthusiasm as a skinless severed human head attached to a coil of mechanical cables was capable of displaying.

 

At their prompting I placed the phone on the scanning bed and it hummed to life. Dozens of tiny arms and tendrils extended around it, glowing, pulsing, or shining strange lights on the phone. A skull directed me to the holographic display as it began to fill in and provide a cut out of the phone’s internal systems. Individual components and their purposes were identified as well as how they fit together.

 

The language of the system wasn’t English, but it used the same alphabet and for some reason I was able to read it. I don’t know if it was because of my connection to this place, or if my intelligence boosts had helped things along, but in the process of virtually dissecting my cellphone I was able to familiarize myself with the complete workings of this Laboratorium.

 

Now came the moment of truth. I would need to transport Bakuda’s bomb here. I didn’t have the advantage of any signal blocking Grue’s darkness might have provided and I would have to remove most of the security measures to transport it. Still, I couldn’t have a better opportunity than what was provided by this place. I needed to press forward.

 

That didn’t mean being stupid. I drenched myself in every defensive formula I knew before I even attempted it, even the redundant ones. Fortunately my workshop was not a smoldering wreck when I opened it, nor was it reduced to one as soon as the containment block was unsealed. I left as much of the blocking material in place as I could while I moved it. That left me lugging about seventy five pounds of metal over to my lab.

 

If the skulls had been excited over my cellphone then arriving with the tinkertech grenade caused them to reach levels of enthusiasm I didn’t think a mass of bone and cybernetics could convey. The heavy cluster of metal plates and mesh was taken from me immediately and moved to a large and complicated scanning bed. I was led to what can only be described as a throne. It was on a raised dais that overlooked most of the lab and was surrounded by a half ring of computer altars. There were some disturbing looking cable connections on the chair and the skulls seemed slightly disappointed when they found nothing to attach to on my head or back.

 

Let me assure you that was not a pleasant sensation.

 

Mechanical limbs carefully stripped away my haphazard shielding, exposing the tiny bomb. A quick analysis revealed its tracking signal and automatically blocked it while the rest of the sensors went to work. Within minutes I had a complete schematic of the device. Then the computers began extrapolating the function and purpose of various components.

 

It was incredibly complex. Even with my doctorate level mechanical knowledge, enhanced intelligence, and the advantage of this eclectic but ridiculously advanced lab there were levels to this device that I just couldn’t grasp. I wouldn’t be able to get enough information to fully understand it without more intense examination.

 

That would mean losing access to the one piece of tinker tech in my possession, but it was also the only way to really understand what I was working with. From what I could tell from initial readings this was some kind of plasma emitter, only with complicated functions attached, probably to stop it from just baking everything within a hundred meter radius. If the data I had was accurate I doubt Oni Lee would have been able to reach a safe distance if this didn’t have some means of containing its energy to a finite area.

 

I made my decision and activated destructive testing. The tiny sphere was carefully transferred to another sensor bed and dozens of tools rose up to meet it. The bomb floated above the bed in some kind of stasis field as small sections of it were removed and held in suspension. In a strange sense the bomb was exploding in slow motion as parts were removed and left floating around it. More and more data came in as the process continued until all the tiny and impossibly complex components were hanging in gravity suspension over the scanning bed.

 

My guess was right. This bomb wasn’t designed to wipe out a city block, though it had more than enough power for that. Instead there was a mechanism that kept the energy contained to a radius of roughly five meters. Inside that space the conditions would be comparable to the heart of an atomic blast or the inside of a star. Nothing could realistically withstand it without blanket immunity to heat and pressure or some other kind of complex parahuman ability to negate damage.

 

And I almost had this thing shoved up my ass. Holy crap did I luck out there. I guess Oni Lee must have been getting desperate if he was willing to expend something this valuable to take me down.

 

Wait.

 

Oni Lee clones the grenades he holds when he teleports. Is there any reason to think that effect wouldn’t extend to tinker tech? The one limiting factor on Bakuda was the fact that her bombs are expended when used. Oni Lee effectively removes that limitation. She could build a device like this, hand it to him, and have him use it hundreds of times without expending the original.

 

That was a fucking nightmare. There was a serious shift in power in the works coming as soon as they had enough stock to take the fight to the merchants or empire. The only thing that might hold back the chaos is Lung. It’s well known that he hasn’t pushed as hard as he could have in the past. Part of that is everyone knowing to fall back when he builds up steam to let his power drop, but generally he seems happy with the status quo. He’ll probably use this to aggressively secure territory and most likely come down harshly on anyone who challenges him, but not for a full gang war.

 

Why was my passenger feeling so nervous?

 

That did not bode well. As much as I was starting to doubt his perspective on more abstract topics when it came to actual threats I was still more than willing to follow his lead. There was something very bad that was going to happen with Bakuda, and probably fairly soon.

 

Anyway, since I wasn’t at risk of dying or being exposed I decided to move my workshop link back to my apartment. That was exactly as arduous a process as the first time, only mitigated by the pocket full of reagents I was now holding to stave off any idiot who tried to jump me. If Speed was enough to take down Oni Lee then it would make short work of any junkies or muggers who wanted to try their luck.

 

It was once again into the morning hours by the time I returned, but without the hassle of a job I was reassured in the fact that I would actually be able to sleep. Nothing today had led to a resolution to my impending financial difficulties, but I was confident I’d be able to sort something out. Worst case I would be able to grab parts from wrecked cars, refurbish them, and sell them. Maybe even get a stall at the Market if I was really desperate.

 

That throne seat in my Laboratorium was more luxurious than anything in my workshop or apartment and more comfortable too. If not for the smell of incense, the chirping skulls and the ominous atmosphere it would have been a great place to sleep. As it stood I made due with my mattress in the entryway and kept the door to the lab tightly closed.

 

The next morning I woke up to the feeling of the Knowledge constellation in the Celestial Forge swinging by me. My power’s reach was the strongest it had ever been and was just enough to latch on to a mid-sized mote. The ability was called ‘Grease Monkey’. That was a name that badly underrepresented what the power was capable of. So far I’d been stumbling along with basic technical skills or slight upgrades. The knowledge I did get was barely a refinement of modern technology. Even my crafting skills were limited.

 

That was not the case anymore. Grease Monkey gave me access to an incredible amount of technical skill and knowledge. Advanced robotics, computers, weaponry, spacecraft, and most importantly power armor. Finally I had the ability to make power armor. And it was good power armor as well, not one of those cliché clunky suits that characterize new tinkers.

 

It was complicated, resource intensive and would take a good chunk of time but I could build or fix just about anything now. I would need some serious resources and machinery to get this off the ground, but once I did I’d be able to handle things like the best capes out there.

 

I guess this was where the real tinker limitations kick in. Considering what I had available in my metal shop I could theoretically, with enough time, build what I needed to build what I needed to build what I needed to build my serious technology. Even then there would be components, electronics, power sources, plastics, ceramic components, material treatments, and a dozen other aspects of this technology that I would not be able to fabricate with the restocking materials of my workshop.

 

What was worse, I was dealing with concepts, not finished blueprints. I understood the principles of the machinery, how to make it, and how it could be used to make all those wonderful advanced devices, but I would still have to work out how to fit things together. There was going to be a long period of research and design in order to get a finished product. That meant even more materials and resources. As much as I hated to admit it, barring some kind of miracle ability from my power I would need outside support.

 

That was a problem. The Protectorate was out, there were too many bad emotions connected to it. Not just discomfort but glaring alarm bells, particularly with Brockton’s division. New Wave was a mess I couldn’t begin to pick apart. Besides, once the movement for public cape identities fell through they basically became a family team and I didn’t think I was ready to marry in just yet. The Guild had a good reaction from my passenger, but you needed to be an established hero and have recommendations from current members. Other teams were either too small to be of note or didn’t operate in the city.

 

I guess there was always the Toybox. With that group you were brushing against villainy, but it would be enough to get established as a tinker. It would also mean solely building for other people. I might be feeling sentimental, but I didn’t want my technology to debut in the hands of another organization.

 

It wasn’t totally hopeless. There had to be something I was able to put together with machine shop metal and salvaged components. Plus with my alchemy and resistance boosts I could operate as a cape even if I couldn’t get any truly advanced technology together.

 

Before my morning run but after coffee and toast I decided to sit down with my laptop and try to figure out my next step. I hadn’t hit the PHO forums in a while and, while it was mostly speculation, there were some good pieces of advice and information buried there.

 

Before I checked the tinker boards I decided to skim the Brockton Bay section. Call it pure narcissism if you want, but I kind of wanted to see if there was any comment on my fight with Oni Lee. Honestly even some mention of him running around with a cast would have made my day.

 

What I found definitely did not make my day.

 

Lung had been captured. Armsmaster had brought him in after he’d already had a run in with a local gang. The Undersiders? If they were coming from a fight with Lung when I saw them they were in really good shape. Did they run off to face him after I met them? Oni Lee could have fallen back for reinforcements and brought Lung into the fight.

 

There was also a rumor thread about him apparently being hospitalized. Potential excessive force from Armsmaster. Well, if he’d been weakened already and Armsmaster went in expecting his full strength then it would be easy to overdo it. Still, some of the reports were pretty horrific to the point where I really hoped they were either exaggerations or complete fabrications. Nobody liked the idea of a tinker using bio-weapons.

 

So Lung was captured and was probably headed for the Birdcage. Did that leave command of the ABB to Oni Lee or to Bakuda? Clearly they would make a play to spring Lung. I wouldn’t have given them much of a chance of pulling that off, but that was before their power synergy gave them a limitless supply of tinker tech bombs. Oni Lee could reduce the Rig to slag in under a minute with nothing more than a version of the grenade I had taken from him. This whole situation had the potential to go very bad.

 

I had more explosives knowledge now than I had the previous night. Most of it was still conventional, for a strained definition of conventional. I mean massively improved versions of normal munitions. Thinking on it I could probably build some kind of micro-neutron bomb if I had the materials, but that was the upper limit of my technological knowledge. I could handle electronic counter measures better as well. I wouldn’t want to pit that against a tinker who was specialized in bombs since I’m sure she would be able to counter most of my efforts eventually, but as a single shot in the field it could knock out her remote connections and buy some time.

 

The problem was I had no resources to build any of that. My workshop was basic in the extreme and I didn’t have the finances or supplies to improve anything. Given that I was at least partially responsible for what could happen… wait, my passenger was going a bit crazy. There was a lot of fear and certainty around this. Ok, partially responsible for what was definitely going to happen I needed to take any means available to be able to mitigate it. I didn’t want to see this city turn into a nightmare version of Cornell.

 

As one last thing I searched for any mention of Oni Lee. This wasn’t just vanity anymore. I needed to find out what the current strength of the ABB’s capes were. A search turned up results that went back years so I limited it to the last few days. Most were mentions in the Brockton discussion boards, comments under the story of Lung’s arrests, and speculation on the potential of a gang war. There was one outlier among the results. The ‘Connections’ section of the board had mentioned him, not in the original message but from the comments on it.

 

Subject: Stick

 

Thanks for driving off that black clad ABB guy. Saw you got pretty beat up. Owe you one. Meet?

 

Message me,

 

Eye.

 

The comments had sparked a small debate on whether they were talking about Oni Lee or not and whether it was a fabricated message. That wasn’t helped by people from the roleplaying boards showing up. The whole thing had turned into a flame war until the mods showed up to lock the comments.

 

It was Tattletale. I could feel my passenger’s reaction to the message. He was absolutely sure it was her and the prospect of taking her up on the meeting was regarded with near boundless enthusiasm.

 

I considered my options. There was clearly more to the Undersiders than just petty criminals. They hadn’t done anything horrible by the standards of Brockton Bay and from what I’d heard robbed gangs as often as civilians. That said I wasn’t about to buy into the notion of victimless crimes. Even just robbing stores had a ripple effect on the health of the city. Insurance wasn’t a bottomless pot of money to cover instances like that. Premiums would be continually jacked up until the stores couldn’t afford to operate. That was probably why there were so many closed businesses in the bad part of town.

 

Still, if they wanted to meet I felt I should take them up on it. My passenger was completely in favor of it, but before I knew about Bakuda I probably would have turned them down. The way I saw it there was limited liability with just a meeting, and frankly I needed any help I could get right now, even if it came from questionable sources.

 

The message was more than a day old. It had been sent on Monday morning from a newly created account. Given the flurry around it that account was probably flooded with messages. Would Tattletale still even be monitoring it? Probably. She was a thinker, and a strong one if my passenger was to be believed. That led to the other concern. I needed to cover myself if I was going to reach out to her. It might not help against a thinker of her level, but I didn’t want to expose myself to anyone else. My options were to use a public computer at a library or somewhere similar or try to obfuscate my location and reply from my home connection.

 

Previously I wouldn’t even have dreamed of the second option, but with my new technical knowledge and resources I could probably pull it off. The computers in my lab, despite the quirks of their design, were insanely powerful. Still, they were designed for analysis of technology. I could adapt them to another purpose, but not in the window of time I had. That left the library.

 

At this time of day it was faster to walk than try to finagle the bus schedules and deal with downtown traffic. At least in mid-morning there weren’t too many people crowding the computers. I was able to get access in relatively short order and loaded PHO. I signed in as a guest and drafted a private message. Given the time since the message was posted and the probable number of anonymous replies this could be a dry well. In that case I’d have to create a dummy account and wait to see if she could pick the message out of the mess her inbox had to be. I hoped it wouldn’t come to that. Waiting for a reply would slow this down to a crawl and I needed resources if I was going to have any hope of countering Bakuda.

 

Subject: Re:Stick

 

This is the guy with the metal stick. Pretty sure you’re the girl in purple, but would like confirmation before we go further.

 

The message was sent and I began wondering how long I should wait for a reply. Thinker was one of the broadest categories of powers and they ranged all over the place. She seemed to have good intuition, but could she predict when someone would reply? If she was serious about this she would have some kind of alert set up on the account. After the thread got locked most of the messages should have dropped off so providing she hadn’t given up on the whole thing the one I sent should have come through fairly clearly.

 

I considered browsing the other forums while I waited, but decided against it. I wanted as little evidence of this as possible. I could purge my history a lot better than I would have been capable of a couple of days ago, but that only covered this machine. There were mundane ways to data mine someone’s activity, to say nothing of what other tinkers could pull off. That left me waiting and hitting refresh on the same page over and over.

 

While I was waiting my power completely failed to grab a mote from one of the constellations I had yet to identify. I watched it spin off inside the celestial forge while I kept hitting the F5 key. My reach was weak after landing my last ability, but it was still growing fast. I’d have a better chance the next time a constellation came into reach.

 

Finally my screen updated with a response.

 

Subject: Re:Stick

 

Confirmation? Sunday night you took a beating that would have been for us and sent the guy packing. Ran off when things were getting too personal, but want to make that up to you.

 

Me and the boys will meet you in the alley where it happened. 2pm should give you time to get prepared, and you won’t need to skip your run. You can dress up if you want but we’ll be informal.

 

Eye

 

Well, there was her power at work. It seemed kind of intrusive, but my passenger wasn’t concerned. I swallowed, hoped for the best, and decided to follow his lead.

 

Subject: Re:Stick

 

You’re as good as I thought. I’ll see you then.

 

Chapter Text

5 Negotiation


Once again I was feeling an emotional split between myself and my passenger. The idea of meeting a team of villains led by a powerful thinker should terrify me. My passenger was just ecstatic over the idea and I had to put real effort into not getting caught up in his enthusiasm. It was hard to maintain a sensible level of caution when every thought about how this could go badly was met with overflowing feelings of excitement and enthusiasm.

 

I did end up going for that run, as much to blow off steam as for the benefits of holding my workout schedule. After all, Tattletale might have been needling me but I still needed to keep up my conditioning. After I grabbed a quick lunch I started preparing for the meeting.

 

Despite the optimistic feelings from my passenger I was determined to go into this as prepared as possible. The question was what did I want out of this? I didn’t think opening with a prognostication of Bakuda’s imminent attack would go over well, but countering that was my immediate goal. What could I get from the Undersiders that would help with that objective?

 

Well, money is the obvious answer. I have no idea the legalities of accepting cash, but at this point even a few hundred dollars would make a huge difference to my resources and schedule. Baring that I would take equipment and materials. The thing was I doubted they had access to much on that front. I’d researched their history and their typical job seemed to land in the mid to low four figures. Taking into account a four way split and any group expenses and I’m not sure how much cash they’d have on hand. They were also a contained team, so that meant no territory to draw resources from and no henchmen or businesses under their control.

 

One thing I could get was information. If Tattletale was as good a thinker as my passenger seemed to regard her as then getting information on Bakuda or the ABB was a real prospect. That was also the kind of thing that I’d be able to get without compromising myself morally, so it would probably be the best thing to push for.

 

The question was what did they want from me? I knew how vulnerable tinkers were without group support. Thankfully my reinforcement and alchemy powers put me on much better footing than most tech heroes so a team wasn’t absolutely necessary in my case. There was a real possibility I could be looking at recruitment. The idea excited my passenger to no end, but I couldn’t see the logic for it. Given their limited resources I doubted there was much they could offer, not unless they had outside support that I wasn’t aware of.

 

When prepping for the meeting I decided my full loadout would probably be excessive. I could change in a nearby alley, but the combination of the coat, belts, and bandoleers would be a bit much. If I limited myself to my mask, coat and bracer I would have at least 90% of my combat effectiveness and not need ten minutes to suit up. The coat could hold some essential reagents, enough to get me out of this if things went bad. My passenger was absolutely certain the meeting wouldn’t go that way, but I was determined to be careful.

 

I headed out early with my jacket, mask, and bracer in a backpack. From what I remembered there was something of a network of alleys in the area that I would be able to hide in.  The exact alley was easy to find since there was still the big crater in the middle of the street. The city had put traffic barriers around it but seemed in no hurry to do any actual repair work.

 

I slipped into an alley that branched off from the meeting place and got into the minimal version of my costume. A bandanna around my head and another over my face, then my mask/visor on top of that. I slipped on my coat and closed it up to cover as much of my t-shirt and jeans as I could. Then I snapped my bracer onto my left wrist and felt the surge of durability. I was still wearing a shin guard as a reserve defensive item, but the security from the heavy steel was massively reassuring. I hadn’t brought my baton as concealing that length of steel would be difficult.

 

Also I was limited to the collection of reagents I had prepped in the pockets of my coat. It wasn’t the massive loadout I had gotten used to on Sunday night but it was enough for the moment. In addition to a set of buffing and recovery reagents the handful of dark alchemy formulas I had prepped were enough to level a building. It should be overkill in the event this meeting turned sour.

 

I sulked at the back of the alleyway and waited for the meeting time. My natural nervousness was somewhat countered by reassurance from my passenger. I wasn’t as in sync with him as I had been a few days ago, but I knew he was invested in my wellbeing and if he wasn’t overly concerned then that was at least a good sign.

 

Just before 2 o’clock four figures darkened the entrance to the alley. All of them were in street clothes making me feel a little self-conscious. Just from their silhouettes I was able to pick out Grue, Regent, and Tattletale. The forth was half hidden behind the others. For a second I wondered if Bitch had come along as well, but the figure was the wrong body shape. Tall, but thin and lanky.

 

Tattletale was in a denim skirt and long sleeved t-shirt while Regent was sporting a white jacket that looked designer, or at least expensive along with jeans and some fairly flashy sneakers. Grue if anything appeared more impressively built than he looked in costume. He was around my height with his hair in cornrows and wore a basic t-shirt, jeans, and boots. The last member of the group was wearing slightly baggy clothes and had her hair tied in a manner that seemed uncomfortable and designed to conceal her face. She was hanging back, trying to get a look at me without giving herself away.

 

As they approached I tried to pick out some hints from my passenger, but he was so excited about the meeting it was hard to parse anything specific.

 

“See, back of the alley behind the crates. Just like I said.”

 

I took Tattletale’s statement as a signal to step out. There was a ripple of reaction through the group as the light from the alley mouth gleamed off my mask and bracer.

 

Regent elbowed Grue in the ribs. “In costume too, pay up.”

 

“Like a tinker was going to show up without gear. I told you, no bet.”

 

I felt like I needed to take some initiative here. My passenger might be big fans of them for some reason but I was still meeting with a team of villains. It didn’t seem like a good idea to let them completely set the tempo. I gestured towards the new member who was looking seriously uncertain of herself. “You’re a bit over capacity. Care to fill me in?”

 

Tattletale spoke up. “New recruit. She insisted on coming, wanted to be part of the deal.”

 

“Ah.” I glanced across the four of them, trying to figure out what I could from my passenger’s emotions. He was still caught up in the excitement of the meeting which meant I wasn’t getting much helpful out of him. Instead I decided to play things casually. I shifted over to one of the crates and gestured to the rest. “Well, welcome to my alley. Pull up a crate and let’s hash this out.”

 

Regent snickered at that and was the first one to approach, settling onto one of the large boxes. Tattletale was next followed by Grue with the new girl hanging back. Grue extended a hand. “I’m Brian, by the way.”

 

I was surprised by the gesture, but my passenger wasn’t. Did they do this often, or was it just something he expected of them? I was starting to have serious concerns about the situation, but for the moment decided to follow his reaction and shook the offered hand.

 

“Lisa.” Tattletale introduced herself. She seemed to be trying to maintain a confident front. Regent had no such issue.

 

“Alec.”

 

My passenger was calming down enough that I was able to get some impressions again. I had the sense that Grue was being open here. There was some sense of duplicity on the part of Tattletale and Regent. I didn’t think they were exactly lying, more like were both under new identities. Yeah, from the feeling of my passenger something had definitely happened in both of their civilian lives and they were trying to distance themselves from it.

 

I wasn’t sure how to respond to this. All my prep and I still didn’t have a cape name ready to hand out. Plus they were clearly trying to build a rapport and not engaging them would put me at a disadvantage. I didn’t like this kind of social manipulation but I also didn’t know how to handle it. Instead I peered around Brian at the half concealed final member of the group, if just to buy a few more seconds before I would be expected to introduce myself.

 

I thought I had felt the limits of the intensity of emotion my passenger was capable of. The feedback I got ranged significantly from consistent background support to occasional peaks around certain topics that highlighted opportunities or potential threats. There were the odd spike of positive or negative feelings that took me by surprise but I thought I’d gotten a good handle on the range of what to expect.

 

I was wrong.

 

I can’t accurately describe the reaction of my passenger upon seeing the final member of the Undersiders. There was a weight, a significance that dwarfed every sense I’d gotten before. There was momentous consequence to the person standing in front of me that I couldn’t even begin to unravel. I was looking at the most important person in the world.

 

And she was a skinny teenage girl in ill-fitting clothes trying to avoid attention while hiding behind her hair and glasses.

 

I thought I was prepared for this. I figured my passenger would have some good impressions of the Undersiders that I would be able to filter out to get a decent result from the meeting. Personal affection on his part wasn’t enough for me to compromise myself and I was ready to ignore any good chummy feelings and stay focused on my objectives.

 

That plan was out the window now. If you looked under the glaring intensity you could see a similar affection for this girl as the other Undersiders, but that wasn’t the driving force behind my passenger’s reaction. Whoever this was she was vital, absolutely vital, to everything.

 

How do you even begin to parse something like that? How to you deal with the absolute certainty that the person in front of you will save everything in existence? Just trying to feel out the scale of it was incredible. It wasn’t just talking about my life, or the lives of the city, or the future of humanity. She was vital to the continued existence of the actual planet.

 

My passenger’s capacity for foresight was something I didn’t completely understand. Actually, I wasn’t sure how my passenger arrived at most of his insights. I didn’t know if it was precognition or a good understanding of current conditions that allowed accurate predictions. What I did know is he had a broader perspective from the outside of what normal people could perceive, but my ability to comprehend it was limited. One thing I was certain of is his desire to steer me away from serious threats. He knew how dangerous this world was, he was often frustrated by it, but was still determined to see the Celestial Forge built here.

 

There were a lot of his reactions I’d started to doubt but his ability to assess threats wasn’t among them. One thing he was absolutely certain of was if anything happened to this girl the world was fucked.

 

The long period of silence had been getting to the girl and she looked ready to make a break for it. I made a snap decision to keep that from happening.

 

“You can call me Joe.”

 

The girl stared at me open mouthed. The reactions of the rest of the Undersiders were a mix of surprise and reassurance, with Lisa defaulting to smug.

 

 “You’re pretty open about that.” Alec inquired.

 

I just shrugged and tried to play things with an irreverence I didn’t actually feel. “I don’t have a cape name yet and it’s not that much to go on.” I felt a nudge from my passenger and looked at Lisa. “And besides, I’m guessing she could figure it out if she wanted to.”

 

That got another flicker of emotion from the blond girl that she quickly suppressed. The new girl didn’t look too comfortable with that, but at least wasn’t ready to run off.

 

“How do you know her power?”

 

It wasn’t much, but at least she was engaging me. “She was able to pick up some stuff about me from the other night. That and the way she tracked me down clued me in.” I considered if I was comfortable revealing anything more. It couldn’t so much harm considering Lisa had already screamed it to the world. “Also part of my power kind of gives me hunches about stuff. That helped me fill in the blanks.”

 

The girl’s eyes darted between Lisa and me. Right, stuck between two thinkers. That can’t be fun.

 

Alec just laughed. “Lisa screamed and ran away when she figured out someone was giving her a taste of her own medicine.”

 

The girl seemed shocked at that, but Lisa made a placating gesture. “Just got spooked. It’s part of why we’re here.”

 

The situation seemed to be weighing heavily on the new girl and I was worried she was going to bolt. Instead she gave me a hard look, then nodded. “I’m Taylor.”

 

“Nice to meet you.” I did my best to ignore the reaction from my passenger which could best be described as the hallelujah chorus on repeat. Instead I turned back to the rest of the group and did my best to act casual. “So, what’s this you wanted to talk about?”

 

Tattletale reached into her bag and pulled out a container. It was an old style child’s lunchbox with a picture of Armsmaster on the front. Taylor’s eyebrows rose when she saw it but she kept quiet and watched Lisa. She handed it to me and waited while I opened it.

 

I stared blankly at the eight stacks of bills inside the box. Two grand in cash. My mind started processing how long that would cover personal expenses, what I could buy with it, sources of equipment and materials, and what it would mean for my tinkering.

 

For some reason my passenger was particularly, almost insufferably amused by this situation.

 

“And this is for?” I left the question hanging.

 

“You took on Oni Lee for us. We owe you for that. So, you can either take that as a lump sum right now, or you can hear us out.”

 

I considered my options. I’m pretty sure this was stolen money or at least off the books. I wasn’t totally up on the laws regarding something like this, but it was probably illegal to receive gifts if you had probable cause to believe it was connected to a criminal venture. By taking it I could be tainting myself and any plans to be a hero would become a lot more difficult.

 

If I did what she flippantly suggested I could walk away and report this to the PRT. There might be a way to claim the money as a windfall, or that whole spoils nonsense that people go on about online. If not I could probably leverage the event to a meeting with some heroes who would be willing to help me get support. If you pitched this idea earlier today I probably would have done just that despite the fact that I knew it would go against what my passenger wanted.

 

That was before meeting Taylor, before feeling my passenger’s reaction to her. I pretended to consider the deal as I picked through the complexities of it and happened upon a detail that was actually terrifying.

 

The most juvenile level schoolyard element of cape debates is the ‘who would win?’ question. Armsmaster vs Chevalier. Myrddin vs Gavel. Rime vs Cinereal. Whenever a cape debate got going you always had the idiots who would default to the Triumvirate, and if beaten to that would go straight for Eidolon. And if someone else was arguing for Eidolon there was always an asshole who would bring up S-class threats.

 

Thanks to my power I was able to play ‘who would win?’ with my passenger. He knew the terrifying extent of the power of the Celestial Forge and had a rough idea of how much of it I’d need to counter certain threats. It’s how I learned that eventually I would be able to kill an Endbringer.

 

I also learned I shouldn’t kill an Endbringer, that killing an Endbringer without dealing with some other aspect first would result in a worse situation than the current one. But that didn’t change the significance of that fact. Eventually. I. Would. Be. Able. To. Kill. An. Endbringer. For me a feat the world had regarded as impossible was just a matter of building enough connections to the forge.

 

I had been able to evaluate my chances against various other S-class threats. There was always a point where I would eventually be able to handle the challenge. For something like the Three Blasphemies it was actually a lower investment than what I’d need for an Endbringer. To counter Sleeper it was significantly higher, but there was always a point, some level of investment into my power where I could handle things without risk.

 

So I thought, whatever Taylor will do, whatever she’s meant to counter, I should be able to handle that, right?

 

Wrong.

 

Even with the entire forge behind me my passenger was only willing to give me long odds against whatever this threat was. Everything I would be able to build, everything I would be capable of, and he couldn’t’ guarantee I’d be able to handle it. Without Taylor I would be better off fleeing to another solar system then trying to step into her shoes.

 

Uncertainty is one of the hardest things to deal with. I had come into this meeting with a decent idea of what I was willing to put up with and how I expected it to go, but that was out the window now. I could still walk away from this, but after the bombshell my passenger had dropped that just wasn’t an option. I couldn’t let this go.

 

“Alright.” I closed the lunchbox. “Let’s hear it.”

 

For some reason Lisa seemed momentarily surprised by that, but recovered quickly. “Essentially we want to offer you a partnership arrangement.”

 

That was something I had anticipated, but I didn’t expect them to be so open about it. As usual there was a lack of surprise and the feeling of general amusement from my passenger. This was a lot further than I had considered acceptable. This was working with villains, and that wasn’t something you came back from easily. Still, with Taylor apparently being of paramount importance to the future of existence I had an obligation to at least hear them out.

 

“What, you want me to join up?” Interestingly Taylor seemed to react badly to that, but did her best to keep it hidden. “You in the middle of a membership drive or something?”

 

Brian quickly shook his head. “It’s not that. We’re looking to commission you.”

 

“Bitch voted against recruitment.” Alec ignored the dirty look Brian gave him. “Which is bullshit by the way.”

 

Lisa cut him off before he could say anything else. “We know you’re still getting set up. That’s a vulnerable position for a tinker to be in.” Behind her back Alec made air quotes and mouthed the word ‘vulnerable’ before rolling his eyes. “We can get you some support without having to stick your neck out there. Not before you’re ready.”

 

She was framing it as support without obligation which sounded too good to be true and probably was. “What, you’re just going to fund me until I get set up?”

 

“Not exactly. You agree to this you get two grand a month, no questions asked. That’s the same all of us get.”

 

They were salaried? How the hell did that work? “Get from who?”

 

“It’s what the boss pays us to stay active. Take the deal and you get cut in with no obligation for the jobs.”

 

When Brian said ‘the boss’ alarm bells started ringing from my passenger. Whoever it was they were working for it was bad news. Seriously bad news. A quick glance at Lisa confirmed something. That feeling that she was threatened by someone was registering the same way as the mention of their boss. There was a bad history there. I didn’t think she had gotten into this arrangement under the best conditions.

 

I glanced over to Taylor. This boss was a threat, a serious threat. And one of the people working under him just happened to be essential to the future of the world. If I walked away and something happened to her we were all fucked.

 

A worse thought occurred. Publically the Undersiders were regarded as a random gang of petty thieves. The fact that they had a boss wasn’t common knowledge. There had to be something else going on here. The team’s earnings were marginal enough that I couldn’t see them sustaining themselves if they were giving a significant cut to someone above them. Additionally they were all getting monthly payouts. Whatever this arrangement was it wasn’t about the money they were bringing in. If I had to guess I’d say it had something to do with their raids on other gang’s assets.

 

If I walked away now I would be able to reveal the existence of their boss to the authorities. That would put the actions of the team under greater scrutiny. They wouldn’t be able to be used as a third party agent. Best case scenario he cuts ties and the team withers or falls apart. Worst case he steps in to deal with anyone who might be able to compromise him. That would definitely be Lisa, but I couldn’t guarantee Taylor’s safety either.

 

I was starting to seriously resent this situation. All I wanted to do was get some information or resources to counter another tinker and suddenly I’m shepherding the hope of the entire world. But what were my other options? Throw Taylor to the wolves and start work on a generation ship and a plotted course to Alpha Centauri?

 

“So.” I spoke slowly, doing my absolute best to hide my emotions. “What would my obligations be under this arrangement?”

 

Brian cleared his throat. “We’ve got a big job coming up. High risk, bit of a hard sell, but the idea of some tinker support going in boosts our chances. You agree and we’ll cover the costs of materials and equipment and work out a fair price for anything you make.”

 

“So you want my tech.” I glanced between them. This was not the worst option. The Toybox managed deals with villains while still holding tenuous rogue status. If I played things carefully I might be able to do the same. There was just one question. “No offence, but do you even know what I can make yet?” I looked at Lisa as I spoke.

 

Alec cut in. “How about that grenade tanking trick from the other night?” Lisa looked frustrated. I’m guessing she had tried to explain it multiple times already.

 

“Not going to work.” I shook my head. I didn’t like sharing information and I couldn’t explain how the effect functioned even if I wanted to. Instead I just kept things vague. “I can’t set that up on someone else.”

 

He looked like he was going to say something, but Brian cut in. “Call it a show of faith. Two grand up front, two grand a month. We’ll work out the details later. If what you do can’t work for us we’ll split ways, but guarantee three months payment right now.”

 

“You’re willing to offer me eight grand when you don’t even know what you’re getting out of it?”

 

“That funding’s coming from the boss. He’s doing it to support this job. After the first run we’ll be covering the cost of our own gear.”

 

The boss. The logic behind it was clear. On the scale tinkering worked at eight grand was nothing. Any major gang would be able to throw out that kind of cash without a second thought. The point wasn’t to secure services, it was to conflict loyalty and create financial entanglements. The deal would be a liability in any interaction with the Protectorate and encourage me to maintain good relations with the Undersiders. It was a not terribly subtle way of nudging me into the boss’s sphere of influence.

 

On the other hand, if I was a rogue tinker with no aspirations of heroism then this arrangement would basically amount to a hefty down payment and ongoing fee for the privilege of being one of my customers. That’s a level of brutal capitalism that you don’t typically see outside the higher end Boardwalk boutiques.

 

The objectives I entered this meeting with were completely out the window. Bakuda was still a priority, but to my amazement I actually had bigger problems than a potential city wide tinker tech bombing spree. There was no way out of this without endangering Taylor. And I suppose the rest of the Undersiders as well. I didn’t completely share my passenger’s affection for them but that didn’t mean I wanted a bunch of teenagers to fall to the mercy of a mysterious crime lord.

 

I felt a familiar shift and closed my eyes, supposedly in consideration, but mostly to focus on the Celestial Forge.

 

A new constellation approached and my power was latching onto a mote from it. It turned out to be the ‘Crafting’ constellation and the mote was ‘Smithing’. It covered all aspects of metalworking for weapons and armor to a frankly ludicrous level of skill. Before, my knowledge of metal work in other fields could let me muddle through. With this power I could make weapons and armor that are works of art. Combined with my other skills I’d be able to work faster and better than ever before.

 

I opened my eyes and looked at the Undersiders. I felt trapped by this entire situation and was beginning to resent everyone involved, even Miss Savior-of-the-World over there. But fuck it, I wasn’t going to let loose Armageddon over my own frustrations. Still, I could at least try to mitigate things.

 

“I’ll have some conditions.”

 

Brian brightened. “We can probably work with that. What were you thinking?”

 

First priority was keeping as much of a lid on what I was making as possible. “For one, anything I make is for your use only. No selling it off, and I’m building for you, not your boss.” I definitely wasn’t going to be supplying whoever that was. Not with my technology.

 

He nodded. “We can agree to that.”

 

“We work out a price and production schedule ahead of time. I’m not taking this deal if it means putting off all of my own projects. I’ll prioritize your first order, but everything else gets scheduled and negotiated.” Negotiations that would no doubt happen with a person my power was regarding as a terrifyingly powerful thinker. Yeah, those were going to go well. Still, I felt I had to say it.

 

He looked over at Lisa who nodded. “Shouldn’t be a problem. We can come up with a timeline and pay scale we agree to.” I’ll bet you can.

 

Final point, and the one I was most concerned about. “Lastly, I don’t know what this big job is and I don’t expect you to tell me. But I’m trusting that you’re not going out on some murder or kidnapping spree here. Stay within standard conventions, nothing that breaks the unwritten rules or brushes against a kill order. As long as that’s the case I’m willing to work with you.”

 

“Excellent.” Lisa stood up. Frankly I had expected more pushback on those points. Either they hadn’t been issues from the start or they had absolutely no intention of following them. “Now, want to get out of this alley so we can talk business?”

 

Well, that was a transparent move. Obviously I couldn’t walk around the city like this. Everyone else had exposed their faces and was in civilian clothing. I didn’t really have a way to insist on keeping my identity concealed without breaking the momentum of the discussions, which I was absolutely sure Lisa would be able to take advantage of. And if I would be working with them would I actually be able to keep my identity secret from a thinker of Lisa’s caliber?

 

No, on that my passenger was absolutely certain. If she didn’t already know who I was she would by the end of our next meeting regardless of what steps I took to conceal my identity. Maybe if I limited things to electronic communications and blind drops I’d be able to buy some more time, but that would defeat the entire purpose of this venture. I had to stay close to them and that meant my identity was going to be compromised.

 

If it was going to happen I might as well do it on my own terms. I looked at the four of them, then reached up and pulled off my mask and bandanas. I watched their reactions while I rolled them up in my coat and shoved it into my bag.

 

Brian’s entire body language relaxed the moment I took off my mask. He shared a meaningful glance with Lisa who expression had shifted to smug. Given how that seemed to be her default expression I didn’t know how much I should read into it. With her power it was hard to trust any reactions I was getting, but through the conversation it seemed like she had been reacting to my passenger’s emotions as often as to my own. I didn’t know if that meant it was easier or harder for her to get a read on me. Alec seemed largely indifferent to the action and just grinned and hopped off the crate he was perched on. Meanwhile Taylor looked somewhat conflicted by the whole situation.

 

It was still hard to deal with the intensity of my passenger’s reaction to that girl. I hoped, desperately hoped that he knew what he was doing. Not that it mattered now. I was committed to this path and knowing the potential consequences I didn’t think I would be able to walk away with a clear conscience. I had committed to building tinker tech knowing it would be used in the commission of a major crime, and somehow that had come out as the best option. Or at least the best option I could arrive at under this storm of emotions my passenger was bombarding me with.

 

It made me wonder if it would really have been so bad to end up with a passenger who just gave you the type of ‘fight the world’ instinct that typically required an inferiority complex and a fifth of rye. I mean, you did essentially end up a combat meat puppet for an alien computer, but had to be less complicated than this mess.

 

Putting that out of my mind I turned to the group. “So, where to?”

 

Brian looked to Lisa for conformation and she gave him a slight nod.

 

“Come on. We’ve got a place.”

 

Chapter Text

The events of my meeting had led to my current situation, walking through the docks flanked by a team of villains. Well, teenage villains. Brian had to be the oldest of them and I would still put him at least a couple of years younger than myself. Actually it could be more than a couple of years depending on how early he developed. Alec and Taylor looked like they were half way through high school with Lisa barely older than them. Of course Lisa was a serious thinker. That shifted maturity significantly and you’d have to be stupid to assume any level of youthful naiveté.

 

I had entered into this situation with the grim impression that I was facilitating a parahuman arms deal. The Undersiders had a much different approach to things.

 

“You want to stop for pizza?” Alec gestured to a corner pizza place at the end of the block.

 

“Isn’t this a business negotiation?” I get what was happening, it was an attempt to build comradery, but I felt I needed at least a token effort to keep things professional.

 

Brian just shrugged. “Nothing that formal. We can grab some takeout.”

 

With no serious objection he and Lisa went inside while I milled on the sidewalk with Taylor and Alec. Conveniently the two Undersiders I knew the least about. I had to wonder if Tattletale had set things up that way. Even if it was part of her plans I was still going to take advantage of the chance to get a better idea of who I was dealing with. The street was empty, but I checked thoroughly before I started talking.

                                                                                            

“So, if I’m going to be working for you some background would be helpful. I’ve got an idea of what Brian, Lisa, and Rachel can do, but what about you two?”

 

Taylor seemed embarrassed by the question. Seriously embarrassed, like borderline mortified. For a moment I wondered if I overstepped. “Um, I can control bugs.”

 

I raised an eyebrow and she pointed at the wall of the pizza place. A housefly landed on it, then followed where she was pointing exactly as she moved her finger. A few more swooped in to a circle around her head in a halo, then flew off in straight lines without so much as a gesture.

                                                                

It wasn’t what I was expecting, but unless she was throwing around some S-class level reality revision power there wasn’t much that would fit with my passenger’s reaction. Looking at it objectively it was clearly a higher end master power. She had controlled insects she wasn’t looking at, suggesting that she either had some passive awareness of them or was able to ignore the fine details. She’d been able to create a precise formation with no visible effort. She hadn’t had to check on the positions of the flies at any point either.

 

From the sense I got from my passenger, which was still blaring whenever I dealt with Taylor, whatever aspect of her saved the world this wasn’t it. That is to say, wasn’t it yet. That meant either a serious development of her power or that she could scale it up to a ridiculous degree. Questions of her range, detail of control, and maximum numbers, and what exactly qualified as a bug could fill in the gaps, but I didn’t want to come off too aggressive and spook her. As much as I wanted to get to the bottom of this I needed a good relationship with these people.

 

Instead I looked over at Alec.

 

Rather than say anything he looked through the store window where Brian had just picked up a pair of large pizza boxes. He made a gesture and Brian’s leg twitched, with him barely managing to catch himself before he face planted into the pizza he was holding. He glared through the window and stormed out of the shop while Lisa finished paying.

 

“Ass.” He spat the word over the boxes. Alec seemed inordinately happy that Brian was currently incapable of more physical, probably fist based, expressions of his frustration.

 

“Hey, Joe was asking about powers. I was just being a good team member and helping to enlighten him.” His mock innocent tone only seemed to irritate Brian further.

 

“I see Alec has done his traditional demonstration.” Lisa was grinning as she came out of the pizza parlor and even Taylor seemed entertained.

 

“Interesting.” I considered how that power could have worked. “Was that nerve manipulation, or did you trigger the reaction in his muscles directly?”

 

“Nerves. I can kind of feel them out, but it’s a crapshoot on how it’s going to work. Still good for throwing people off.”

 

 “Huh.” That was interesting. “Do you get any feedback from them, or is it broadcast only?”

 

“Is this important?” Brian cut in sharply.

 

“Maybe? Still not sure what you’re looking for. Any information could help out.” Apparently I had pushed a bit too far on this topic.

 

“Save it for the meeting. We’re almost there.”

 

They led me through some empty lots to an abandoned red brick factory with a faded sign labeling it as ‘Redmond Welding’. This one was in much better shape than what I had used to access my lab the other night but still looked like it had been out of business for at least a decade. Without my passenger’s reassurance I would have been seriously concerned about following a group of villains to a remote and abandoned building, but he was totally confident. In fact there was a sense of anticipation from him. Whatever this was he was looking forward to it.

 

It turned out the factory was somewhat less than abandoned. Brian let the group in through a side door revealing a lower level that was a mess of old and stripped down machinery. The Undersiders headed for a spiral staircase in the corner. I could tell it had been better maintained than the rested hulks of the rest of the factory’s equipment.

 

The stairs opened into some kind of open plan loft. The main area had a couple of couches facing an extravagant entertainment center. Split off from that was a kitchen area bigger than my entire apartment. On the opposite side was a cluster of rooms with various pieces of artwork differentiating the doors. Throughout the entire place there were little touches of personalization, from the half full bookcases to the random knickknacks, to the very specific arrangement of old pizza boxes and aluminum cans.

 

I figured they were bringing me to an empty building where we could have a private discussion. At most I expected a safe house or some kind of temporary set up, something disposable or deniable. Instead they had walked me right into their home. They brought me straight to their secret base.

 

I was shocked at how brazen they were being, and only Taylor seemed even slightly nervous about it. Everyone else settled in with all the casualness of coming home after a long day. Brian dropped the pizza on the coffee table and headed to the kitchen to grab some drinks. Alec basically flopped on the sofa and started fiddling with the various remotes spread around. Lisa perched on the end of one of the couches and cracked open the first of the pizza boxes.

 

I knew I should expect social plays and power moves from her, but I just couldn’t figure out the logic behind this. “You guys live here?”

 

“Part time. We have other places, but this is home away from home.”

 

“And you’re ok just marching me in here?”

 

Brian returned from the kitchen with two armfuls of soda bottles. “Lisa cleared you. That’s good enough for us.”

 

Right. Their terrifyingly powerful thinker. Having someone like that must be as comforting for them as it was nerve-wracking for everyone else. I looked at Lisa, but she was just as smug as ever. There was a note of dread at what else she had been able to divine from me over the earlier conversation, but my passenger’s easy confidence pretty much drowned it out.

 

Problems for another time. I took a seat on the couch and grabbed a slice of pizza. This was technically a violation of the diet I had committed to and had horrible macros, but mentioning any of that was more than I wanted to share. After ten days of cost efficient precisely nutritionally balanced meals the slab of cheesy bread loaded with pepperoni and sausage tasted like ambrosia. I did my best not to show how much I was enjoying it, but Lisa’s grin widened slightly.

 

“So Mr. Tinker, give us your sales pitch.” Lisa was looking smug, but shared some of the expectant look I was getting from the rest of the Undersiders.

 

“Well, what are you looking for?” I didn’t know exactly what I was comfortable building for them, so hopefully they wouldn’t ask for anything too extreme. “Also what kind of timeframe are we under here?”

 

Brian considered before speaking. “The job is planned for this Thursday.”

 

“Thursday.” My voice was flat. “Thursday as in the day after tomorrow?”

 

“Yes?”

 

I clenched my jaw, then forced myself to relax it. “And I suppose it’s too much to hope that you’re looking for delivery at eleven at night?”

 

“Well need everything by that morning.” He glanced at Lisa.

 

“8 am should do it, later will cut into our schedule.”

 

“So that’s...” I checked my watch. “just over forty one hours from now. And you want it made in that time?”

 

Brian cleared his throat. “We were kind of hoping you had some old stuff you’d be willing to part with, or something you could finish in time.”

 

I thought back to my early projects and the grand total of what I’d been able to build so far. “Yeah, no luck on any old projects.”

 

“Is this going to be a problem?”

“Well it definitely takes power armor off the table.” I let my frustration bleed through every word.

 

The Vehicles constellation swung towards me and my power latched onto a mote from it. I grit my teeth and pretended to contemplate things while I examined my new ability. It was called ‘Aerospace Engineering Makes Things Go Fast’. A rather apt descriptor. The ability was actually closer to what traditional tinker powers provided. It gave an intuitive grasp of a whole range of fields like wind-flow, material sciences, atmospheric drag, tensile strengths, rocketry, and a bunch of similar subjects. It also covered the application of those principles to designing air and even space vehicles.

 

Combining it with my doctorate level mechanical knowledge, enhanced intelligence and the extreme pools of knowledge I had gotten from my last two abilities turned it into something extraordinary. Grease Monkey gave me the principles for manufacturing a host of flight and rocketry designs. There was already potential for refinement and improvement from my other powers, but this took it to a whole other level. The somewhat janky personal flight system I was able to build could now be upgraded to keep up with the best flying capes in the city. I would be able to push vehicles past the supersonic limits to full space planes. The types of rocketry weapons I’d be able to create would be works of art.

 

Also, while most of the ability was focused on vehicle application the materials science component had far reaching effects. I already had a lot of technical knowledge and experience. It was hard to explain what the new intuitive grasp was adding, but it was like previously I knew what I was supposed to do and now I FELT what I was supposed to do. The only thing was after I followed my intuition I had the technical knowledge to understand it. That let me refine the materials science aspect of my powers to a frankly insane level. Some of the things I could already pull off in that area with Grease Monkey or Smithing were seriously impressive. This took it into a realm beyond.

 

I glanced up and found I had the attention of the entire group. Taylor had shed some of her nervousness and Alec dropped his veil of indifference to press me on the topic.

 

“Wait, power armor’s an option?” I swear his eyes were shining.

 

“Not in forty one hours it isn’t.”

 

“But in more than forty one hours it’s a possibility?” Even Taylor looked eager for my response, which was probably the most engagement I’d seen from the reserved girl.

 

“I’d need to fabricate power sources, most of the mechanics, the materials for the plating, any weapons you’d want attached, program the interfaces, and then design a training process to make sure you know how to not tear apart your arms the first time you use the strength assist. So yeah, longer than forty one hours. Substantially longer than forty one hours”

 

When I finished my borderline rant I had the rapt attention of the entire group. Meaningful glances were being shared between Brian and Lisa and Alec looked like he’d found out Christmas was coming early this year.

 

“Hey,” He leaned forward in his seat. “If you can make all that stuff then why were you beating Oni Lee with a metal chair leg the other night?”

 

And that was probably something I’d never live down. I really thought I had avoided the ‘early tinker embarrassing gear’ problem. Taking a steel club with me my first night may have saved my life, but I had the feeling that Alec would never let me forget it. The fact was that no matter how good my technology got I had started my career bashing villains like a cave man.

 

The rest of the group seemed interested in that as well. I guess if someone was hawking power armor when the most advanced piece of technology they had used predated the spear it created some understandable doubt. I definitely wasn’t going to explain the way my power grew, and frankly even if I had these abilities sooner I would probably have been in the same spot. Instead I offered the most reasonable excuse I could come up with.

 

“Lack of time, lack of resources, lack of training. I’ve only had my powers for a week. Barely got a workshop set up. I needed an offensive option that I would be able to use. It’s hard to screw up with a baton.” That at least got a few nods from the others, but Taylor seemed uncertain.

 

“You went out before you had your equipment ready?” There was an edge of disapproval to her voice.

Hey, I tried. I really tried. How good was your equipment on your first night out?

 

And why was my passenger laughing at me?

 

I just tried to brush it off. “I had my defenses taken care of, and was able to get some other stuff ready. I just didn’t have the resources for a full loadout.” She seemed to be somewhat understanding of that.

 

“The other stuff was that glowy speed boost shit, right? Can we get some of that?” Alec looked at the irritated expressions from Lisa and Brian. “What? That’s what we’re here for, right?”

 

Right, alchemy formulas. “That stuff is a lot more complicated. I need to set it up myself and unless you have me on site it doesn’t last long enough to be worth it.”

 

Alec stroked his chin in a contemplative gesture. “You know, we could always revisit that vote.”

 

“No Alec. We’ve got a deal. We’re going with it.” Brian glanced at me as he spoke.

 

“Stupid waste.” Alec muttered.

 

“Um, hey.” I shifted my attention to Taylor and did my best to ignore my passenger’s elation. “Can someone fill me in on the glowy speed thing?”

 

Lisa was about to speak, then closed her mouth and turned to me with a smug expression. Apparently she liked putting people on the spot more than she liked being a smartass. Well, here goes.

                  

“One of the tinker things I’ve figured out is how to combine formulas, combinations of materials to release energy in certain patterns to trigger particular effects. I can use it to enhance speed, defense, stuff like that.”

 

That got varied reactions from the Undersiders but Taylor twigged to the implications right away. “Like powers? You can give yourself powers? You’re a tinker who can give yourself powers? You’re a tinker?” She looked to Lisa for conformation. She just shrugged in reply.

 

“Uh, it’s really more like high energy chemistry than anything parahuman based. There’s a specific mechanism behind the process that my power lets me figure out. Plus some of the materials I need are pretty difficult to find.” And some of them I can get from any grocery store, but I wasn’t about to let that out now.

 

“You can’t just prep the combinations for us or something?” Alec was keeping cool, but had a hopeful tone to his voice.

 

“No, there’s a lot more complexity than just mixing the components.” Setting aside the question of whether I was ready to trust this kind of thing to anyone else, much less villains, the mechanics of Evermore Alchemy were within the same fiat backed certainty as my Fashion ability. I knew they would work, but they didn’t fall under any local natural laws. While I could generate the effect I didn’t think anyone else could. Well, except for Call Beads.

 

“What?” Lisa was suddenly looking interested. What, had I shown some hint of what I was thinking? Actually, she was a high end thinker, but how far did that go? She was clearly extraordinarily observant, but I didn’t know how much of my internal dialogue she was privy to.

 

“There is one way that I could prep something another person could use.” That got everyone’s attention. Damn it. I didn’t want to get into this.

 

Call Beads were serious alchemy. Probably the most serious formula there was. It required dry ice and meteorite fragments and generated small round crystals that could provide a link to the power of other creatures. Normally this would channel the energy of powerful people with a conceptual connection to a particular place. The manifested energy, as much as I didn’t like using the word, was basically magic. By making the beads I could create an item that would allow anyone to access that connection by expending them.

 

The problem was I wasn’t sure what I could make a link with. The only entities strong enough to create those kinds of effects were the other passengers. While that could work, and would be devastatingly powerful, I had no idea what the repercussions would be. Passengers were terrifying and barely understood the world they were interacting with. Giving them a link to the world without a very good idea on how that would manifest seemed like a terrible idea. Handing off the link to someone who didn’t understand the mechanics of it seemed apocalyptic.

 

Lisa’s eyebrows had climbed into her hair as she watched me consider the problem, and her reaction was starting to make Brian very uneasy.

 

“Well?” Alec asked, blind to the mood spreading through the group. “What is it?”

 

I shook my head. “Not a good idea. It needs some really rare materials, so I haven’t been able to do even initial tests of the concept yet.”

                                                             

Alec deflated, but Brian cut in. “What can you get us before the deadline?”

 

I considered my options. I would be really happy if I could have limited my support to defensive and utility items. I could make good armor, even the unpowered armor I made would be excellent. Or I could produce gadgets that would be useful in the field, but either of those options would take longer than I had.  Maybe I could upgrade what they already had. “What kind of equipment do you currently use?”

 

“Alec uses a Taser. Rachel and Lisa don’t typically carry weapons. I try to fight unarmed, but I’ve carried a knife as a holdout.” He looked expectantly at Taylor.

 

“Uh, I was thinking a baton would be good. And maybe a knife, in case of emergencies?”

 

I hadn’t asked about weapons specifically, but that seemed to be where we were headed. “If all you’re looking for is dressed up conventional weapons then I should be able to pull something together.”

 

There was a fair bit of disappointment at that. I guess if you’ve had all kinds of shiny tinker possibilities dangled in front of you then dropping to ‘slightly better than normal’ would be a disappointment. I looked at Taylor and felt her significance from my passenger again. This wasn’t actually the limit of what I could do. My latest power would provide enough insight for me to streamline manufacturing of a host of options. The question was what was I comfortable giving them?

 

I didn’t want to hand out deadly weapons, but they were capes. On an individual basis they were already more dangerous than a lot of what I could make. How much responsibility did I bear if they hurt someone with something I had made? On the other hand, what if I sent them out underequipped and something happened to Taylor?

 

I considered time, resources, and what I could conceivably make in the next less-that-two days. There was a possibility, and I was just barely comfortable with it. Just.

 

“Actually...” the entire group turned to me. “if you can get me the materials and equipment I need right away I can probably get a set of monomolecular knives ready in time.”

 

Lisa’s eyebrows rose but Alec was the first to speak. “Monmo-what cular?”

 

“Super sharp blades. Like insanely sharp. They’re great if you want to cut through a tank. Significantly less so if you are in any way accident prone.” Grease Monkey gave me multiple methods of creating weapons like this in a huge variety of designs. Normally that would require highly specialized facilities and materials, but I was pretty sure that with the right application of metallurgy I would be able to pull off a basic example within the deadline.

 

Buried under all my concern there was also a selfish edge to this. If they could get me the equipment I’d need for this it would address huge gaps in my own manufacturing needs. It would open the door to a huge number of projects I had kicked down the road, suspended indefinitely, or just not considered in the first place.

 

“Fuck, sign me up for that.”

 

“I really can’t state enough how dangerous these things could be. If you screw around with them you could very easily lose a limb. Using them against someone without a high brute rating or regeneration is full on deadly force attempted murder. I’m not going to even consider this without assurances that you understand what you’re dealing with.

 

“It’s a sword that cuts through anything. Of course we’ll be careful.”

 

“Knife, not sword. Unless you have five years of fencing experience I give you a sword and best case scenario we’ll be sewing your leg back on before the end of the day. Worst case we’ll be mopping arterial spray off the celling and sending flowers to your next of kin.”

 

“Fine, got it. Knife that can cut through anything. Very dangerous. Be very careful. Still want it.”

 

I looked around and the rest of them nodded their heads. Even Taylor seemed engaged by the idea.

 

“We’ll go with the knives. Lisa can work out the budget and materials.”

 

“What are we looking at for durability and maintenance?”

 

I considered Lisa’s question. There was regular wear on even perfectly made monomolecular weaponry. I had enough additional skill that I would be able to improve the lifespan, but that wasn’t likely with this rush job. I’d have to cheat with amorphous metal and magnetic sharpening, probably particulate hardening for the edge. It wouldn’t hold a candle to the top tier mono-edge weapons I’d be able to make with a proper facility.

 

But on the other hand those weapons were intended to cut through hyper alloys of hardsuits, combat robots, and mechs. Unless they were going up against tinkers with seriously reinforced materials or very high tier brutes these knives should last exceptionally well.

 

“That will depend on how heavily they’re used. They should be able to cut through most conventional materials without a problem, but I can’t guarantee their performance against higher level parahuman durability or the work of other tinkers.” A thought occurred. There were factors in this world that this kind of weapon had never been designed to deal with. “Oh, force fields. They’ll be a crap shoot. Too many possible mechanisms to be able to predict how they’ll interact. It might be able to stress some to failure, but others will stop it dead or even cause feedback or damage the weapon.”

 

“We can take that into account. Anything else?”

 

“Well, I’ll be making them as strong as I can, but they’re still just knives. If you try to cut through something too thick or dense there’s a chance they could get stuck or break. Like, don’t try to cut down a tree or quarry stone with them. The edge will naturally degrade with use, but it will still be orders of magnitude sharper than a normal knife.”

 

“Right. And maintenance?”

 

Well, if I’m making these in my workshop...“If it does break or wear out it will take a couple of days to repair”

 

Lisa seemed happy with that. “We can talk about that later. How are you for supplies and equipment?”

 

I ran through what I’d need in my head and a new constellation spun past in the Celestial Forge without my power linking to it. “I’ll need to rig an arc furnace for the metallurgy, that’ll take some creative assembly, plus magnetic suspension, temperature control, a whole host of alloys I’ll need to customize. Most of it should be easy to find, but there are some that I don’t know how to track down in time.”

 

“I can help you with that. Can you manage if I have everything ready tomorrow morning?”

 

I grinned. “I guess if sleep is optional.” 

 

“We do appreciate the rush.”

 

There was the sound of a door opening on the lower level and someone began climbing the stairs with bunch of smaller someones behind them. I turned to Lisa. “Your other team member?”

 

Lisa was looking uncomfortable and Taylor was straight up agitated. I could tell why when Rachel Lindt crested the stairs and glared at me. Three dogs fell into position around her.

 

“What the hell is he doing here? We agreed, no more new people.”

 

Lisa rose to her feet and made a placating gesture. “He’s not on the team. He’s that tinker. He’ll be working for us, making gear for the next job.”

 

“And you brought him here? What the hell?” She was betrayed, angry and territorial. Everyone was on edge and the dogs were growling and ready to pounce. The situation should by every metric have been terrifying. That is, unless your passenger was euphoric over seeing the last member of the Undersiders and fawning over the dogs with the kind of emotions normally reserved for cute puppies. They were clearly snarling dogs and not cute puppies, but that was the emotion I was getting. I still had my shin guard under my jeans, reinforcing my entire body with the durability of hard plastic and padding with the protection doubled thanks to my clothes. As such I wasn’t overly concerned and I could entertain my passenger’s perspective.

 

Unfortunately my lack of a response must have been taken as a challenge. With a whistle the dogs surged forward. The German Shepard latched onto my leg and dragged me off the couch while what looked like a Rottweiler went for my throat. I managed to bring my chin down causing it to bite at my face instead. A one eyed terrier latched onto one wrist and started to grind its teeth together.

 

Two of these were seriously big dogs, the kind where when they bark you can feel the sound in your guts. They were heavier than they looked too, and the weight of the one on my chest bordered on crushing. On top of that their claws were sharp and they seemed trained on how to use them against their targets. It would have been one of the most physically terrifying moments of my life.

 

It wasn’t. The pain was nonexistent thanks to my durability boost. Claws slid off my skin without leaving a mark and even the full force of the bites failed to do any damage. At worst I felt a slight dimpling in my skin, the equivalent of a pinch. The terror wasn’t there thanks to my passenger’s overwhelming amusement at the situation. He even found the barking and snarling entertaining.

 

Recently I had become more than a little frustrated with how my passenger’s regard for these villains was playing out. This wasn’t one of those cases. Probably the reason I leaned on my passenger so much was the level of emotional support he was able to provide. Right now his good humor was stopping me from panicking in a situation that would otherwise have been traumatizing even if it wasn’t actually dangerous. In fact, without the fear, pain, or threat this was just a pile of loud slobbery dogs.

 

The room had exploded into action with clouds of darkness, the buzz of insects, and a shouting match between Lisa and Rachel. One by one they dropped away as the capes present became aware of lack of concern. My free hand had found the Rottweiler’s stomach and was scratching it even as the dog continued to try to eat my face. “Who’s a good dog? Who’s a good snarly dog?” Whether he was a good dog or not I couldn’t say, but my passenger seemed to think so and this was one case where that was proving to be an asset. Eventually the silence of the room and his own lack of progress caused the Rottweiler’s and the other two dogs to break off and look to Rachel in confusion. I climbed to my feet and extended a hand to her.

 

“Hey, I’m Joe. Nice to meet you.” She took half a step back and looked at the hand like it might try bite her. Slowly she extended an arm towards one of the dogs, then stopped as Lisa’s expression turned dark.

 

“Whatever.” She spat the word at me. “Let me know when he’s gone.” She stormed off to one of the rooms with her dogs trailing after and slammed the door behind her.

 

Alec looked over me and whistled. “Dude, are you sure that thing’s not for sale, because I would pay big bucks for whatever got you through that.”

 

“Sorry, it’s really specific.” Lisa’s eyes dropped to where the leg of my jeans was covering the shin guard, then back up. She blinked and rubbed her forehead.

 

I became aware of just how much dog slobber I had accumulated in that brief encounter. Attempts to clean it off just served to move it around. Lisa helpfully handed me a bunch of paper towels.

 

Brian spoke up. “I’m sorry about that. She’s not good with new people.” Taylor flinched and everyone pretended not to notice. “Maybe we should cut this short? You good to work out the details with Lisa?”

 

“Sure, of course. I’ll pull together a list of what I need.”

 

The rest of the Undersiders made a valiant attempt to pretend nothing had happened while I went through a list of equipment and materials with Lisa. She seemed somehow off, but I didn’t know what to make of that. Of course when dealing with a high end thinker who knew if the signals you got were accurate.

 

As it worked out, providing everything came through I should be able to finish construction by the deadline, though it would violate my policies about sleep, food and exercise. Lisa was arranging delivery of all the materials and equipment I needed for tomorrow morning. The rush cost would be insane, but it also meant I got more and higher end equipment than I would could have scavenged for. I was meeting her at their base and picking up a preloaded van. She didn’t press me on the location of my workshop, which was good because I didn’t want to have to explain that particular detail at the moment.

 

Before I left Alec showed me the scepter/Taser he used in his cape identity. He wanted to see if I could do anything with it. Initially as a personal request, but Lisa rolled it into the rest of the deal. I had the sense she was happy to shift as much cost onto their boss as possible. Given I wouldn’t be able to start on the rest without the supplies Lisa was tracking down I was willing to at least make an attempt. As it stood the thing was so poorly made I would probably have thrown in the work for free just to avoid being associated with craftsmanship like that. Seriously, parts of it were hot glued together. Apparently Alec was something of an artist, but that meant he was more used to working with craft supplies than metal and electronics.

 

Once the logistics were down I said my goodbyes and made my way back to my apartment. In the course of a single afternoon I had gone from an aspiring hero to supplying villains with space age weaponry. I had also gone from occasionally worrying about the way my passenger was steering me to having major concerns on almost every level of our relationship.

 

The thing was, it was easy to like the Undersiders. Just an afternoon with them and the reinforcement of my passenger’s reactions was enough for me to form a connection. They were just a bunch of kids that got hit by powers and wound up in the villain game. I knew how messed up your life had to be to trigger, and how badly triggers could mess up your life. That was evident with Rachel. God, that was a messed up meeting. Did she think I was challenging her? She acted like someone was attacking her territory. I could be sympathetic, but trying what she did on anyone but me would have been a nightmare. It didn’t help that every time I thought about her my passenger was basically going ‘doggy!’ inside my head.

 

Then there was Taylor. That was a confusing situation. I was getting the sense she wasn’t totally on board with the rest of the group, but that might just be her joining up recently. I was still trying to figure out how to deal with the significance my passenger placed on her. Keeping her as safe as possible was the obvious option, but she was in the highest risk line of work in the world. The idea that I could keep her protected was a pipe dream.

 

And then there was the boss. The person I was actually getting paid by. He was bad news on every level. I didn’t know what kind of job he had lined up for them, but it couldn’t be good. Best case scenario it was only tangentially related to what his plans were. I knew I would have to confront him at some point, but the question was when and how.

 

Well, the answer was obviously later and with more powers from the Celestial Forge. I didn’t think I could become invincible through these powers, but I did know I would be able to eclipse every other tinker on the planet. I just had to stay alive until then. If that meant playing along until I could stand on my own that was just a price I’d have to pay.

 

The prospect that I could potentially end up burning all my bridges on the heroic side was sobering. Not so much with the Protectorate, but there were specific members of the hero community that both I and my passenger admired enough that the idea of losing the chance to work with them was troubling.

 

Mostly Dragon. I don’t think there’s a tinker alive who wouldn’t want to work with her, and the idea that I would have to give up that chance was devastating.

 

I decided to stop dwelling on the complete upheaval of my life and expectations and just take things one at a time. On the way back I abused my ill-gotten gains and stopped at a non-budget grocery store where I grabbed all the high protein foods I previously couldn’t afford. You know, the ones that don’t taste like wet cardboard. Well provisioned I headed back to my apartment and dumped everything in my workshop.

 

Until I got the equipment and materials from the Undersiders tomorrow I was limited in what I could do. I needed some time for planning out the details of my projects. Given the fact that I wouldn’t have a minute of spare time once the equipment arrived I took the opportunity to go to the gym. My workouts were rote enough that I was able to think about my project while I went through the motions. It also helped me work out some of my frustrations at the current situation.

 

That is until a lithe figure slipped into my field of view as I was working the heavy bag. Aisha was in the same outfit as last time and gave me a look that had no business coming from someone her age. I smelled a rat. There had been no sign of her for the first week when I was at this place on a daily basis and now she shows up right after I start a workout? No way that’s a coincidence.

 

I scanned the room to see if I could figure out who tipped her off. A couple of the guys gave me sympathetic glances or just averted their eyes, though the expression I got from Doug suggested everything that transpired today would be reported to Mr. Laborn at the very least. I had no doubt Doug would happily step in to protect Aisha from anyone who took her teasing too seriously.

 

Speaking of which, Aisha had decided to stretch before her workout, though what she was doing was more a demonstration of flexibility than a proper warmup stretch. I stayed rigidly focused on my own workout, but she kept moving around the gym so she was always positioned in the corner of my eye. My responses to attempt to keep my back to her just resulted in more creative placements. I stayed adamantly focused on my work as I would be damned if I even gave the impression that I was perving on a middle schooler.

 

That proved to be more conviction than some of the guys in attendance were capable of. Particularly when Aisha started on the jump rope and Doug had to go and have a few words with two of the younger members who went a bit slack jawed. Aisha had a malicious gleam in her eyes as she continued her workout while the two of them were chewed out. I almost hoped she had found new targets, but she was right back as soon as Doug finished.

 

I really thought I would make it without having to deal with her. I had decided to power through partially because I needed the workout for stress relief but mostly because I knew running off would just encourage her. I made it as far as the end of my sets and was heading towards the locker room. That’s when I found Aisha planted squarely in my path. And there was no way past without at least some basic interaction.

 

“Oh, hey.” She acted like this was the first time she noticed my presence. “You’re Jozef, right?”

 

I had been ready for any number of jokes, teases, or inappropriate comments. I had not expected that. Nobody here used my full name. I hadn’t gone by my full name since I was in college. As it stood my family were the only people who still called me that. As far as the gym was concerned I’m pretty sure it only showed up on my application paperwork. The way she pronounced it made it clear she had seen the spelling. My eyes darted towards the main office and Aisha smirked slightly.

 

“Yeah, Aisha? Nice seeing you again.” It wasn’t, but I needed to get past this conversation and out of the gym. Once again I was at odds with my passenger. He was amused by her antics while I still found the whole situation terrible.

 

“Likewise.” She batted her eyelids in a move that was so blatant and unsubtle that it had to be for the benefit of the people watching. And I had no doubt that I was being watched like a hawk. “You were pretty on point today. Care to give me some tips?”

 

All I wanted to do was disengage from this situation. As I tried to figure out the best way of shutting her down I felt the Celestial Forge again. My power managed to link to a mote from a new constellation. The ‘Magic’ constellation. Magic. There was an entire constellation full of magic tinker powers.

 

This was not a distraction I needed right now.

 

Splitting my focus between Aisha and my power I did my best to deflect her. “I think your father would be a better option for that. I’m just starting out, wouldn’t want to point you wrong.”

 

This particular ability was called ‘Enchanting’. It let me make actual magic weapons by marking them with runes. The only runes I currently knew would give the weapon various elemental properties, but I could conceivably reverse engineer any other magic or supernatural weapon and be able to recreate the effects.

 

Aisha was taking my distraction as something else entirely. I really hoped she wasn’t seeing this as interest. Even in the best case she probably figured she was getting to me, which would only draw out this mess even further. She took a step forward. “Oh, I don’t know. I think you could teach me all kinds of things.”

 

The revelation of how I could alter reality by drawing squiggles was burning in my brain and I did not have time for this. I took a breath and focused on the girl in front of me.

 

I ignored her outfit, her behavior, her height, and every other aspect and focused on her face. Suddenly I could see it. I could clearly see just how young she was. With everything else filtered out she came across as the child she actually was.

 

Aisha’s demeanor suddenly changed and she looked uncertain of what to do next. I took the opportunity to capitalize on it.

 

“Sorry Aisha, I have to go. Why don’t you talk to Doug? He should be able to look after you.”

 

I stepped around her and into the locker room. I had a blitz of a shower and was out of there within five minutes. Aisha was actually sitting next to Doug and looked at me with a complicated expression. Doug’s gave me a look that was serious but not murderous, so at least he hadn’t gotten the wrong idea from the situation.

 

That girl was trouble in more than one sense of the word. I hated the situation, but like everyone else in the gym I had kind of wound up in a place where I couldn’t do anything about it except try to keep it from getting worse.

 

Still, I had other problems at the moment. As I made dinner I contemplated my new ability. This was an incredible revelation. Alchemy had been close to an array of parahuman powers, but still had enough of a grounding in science that it seemed reasonable for a tinker power. This was pure magic. Literal magic. It was only related to tinkering in that it needed an item as a medium. It was closer to Dauntless’s power than Armsmasters.

 

An image of Dauntless’s Arclance sprang into my head. I realized that I could recreate that. The effect would be easy to figure out if I could get ahold of the item, otherwise it would be a long process of experimentation and checking secondary sources and recordings, but I would get there eventually. Could that work for other cape weapons?

 

This was a rabbit hole. A fascinating rabbit hole that could change the way I functioned as a cape, but still a rabbit hole. Right now I needed to focus on what I could accomplish without adding research projects.

 

The elemental properties I could grant actually covered a pretty broad category. Basically, I had to describe both the effect and the element in runes. The mechanics were complicated in the extreme, but the strength of the effect scaled with the detail of the runecraft, the method of etching, and the nature of the weapon. I’d never get as much power from a dagger as I would from a broadsword.

 

The induced effect could be anything from energy discharge to altering the properties of the weapon to some degree. Wind for faster movement, stone for heavier strikes, that kind of stuff. It was even possible to generate quantities of an element, like have a sword trail a spray of water or shards of earth. More advanced applications could even trigger significant effects directly from the weapons, like earth tremors or blasts of fire.

 

All that would require more research than I had time for, particularly with my schedule. I would have to stick to basic elemental effects for now. I got my baton and an engraving kit from my workshop. I started work on the most basic of basic effects, standard energy discharge. The lightning rune was carved into the shaft of the baton just above the handle. I would have already been able to manage this, but my Smithing power greatly increased the efficiency and detail I was able to manage.

 

While I worked my power failed to connect to another mote from the magic constellation. It spun off and my reach continued to build.

 

When completed the rune activated and arcs of electricity danced across the surface of the weapon. This was an interesting possibility. For there to be visible discharge we would have to be dealing with intense amounts of power. Just how much I wasn’t sure, but I bet I could it figure out.

 

I was soon sitting in my Laboratorium command throne watching my modified baton float in a gravity field as sensor tendrils rotated around it. The technology in this room had become a lot less imposing since I got my Grease Monkey power. It was still ages beyond what I was capable of, but I was at least familiar with the concepts at work. If I had a surgical team to help me I could probably even install bio-connection jacks that would allow full integration into the throne’s systems.

 

The knowledge that I was capable of cybernetics and biomechanics was something I would be playing close to the chest. Neither of those fields had a particularly good reputation among capes. I didn’t need the attention that would bring, either from the Protectorate or the rogue tinkers who worked in those fields.

 

Analyzing the baton in this lab was a difficult process. I had expected some issues with the magical nature of the device. I hadn’t expected multiple warnings about witchcraft and having to constantly override lockdown procedures for containment of potential daemonic artifacts. I was amazed this place even had those kinds of procedures. After I repeatedly convinced the lab that I did not want the baton frozen in a stasis field until the plasma reconstituter could reduce it to base atoms it was able to provide me with an estimate of the device’s power output.

 

This wasn’t even close to the best I would be able to do with my runecraft and it was still putting out astoundingly high voltages. The power output wasn’t that impressive, mostly because it built a charge on the surface for a single high intensity discharge. I had half hoped I would be able to use this as a power source for other technologies, but it was appeared to be too unstable to consistently channel. If I wanted to direct the power to another purpose then I would need a better handle on the interaction between this kind of effect and conventional technology. As it stood it was easily a brute level Taser and would probably be lethally dangerous to normal humans.

 

While I was set up in the Laboratorium I started work on my projects for the Undersiders. My lab computers were actually nearly as good for design work as they were for analysis and sped the process up immensely. I had to cut down a lot of the details and additions I would have liked to include in order to keep things on schedule and in budget, but in the end I had a decent plan for the monomolecular knives, Alec’s Taser, and even a baton for Taylor.

 

The baton was dead easy. With Smithing and my mechanical knowledge I was able to pull together a beautifully made collapsing and expanding baton with an included wrist sheath and a rather clever deployment mechanism if I do say so myself. Still, when your power can cover space age melee weapons and legendary swords a set of collapsing metal tubes isn’t that challenging.

 

I decided to try to get Regent’s Taser stick out of the way before I got caught up in the high tech work of the knives. I was able to fabricate new versions of his plastic components and build something that didn’t look like it was a Halloween prop. My workshop had plenty of enamel paint in stock, so that was easy enough to deal with. After my Laboratorium scanners broke down the function of his Taser I stripped out every electrical component. As an experiment I tried replacing it with calibrated lightning runes on the inside of the trigger button. Depressing it completed the runic symbol and activated the electrical discharge.

 

I’d done it. I’d recreated the Taser output without a need for an external power source. Great for Alec, better for the potential of my other projects. If I was going to be working for villains I might as well take it as a chance to refine my technology.

 

After that I started on the components I could make without advanced materials or equipment. While I was restricted to my machine shop and the basic materials stocked there my new skills more than made up for it. The work I could do was limited to sheaths, casings, some prep work and some detailing. My style ability actually turned out to be immensely helpful. With barely any effort I was able to customize the design of all aspects of the work to the look of each of the Undersiders. Well, except Taylor. I hadn’t seen her in costume yet, so I had no idea what her particular aesthetic should be. It wasn’t an option to hand her a basic utility knife while everyone else got personalized equipment.

                                                                                            

I could check the next morning, but I drew up a few examples in the meantime. By the end of the evening I had most of the design components complete. It at least freed me to focus on entirely technical aspects for the next day. That’s where the real blitz of work would start. I ran through the schedule I’d need to follow. Equipment installation and customization, materials testing, fabrication, proving the concept, and then producing all five knives all within a twenty four hour block. Oh God, I had committed to a mad dead line here.


I had elected to get some sleep when another constellation swung close in the Celestial Forge. This one was called ‘Size’ and the first power was based around miniaturization of technology. Very miniature. The ability was called ‘Nanite Sciences’ and provided an in-depth understanding of nanite technology. With my current equipment there wasn’t much I could do with it, but some of the principles would be helpful in other endeavors.

 

Nanites were insanely powerful and versatile, providing I could get the resources needed to start producing them. That comparatively small mote had huge potential, but also potential to go horribly wrong. Not quite gray goo levels of wrong, but still substantial. Like, world altering. I would probably get targeted by the Protectorate if the full potential was known. I’d have to keep that low key until I could make sure I could use that knowledge safely and covertly.

 

That was a big concern with this kind of technology considering the potential it had to get away from me. The power generation and manufacturing aspects of nanite science were phenomenal, but it was the biomedical uses that really set it apart. Things like instant healing, infinite food generation, and all manner of physical enhancements were on the table.

 

The thing was this could easily escape beyond the scope of the initial parameters. What was supposed to be a healing booster could end up variegating an organism exponentially. Creating exponentially variegated organisms. This could be worse than the case 53s. The possibilities at that point were, well, exponential. Massive physical mutations, integrated technology, shifts to different phases of matter, even complex microbe symbiosis were all possibilities. As a rule any technology that would cause comparisons to Nilbog should be handled very carefully.

 

That was a sobering thought. Nilbog. God, there was someone I hadn’t thought about since I learned how my trigger was originally supposed to play out. If I hadn’t been hijacked by the Celestial Forge...

 

You know what, that’s not worth worrying about. Put it aside and focus on the non-monster applications of your new power. No reason to think about any of that, ever.

 

Yes, there were advantages here. This information would make blade fabrication substantially easier. I knew how to form amorphous metal into a monomolecular edge, but Nanite Sciences gave me an understanding of atomic level technology like nothing I’d ever imagined before. This would shave a substantial amount of time and effort from the project. My schedule just went from borderline impossible to merely nightmarish. Now I just needed to get some sleep before my 24 hour blitz to make sure a team of criminals had deadly weapons ready for their mystery felony.

 

You know, I would say fuck my life but I’m pretty sure that’s redundant at this point.

Chapter Text

Interlude: Taylor

 

Taylor watched the tinker vanish down the stairs as Lisa saw him out of the building. As they left Alec looked up from the game he’d been playing and gave her and Brian a conspiratorial look.

 

“So, the new guy. You think he’s all there?”

 

Brain walked back from dumping the pizza boxes in the kitchen. “You mean that thing with Rachel? He did take it pretty well.” Alec raised an eyebrow. “Ok, more than pretty well. Still, Lisa vouched for him.”

 

The confidence they had in Tattletale’s analysis didn’t sit quite as well with Taylor. “Uh, should we get Rachel?” She looked at the girl’s closed door.

 

Brian waved her off. “Leave her a bit longer to cool off. I think he spooked her.”

 

“Yeah, ‘he’ spooked ‘her’.” Alec made exaggerated finger quotes. “Did anyone see it going down that way?”

 

Taylor cringed as she felt the stitches from her encounter the previous day. “I know you said he was tough, but I didn’t know he could handle that.”

 

Brian shrugged. “I guess if you’re tough enough that kind of thing doesn’t bother you.”

 

Alec smirked “Mercy remains the privilege of the most powerful.”

 

Taylor blinked. “Was that Nietzsche? You read Nietzsche?”

 

“Na, must have picked it up somewhere. But Brian has a point. You’re strong enough and you can afford to let that stuff slide.”

 

It sounded like he was giving a sideways compliment about the previous day, but the casual way they were talking about such a serious power had her on edge.

 

She had felt in over her head since they agreed to this plan. In her efforts to quietly nudge the group away from the bank job she had pointed out they weren’t really equipped for something like that. Lisa had countered by mentioning a new tinker contact. The prospect of tinker tech equipment had been enough to bring Alec around and mitigated the fears the other members had with the heist. They‘d had to plan the job without certainty over what, if any gear could be provided, but with the boss footing the bill everyone was willing to make an attempt.

 

Lisa had offered to manage the meeting without her but Taylor insisted on coming. She had a chance to gather information on a rogue tinker that was supplying weapons to villains. It would be more information she could turn over to the Protectorate at the end of this.

 

Only as she learned more the situation turned out to be a little different from that. This guy had jumped in and fought Oni Lee the same night she showed down against Lung. According to Alec he had gear that protected him from explosives and some weapon that let him outfight Oni Lee in the center of a mob of his clones. The assassin had apparently run off with a broken arm at the end of things.

 

The situation was a little too close to her own for comfort. Alec even suggested recruitment, though Rachel shot that down completely. Lisa didn’t’ seem too keen on it either, and was preparing everyone for the possibility that the deal wouldn’t go through. Still, by lunch they had a solid enough plan for the bank job that there likely wouldn’t be any objections even if they had to go without any high tech gadgets.

 

Which, Taylor realized, was probably Lisa’s plan from the start.

 

When they met the tinker it turned out to be less of a situation where she could dig up information on an arms trafficker and more being an accessory to talking someone into what was at best a morally questionable arrangement. He had insisted on more concerns and conditions than she ever thought of asking for. Then again, he wasn’t planning to betray everyone here to the Protectorate.

 

And even after the entire afternoon she still had only the vaguest idea of what he was capable of.

 

“How strong would you say he is?”

 

“The guy took like three dozen grenades at once on Sunday night and came out swinging.”

 

Taylor froze. “He what?”

 

“Oh, yeah, didn’t you see the crater?”

 

“You said he took an explosion. I didn’t know you were talking about something like that.”

 

“He used his formula thing for that. I don’t think he’s normally that tough.” Brian qualified Alec’s statement.

 

Alec just shrugged. “The guy was still at ground zero for that blast. We totally should have gone for recruitment.”

 

Lisa returned from the stairs and shook her head. “He wouldn’t have gone for it. We’re lucky to get what we did.”

 

Alec set down his controller and turned to face them. “How sure are you about that? Because I think we have someone who could have talked him around.” He waggled his eyebrows at Taylor.

 

She frowned at the boy. “What do you mean?”

 

He looked around. “Seriously? Am I the only one who noticed? Brian? Lisa?”

 

“Alec, leave it alone.” Lisa’s voice was firm but had no effect on him.

 

“What are you getting at?” Brian sat down next to Taylor on the couch.

 

He pulled himself up as if making a formal declaration. “What I’m getting at is our new tinker friend has fallen for the bug girl.”

 

Taylor swore she felt her heart stop. “What?”

 

“I’m serious. He was all disinterested until he saw you. Every time there was a hard choice or it seemed like he was going to bail on the whole deal he’d just look at Taylor and reassessed things. Face it, he’s got it bad for you.”

 

“No way.” Taylor couldn’t even process the idea. All her previous concerns were grinding to a halt as she tried to wrap her mind around this concept “It’s just, there’s no way that’s what happened.”

 

Alec mimed a tear and gave an exaggerated sniffle. “Little Taylor, only a villain for one day and already seducing innocent capes to the side of darkness. I’m so proud.”

 

Lisa sighed and rubbed her forehead.

 

“Something wrong?”

 

“No, it’s just, I saw this coming, or happening. Whatever.”

 

She nearly went slack jawed at the thinker’s words. “Wait, you mean Alec’s right?”

 

“Alec is always right. The sooner the rest of you accept that the happier you’ll be.”

 

“Ass. No, that intuition power he mentioned? It kind of tells him how to feel about stuff. Sort of, it’s complicated.”

 

“So his power tells him he’s in love with Taylor. Same result really.” He glanced over. “Bit of a cradle robber though. The guy was what, twenty five?”

 

“Twenty one. College drop out. I think, there was a lot there to read.”

 

“What does that mean?”

 

“That power gives him this kind of emotional reaction to things but it also makes him really easy to read.” When Taylor gave her a questioning look she clarified. “I mean for me to read. Some of it is so obvious it’s hard to ignore.”

 

“The point is he’s here because of you. You should totally use your feminine wiles to get him on the team.”

 

Taylor glanced at Rachel’s closed door. “I think Bitch might kill him if I tried that.”

 

“Who cares? The guy’s a tank.” He turned to Lisa. “You sure he’s not a brute? I didn’t see any gear. He have a hidden force field or something?”

 

“No, it’s not a power. Well, it is a power but not a power.” The rest of the Undersiders stared at her blankly. “Ok, it’s not based on technology, and it’s something only he can do, and it’s supernatural, but it’s not part of his power.”

 

“So he’s easy to read, huh?” He leaned over and spoke in a stage whisper. “Hey Brian, I think the new guy broke Lisa.”

 

“Look, I don’t know how it works, or how he’s doing it or how he got it, but he had something on his leg that was making his entire body tough.”

 

“So it was like a personal force field? If he’s got those we should totally buy one. Or get Taylor to seduce it from him.” Alec suddenly choked as a fly flew directly down his throat.

 

“So that’s how he did it?” Brian asked from beside her.

 

“Yeah, it makes his entire body tough. His clothes too for some reason.”

 

“Sorry,” Taylor interjected “This is fascinating and all, but can we go back to the thing where he might be in love with me?”

 

“I don’t think it’s exactly love.” 

 

Lisa ignored Alec as he leaned over and whispered “It’s totally love.”

 

“He does like you though. He likes all of us, but he’ll probably work with us as long as you’re on the team.”

 

Taylor felt a pit grow in her stomach. That would be until she learned about the boss and got the info to Armsmaster. Could she get him out too? How bad was it to be supplying tinker tech to criminals? God, she couldn’t believe that someone might have turned to a life of crime for her sake. For HER.

 

And this was based in a thinker power? How did that work?

 

“Is that thinker intuition thing something we should be concerned about?” She tried to keep the worry out of her voice as she asked.

 

“You know, what with you running off screaming the other night.” Alec added with a smirk.

 

Lisa shot him a sour look before she replied. “No, I’ve got a handle on it now. His actual power or whatever it is works separate from him. He just gets feelings from it about things and people.”

 

“How the hell is that supposed to be useful?”

 

“Because the power is actually really good at reading stuff. The emotion link is probably a limiter. A lot of thinkers have something like that to stop them from overstressing their powers.”

 

“Is it like that for you?” Taylor hoped it didn’t sound like she was fishing for weaknesses in her teammates.

 

“I can get headaches if I push myself too far. That’s the most common one. Other thinkers have limits on how often they can use their powers, or they start getting less accurate results as time goes on, stuff like that.”

 

“So he has a super thinker analysis power and we shouldn’t be concerned why?” Alec was acting flippant but Taylor thought she heard a note of concern in his voice.

 

“Because most of what he’s getting from it is a garbled mess. He’s trying to figure things out by how the power feels about things. Honestly I’m probably picking up on it more clearly than he is.”

 

“And you didn’t see he was in love with Taylor.”

 

“Because he isn’t. Look, going into this I would have given maybe a fifty percent chance of landing the commission. Taylor pushed him over the top. I didn’t account for how much of a boost that would be.”

 

“Because he’s in love with her.” Lisa grabbed a cushion and threatened to throw it at Alec. The boy brought his hands up in surrender and let her continue.

 

“He leans too much on his power. It’s a common problem with thinkers. His own emotions are kind of muted, so he follows what his powers tell him.”

 

Taylor felt a pit in her stomach. That intuition power had seen something in her that convinced him to work with villains. She almost wished it was love, as impossible as that seemed. It would be better than her slapdash undercover work dragging someone else into villainy.

 

Brian didn’t look completely placated yet. “You’re sure about this? No chance you’re missing anything?”

 

“Please, I’m reading him so clearly it’s like his power wants to be heard. He was upfront about what he could build and he’s going to follow through on it. Trust me, I’ve got this.”

 

“And you finished the negotiations? What’s the damage look like?” Everyone in the room turned towards Lisa.

 

“Not nearly as bad as it could have been and if those things work half as well as he advertised then this is an incredible deal.” At Brian’s prompting she elaborated. “About ten grand in materials and machinery. That’s not counting the extra cost for the rush order. Five hundred per knife and another five hundred if they perform as advertised. Extra five hundred up front for Alec’s Taser. The Boss is going to cover everything for this job.”

 

“That’s not exactly chicken scratch.” Taylor couldn’t help but agree. That was what, fifteen grand for a handful of knives. She couldn’t imagine throwing around that kind of money. Then again a few days ago she couldn’t imagine handing someone two grand in a lunchbox.

 

“The equipment is a one-time cost so that’s a separate factor. As for the price of the knives, do you have any idea what tinker tech sells for?”

 

“Uh, no?”

 

“Exactly. No one does because there’s no set price. Because there’s almost none of it on the market. Everything is bespoke and basically a game of what a tinker is willing to make and what people are willing to pay. He could easily make ten times as much with any other clients, and that’s lowballing it.”

 

But he’s working here. And trying to keep things contained. And doesn’t want people to get hurt. Great job Taylor. Alec was right, you’ve dragged someone over to the dark side.

 

“We’re getting our money’s worth?”

 

“Look, even if the knives don’t work like he claims, judging by what he’s made so far five hundred for a knife of that quality is a bargain. If they do then we just lucked out to a ridiculous degree. The real killer will be the maintenance costs.”

 

Taylor frowned. “What do you mean?”

 

“Tinker tech is stupidly complicated. No one knows how to mass produce it and generally only the tinker who made it can maintain it properly. You buy tinker tech without a support commitment and you’re basically running down the clock.”

 

“So we’re going to have to keep paying him forever? And after this it’s on us for the costs?”

 

“Unfortunately, but at least he was upfront about how it will last. Dropping performance is better than the catastrophic failure some of that stuff is known for.”

 

“Hey, you think he was serious about power armor for everyone?”

 

“No Alec.”

 

“Come on, It’ll be awesome.”

“Even if he keeps letting us rob him as badly as he did on this deal I don’t want to think about what that will cost. The materials alone.” Brian shuddered.

 

“But we’re pulling bigger jobs now. That was the whole point of this? Work our way up. Well if were rising I want to do that assisted by a jetpack with like built in lasers or something.”

 

Lisa just groaned and shook her head. “Enough about Joe. Everybody needs to rest up and get ready for the bank job. And someone let Rachel out before she goes stir-crazy.”

 

“Joe.” Alec over-pronounced the name. “We need to get a cape name for that guy fast. He’s a tinker, not a fry cook. If I get a sword...”

 

“Knife.”

 

“If I get a BLADE that can cut through anything I’m not going around talking about how it was made by the great tinker Joe. All the other sword capes would laugh at me.”

 

“What other sword capes?”

 

“Well, there’s Black Kaze.”

 

“She’s birdcaged.”

 

“Dauntless”

 

“That’s a spear.”

 

“Close enough. What’s his face from Philly.”

 

“Chevalier. I’ll give you that one.”

 

“I’m pretty sure Miss Militia’s made a sword before, like one of those marine honor guard things.”

 

“Fine, there are sword capes. I think I can say with confidence that they’ll still laugh at you regardless of the name of your tinker.”

 

Alec gave an exaggerated huff and went back to his game.

 

And just like that everything went back to normal. Petty squabbles, snipes at each other, and lounging in the hideout. Eventually Rachel slipped out of her room and left the building and Alec put on a movie. It was settled. Everyone was still excited about their tinker tech, but there was no more concern. Alec still dropped the occasional joke about her being a heartbreaker, devil woman, man eater, seductress, and any other descriptor he could come up with until she got fed up and sent house flies into both of his eyes. He took it with better grace than she expected and laid off.

 

The following day she was in no state to handle school. She met Lisa and Brian in the morning to review the last details of the bank job. Lisa was still preparing things in case the knives didn’t come through. As Taylor understood it the most they expected to get out of them was intimidation and maybe cracking a few locks. The thought of actually owning tinker tech was incredible, but it wasn’t exactly something they were building the heist plan around.

 

Lisa had gotten her a collapsible baton and had a knife in reserve in case there were any delays from Joe, though she was still confident in things working. Later she and Brian helped Taylor clear out the storage room and moved in some loose furniture to give her a space in the hideout. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that, not with her planning to leave the group as soon as she got her information.

 

That led to her sitting at her kitchen table that evening running down a conversation with her father as she prepared to call in the one favor she had in the hero community. She had already shared truncated details of her time with the Undersiders and done her best to cast things in a normal light.

 

“So what about that last guy?”

 

“Oh, Joe. He’s not really part of the group. Just someone Brian and Lisa know. Good with machines, and, um...”

 

Taylor’s stomach churned and she doubted it was the lemon and pepper pork chops she’d made for dinner. And of course her father caught on to that. It was one of the things she hated. He either seemed to be oblivious or watching her like a hawk and she could never tell which one it was.

 

“What is it?”

 

Uh, how could she explain this? “He’s into this girl and she’s part of a bad group. I’m kind of worried he’s going to end up in a bad place because of her.” It was a vague statement and in this city could mean anything from a party girl to potential gang recruitment. To her surprise instead of showing concern her father looked almost nostalgic.

 

“What?”

 

“Did I tell you about how your mother and I met?”

 

“You were both in college, right.” Something occurred to Taylor. “You’re talking about Lustrum?”

 

“Your mother was into that pretty heavily. It wasn’t as bad at the start, and your mother got out before things got out of hand.” He smiled slightly. “I’m sure your friend will be fine.”

 

Taylor knew it was a borderline random anecdote, just something he happened upon. He probably didn’t mean to say anything insightful, but it gave her a bit of hope. Get out before things get out of hand. That’s what tonight was about.

 

She wrapped up dinner and her father gave her ten dollars for her ‘coffee with Lisa’. She darted out of the house with her costume in her backpack heading to the Downtown ferry terminal. Heading to meet with Armsmaster.

 

The man’s demeanor was completely different from the last time she had seen him. She barely made it through explaining why she was there before he threatened to drag her to the PHQ. The conversation was torture. Trying to dance around anything Tattletale would be able to pick up on or trace back to her while dealing with his obstinate attitude was infuriating.

 

She had to avoid his lie detector and he was still able to figure out Tattletale was spying on the Protectorate.

 

It was worse when she tried to call in her favor. No protection. No leniency. “A middle schooler with delusions of grandeur”. That’s what he called her. She didn’t even have a chance to bring up Joe, to ask for some accommodation for the person she had dragged into this.

 

In frustration she tried to throw Lung’s capture in his face, how she gave him the credit, let him take all the glory for that. Then she found out why he’d been at her throat all night.

 

Lung had almost died. The tinker had dosed him with tranquilizer and knocked out his healing factor. And then blamed her when it almost killed the man. Then he talked about having his equipment checked like it was the worst violation he could possibly imagine. Blaming her for everything.

 

She barely, just barely, got him to agree to not report the meeting. That was her favor. That was the reward she got for capturing one of the most notorious crime lords in the country. He was willing not to file a report that would get her killed.

 

She was fuming as she made her way back home. She’d been berated, insulted, and patronized before she could even ask for help. She would have to do this on her own. Get out before things get out of hand. Her mother had done it, so could she.

 

If Joe was really doing this because he was following his power, because of her, then maybe he’d follow her out. The gear was being delivered tomorrow and if it was good enough, well Lisa had said how valuable tinkers were. The Protectorate would probably take him even if his equipment had helped a bank robbery. After all, she couldn’t imagine Armsmaster walking out of a crater like the one she had seen and still being ready to fight.

 

So she was going to rob the hell out of that bank. She was going to win the Undersider’s trust, she was going to expose their boss. And she was going to get out. And when it was done she was definitely going to give all the info to Miss Militia, not Armsmaster.

Chapter Text

7 Accessory

 

I woke up early once again. This was the level of early I had barely tolerated for my morning runs, but this tinker work necessitated it. I needed to get to the Undersiders base and pick up my equipment and I was already on a crunch schedule. Tattletale had promised to have everything ready at seven and I needed to secure the gear as soon as possible. As soon as I was out of bed I felt the Celestial Forge moving again, with my power connecting onto another mote. It was a hell of a lot to wake up to.

 

My reach was bigger than before and had enough power to latch onto a mid-sized mote from a new constellation. This one was called “Resources and Durability’ and the power was called ‘Built to Last’. And it was incredible.

 

I’d gotten some amazing powers from the Celestial Forge, but this was the first one that made me want to laugh maniacally. Its base effect was nice enough as it made anything I personally built pretty much immune to the effects of weather, rust, or time. Without a tornado grinding down on it or some exposure to corrosive chemicals everything I made was going to effectively last forever. This opened up a lot of possibilities for using more reactive metals than were previously available to me since I wouldn’t have to worry about corrosion affecting the items performance or lifespan.

 

The aspect of the power that really, truly thrilled me was an almost unrelated aspect that was seemingly tagged on to the end of it. That aspect perfectly addressed some of my most serious concerns with working for the Undersiders. With this power I could feel out the location of anything I made. No matter if it was lost, buried, gifted, or stolen I would have a vague idea of where it was and would be able to track it down. It wasn’t as good as having a GPS tracker on everything I made, but there was no chance anything I built could truly get away from me.

 

I can’t really state how big a relief that was. Being able to track and retrieve everything I made resolved one of my biggest concerns with the kinds of technology I would be able to produce. I might be handing off deadly weapons but I was also handing off a way to monitor the people who were using them. What’s more, since this worked on the same mystery principle as my reinforcement power or workshop key there was no way to detect or disrupt it. It would take some effort to keep track of things, but it was a level of security that made me much more comfortable about this entire endeavor.

 

Speaking of which I needed to get moving. I had just enough time for a slice toast and some reheated coffee from the previous day before I needed to head to the Undersider’s base.

 

It was weird seeing the early morning city again after I had effectively sworn it off. I was on a different route than my usual running trail, but the city still had the same odd ‘not quite all there’ feeling. It at least meant I made it to the abandoned factory without attracting any attention. While I’m pretty that sure so far I’d only broken tax laws regarding undeclared income, I was still a little afraid of having the Protectorate swoop in at any minute.

 

Fortunately my paranoia was not validated and I completed the walk to the factory without being swarmed by PRT agents. There was an unmarked van parked in front of the heavily chained doors of the main entrance. I would make a joke about vans like that and their criminal associations, but this one actually managed to look legitimate. It gave off more of a plumbing services vive than that sketchy ‘free candy’ feeling usually associated with those kind of vehicles. Lisa and a sleepy looking Alec were waiting for me next to it.

 

“Hey.” Lisa waved me over. “Got all the machinery you asked for. Also threw in a few extras as a signing bonus.” I raised an eyebrow at her. “Server components, some modern ceramics, a 3D printer, laptops, spare electronics, that kind of stuff.”

 

I looked into the back of the van and saw the piles and piles of boxes neatly arranged. The equipment and materials I had asked for took up maybe half of the space with the rest devoted to the eclectic collection of supplies. “I didn’t ask for any of this.”

 

“We had the space to spare and were already paying for rush delivery. I figured if you’re still getting set up then this could help.”

 

I wasn’t sure if this was a bribe, a social dynamics ploy, or just her taking the chance to charge more to her boss. Whatever her motives it would still be helpful. I wasn’t going to turn down free anything right now and though I had padded my requests a bit to get some non-essentials and my remaining alchemy reagents I hadn’t tried to go this far.

 

“Thanks, I appreciate this.”

 

“Hey, you’re doing us a favor. This is the least I can do.” There seemed to be more meaning to that, but I couldn’t parse it before Alec broke in.

 

“So, with the stuff you were talking about last night. Any chance of getting a lightsaber?”

 

I looked at the bags under his eyes, and the moderately irritated girl standing beside him. “Wait, did you wake up this early just to try to get a laser sword?”

 

He suppressed a yawn as he replied. “Hey, hey. That’s not what we’re discussing here. Lightsaber. Yes or no?”

 

I thought about it. The actual composition of a lightsaber wasn’t clear. There were no details on how they worked or what they were made of. So strictly speaking, no I couldn’t build a lightsaber.

 

However if all you were looking for was some kind of area of extremely high temperature contained in a roughly sword like shape, then that was another matter. Bakuda’s bomb was an example of how to confine frankly insane levels of energy to a finite area. Scaling that down to a blade shape would be difficult, particularly since I was still not completely clear on a lot of the principles of that device. A nanite cloud could manage that kind of effect, but the control system would be intensely complicated and frankly you’d be better off just using the nanites to tear apart whatever you hit than relying on heat from short periods of contact.

 

“I knew it!” Alec’s shout broke my train of thought. I looked at him in confusion.

 

“What? I didn’t say anything.”

 

“Yeah, but Lisa wouldn’t look so annoyed if you weren’t thinking about how to do it.” He turned towards the scowling thinker. “And you said I shouldn’t ask.”

 

“Yes, you shouldn’t ask because you shouldn’t have one. I barely trust you with the knife he’s making, and even then I’ve been reading up on reattaching fingers.”

 

“Honestly, arms are a lot more likely.”

 

Her expression suggested she did not appreciate my clarification.

 

I cleared my throat. “Let’s hold off on any energy based weapons for the moment.”

 

“Whatever.” Lisa gave me a faint grin. "You good now?”

 

I checked inside the van. “Yeah, this should do it.” I looked at the vehicle with some apprehension. “So, about this van?”

 

“Listed as belonging to a shell company. Registration’s in the glove compartment, but it’s probably best if you try not to get pulled over. You can hold on to it for the duration of the job. Another signing bonus.”

 

Well, that was both generous and incredibly suspect. Still, at least they provided a way I could move the stuff without having it delivered to my apartment. I took the keys and made my way to the driver’s seat.

 

Before I left I turned to the two of them. “Oh, I wanted to ask. What’s Taylor’s costume like?”

 

Alec gave Lisa a sidelong glance “Why?” He asked, drawing out the word.

 

“I don’t want to make something that will horribly clash with it. I know what the rest of you look like in character, I don’t want her stuff to stand out.”

 

Lisa cleared her throat. “Aesthetics aren’t really that important for this...”

 

“Black and gray bodysuit with yellow lenses. Insect theme, including this mandible thing on the mask. Very intimidating, no soft edges at all.” Lisa looked irate at being cut off, but let it slide.

 

“Remember, Thursday morning, 8am. If you’re late we’ll have to go without you.”

 

To go to their job. The mystery crime. Still, I wasn’t going to let them run into danger without some support. Lisa gave me a knowing grin as I climbed into the driver’s seat.


“Don’t’ worry. I’ll be there.”

 

“Hold up.” She reached into a pocket and handed me a cheap disposable cellphone. “This has the work numbers for both Brian and me programed into it. Check the message once a day and before you make the drop, in case anything changes.”

 

I nodded, checked the phone, then powered it down and pulled the battery. Lisa just smiled when she saw that.

 

I pulled the van out of the factory’s side street and into the Docks proper. I didn’t know for sure if I was being tracked, but I wasn’t taking any chances. I had come up with a plan the previous night on how to handle this, which was made much easier by the handoff of the vehicle. If one of them had been driving for me this would have been a lot more difficult.

 

It was funny, before I got my powers I’d only ever driven with an automatic transmission. Now, after a second to familiarize myself with the controls I was handling everything like a pro. None of my powers gave me enhanced driving ability but I had a thorough understanding of engines. In fact I was probably one of the top experts on the subject in the world. I could tell all kinds of little details about the van by the sound of its engine, the grip of its wheels, and even how the weight shifted. Just from the feel of shifting gears I could map out the entire transmission system in my mind. I knew exactly how much acceleration to expect, where my sightlines and blind spots were, and after a few turns all the details of the handling and what that said about the steering system. It was an unusual but highly appreciated aspect of my power.

 

I had no intention of going to my apartment. A determined person might still be able to track me there, but that was no reason to make it easy for them. Instead I made my way to an underground parking complex roughly where the Docks and Downtown met. It was one of a few such places I was familiar with since it was convenient for a nearby shopping center, basically as close to a mall as you could get in the middle of the city, that had a movie theater in it. Back when I was in college I would head out here every now and then with people from my class.

 

The thought brought back a load of emotions that I pushed away with help from my passenger. He was still excited about my first serious crafting job and the prospect of working with the Undersiders. I tried to focus on that and not get caught up in the past.

 

The reason I had come here was the complex was oversized even when it was at peak hours. Right now the lower levels would be nearly abandoned. I drove the van to the deepest floor of the garage and found a maintenance closet near one of the parking spaces. I backed in as close to the door as possible and used my workshop key. The janitor’s closet opened to the entry room of my workshop and lab and I started unloading the van.

 

Rather than pile everything into the entry hall I moved it into the Laboratorium. I didn’t have time for a full scan on everything in the shipment, but the scanners were good enough that they would be able to detect any tracking signals or bugs in what had been supplied. I didn’t think most people would be dumb enough to try to sneak listening or tracking devices into a tinker’s gear, but you should never underestimate the resourcefulness of fools.

 

Fortunately nothing came up. I sealed off the door and left the van where it was. It could sit here for a couple of days and I didn’t trust anything registered to their boss anywhere near my home. Once again, I’m not saying I couldn’t be tracked, I just didn’t want to make it blindingly easy.

 

My knowledge of the garage was an asset when it came to sneaking out. I changed clothes with a set from the entry hall and took a side route out. I snuck through one of the underground accesses to the shopping center, then through a large department store that had an exit on the other side of the block. By the time I was on the street I was three blocks from where I had parked and taking a roundabout route back to my apartment.

 

It was a time sink that I wasn’t sure I could afford, but I wasn’t willing to take that risk just to save a bit of time. On the way home my power failed to make a connection to one of the largest motes of the Vehicles constellation, but that just meant my reach would continue to grow.

 

But none of that would help me with my current project. As soon as I got home I piled into my lab and started setting things up. My workshop didn’t have a fixed size, instead being as big as it needed to be for its work. It was kind of freaky how adaptive it was. Just entering with a new piece of equipment resulted in the layout having shifted to allow a place for it. Even for the stuff that was still being figured out or designed there was enough room to accommodate.

 

Most of what I needed to do involved setup. Thankfully the machinery I’d been provided with was as close as possible to what I needed for this application. At most I’d need to do some basic prep work. No, the real difficulty would be the construction of a prototype metallic glass with store bought components and the shaping of said material to a functional monomolecular blade.

 

I was doing work that the world had never seen before and I was doing it with cobbled together chains of equipment barely adequate for my needs. I’d never felt more like a real tinker.

 

My rigged up arc smelter would have blown out my entire building’s power grid but fortunately my workshop seemed to have a policy that as long as it was for metalwork there were no limits on power consumption. I was actually doing a proper test batch before risking everything falling apart by rushing to the final product as soon as the machinery was ready.

 

The metallic glass was tricky. I had enough liquid nitrogen for rapid cooling to ensure amorphous formation, but I could decrease the need for that by precise matching of atomic sizes in the alloy. I could understand the science behind it, but without my innate sense of materials science I doubt I would be able to pull it off in these conditions. Likewise the magnetic suspension system to facilitate formation into the blade shape took just about every ounce of knowledge my power had granted me in order to pull it off with the parts I’d been given. The hardest part was maintaining the magnetic shear long enough for both edge formation and reinforcement.

 

To say it was nightmarish would be an understatement. I was sweating bullets the entire time. Finally, after hours of setup and an arduous amount of tension I had a tiny sliver of dull gray material with an edge theoretically fine enough to cut anything.

 

I secured it in a vice and tested it on a piece of barstock. The steel went past the two inch blade without the slightest resistance and suddenly I was holding two pieces of steel neatly split apart.

 

I had done it. I was a proper tinker. This wasn’t some tinkerish power or a boosted mundane skill or access to facilities. This was proper, impossible for normal people, tinker tech.

 

I wanted to shout. I wanted to scream. I wanted to get drunk and party. My excitement was amplified by my passenger. I was a God damn tinker. This piece alone was enough to get me respect on any level of parahuman society. I had always known I was building towards something great, but with the slow burn of my power and the scattered applications I never quite dispelled my doubts. Even with the highs of my reinforcement power, my alchemy, my runecraft, I always doubted a little bit. Not anymore. I was a tinker.

 

And as a tinker I had massive time commitments that I had stupidly agreed to for a price that was probably a brutal rip off. I currently had eighteen hours to do what I just did, only on a bigger scale and five times over. Also precisely following designs I’d prepared the previous night because I’m too proud to churn out standardized equipment.

 

I am such a fucking idiot. Why did I agree to this again? Oh, right. Passenger wanted to look after Taylor. Savior of the world and all that. Well, hopefully this helps.

 

All I can say is thank God for the work I did the previous evening. Without that prep I would probably have gone insane.

 

I started working my way through manufacturing the Undersiders knives. Because I had to be all stylistic none of them had the same blade profile, so there was custom setup needed for each one. Still, after the prototype proved the concept I was able to build momentum and got into a routine. Smelt, mix, suspend, edge, treat, finish, store. There were a couple of mistakes on the early runs, but I was able to salvage the material and reset. By my third blade I had things going smoothly.

 

It was still pushing my skills to the limit. I was a master smith with intuitive grasp of materials science and knowledge of a plethora of future weapons and nano-scale engineering. Without any one of those pieces this could have fallen apart or taken ten times as long. As it was I was able to keep a decent pace, drawing from experience I didn’t have, knowledge of things I’d never studied, and leveraging laws of physics that I’m not even sure really existed.

 

Because I wasn’t a conventional tinker I didn’t have the full benefit of that state of high focus where the world falls away and you lose yourself in your work while basically on auto pilot. There was some investment but it was the normal level of getting caught up in your work. I still had to stay focused and on task through the entire process, checking dozens of aspects of the crafting process and making sure procedures were followed precisely.

 

The most frustrating thing about the whole thing was my constant realizations of how I could have done things better. Better placement of the machines, refinement of the alloying process, more efficient use of magnetic suspension, and full automation of at least half of the steps. Because of my deadline I didn’t have the time to implement any of them. I kept a close eye on the clock as the night ticked on. I was managing to keep my schedule and would have enough time to finish and make it to the Undersiders.

 

As I was finishing the blade for Lisa’s knife I felt my power move again and connect to a small mote from the Quality constellation. This one was called Decadence and was essentially Bling of War taken up to eleven. While Bling of War allowed stylish design and matching themes this ability allowed a level of detail in aesthetic craftsmanship that bordered on the absurd. With barely any additional effort I could make things that would put imperial courts to shame

 

It was also a lot further reaching than Bling of War. That ability only applied to equipment while this one worked on every possible application of manufacturing from vehicles to architecture and beyond. There was also an interior design aspect of the ability that let me tailor décor for any purpose or environment, including surveillance. Outside of the appearance and efficient use of space that part of the power would let me both locate and place surveillance devices with near perfection.

 

None of these items were exactly going to look bad, not with my previous style perk guiding the design, but with my new ability I was able to refine my plans for the weapons to works I could be truly proud of without compromising any of their utility.

 

At six o’clock in the morning I was doing the final touch ups. Most of the items were packed in an oversized Halliburton briefcase that had been included with my supplies. I was just doing the last of the design work for Taylor’s knife and baton. I’m rather proud that despite the early hour and the fact that I was being kept upright with caffeine the quality of my work never suffered. I had put extra effort into Taylor’s knife and I hoped to God it was enough to keep her safe.

 

From the way she stood and behaved I doubted she had that much combat experience. I looked at her baton. She didn’t seem to have that much upper body strength either, and the question of how well she could handle either of these items was unlikely to have a comforting answer. I looked down at the blade I was working a pattern into. I could help with that. Even in my sleep addled state, with my level of skill it would be trivial to add an enhancement.

 

I made my decision and started to integrate wind runes into the design. With the advantages of my Decadence ability they blended in seamlessly to the pattern I had started. They would make the weapon lighter, faster, and easier to handle. It should make up for any lack of skill.

 

While touching up the baton I worked a few earth runes into it, just enough to enhance the force of the swing. More energy transferred on impact. I hoped it would help.

In the end I was just far enough ahead of schedule to make a small item for myself. I had taken apart a keychain sized Swiss army knife and replaced the blade with my prototype from the monomolecular edge work. It was tiny compared to what I had made for the Undersiders, but having an item that could slice through chains or deadbolts like they weren’t there was exhilarating. Also it was subtle enough that I could carry it anywhere, unlike the rest of the knives.

 

At seven o’clock in the morning I packed everything into the briefcase and got ready to make my way to the Undersiders’ base. Rather than carry a case full of extremely dangerous tinkertech weapons across a quarter of the city I left it in my workshop. I could duck into an alley near my destination and grab it without attracting attention or risking anything happening in route. Once I was a good distance from my apartment I reconnected the phones battery and checked for messages. Only a text confirming the delivery time. I let Lisa know I was on my way, then powered it down again.

 

After a full day and night of work I was seriously wondering if leaving the van was worth it. I was tired enough that I felt I would totally be ok with exposing my secret identity to an unnamed crime lord if it meant not having to make this walk. To make matters worse about two blocks from the Undersider’s base and just after I had retrieved the case from my workshop the sky, which had been threatening rain all morning, decided to cut out any buildup and jumped directly to a torrential downpour. It served to properly amplify the foul mood that had been cultivated by a combination of sleep deprivation and early morning exercise. I was grateful my decision to leave early prevented me from having to march the entire distance in this soup. When I reached the factory my overly aggressive knock on the door was answered by Alec who greeted me with some encouraging words.

 

“You look like shit.”

 

“Fuck you. And fuck your schedule. Where is everyone?”

 

“Upstairs. Come on, Lisa got you a coffee.”

 

I trudged up the metal stairs to find the Undersiders assembled around their coffee table with paper cups and various breakfast items scattered across it. Upon seeing me Lisa approached with a Starbucks cup and a warm towel that I accepted without comment. At this point it wasn’t even unusual that she had guessed the way I liked my coffee and timed it to my arrival so it was at just the right temperature. Though if she knew in advance I was going to be walking through that rainstorm I had a few concerns about her willingness to share information.

 

Rachel eyed me warily as Brian cleared space for my case. Taylor was in the back picking at a scone and glancing at me nervously. The rush of positivity from my passenger upon seeing her banished the worst of the cobwebs from my brain and cleared my head well enough to get through the presentation.

 

“As promised.” I laid the case on the table and flipped it open. “One set of tinker tech weapons, ready to go.”

 

I was proud of the work I had done and was looking forward to showing them off to the Undersiders. Yes, these were weapons and criminals respectively, but this was my first serious tinkering and I was excited to see their reaction. I’m not sure what I expected from my reveal, but dead silence and vacant stares wasn’t it. Alec was the first to respond, letting out a long whistle.

 

“Uh, we asked for knives.”

 

I looked blankly at Brian. “These are knives. And Alec’s scepter. And Taylor’s baton.”

 

Taylor looked at a metal cylinder in her hand, then at the device in the case. Lisa was rubbing her forehead. Out of all of them only Rachel looked interested.

 

“There’s one for me.” It was as much of a statement as a question.

 

“That was the deal. Everyone gets a knife. What’s the problem?”

 

Rachel had gotten up from her seat and picked up the bowie knife in its rugged sheath. I had designed it off the very rough color scheme that she wore in her cape persona. The hilt had a subtle hint of the shape of a leaping dog while still being as ergonomic for her hand as I could make it. The hilt’s design continued onto the sheath in tooled leather, creating the impression of a pack when the blade was in place.

 

She gripped the handle and pulled the blade free. It was as heavy a knife as I could make without sacrificing its ability to cut through dense material. There was a single gleaming edge and the back had light serrations to provide some utility, but was mostly to fit the aesthetic.

 

She looked at the edge. “Is it sharp?”

 

“Yes. Yes, it’s sharp. It’s very, very sharp. Seriously, did no one fill her in?”

 

“We weren’t expecting you to make her one.”

 

I gave Brian a flat look. “The deal was one knife for each of the Undersiders.”

 

“For each of us. She wasn’t there, and we didn’t think, after what happened...”

 

There was a sound of rasping metal from the stairs followed by a thunk sound as a piece of cast iron railing hit the floor. Rachel was looking at her large knife with a mixture of admiration and respect. “They’re sharp.”

 

The entire group was staring at the girl and the large knife she was holding. On one hand I had just given a space age melee weapon to a girl who assaulted me the last time we met. On the other the group was apparently alright with her sitting there while everyone else got shiny toys and she came up short like the least favorite child on Christmas morning. That didn’t sit right with me but I would have felt a lot better about this if they had at least clued her in before she picked up the thing.

 

I cleared my throat. “The sheaths aren’t monomolecular proof.” Rachel glanced over at me. “They’re designed to hold the blade in place without contact on the edge, so there’s no risk once they’re sheathed, but if you’re not careful you could cut them apart when you return the blade.”

 

She looked down at the dogs tooled into the surface of the sheath, then nodded slightly. With exaggerated care she slowly returned the blade.

 

I looked to Lisa. “Can you fill her in on the rest?”

 

“Sure. No problem.”

 

I turned to the rest of the group. “So what is the issue here?”

 

Alec was the one to speak up. “It’s just we were kind of expecting some kind of tinker looking stuff, not customized museum pieces.”

 

That was what they were having trouble with? “We didn’t talk about design so I tried to fit it to theme.” I glanced at Lisa. “Is this going to be a problem?”

 

“More of a surprise really. I don’t think anyone was expecting bespoke tinker tech tailored to their personal look.” She picked up the purple and black sheath of the long stiletto dagger. I had worked the cross guard to roughly matched the letters she had hidden in the design of her costume. She pulled it free and looked at the gleaming edge of the thin knife.

 

“I said I was making these to match your costumes. What exactly were you expecting?”

 

Brian shook his head. “Honestly I figured it would be standard knives with maybe a coat of paint, not this craziness.”

 

Lisa’s action seemed to have allowed Alec to overcome his reservations and he snapped up the small parrying dagger. He admired the luxury styled design of the handle and sheath before pulling the blade free. His eyes gleamed as he settled his hand into the grip. I had built a serious cross guard and thumb ring to improve control and protect his hand, hopefully reducing the chance of accidents.

 

“No Alec.”

 

“What?” He asked innocently?

 

“You’re not testing that on everything in the hideout. Put it down.”

 

But apparently not reducing the chance of ‘intentionals’.

 

He grumbled but carefully sheathed the knife. “Here.” I took the rebuilt scepter from the case and handed it to him.

 

Alec gave it some experimental swings. “It’s less bulky. Did you tinker it up?”

 

“Yeah. The Taser’s a bit more powerful and you don’t have to worry about charging it anymore.”

 

He examined it and noted the lack of a charging wire for the battery as well as the lack of space to hide a Taser inside the object. He triggered the activation button and watched sparks jump continuously between the prongs of the scepter’s crown.

 

“Put it down Alec.” Lisa shook her head. “How long will that last without maintenance?”

 

It was fairly durable, but it could still end up damaged in combat, especially if they went against higher tier opponents. “That depends on how roughly he treats it.”

 

“So to the end of the day at most.”

 

“Hey!”

 

“Were you not just considering sticking that in the power outlet to ‘see what would happen’?” He scoffed but let the sparks dissipate. “So when you say ‘a bit more powerful’ what are you talking about?”

 

“Mostly faster charge. It’s not going to bring down serious brutes, and I’d be careful with anyone with a heart condition, but it should do the job.”

 

“Uh, question.” I turned to Brian who had pulled his knife from the case. “What the hell is this?”

 

“That’s a karambit.”

 

“Right.” He looked at the curved blade in his hand. “And why does it look like this?”

 

“I tried to match it to your costume. What’s the problem?”

 

Alec seemed to be enjoying Brian’s discomfort. “I’m guessing it’s that the knife looks like it should be fighting Éowyn from the back of a fellbeast on the fields of Gondor.”

 

Ok, maybe the knife did come off a bit dark and edgy, but this was a guy who went out in a skull mask. What was he expecting?

 

Brian gave the knife some careful swings. “The grips a bit loose.”

 

“I scaled it for your gloves. Should be fine in costume.”

 

“Relax Brian. Our new tinker friend likes us so much he put all this extra work into our stuff. I wonder why that is? Oh look, Taylor has the biggest knife in the case. Taylor, why don’t you go look at what the nice tinker made for you.”

 

Ok, Taylor’s knife did kind of boarder on the size of a short sword. She got up from her seat and gingerly took it from the case. When she pulled it from the sheath the room went silent.

 

It was an 18 inch blade with mono-edges on both sides. The stylized curve gave the vague impression of an insect claw or pincer and the cross guard had a spider web pattern that extended down to the hilt. I had tooled the grip as close to Taylor’s hand as I could get it. The blade itself had a similar web engraving that contained the wind runes I had etched onto it.

 

It may be a bit apparent that it was the first thing I had made after getting my Decadence power.

 

“It’s light.”

 

I nodded. “I tried out some new technology. Should be lighter, faster, and easier to use.”

 

“Hey, Taylor. He made you a special sword Taylor. New technology Taylor. Isn’t that nice Taylor? Don’t you think...”

 

Alec cut himself off as Taylor made some experimental swings. The blade sang as it sliced through the air almost too fast to see. There was a flutter from its passing as the scattered wrappers from the forgotten breakfast items flew off the table. When she stopped it the blade’s edge was blurred and humming. Everyone watched as it slowly settled back to its normal appearance.

 

Alec swallowed. “Yeah. Nice knife.” Taylor nodded and sheathed the blade with intense caution.

 

“So, last item. Collapsible baton with wrist sheath.” I held up the final piece from the case. “Straps on to your right forearm.” She took it and looked questioningly before setting down the knife and attaching the straps to her wrist. “Ok, cock your wrist and flick your arm out like this.”

 

Taylor mimicked my motion and the baton sprang out from the sheath to her hand fully extended. She looked at the weapon questioningly. “There’s no seams.”

 

There were, but I’m managed to reduce the appearance of them, especially with the refinements of Decadence. “They’re hidden. It’s a precise fit.” That meant it had more of the appearance of an insect stinger than the staged tubes of a conventional collapsible baton. You could see the connection points if you looked very closely, but mostly it seemed like she had grown a barb from her wrist.

 

She gave it some swings. “It’s too light.”

 

“It amplifies impacts.” She looked doubtful. Ok, earth runes for higher striking force would be a bit of a weird concept. Best to just do a demonstration. “Here.” I closed the case and set it upright on the table. “Try it against that.”

 

Taylor looked doubtful, but consented when I made a supporting gesture. She wound up with her whole body and stepped into a heavy swing with the thin stick of metal. It impacted the thick aluminum side of the case with a slam and the sound of warping metal. The case launched off the coffee table, hit the railing, and flipped over the side in an unsteady arc before crashing onto the factory floor below.

 

The room was dead silent as the last echoes of crashing metal died away. Taylor looked at her hand like she was holding a live bomb and the rest of the group was leaning slightly away from her. I cleared my throat. “Ok, full body strikes might be a little much. I’d recommend wrist flicks. Save hits like that for if you run into a brute.”

 

“Or need to breach a door, or cause a seismic event, or” Alec stopped muttering under his breath when Brian and Lisa gave him a warning look.

 

“Right.” She shifted her grip. “Uh, how do I put this away?”

 

“Flick your wrist like this.” She copied my gesture and the baton collapsed back into the wrist sheath. I was pretty proud of that. It had taken a lot of work to make sure the weapon was solid enough while extended but still able to quickly retract.

 

“Thanks. Thanks.” She muttered. It wasn’t quite the level of enthusiasm I had hoped for, but I was still happy with the quality of my work.

 

“So are we good?”

 

Lisa looked at her knife again, then nodded. “Yeah. Not that I doubt your claims, but second payment after the mission, as agreed.”

 

She fished out an envelope and added the charge for Rachel’s knife before handing it over. I hope they didn’t think I was doing that just to upsell them. I looked at the girl who was still running her fingers over the surface of the sheath. I also hoped Lisa could covey how to use that safely. I trusted she didn’t want to kill people, but she regularly brushed closer than I was completely comfortable with.

 

Right, I was facilitating a major crime here. Comfortable didn’t really come into it. As much as my passenger liked these people I needed to keep some level of emotional distance. It would be easy to get sucked in and I couldn’t lose sight of what was happening. Spending time with them it was easy to end up part of their world and suddenly heading out for a felony on a Thursday morning was just a thing you did.

 

“Well, if that’s settled I’ve been up and working for like twenty six hours. Glad you sort of liked the knives, but I need to get going.” Everyone turned towards the window where the rain was coming down in biblical volumes. There was a rumble of thunder that shook the loft slightly and I couldn’t hold back a sigh.

 

“Hey,” I turned to Alec. “You want to crash here?” Everyone looked at him like he’d grown a second head. He just shrugged. “If this job goes well we’re going to celebrate after. You should join us. No point in running across the city just for us to track you down this afternoon. And it’s not like you’re any more of a risk staying here.”

 

There were some meaningful looks between the Undersiders that one by one slowly shifted over to Rachel. She unsheathed her knife again, looked at it for a few seconds, then shrugged.

 

“Fine with me. Do what you want.”

 

Brian shared a look with Lisa, then cleared his throat. “Yeah, that works. We really appreciate the rush job. Least we can do is let you rest on the couch.”

 

There were probably all kinds of good reasons to avoid a villain’s hideout, but the exhaustion was catching up with me. Even with the caffeine in my system I wasn’t looking forward to the walk back to my apartment. Frankly I was probably going to find a quiet door nearby, access my workshop, and crash for a good six hours minimum. If I was just going to have to head out again after that I might as well stay here. “Uh, yeah, thanks. That sounds good.”

 

I lounged on the couch as the Undersiders did their final prep work. It would have been fascinating and informative but I was too tired to care. I was half asleep during the entire process and by the time they were getting ready to load themselves into vans downstairs I was completely out. I didn’t even register their departure before sleep took me.

 

I really envy noctus capes. They have a general advantage, but noctus tinkers in particular are broken. I’m pretty sure the extra tinkering hours from not needing sleep would be enough to boost anyone’s PRT threat rating by at least a point.

 

Despite how tired I was my sleep wasn’t totally peaceful. This was due to my passenger’s agitation. Normally he clamped down on his reactions when I was trying to rest. I had the sense that he knew how important sleep was to make sure I stayed functional and didn’t want to disturb that. In fact, initially he had even prodded me to ensure I was resting properly. Not directly, just growing concern for my wellbeing if I was pushing myself too long in my workshop. Once I settled into my workout routine with decent sleep hours he backed off, but it was nice having someone concerned about me.

 

That was why it was so strange to have him disturbing me now. Shortly before noon it reached strong enough levels to wake me up. The driving force was definitely concern over the Undersider’s job. Not dread, just eagerness about it. Eventually a failed link to the Vehicle constellation in the Celestial Forge drove me completely awake.

 

I was still exhausted, but sleep was off the table. I pondered the ethics of raiding a villain’s fridge before hunger overrode the moral quandary and I fished out a plate of cold pizza and a bottle of sprite. With my half-asleep brain I elected to try channel surfing, an activity I hadn’t engaged in since shortly after I moved out of dorms and didn’t bother with cable. It was kind of impressive that the Undersiders had managed to get a connection here, and with this good of a package of channels. Tinker knowledge made it easy to figure out. Bill it to a nearby address, run connections yourself, and you have a huge selection of media with no threat of discovery. No doubt the bill was funneled through the same mess of shell companies that their boss used for the van I had been gifted.

 

Channel surfing was not as relaxing as I had hoped. Once again this was due to my passenger. Every time I would settle on something that seemed like a decent time killer he would start getting agitated until I started changing the channels again. It was fifteen minutes of cycling through channels before I found out why.

 

I had looped past the movie stations back to the low numbers. It was here I hit one of the local stations. Honestly I probably would have stopped even without the reaction from my passenger. The subtitle plastered across the live news broadcast was more than enough to grab my attention.

 

“Live Report: Hostage Crisis at Brockton Bay Central Bank - Wards in Combat with Undersiders”

 

Fuck.

 

Chapter Text

8 Aftermath

 

It wasn’t the fact that they were committing a robbery that shocked me. Through all the buildup I had steeled myself for a much more serious job than this. Honestly I assumed it was going to be a heist, probably against a harder target than they usually hit. Maybe some tinker tech, maybe corporate secrets, possibly even some kind of art theft. If I had accepted all of those possibilities then a bank robbery should be fine.

 

But it wasn’t. This made no sense at all. This was hitting a bank during the middle of its operating hours. That was just asking for the job to go wrong, and seemingly the hero community of Brockton Bay had answered that request. I didn’t know exactly how much criminals walked away with from a job like this but I had heard it was much less than people thought. Honestly the take couldn’t be that much better than their other jobs. Given they were doing a five way split now and had dropped over twenty thousand on my services this was the kind of thing that was going to cost them money even if they were able to get away scot-free.

 

This had to be the boss, and my passenger agreed between his insufferable feelings of amusement at watching the felony in progress. What the hell was this about? It’s possible the bank was a front for some other organization, but this was Brockton Bay Central. I really doubted it was a secret Empire mob bank. It could be there was something more valuable on site, some critical item being stored there of key information being kept on the bank’s systems. If that was the case then attacking at any time other than lunch hour, you know when banks are at their most crowded, would be a better plan. There was an outside chance that this was just a vanity project. Bank robberies were a terrible idea but they were iconic. If you wanted to build reputation as a villain group then a flashy daylight robbery at an iconic location would do it. It would attract a lot more attention than you would get in reward, so I would still say that was unlikely.

 

The Undersiders were being funded by someone else. Someone who had been willing to throw huge amounts of money at a very public spectacle of a crime. A crime that by the looks of things had attracted a superhero turnout that exceeded most of Lung’s rampages. There was only one explanation that made sense. This was a distraction.

 

My passenger’s feelings confirmed it. That meant I had actually facilitated two major crimes instead of just one. And the first of them had devolved into a parahuman street brawl that was tearing up the center of the city.

 

That was probably what was really bothering me about this. I had accepted the possibility that they were going to end up against other capes on this job. I had kind of hoped it would be villains, maybe one of the gangs. If they were going to face heroes I assumed it would be someone from the Protectorate or one of the independent teams. I didn’t expect that my work would lead to a super powered brawl between a bunch of children in the middle of the city.

 

The area around the bank looked like a war zone. None of the Undersiders had the ability to cause that kind of damage, and I wouldn’t have thought the Wards did either, but the floating artillery cannon in what was clearly Kid Win’s design style begged to differ. Said tinker was collapsed in a moaning heap on the street beneath it while Regent rode his flying skateboard unsteadily towards the howitzer sized ray gun.

 

I was coming in half way through this mess, and figuring out what was going on was an exercise in frustration. For some reason Clockblocker was flying around in a bloody costume harrying Bitch’s dogs with help from Glory Girl. Grue was sending up waves of darkness into the air with his clouds already covering half of the street. Regent would occasionally pause his progress towards the cannon to wave at one of the flying capes and send them off course.

 

The feed shifted to shots of the other wards. Vista was unconscious and Gallant was struggling to move in a collapsed wreck of his armor. It looked like the dogs had used him as a chew toy, but I could recognize some of the damage as being due to one of my monomolecular blades. Probably the Bowie knife I had made for Rachel going by the size of the cuts. That could have gone very badly. A single overeager cut and he’d be lucky to still have his limbs. I was genuinely impressed Rachel would have enough restraint to go for disabling strikes.

 

It looked like Aegis was frozen under a pile of bugs, but the reporter clarified he had changed costumes with Clockblocker, which also solved the mystery of why Clockblocker appeared to be suddenly able to fly. So it was Clockblocker frozen under a pile of bugs. The high detail of that close-up showed his panicked eyes with time frozen bugs wedged in his nostrils and eyelids.

 

You know, I’m still not seeing how that power was ‘save the world’ level but after that image I doubt anyone is going to seriously underestimate Taylor. ‘Bug Control’ only sounds like a joke power until you see something like that.

 

Despite being outnumbered things seemed to be shifting in the hero’s favor. It was the advantage of having multiple high level flying brutes on your side. Grue was on the ground providing cover with waves of darkness, but it was only doing so much good. The dogs were clearly a threat and Bitch was coordinating them expertly but they were still land bound and their opponents could just swoop out of their reach. Regent had to regularly pause his ascent to throw off attacks headed his way or save his teammates. There was no sign of Taylor or Lisa anywhere.

 

Glory Girl suddenly broke off from the fight and smashed through the front doors of the bank. Without her interference Regent was able to reach the cannon and start pinning down Aegis with explosive blasts. The output of that cannon was clearly excessive, and not just for a Ward. A core tenant of the unwritten rules is ‘try to keep things nonlethal’. A weapon like that might be an appropriate response to Lung, Hook wolf, Fenja or Menja, and maybe Mush when he got a large construct together. Against the Undersiders it was brutal and borderline illegal escalation.

 

Unless they had opened the fight using my knives. In that case the gloves were off and everything was on the table. I was worried about that, but those weapons weren’t exactly subtle in their operation. There would be a lot more body parts lying around if they had decided to use them on the Wards. Even now none of them were holding their weapons, not even Bitch who’d had to roll away from repeated lunges as Aegis tried to pick her off of her seat on one of the dog’s back.

 

Props needed to be given to Aegis. Even with the odds at three to one, six to one counting the dogs, he was holding his own. I didn’t know much about his powers other than he had the Alexandria package flying brick thing, but he seemed to be racking up physical damage without letting it bother him. One of the bites on his chest was exposing lung, but he seemed perfectly fine. Functionally fine. He looked like a flying accident victim. If that’s the way his ‘durability’ worked then it cast a dark explanation for why his normal costume was red. Somehow I don’t think Clockblocker’s going to want that suit back at the end of this. The white plating really made the bloods splatters stand out clearly.

 

The back and forth continued for a while, but the balance had shifted in the Undersider’s favor. The rain was still coming down, but nowhere near as heavy as it had been this morning. Mainly it served to dramatically highlight the cannon’s shots or the impact of Bitch’s dogs when they launched themselves to crazy heights then slammed into the wet ground. It was an elaborate game of keep away that even the reporter was having trouble dressing up.

 

The shot suddenly shifted to the bank entrance where Grue was supporting Tattletale and a person who had to be Taylor was striding out in full costume. She struck an imposing figure in her black and gray bodysuit with her yellow lenses gleaming and my blade at her hip. The hair that she’d tried to hide behind was flaring like a mane and she walked with a confidence that I never would have thought her capable of. She seemed like a completely different person from the girl I’d met two days ago.

 

Regent drove Aegis back with a chain of blasts from the cannon and Grue buried him and most of the street in darkness. Regent lowered himself to the street and the Team clustered for some conference. He then drew my parrying dagger and sliced apart the flying skateboard.

 

Ok, this was a mess of a situation and I couldn’t help but hate myself for the feeling, but my gut wrenched at seeing that. All the technology I had was still based on somewhat conventional physics. I had flight systems I could build but they used thrust. Lift, and aerodynamics. That was a proper antigravity system and I would have loved to have gotten my hands on it. I really hoped that was my tinker powers talking because while watching a major crime and the destruction of a teenager’s personal property my thoughts really shouldn’t have been ‘No! Don’t break that! Steal it! Steal it for me!’.

 

Multiple cameras were focused on the Undersiders as one by one they climbed up and secured themselves to the dogs. Suddenly Taylor froze and lurched to the side. The darkness behind her exploded as Aegis surged out past her. Taylor had sidestepped what must have been his blind charge but he pulled himself into a tight circle and shot at her before any of the mounted Undersiders could react.

 

I hadn’t noticed her hand drop to the hilt of the blade in the excitement of Aegis’s mad charge.  The aftermath was another matter. Apparently he didn’t notice it either as he made his flying grab at Taylor. Her action was barely visible on the news cameras. The aftermath was another story. Aegis continued forward on pure momentum as his body flew apart, pieces detaching and dropping off as he moved through the air. It looked like he’d been sliced into at least half a dozen pieces. His head was severed, but not cleanly. Most of his neck and one shoulder was still attached. Likewise both arms flew off, cut at different points. Additional slashes had split his lower torso and taken off both his legs. In the end the only thing left was a somehow confused looking half-torso with one shoulder and a bit of arm hanging in the air. It bobbed back and forth seemingly at a loss at what to do.

 

Taylor stood in the aftermath of her act, hair billowing around her and raindrops bouncing off the humming blade of my knife. She looked down at the mess with cold resolve, then sheathed the weapon and swung up onto the dog. That was the last image before the entire street was covered in inky black darkness.

 

The news broadcast cut back to the studio where the anchor frantically apologized for what they had just shown. He also assured the viewers that Aegis would be fine once he received medical attention, though that seemed to be read from a teleprompter with a less than convincing tone of voice.

 

I can’t fully express the storm of emotions I was struggling with at that moment. Anger. Yes, anger was a prominent one. Anger at this whole situation. Anger at Tattletale for dragging me into this. Anger at the Undersiders’ boss for setting this up. Anger at the stupidity of agreeing to rob a bank in the middle of the day. Anger at Tattletale for pushing everyone towards it. Anger at the Wards for their stupid tactics and escalation. Anger at Aegis for not taking the loss and instead deciding to make that one last stupid charge. Anger at Taylor for using the knife when she had a perfectly serviceable baton that would have ended things without a pile of body parts on the local news. Anger at the world for just being this stupid.

 

And if I focused on how angry I was with everyone else maybe it would let me ignore how much I hated myself for getting into this mess. Yes, all that stupidity on other people’s part had led to this but I was a completely willing participant in it. I had agreed to this. I didn’t know it would end like this, but I knew what the world was like. I had been so stupid. I had trusted that things would work out. I should have known better.

 

Now the very first appearance of my technology had it shredding a Ward. Aegis was the kind of popular kid hero who gave safety speeches to kindergarteners and had his face on posters for the Wards program. He had an image the PRT put front and center. It didn’t matter if he would be fine ‘eventually’ because now, thanks to me, that image was a charnel mound. If I hadn’t destroyed his future as a cape then I had at least completely rewritten the public perception of it.

 

God damn it. This was entirely my fault. When I was in college, when I had friends, we would game on Saturday nights. Sometimes Dungeons and Dragons, sometimes various cape RPGs. It was easy to get caught up in the games and a lot of times they went into the early morning. One thing that became clear is no good ideas happened after 3 am. Seriously, some of the stupidest actions you’d ever seen came out around that time. People would forget their abilities, try ridiculous plans, or just make the worst decisions possible. In gaming it was a joke. When outfitting villains with weapons it was a disaster.

 

That blade was fully enchanted. I had worked wind runes into the entire design, from the cross guard to the tip. Decadence had made engraving the runes easy and apparently a lot more effective than I anticipated. I wanted to blame Taylor for this, but I was the one that handed her a magic sword and hoped for the best. Oh, and I’d basically done the same thing with her baton as well.

 

“Fuck.”

 

My word echoed around the empty factory loft as the full weight of all of my decisions settled onto my shoulders.

 

“Fuck!”

 

All of this wasn’t helped by my passenger’s continued irreverence at the entire situation. I had facilitated a major cape fight and he didn’t care. I had built the weapon that reduced the leader of the Wards to a pile of bloody chunks and he didn’t care. I had made Taylor, that shy quiet girl, appear as a ruthless and terrifyingly dangerous villain and for some reason he felt that was appropriate.

 

“Fuck you!”

 

In frustration I hurled my half eaten slice of villain pizza across the room where it hit the kitchen wall with a wet smack. I had trusted my passenger. I had followed his lead and this is what it got me? You’re supposed to know what’s going to happen, to be able to look out for danger. Is this what you wanted? After all of that you don’t feel any regrets?

 

Nothing, just the same irrelevant confidence as before, like this was supposed to happen. I grit my teeth and focused on keeping my breathing calm. The newscaster was going on about the attack. No more clips were being shown, probably because of how the encounter finished. I focused on my passenger’s feelings, trying to find something, anything that expressed any level of concern over this situation.

 

The newscast cut away from the bank story and suddenly I felt it. A spike of concern, worry, even terror.

 

“Now? Seriously, fucking now is when you think something is wrong?”

 

I was shouting myself horse to the empty hideout, but it was making me feel just the slightest bit better. Finally, after all of that my passenger finally felt something approaching concern for the situation. I ignored the TV droning on about an amber alert and focused on my passenger. There was actually a sense of urgency and borderline regret. Good. Fucking good that you finally are willing to acknowledge that there might be something less than ideal happening here.

 

I couldn’t figure out what part of this he was so concerned about. I had been given no hint of this coming and suddenly he realized something was wrong. I was too angry to be able to figure out what the associations were. To be perfectly honest I was taking some dark satisfaction from how agitated he was becoming. Suddenly there was something about the situation he had a problem with. I couldn’t tell what it was so I sat fuming on the couch and watched my passenger cycle through various shades of panic and anxiety as the news played in the background.

 

Eventually the news changed over from the story of the missing girl to a report on how traffic was being held up through all of downtown thanks to Grue’s darkness choking the streets. My passenger’s frantic panic slowly melted down to despair and then reservation. My own enjoyment at his distress was also giving way to the gaping question of what to do next.

 

I could cut ties with the Undersiders. I mean, technically they hadn’t broken the conventions I’d given them. Thanks to the bullshit that was Aegis’s powers what Taylor had done was technically nonlethal force. I kind of hated the Wards and PRT for that. They put out a cape that could only be stopped by recreating a seventies slasher movie and bet that no villain would be willing to go that far.

 

But none of the problems I’d signed up to deal with had been addressed in any way. In fact after that performance Taylor was probably in even more danger. She had just upped her threat profile massively, and thus made keeping her safe that much harder.

 

Walking away might make me feel better for a moment, but in the end I’d just be piling one failure on top of another.

 

My power activated again as I felt the Forge move. The Time constellation was approaching again and my power connected to a mote called ‘Machinist’.

 

Damn it, I wish I had this power a day ago. No, I wish I had this power a week ago.  The first power I’d gotten from the Time constellation was not actually helpful in reducing crafting time. It was connected to a serious power, but ultimately was just an intelligence booster with decent mechanical knowledge. This power actually sped up my work.

 

When I say sped up what I mean is to a degree that is truly ludicrous. Twelve hours would be more than enough time to rebuild and upgrade and entire aircraft. This would be powerful on its own, but combined with my other abilities it approached the absurd. What’s more it came with even more technical knowledge. New methods of robotics, flight systems, vehicle designs, weapons, power armor, and more. Even high level experimental technology was now on the table.

 

Remember when I said I couldn’t build gray goo? That’s not the case anymore. My nanomachine projects just got accelerated from needing years and millions in resources with team support to something I can do on my own in a few months. That can cover everything from instant fabrication of machinery to personal enhancements that outstrip most superpowers to a full on apocalypse if I wanted it.

 

I took a breath. This is what I had to remember. This is what I was working towards. Every step forward, no matter how ignoble, would bring me closer to the Celestial Forge. I just had to hold out until then. I had to manage until I had enough power. Machinist wasn’t even a particularly powerful mote and it had brought me closer to my goals than I could have imagined.

 

So rather than storm out I stayed in the villains’ hideout. They were coming to celebrate and as much as that didn’t sit well with me I needed details on what had happened. I needed to start taking more agency in my life and this would be the first step towards that.

 

I did my best to get some more rest, but I was too wound up for proper sleep. Eventually my passenger pulled himself out of his funk, but seemed a bit more reserved than before. Whatever blind enthusiasm he had felt for the Undersiders was either diminished or he was keeping a lid on it for my sake. Either way I appreciated the gesture. It would take a lot before I would be ready to trust his opinion on any villain again, but it was a step in the right direction.

 

It was much later in the afternoon when the Undersiders returned. They were out of costume and uniformly looked worn out, but mostly in good spirits. That is, except for Taylor. With the cold indifference she had displayed to her act on the news broadcast I was worried about her, about the kind of person I had given those weapons too. Instead of the conquering hero she looked shell shocked. She was pale and Tattletale was clearly supporting the girl. The thinker was also sporting a clearly injured shoulder, but was mobile enough that it was either a sprain or a dislocation that had been reset. The groups eyes fell on me as they crested the stairs.

 

I drew my gaze across them, making eye contact with each one in turn. “So, I caught an interesting news story while you were out.”

 

Brian nodded slowly. Tattletale’s eyes jumped over to the kitchen where my hurled pizza had left a stain of sauce on the wall. “Anything you have a problem with?”

 

Yes, several. But that doesn’t matter now. “I’d be lying if I said everything sat right, but it’s nothing I didn’t sign up for.”

 

Brian nodded and a note of concern left the group. “Glad to hear that.”

 

“So, care to fill me in on the details the news left out?” I hoped I didn’t come across to obvious.

 

That broke the tension enough for everyone to settle back into their usual roles. Alec grabbed a laptop and lounged on the corner of the sofa. Brian gathered a pile of leftover takeout and drinks for everyone. Taylor held back and seemed to make herself invisible, but this time with a whole new tone to her apprehension, and Tattletale ran around managing things while also getting me the second half of my blood money.

 

Their recap of the robbery took the place of our celebration. Everyone was too sore and worn out to want to go anywhere in this weather. Instead it turned into a group story session with details being offered, corrected, commented on, and joked about. That’s how I learned about Taylor’s idea to keep the customers from doing anything dangerous.

 

“Black widow spiders?”

 

The girl nodded. She had slowly opened up over the course of the conversation. Without asking Tattletale had brought her a cup of tea that she was sipping while barely seeming to register its presence.

 

“I thought it would keep them calm, stop anyone from doing something that would get themselves hurt.”

 

I suppose from an external perspective ‘calm’ and ‘scared shitless’ look largely the same. “Then what happened?”

 

“Everything went fine until the Wards showed up.”

 

“You weren’t expecting a response? Isn’t Arcadia like right around the corner?” Arcadia is known as the Wards school even outside the city. They are frankly ridiculously well-funded on every level to the point where I’m pretty sure every other school in the city and surrounding area hates them on principle. I know that was the attitude in Captain’s Hill and we only saw them when the school teams would play each other. 

 

Tattletale shook her head. “I was expecting a few of them, but we got pretty much the whole team. Everyone but Shadow Stalker.”

 

My passenger was a lot less overwhelming now, but still had his distaste for that cape. I was so focused on keeping my other feelings in line that the reaction must have shown.

“You have a history with her?” Brian looked interested.

 

“No, it’s my power, kind of gives me a bad feeling about her.”

 

Alec snorted. “Makes sense. She’s a psycho. Shot Brian in the stomach with a real crossbow bolt. After she was a ward and was supposed to be avoiding that shit. And then he blead all over...”

 

“Your new couch. We know, you never stop talking about it. Next time I get impaled I’ll make sure to avoid your favorite furniture.”

 

I kept my reaction muted, but that was actually another point for my passenger. That was a sign there was something seriously dangerous about that cape, and it was comforting to know at least some of his instincts could be relied upon.

 

“So did they negotiate for the hostages?”

 

“No, they just lined up ready to jump us if we made a break for it.”

 

“Seriously? That was lunch hour. There would have to have been dozens of people in there.” I didn’t mention how stupid it was to pick that time for a robbery.

 

“Forty counting tellers and staff.”

 

“So did the police contact you?” I needed to figure out how this went so wrong.

 

“Parahuman crime gets handed over to the PRT. The cops were there but they stayed back.”

 

“So it was a PRT negotiator?”

 

“Nope.” Tattletale popped the word. “Just the Wards. And Glory Girl.”

 

I knew she was needling me, but that was insane. The city left the safety of everyone in the bank in the hands of a bunch of teenagers. Teenagers were idiots. Teenagers were idiots well beyond the point when they were teenagers, I was living proof of that. I’m pretty sure the stupid doesn’t drain out until age twenty five, at least if auto insurance rates are anything to go by.

 

Hell, I’m pretty sure Vista isn’t even a teenager yet. Why the hell were they making calls around something like this? Did the PRT seriously think the ability to punch good gave you proficiency in defusing hostage situations? I may be frustrated with the Undersiders and this city in general, but this was demonstrating a level of stupid that made my passenger’s aversion to the PRT seemed to have something of a reasonable foundation.

 

So they were boxed in and between Vista and Glory girl had no hope of escape even with Brian’s cover. Clockblocker would have been able to lock down any of them with one hit, and the tinkers had them covered with ranged firepower. With the lack of negotiation they probably expected the Undersiders to either give up or make a desperate run where they could be picked off. That is if they didn’t charge in. That would have been a stupid decision for the Wards, but I wasn’t thinking very highly of their tactical acumen at the moment.

 

“Then what happened?”

 

Alec looked up from his laptop. “That’s when Taylor suggested we take the fight to them.”

 

I turned towards the girl and she shrugged slightly. “We had to do something they wouldn’t expect the Undersiders to do, and we didn’t really have any other options.”

 

I felt a bit of guilt at that. I was a tinker. I was all about options. But short of outfitting everyone with jetpacks there was nothing I could make that wouldn’t have defaulted the situation to another flavor of combat. There was also irritation at the Wards. If you want to trap a villain that’s one thing, but they set it up in a way that encouraged fight over flight and just trusted it would work because ‘the Undersiders run, they don’t fight’.

 

I wondered if the weapons I made pushed them over the edge on that decision, but realistically speaking they would have tried to fight their way out regardless. As depressing as it was the cost/benefit relationship worked out in favor of at least trying to make a go of it.

 

After that I got details of the early part of the battle. Tattletale had seen through the costume change which would have let them freeze at least one of the dogs. That would effectively have ended the fight since there was no way I could see Rachel abandoning one of her animals. Tattletale filled me in on Aegis’s ‘invulnerability’ which was of such middling nature he would probably have been better named Zombie Boy. Trust the PRT to obscure things through appearances.

 

Taylor was light on the details of how she brought down Clockblocker, which I was fine with. That close-up on the news had been enough. Alec took credit for dropping ‘Browbeat’ who had apparently been giving Brian some trouble.

 

“New cape.” Tattletale explained. “Biomancy to bulk up and tactile telekinesis.”

 

“Didn’t help him against this baby.” Alec spun his Taser around and rested it on his shoulder and action that drew eye rolls from the other Undersiders.

 

That triggered an accounting of how the other Wards were taken out one by one like a PG-13 slasher film. Brian had tricked Vista to get close to her by obscuring himself with darkness, then punched a pre-teen girl’s lights out. Kid Win had apparently been able to teleport his cannon into the battle, just in case my tech envy wasn’t strong enough already, but Alec had caused him to fall off. Twenty feet, onto asphalt. That was potentially very lethal. I would feel worse for him, but he was the one who defaulted to deadly force first. As for the other tinker that was Rachel’s story.

 

The big girl was unusually engaged while telling it, and her dogs were picking up on her excitement. “So after that girl made the street trip Judas Gallant hit me with one of his fucking mind blasts.” She grit her teeth, but there was a vindictive edge to it. “Pissed me off so much. Probably thought it would make me stupid. People think that.” She gave me an accusatory look, but I just gestured for her to go on.

 

“Didn’t go straight for him, got Angelica to take him by surprise, then I got him once he was down.” Her hand dropped to the handle of the knife I gave her.

 

I tried not to look overly concerned. “Is he alright.”

 

She smirked. “I cut all the moving bits and pistons and stuff for his armor. He’s fine, but that suit’s trash now.”

 

That was a huge relief. It also demonstrated a lot more control and foresight that anyone would have given her credit for. I could tell Rachel wasn’t dumb. I doubted her formal education even finished middle school, but she had been looking after herself for a long time. I would be willing to bet that her power came with some understanding of anatomy and biomechanics. She had been able to hit systems on the armor without killing Gallant and with a weapon she’d only had for a few hours.

 

Alec suddenly chortled. “You guys have to see this.”

 

He spun the laptop around and showed us the gif displayed on the screen. It was a looped clip from the fight of Bitch taking down Gallant. I could tell she was cutting into his armor, but because of the angle of the shot, a partial obscuring of both capes, and the particular movement it looked like something else entirely. There was no nice way of putting it, it looked like an intimate act with Gallant as a less than willing participant.

 

“Wow. That’s really something.”

 

“Hold on, there’s more. He scrolled down the page past more variations of same gif and a few captioned pictures of either cape. He stopped on one that had Rachel’s masked face photo shopped over the head of a woman in a rather famous seen, captioned “Welcome gentle Sir Gallant. Welcome to the Castle Anthrax.”

 

“I don’t get it.” Rachel was looking quizzically at the picture.

 

“You, uh, you don’t see memes like that too often.” I tried to put aside the fact that I may have destroyed another hero’s reputation.

 

Tattletale clarified. “That’s because people posting anything like that about a Ward on PHO get banned rather quickly.”

 

“Spoilsports.” Alec turned the laptop around and kept browsing.

 

“So when all that was going on what was happening in the bank?”

 

“Panacea tried to kill Taylor with a fire extinguisher.” Alec quipped without looking up from his laptop.

 

I blinked at that. “Sorry, what? What? When did she get there?”

 

“From the start. Turns out Lisa was prancing around five feet from the most famous healer on the east coast and didn’t notice a thing.”

 

“Fuck off Alec, there was a lot going on.”

 

Great. Panacea. Because this wasn’t complicated enough both in terms of the local cape scene and my passenger’s insight to specific capes. I could tell he was holding back his reactions because I wasn’t getting the confusing mess she normally brought on. That said he still didn’t feel good about this. “So what, did you swarm her with bugs?” I tried not to imagine the city and probably country’s top healer enduring the Clockblocker special.

 

Taylor shook her head. “No, she did something to my bugs that interfered with my powers, some kind of feedback thing. It didn’t end until Lisa pointed it out and I killed the bugs she modified.”

 

That was bad. And unexpected. Panacea’s capacity beyond healing was unknown, but the theories got kind of wild. The problem was that disruption of master control was incredibly dangerous. Taylor had enough confidence in her power that she was able to plant deadly spiders on everyone in a building without the slightest concern that one would get away from her. I knew she was towards the higher end of master power, but that was fine and consistent control. Messing with that without understanding it could have resulted in a corpse pile. It seemed recklessness in the city’s heroes wasn’t limited to the Wards.

 

“I didn’t know she could do that.”

 

Taylor shuddered. “That and more. She was threatening to give me cancer or a heart attack, or just screw with my weight and taste buds.”

 

I tried not to react to that, but it was bad. There was the fact that it confirmed some of the theories about her power’s reach, but mostly it was the blatant escalation. When I had watched this on the news I figured the Undersiders had gone off the rails somewhere during the robbery, but this clusterfuck was clearly a team effort. Those threats easily constituted maiming, which is part of the unwritten rules. Though given how much actual crimefighting that girl did compared to her charity work, did she even know about those conventions?

 

One thing that was clear was that Amy Dallon was a mess. I had actively been avoiding picking through my passenger’s reactions to her because there was a huge amount and so much of it was bad. I did know there was concern, and concern on a timeline. That girl was close to the edge and without much support. From what I was hearing this situation was the last thing she needed.

 

“What happened next?”

 

Taylor seemed reluctant to talk about this. “I was really out of it because she was messing with me through my bugs. She was calling someone, so I got my baton out and tried to knock the phone away.”

 

“The phone. With that baton.” Oh dear God. “Does she still have a hand?”

 

“She tried to block it with the fire extinguisher.” Taylor had used the word ‘tried’. I considered what I had built into that baton and what would likely have happened. “It kind of exploded when I hit it.” Yep, that sounds about right. Taylor looked absolutely mortified by her next statement. “I may have broken her wrist as well.”

 

“Compound fracture, four places and a sprain on the other hand. She was pissed.”

 

“I didn’t know she could swear like that.” There was no humor in Taylor’s tone.

 

“It’s always the nice ones.”

 

Taylor swallowed. “That’s when Glory Girl smashed in.”

 

I nodded “I saw that happen.” They had been the ones to walk out of the bank, not the city’s top Alexandria package. Whatever they did I really hoped it wasn’t a warmup for what happened with Aegis. “How did you get out of that?”

“She held Panacea at knifepoint.”

 

I looked at Taylor who seemed to be fluctuating between shame and determination. “What, with my knife?”

 

“I don’t think she knew what she was dealing with, and I wasn’t about to demonstrate it. We kind of stared each other down until Lisa got back.”

 

“Back from where?”

 

She just smiled at me. “Secrets of the craft.”

 

So potentially the real reason for this entire endeavor. Or a target of opportunity, or she’s just messing with me. God I hate this.

 

My power moved again and made another connection to the Resources and Durability constellation. The ability was called ‘Rationing’. It essentially let me take the ‘every part of the buffalo’ approach to my work. Nothing was wasted anymore. Every scrap of metal, every cast off screw, I could find a use for all of it. Nothing was ever going to be overlooked or wasted again. Effectively it let me push my resources to the absolute maximum value I could possibly extract from them.

 

It provided a great way to stretch my limited resources. I would now be buying my own supplies, and this would let me get the most I could from them. It would also reduce the amount I’d have to purchase. I could do my best to keep my purchases innocuous, but there was always the chance something would set off an alert. Minimizing the volume would be really helpful with that.

 

“She tipped me off about the bugs and managed to needle them long enough for us to get an opening.”

 

I didn’t like the way she said needle. I doubted it was as simple as teasing the sisters about their fashion sense, and with how far Tattletale could conceivably dig that could have gotten really bad. I didn’t think Taylor was in the mood to go into anymore details and doubted asking Tattletale directly would yield any results. I pushed that aside and moved on. “How’d you manage Glory Girl? The blades aren’t good against force fields and I doubt even a full power swing from the baton could punch through her defenses.”

 

Lisa looked particularly smug. “Not exactly. Her force field shorts out after each major hit. Gives a few seconds of vulnerability, so Taylor was able to swarm her.” That was interesting. That meant it functioned basically the same way my Force Field formula did, only without the auto restore function she was blessed with. “After that we headed outside and well, I’m sure you saw her performance.”

 

Taylor looked like she wanted to crawl into her clothes and disappear. I felt largely the same way and found myself leaning into my passenger’s reactions to avoid showing it. He still didn’t have the level of discomfort with what happened to Aegis that I did. Tattletale smiled at me and I had to wonder how much she was reading.

 

“He saw it, the news saw it. And by the looks of things half the internet will have seen it.” Alec kept scrolling through a page on his laptop.

 

“Yeah, that was a striking scene.” I kept my tone neutral.

 

“You think it was excessive?” Taylor asked the room in general, as if slapchopping a hero was something that happened every day.

 

“It was probably the only way to have stopped him. If Aegis won’t back down when outmatched then he can’t complain about people escalating against him.”

 

Tattletale was probably right but I doubt the public will see it like that. I decided I needed to change the subject. “How did you break the field?”

 

“Lisa shot her.”

 

I blinked. “Seriously?”

 

“Yeah, it was enough to bring down her defenses.”

 

“You didn’t mention you carried a gun.”

 

“It’s a hold out.” It’s also against the spirit of the unwritten rules unless it’s tinker tech. You can get away with it against brutes, but knowing a cape carries one puts them on shaky ground. You found behavior like that in the Empire, and considering some of the powers capes threw around it was largely a stylistic choice rather than a force limiter.

 

Was the problem that I felt left out? I knew so damn much about firearms that I could have managed all kinds of modifications in the time allowed. I mean, giving out more weapons didn’t sound like it would have made things better, but I could have added some reduced lethality options to it.

 

This was a tinker rabbit hole that I couldn’t get stuck in. We had covered the entire fight up to Taylor’s dramatic finish and no one was that keen to make the girl re-live that. There hadn’t been any comments on it, but Taylor was still clearly on edge. An afternoon of conversation, tea, and friends had helped her relax to some extent, but it obviously bothered her.

 

That was a big relief for me. There was actually someone else here that was treating this event like it was serious. I couldn’t expect much from Rachel, Brian, or Tattletale, but it looked like Taylor was grounded enough to recognize the significance of what happened. Maybe there was something to my passenger’s regard for her.

 

“Everyone, you’re not going to believe this.” Alec looked positively ecstatic. “PHO has threads about the Undersider’s new tinker, including pictures of him.”

 

My blood ran cold and my mind spun. How? There was no way I could conceive of this happening, not unless we were totally compromised. How could this possibly happen? I had only been around the Undersiders in costume twice. If there were any cameras the first time I would have heard about it by now and the second time I had unmasked. There was no way this made any sense.

 

There was a ripple of panic and concern through the Undersiders except for Tattletale who just looked frustrated with Alec. He let the confusion build before turning the laptop around.

 

“Behold, the Undersider’s new tinker, named by his fans. Presenting Lord Khepri.”

 

The screen showed a picture of Taylor standing in the rain in front of the bank holding my knife. Beneath it was a list of details including descriptors of the Undersiders’ new equipment, the items ‘Lord Khepri’ was confirmed to carry, theories about the composition of ‘his’ costume, notes about ‘his’ capabilities, and a note that an official statement from the PRT was pending.

 

“They think I’m a tinker? They think I’m a guy?” I couldn’t tell which of those statements bothered her more.

 

“Yeah, I wonder why.” Alec drawled. “I mean, this new cape in a professionally made costume shows up in the group at the same time they all get new tinker tech equipment, and that cape uses equipment that’s like what the rest of the team uses only better. Why would they think the new cape is a tinker? I can’t imagine.”

 

“But I control bugs. How can they think I’m a tinker?”

 

“There are like five theories being argued about over how you control insects, what kind of technology you use, how you interface with it. Fascinating stuff if you’re boring and have no life.”

 

“Tinkers can do that?”

 

“Controller tinkers trigger from long term isolation, detachment, and depression. It normally results in some kind of drone or minion based technology, but outlier cases can result in specializations that influence living creatures.”

 

The entire room turned to look at me and I realized I had spoken without thinking. That was not a good topic for me and I immediately regretted opening my mouth. Almost instinctively I connected myself up to my passenger and felt the support and compassion that had kept me going since my trigger. With everything else that link entailed I kind of hated myself for leaning on it, but I couldn’t afford to deal with that right now.

 

“I researched that stuff pretty heavily around after my trigger.” Which was a more believable explanation than how I had actually gotten that information. I left it at that and the group seemed to understand and back off. Alec as ever was a helpful diversion.

 

“Taylor, you have fan art! And fangirls!”

 

He showed off a new thread that had various drawings of Taylor in her costume, though the proportions were clearly leaning towards more of a male body type than she had. Taylor didn’t exactly have a curvaceous figure but it seemed one picture with an unflattering angle from the news footage had been enough for the forum community to run with. And they were running pretty hard considering the handful of entries that were just red boxes with the words ‘This image removed for violating community guidelines.” in them.

 

“Any idea what Khepri means?”

 

Tattletale turned to Brian. “Egyptian scarab god.”

 

I whistled. “That’s the big leagues.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

Tattletale jumped in before I could reply. “Mythology based cape names go almost exclusively to villains. Anyone named after a God is particularly significant. This is actually a huge deal in the villain community, particularly because you didn’t pick it yourself.”

 

Taylor looked incredibly conflicted at that.

 

“When the truth comes out you’re going to break all these poor girl’s hearts. Well, eighty five to ninety percent of their hearts.”

 

It wasn’t much of a joke, but it shook off some of the dower mood that had settled over us. I could tell Taylor was still concerned and frankly so was I, The ‘keep Taylor safe’ objective would not be helped in the slightest by people thinking she was also the most valuable and exploitable type of cape in the world.

 

I had gotten the information I’d been looking for and the day was winding down. Rachel was the first to leave shortly after and Alec dove into a video game to the exclusion of the rest of the world. Taylor said her goodbyes and slipped downstairs. I made to follow shortly after her, but Brian intercepted me on my way out.

 

“I wanted to ask something. You know how you mentioned repair times?”

 

“Yeah?” Tattletale was hanging back watching our conversation.

 

He pulled out his karambit. There was a fracture that snapped off the blade right at the point where it curved. “Faced down against Browbeat. Lisa said his biomancy would stand up to normal blows but the knife would be enough to cause him some trouble without killing him.” His face turned grim. “You were right about them not being good against force fields. He was able to catch the knife and break it.”

 

“Tactile telekinesis. Pure luck, really. They were fighting in Grue’s darkness.” Tattletale chimed in.

 

I looked at the torn metal. That was cape powers at work, low end hypermaterials weren’t enough to hold out against the variety of abilities you’d see in this business. I focused on the knife with my detection power. Part of it was here and part was somewhere towards the bay. Whatever broke off didn’t stay at the bank. I could get a better feeling if I got closer, but it was a safe bet to say it was at the PHQ probably in either an evidence locker or a lab. Unfortunate, but it would sort itself out.

 

“The Taser did the trick though.” Alec called from the couch without looking up from his game.

 

“This thing, it’s actually a really good weapon. I hate to bring this up so soon, but do you think it can be repaired?”

 

I nodded. “No problem. It’ll just take a couple of days.”

 

He looked relieved. “Sorry to dump the work on you right after a rush job. I can pay you out of my share. When can you get started?”

 

“Started on what?”

 

He looked confused. “The repair. When can you start?”

 

“There’s no reason for me to take it. Just stick it in a drawer or something.”

 

“What?”

 

That had everyone’s attention. Alec was looking at me from the couch.

 

What was this about? I made these things in my workshop. They had fiat backing. “I told you, they break and it will take two days to repair. Just put it aside and wait it out. There’s no reason for me to take it off your hands.”

 

“Hold on.” Tattletale had a pained expression on her face. “Are you telling me this stuff is self-repairing?”

 

“Yes?” I looked around at their faces. “Was I not clear about that?”

“No!” her voice pitched up sharply. “No you weren’t because that is not possible.”

 

I reviewed my interactions with them. Ok, I hadn’t spelled this out, but between my passenger and the rush order I’d been pretty distracted and damn it if I wasn’t still exhausted from this morning and the emotional rollercoaster of this day hadn’t made things any better. I didn’t need to deal with this now. “All the parahuman powers on the planet and there’s not one person who can make something that repairs itself?”

 

“There might be, but this isn’t it.” She pointed at the broken weapon. “It’s a good knife, and nicely designed knife, but it’s not going to fix itself.”

 

“How do you know? I thought I was the tinker here.” I had a lot of pent up resentment at this situation I was ready to lay on Tattletale regardless of how much she deserved it. Fortunately my passenger seemed to find a frustrated Tattletale somewhat amusing, so for once we were in alignment.

 

“Half of it’s gone. If anything was happening I’d be able to pick up on it.”

 

How much confidence did she have in her power? “Like you could pick up on Panacea being inside the bank?”

 

She ground her teeth together. “I wasn’t looking specifically for her. I am at this, and that thing is not repairing itself.”

 

The other Undersiders were watching this display. I could lay off, but that wouldn’t resolve things and would just cause more problems when it repaired. I needed to explain this away.

 

“I told you, it takes two days.”

 

“You expect me to believe you sold us self-repairing tinker tech? The only self-repairing tinker tech in the world?”

 

“It’s a chunk of metal, not some finely calibrated power armor. And I know that you know that’s crap. There’s a bunch of tinker tech that sustains itself.”

 

“Not outside of containment zones!”

 

“Sure, if you want to take the worst examples.” I could demonstrate this with my key, but I want didn’t shine any light on that. “Tell you what, that things still broken in two days and I’ll make you enough knives to supply a kitchen, no questions asked.”

 

Tattletale gaped at me. Brian and Alec gave her a questioning look. She rubbed her forehead and gave me a dismissive gesture. “He believes it, so maybe? I don’t know. Fuck it, I’m going to bed.” Before she left she turned and gave them a hard look. “Everyone, seriously, look after that stuff.” She stormed off and slammed her door behind her.

 

“Easy to read, Huh?” Alec called after her.

 

“You know, you should probably have led your sales pitch with that.”

 

“And you should probably give more than forty one hours lead time when you have a project like this.” I sighed. I would probably be facing some repercussions for this. Depending on how Tattletale played it I could be getting some less than welcome attention. I would have to be a lot more careful, but at least now I had the capacity to look after myself. I was done being a passive player in this arrangement.

 

Sleep deprivation did not lead to the best decision making. Unfortunately I wasn’t done with the day yet and would have a busy couple of days ahead of me. When I said my token goodbyes and slipped outside it seemed the day wasn’t done with me either.

 

“Uh, hey.” Taylor had been waiting in the shadows near the side door of the factory. The girl was a far cry from the terrifying figure she had struck during the bank heist as she stooped in the alley holding a bundle in front of her.

 

“Hi Taylor.” She was clearly working up to something and I decided to give her the time she needed to find her feet. When I watched the broadcast I had been furious at her, but that was mostly a screen for how angry I was for creating the situation. She was the only one who seemed seriously upset by what happened. Maybe everyone else was much better actors than I gave them credit for, but I think it was more likely that the other Undersiders had something of a stronger commitment to the villain lifestyle than Taylor did.

 

The girl straightened her back and thrust the bundle forward. “I wanted to return these.”

 

It was an old sweatshirt wrapped around my knife and baton, including the wrist sheath. There was a lot of intensity in the act and I couldn’t imagine what was going through her head. Seeing as she was probably the only person on this team who might give me a straight answer I decided to see if I could find out what.

 

“Can I ask why?”

 

She took a moment to steel herself. “You, you gave us conditions for working with the team. I broke those today. You deserve to have these back.”

 

Well this wasn’t something I expected. My passenger still liked Taylor, but since the heist he was at least clamping down on the angelic choir nonsense. I took a breath and considered how to approach this.

 

“Actually you didn’t.” She gave me a confused look. “Technically.”

 

“Technically?”

 

“Technically is a dicey space with the unwritten rules, but what you did was technically a nonlethal act. What happened today, there’s a lot of blame to go around and I share a good chunk of that.”

 

She gave me a questioning look. “I shouldn’t have given you that sword, or that baton without making sure you knew what you were doing. All of this has been a lot to deal with, I was rushed and sleep deprived and I’ve been dealing with...” I cut myself off.

 

“Your thinker power?”

 

That was something I wanted to dance around. “Yeah, I’ve been having some problems with it. I’m not sure everything I get from it is as accurate as I thought.”

 

She looked distinctly uncomfortable. “If it’s any consolation I don’t think Lisa’s works as well as she thinks it does either.”

 

“Maybe.” I hope. “Anyway, you need to hold on to those.” She looked at me, then at the bundle of items in her hands. “I hate to say this, but there’s no going back.” For either of us. “Everyone you run into from now on is going to assume you have that equipment. You’re going to need it just to manage what’s coming.”

 

She looked practically ill at the concept.

 

“Take it, practice, get a better handle on how to use it.”

 

She nodded. “Are you alright with what happened today?”

 

That was a hell of a question. No, I wasn’t, but I was going forward regardless. “I’ll find a way to deal with it.”

 

That seemed to be enough for her. We went our separate ways with her heading deeper into the Docks while I looped towards downtown. I would find a way to deal with it, but I was planning to handle that in a distinctly more direct way.

 

I had important work to do.

 

Chapter Text

Interlude: Amy

 

Amy Dallon was in agony. Once the adrenalin had worn off the true extent of her injuries became brutally clear. She had refused painkillers until after the Wards were treated. She couldn’t afford to have her focus compromised. She couldn’t afford to make a mistake. As soon as the cast was on she was healing people again. Even an injury this severe wasn’t enough to let her stop.

 

Her wrist was a mess. Both of them were damaged, but the sprain was so overshadowed by the compound fracture that she barely noticed it. She’d seen the x-rays. It was an odd feeling looking at something she would have been able to fix in minutes and knowing how long and painful the recovery process would be. There might have to be surgeries. She could even need an internal fixation plate before this was over.

 

The pain and worry had taken her normal healing from tedious to insufferable. After treating her sister the first Ward she had to deal with was Carlos. She hated working on Carlos. The way his body shifted function in response to every change made healing him like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. This was worse than all the previous times put together. After what the bug girl had done to him.

 

She shuddered when she remembered that knife at her own throat. Knife? It was practically a sword. In her mind it kept getting bigger and bigger until the image of a woman in insect armor carrying a sword that dwarfed Chevalier’s cannon blade loomed over her.

 

She shook off the thought. Carlos had been divided into seven pieces with a few swings of that weapon. Nobody else could have lived through that attack, and he even his miraculous survival brought unique challenges. Every piece of his body was trying to turn itself into something that could be self-sufficient without the other parts. That meant they would fight attempts to be combined into one person. Unlike the times he had lost an arm or leg every piece needed to be prepped at the same time or the entire mass would pull itself apart. Worse only the chest-torso piece still had his consciousness in it. Dealing with that dead stare and lolling tongue from his face while trying to wrangle his body together would have been hellish on her best day, much less with a broken wrist.

 

The visit to the Wards headquarters hadn’t gone much better. No-one had escaped without some injury. Blake had at least been able to patch himself up with his biomancy and despite being tased had the closest thing to a victory in this whole mess when he broke Grue’s knife. Chris was being chewed out by the director but apparently had taken a bad fall that put him out of the fight. Missy had been knocked unconscious and hearing what happened to Dennis would give her a whole new set of nightmares.

 

Then there was Dean. His armor might have been able to endure the attack from Hellound’s dogs, but the villain had gotten her hands on one of those super knives as well. Once he was pinned she went to town on him. The suit was a complete write off. Every system was shredded and he’d had to be cut out of it while she’d been dealing with Carlos. Insufferably he tried to keep in good spirits about the whole thing, which ruined any satisfaction she might have been able to feel at his defeat. Hellhound had clearly been going for the suit, not him, but he had still picked up a handful of shallow cuts. They were so impossibly finely made that she could seal them with barely any effort. That said actually feeling the layers of cells that had been sliced in half rather than torn apart, like what happened in a normal cut, was harrowing.

 

Miss Militia had called off the other Wards when they pressed for information about Tattletale. That was the last thing she wanted to re-live right now. Instead she was sulking through the basement of the PRT building’s attached hospital. It had been built to stop capes with injuries from being photographed when they were discharged. There were high security areas connected directly to the PRT headquarters, but the rest of it was a conventional downtown hospital.

 

And like a coward she was sneaking through back routes to the exit so she wouldn’t see any patients. Patients she’d feel compelled to heal. She hated herself for it, but she knew even a broken wrist wasn’t enough excuse to withhold treatment from someone dying of a terminal illness. Too much, it was all too much.

 

She had turned into a side hallway when a cape stepped out into her path. It was unusual to see one here, but they weren’t actually confined to the high security wing. She didn’t recognize his costume, but there were about a dozen minor heroes in the city and she hadn’t kept track of all of them.

 

The man was tall but not particularly muscular. He had broad shoulders that were amplified by his long wool coat. Engraved metal panels decorated the coat, gloves, and parts of the rest of the costume. His left wrist had an elaborate and heavy bracer clasped to it that rested over the sleeve of his coat. He wore belts of pouches around his waist and a bandoleer across his chest. His mask was a well-made and stylish steel visor, but the rest of his head and face were covered by tied bandannas. That combination should have looked sloppy, but the whole design came together with a level of style and elegance she rarely saw even in Protectorate capes.

 

“Hi?” She asked. “Can I help you?”

 

“Yes actually. I was looking for you.”

 

Amy’s heart sank. She had a policy to not take requests, but could she refuse a hero? Not if it was for himself, but if he was asking for a friend or family member she would have to hold to her policy. She looked around. Why had she taken this deserted route? If he got upset about being turned down there was no one around to step in.

 

“What do you want?”

 

“There’s something I need to resolve.” She gave him a confused look. “I made the weapon that did that.” He pointed at her wrist.

 

Amy froze. Tinker. She should have seen it, the metal, the pouches, the mask design. This was the new weapon tinker that had supplied the Undersiders. She had told the PRT that the bug girl wasn’t a tinker. There were hints from how the Undersiders had talked about things, slight references, the way no one deferred to the bug girl regarding those weapons or anything technical. Even with all that it wasn’t enough for them to make a definite judgement.

 

But Amy knew. She knew from how she had jammed the girl’s power, the feedback connecting directly to her mind. But she couldn’t explain that. It would reveal too much about her capabilities. So she put the city at risk and left an unknown villain tinker running unchecked all because she was too ashamed to come clean about her abilities.

 

Her eyes darted over the capes equipment. He didn’t look like he was carrying weapons, but that meant nothing. She remembered her terror as the bug cape sprouted that damn baton from her hand and swung it at her. The thing was so thin it looked like it wouldn’t trouble a fly, but it hit the extinguisher like one of Vicky’s punches. The sensations came back to her in a flash. The metal crumpling. The foam exploding over her. The snap of the bones in her wrist.

 

Bones that still throbbed hours later.

 

“My sister’s in the building. If I scream she’ll hear me.” It was a bluff, and a terrible one at that. They were in a nearly abandoned corner of the basement. The best she could hope for was some janitor or technician stumbling across them.

 

“Then I guess I’ll have to do this quickly.” He reached into one of his pouches and Amy flinched back, her mind running through a thousand horrible possibilities. Like that bug girl his costume completely covered him. The only skin she could see was his eyes. There was no chance she would be able to touch him before he unleashed whatever he was planning.

 

Instead of a weapon he pulled out a tiny plastic container of liquid and what looked like a piece of some root vegetable. He crushed them in his gloved hand and she could smell vinegar and... ginger? The mass in his hand suddenly started to shine and he casually tossed it into the air.

 

Light burst out from the mixture and washed over her. She flinched and covered her face with her hands, but the energy didn’t hurt. In fact it did just the opposite.

 

She felt the bones in her wrist move back into place. The horrible pain was gone along with the sense of the injuries themselves. This hadn’t just accelerated the healing, it erased the injuries completely, either making them never happen or healing so well there was no sign of damage. Her sprained wrist was feeling perfect as well, and every minor scrape and bruise she’d picked up through the fight in the bank was gone.

 

Better than that she felt refreshed. The slow buildup of stress and tension from too many long nights washed out of her as the light hit her and she felt calmer and more focused than she had in months, maybe even years.

 

All the work and suffering she’d been preparing herself for, the weeks of pain, the surgeries, the physio therapy, it was all washed away in an instant. Was this what the people she healed felt? Suddenly Amy understood their gratitude a little better. It was even enough to overwhelm the innate dread at the fact that she had just been hit by an unknown tinker tech medical treatment.

 

Looking at the tinker she felt that gratitude, but it clashed violently with every emotion she been seething in this afternoon.

 

“So are you still going to scream?” He asked tilting his head. She hated how she couldn’t see any of his expressions. All she had to go on were his eyes, which had the gall to look amused.

 

“I should.” She rolled her left wrist, enjoying the range of movement. With the fingers that were free of the cast on her right hand she picked at the cloth brace wrapped around it until it fell to the floor. “You supplied weapons to villains. I should get the PRT here to arrest you.”

 

He let out a sigh. “I’d really prefer a chance to talk.”

 

She didn’t want to engage him. Actually, that wasn’t entirely true. She wanted to engage him in a very specific way. She wanted to grab him and scream at him to go upstairs and clear out the damn ICU. She wanted to pin him down and show him pictures of children’s cancer wards until he committed himself to emptying them. She wanted him to not be a villain.

 

But if he wanted to talk then maybe she could get some information out of him. Maybe enough to send the Protectorate after the Undersiders. Her mind spun off an image of Protectorate heroes raiding the Undersiders base, probably in a stinking sewer somewhere. Along with the pleasant thoughts of Miss Militia unloading a machine gun into the bug cape, using what were definitely rubber bullets and not high explosive rounds, and Tattletale being carted off to the Birdcage while gagged and hogtied she imagined this tinker. He was captured and offered a plea deal. Yes, that would work. Make your stupid terrifying weapons for the Protectorate and spend nights and weekends clearing out hospitals. And lunch hours. And if he was a villain he didn’t really need coffee breaks, right?

 

Amy realized she had been lost in thought and quickly tried to cover for herself.

 

“What, are you a member of the Undersiders?”

 

“No, I actually didn’t make it past the membership vote.” She gave him a horrified look. “And I wouldn’t have signed up anyway.” He qualified.

 

Wait, they didn’t want him on the team? Who would turn down a tinker? If it was a vote he could have been blocked by someone. A conflict with someone on the team? It was an avenue that she might be able to exploit. If she could split them apart then at least they wouldn’t be able to get any more of those weapons. “Then how’d you end up working with them.”

 

He considered this. “I saved them from Oni Lee. They wanted to make it up to me.”

 

“What?” She sputtered. “How did that lead to you giving them weapons?”

 

“They needed some gear and I agreed to sell it to them.” He kept his tone level during the confession.

 

Money. God damn it always came down to money. Stupid greedy capes taking shortsighted cash grabs and ruining everyone else’s life.

 

“Was it worth it?” She spat the words at him. “Was what they paid you worth all of this?”

 

There was a pause before he answered. “I don’t know.”

 

“What, is your conscience catching up with you?”

 

“No,” He looked at her. “It depends on whether it’s enough for me to stop Bakuda.”

 

Amy had gotten a good head of steam going and with one comment he completely derailed it.

“What? Sorry, what?”

 

“Bakuda? Bomb tinker? She just joined the ABB and attacked Cornell before that.”

 

“I know who she is. What does she have to do with this?”

                                 

He suddenly turned very serious. “She’s going to go off the rails. Lung would have been able to keep her in line, but with him locked up we’re looking at a city wide bombing spree.”

 

This was insane. It figures, she finally finds another healer cape and he’s completely off his rocker. “You’re saying you sold tinker tech weapons to supervillains so that you could get money to stop a hypothetical bombing spree from someone who hasn’t even done anything in this city yet?”

 

She could see his jaw clench under his mask. There was part of this he wasn’t telling her. “Have you seen the video of Cornell? The effects of those bombs?”

 

She hadn’t. Amy had enough stress in her life without seeking out cape horror stories from other cities. But she wasn’t going to let this person use some other tragedy to excuse his stupidity and greed. “It doesn’t matter. She’ll run out of whatever stock of explosives she’s built before it can get out of hand.” Her family had come to that conclusion during one of the rare team meetings she was able to attend.

 

“I used to think that before I fought Oni Lee.”

 

“What does he have to do with anything?”

 

“You know how when he copies himself he duplicates all the grenades and equipment he carries?”

 

She vaguely remembered her family talking about something like that. “So what?”

 

“That works on Bakuda’s bombs. As long as Oni Lee’s around she has infinite copies of everything she builds and he goes from an annoyance to being able to put out firepower that would rival The Triumvirate.”

 

Amy’s mouth went dry and she felt sweat begin to bead on her forehead. “You can’t know that.”

 

“When I fought Oni Lee he tried to get me with a localized plasma grenade. It exposes everything within five meters to heat levels you only see inside of large stars.”

 

She swallowed nervously. “Bullshit. I would have heard about it if something like that went off. The news would be all over the city.”

 

 “I broke his arm before he could use it and took it after he ran off.”

 

Her eyes darted across his costume. He had been so distracting, so disarming that she nearly forgot who she was talking to. Oni Lee was a difficult opponent even for her family or experienced Protectorate capes. She wouldn’t normally take a claim like that on faith but with what he could make she could see him besting the assassin. Still, that didn’t mean she was going to buy the rest of his story. “So what, you can heal, make super knives, and analyze other tinker tech.”

 

“Yes, actually.” His answer was quick and flippant.

 

“Not buying it.” In response he let out a chuckle. A fucking chuckle. “What?” Amy spat.

 

“It’s that I just had pretty much this exact conversation with Tattletale.”

 

The mention of that woman made Amy’s gust wrench. She cursed herself for warming up to him. This was the kind of horrible slime that got chummy with supervillains.

 

“What, you two are close?”

 

“Actually I annoyed the hell out of her. I don’t’ think she likes me very much.”

 

Or maybe he wasn’t that bad. “What did you mean by the same conversation?”

 

“When I tried to explain my tinkering she was screaming about how it wasn’t possible, then she slunk off with a headache.”

 

The news lifted Amy’s spirits more than was probably strictly appropriate. One of the worst parts of the whole ordeal was the thought of that bitch laughing at the fact that she almost destroyed Amy’s life all while probably perched on top of a pile of money and caviar and fur coats that were probably made out of baby seal skin and endangered species. Her crawling off with a thinker headache felt like pure karma and Amy couldn’t keep the smile off her face.

 

“Assume I believe you about being able to figure out her bombs. Why does that make you sure she’s going to attach the city?”

 

He let out a breath. “I have a thinker power.”  From his posture and tone it was more like he was confessing to a sin than bragging about an ability.

 

God damn it. First Tattletale, then Dean, and now this guy. Why was she surrounded by fucking thinkers? That was of course assuming he was telling the truth and not just crazy.

 

“What, that lets you get inside her head? Tells you what she’s planning?”

 

“No, it doesn’t work that way.” He paused as if considering what to say. “I get hunches about things, like how to feel about stuff. I can piece that together into hints about what I should do.”

 

“So what are you getting about Bakuda?”

 

“Dread.” His voice was dead serious. “Whatever she’s planning it’s horrible on the level of the worst capes. And I mean the worst worst capes, the ones no one likes to talk about. Given what I know about her and what she’s capable of the potential scale of this is as bad as it can get.”

 

At that moment Amy at least was convinced that he believed his own story. That was a big step up from her initial fears. Crazy and well-meaning was a lot better than strait up villainous.

 

“So what are you planning to do about it?” She could at least try to nail down his intentions.

 

He took a slow breath and starting listing things. “Build up my lab. Improve my equipment. See if I can crack her ECCM. Build counters for as many types of bombs as I can. Help the city prepare.” The prospect seemed to exhaust him.

 

“How do you plan to do that?”

 

“Well, for one make sure their best healer is in top form.”

 

Amy flushed at that. “I’d thank you, but you caused this mess in the first place.”

 

“And now I fixed it. Problem solved.” His tone wasn’t as flippant as the words suggested. This seemed to be wearing on him and Amy took some satisfaction in that.

 

She was still frustrated, but at least she didn’t feel threatened anymore. If she could talk this guy around they might be able to get him to turn on the Undersiders, or at least expose them.

 

“Hey,” She shifted to a slightly friendlier tone of voice. “What should I call you?”

 

He gave her a tired shrug. “Haven’t got a cape name yet.”

 

Amy gaped. “You seriously put all that together without a cape name? You fought Oni Lee without a cape name?”

 

“Branding is for public relations. I’ve had tinker stuff to do.”

 

Something occurred to her. “What about the bug girl?”

 

“She didn’t have one, but I’m guessing you haven’t seen the online reaction?”

 

She shook her head and felt a note of dread. She hated dealing with the internet community. Setting aside the fact that people couldn’t understand her ‘no requests’ policy no matter how many times she explained it the other interactions were just exhausting. She avoided it as much as she could.

 

“What’s happened?”

 

“It looks like they’re going with Khepri.” She gave him a questioning look. “Egyptian bug God.”

 

Amy would have preferred the girl getting stuck with something like Warf Roach, but she knew how those things got out of hand. She’d have to check PHO later to see how this came about.

 

She put that aside and steeled herself for a question she’d been dreading. “That thing you used to heal me? What was it? Is it safe?” She was terrified of the answer. There weren’t that many types of technology that she could imagine being able to heal a person the way he just had. All of them were incredibly dangerous. More than a few of them were grounds for a kill order. Worst case he’d admit to the kind of technology that gets you on the S-class lists.

 

“It’s fine. There’s no risk.” She gave him a questioning look hoping he’d go on. “The mechanics are complicated, but it’s perfectly safe.”

 

She grit her teeth at the non-answer. “If it’s so safe you should be out healing people.”

 

“I’m pretty sure that’s what I was just doing.”

 

She glared at him. “I mean really healing. There’s a city full of people who need your help as much as I did. If you care about the city what’s stopping you?” Hopefully she could get some details on how his healing worked. She desperately hoped it wasn’t based on one of the technologies the PRT banned outright.

 

“Well, first my healing doesn’t work for free. If I go all out I’m going to run out of resources eventually, which will just leave everyone screwed when a serious disaster happens.”

 

Amy’s heart dropped at that, but she couldn’t argue with it. Too many people with healing abilities were limited either in scope or endurance. She hated the algebra of it, but he had probably done more good by saving his resources for her than if he had healed freely. Of course it was his fault she was injured in the first place, so that was all crap.

 

“The Protectorate could get you all the resources you’d need. If you joined they’d be able to set you up with facilities, materials, support, everything.” Unless time was the limiting factor. Or he was working with some technology that was under a blanket ban.

 

“I’m not joining the Protectorate.” There was no uncertainty in his tone.

 

“Why not?” Amy was dreading the answer to this. If his tech was an S-class threat waiting to happen them forget him helping her heal, the PRT would be hunting him down for a trip to the Birdcage or a kill order.

 

He sighed. “My power warned me against it.”

 

“What?” Once again he managed to jump the rails of this conversation.

 

“My thinker power? It told me joining the Protectorate was a bad idea.”

 

Amy was really starting to hate thinkers. “So you got a bad feeling and decided working with villains would be better?”

 

“It’s a little more complicated than that.”

 

“Then explain it to me.” Amy was frustrated, but if she could leverage that into getting more information out of him then so much the better.

 

He considered for a moment. “Ok, my power? It doesn’t give me clear answers, just kind of feelings about things, but feelings about enough things in enough detail can let me figure stuff out. There are some bad things about the Protectorate as a whole, not unforgivable, just the level of corruption you’d probably find in any group that size. If it were Boston or New York I might be ok signing up, but not in here.”

 

“Why? What’s different about Brockton Bay?”

He was reluctant to get into this, but at her unflinching stare he relented. “Well, everything my power tells me says I wouldn’t get along with Armsmaster. Not to the point of violence, just that it would be a bad relationship.”

 

Amy could admit the man was somewhat intense. This tinker was frustrating enough for her. She could easily see him being at odds with the Protectorate leader. “Is that it?” If he was basing his decisions on something as minor as that she had probably given him too much credit.

 

“No.” He was looking distinctly uncomfortable and Amy was taking no small pleasure in putting him on the spot. There was a pause before he continued. “Have you met the local PRT director?”

 

She nodded. The woman could be a terror but was unquestioningly devoted to her job. “Yea. What about her?”

 

He looked dower as he replied. “I’m pretty sure Director Piggot is insane.”

 

Amy bit down at her natural reaction to this cape calling anyone else’s sanity into question. Instead she switched to a placating tone of voice.

 

“Really? What makes you say that?”

 

The tinker started making abstract gestures. “There’s a general feeling that it would be dangerous to work under her. Also some sense of instability around her, kind of tied to something in her past. I don’t’ think she likes capes, at least that’s the impression my power gives me. I haven’t dug into it enough to piece anything else together, but there are major red flags connected to the Protectorate ENE. More than I’m willing to risk.”

 

“So you decided joining a gang would be better?”

 

“I haven’t joined any gang. I have a single business relationship with the smallest group in the city.”

 

“But you still expect me to believe you care about the city? You couldn’t find anyone else to work with.”

 

He muttered something. “What was that?” With a pained look he repeated himself.

 

“I did think about approaching New Wave.”

 

Amy tensed but was angry enough to not get sidetracked. “Oh, really? Did you get some bad feelings about my Aunt Sarah as well?”

 

“No, she was fine.” He answered so naturally that Amy couldn’t see any duplicity there.

 

“So what was it?”

 

“Look, I don’t know if you want to get into this.”

 

Amy looked at the man. There was very little chance anything good was going to come from this, but she wasn’t backing down now. “No, I want you to tell me what was so bad it made working with villains the better option.”

 

“It’s actually...” He stopped and considered things, then took a breath and pressed forward. “Well, sorry to say this about your mother, but it was pretty much Brandish that kept me from trying.”

 

Carol? He had a problem with Carol? This seemed like a cheap psychological trick, trying to drive a wedge between Amy and her family. But as far as the public was concerned their relationship was fine. Did he actually have a thinker power? More likely Tattletale had sent him here to needle her some more. She didn’t want to deal with this. The last thing in the world she wanted was some outsider’s thoughts on her relationship with Carol.

 

But Amy had to admit there was some part of her that wanted to hear someone try to tear down the woman. Just to see what they had to say. “What about Brandish?”

 

The tinker let out a slow breath. “Look, there’s a lot to unpack here. I have to sort this stuff out from emotional reactions, so it’s not precise. It’s a lot of work to figure out where the bad is coming from.”

 

“So my mom is giving you bad feelings?” He made an exasperated gesture. She just waited for him to elaborate.

 

“Ok, none of this is totally solid, it’s just warnings from my power.” Amy nodded and made a ‘get on with it’ gesture. “The sense I get is she’s been messed up for a long time. Like, long enough that I can’t get a reading where that isn’t the case. It could go back to her trigger event. Considering the nature of her powers that probably means there was some pretty bad physical trauma with an impact that was never dealt with.”

 

She furrowed her brow. “What do you mean by that?”

 

“Breaker means there was probably a threat, or something she wanted to escape. The striker power means it was probably direct and physical, likely with a threat of injury.”

 

Amy blinked. “You’re using trigger theory to analyze my family?”

 

“Yeah?” He answered like it was the most natural thing in the world.

 

“That stuff isn’t proven! There are all kinds of contradictions.”

 

“Right, but there aren’t any in New Wave.”

 

How could he tell? “So you think Carol is messed up because of her trigger event?”

 

“I think she’s messed up and has been for a long time. I think it could be her trigger event. From what I’m getting I think she has a mountain of trust and control issues and what feels like an unhealthy obsession with your sister.”

 

The mention of Vicky brought up a surge of emotions that Amy hadn’t realized she’d been keeping buried. “What, do you have a problem with her too?” He did that damn awkward contemplation thing again. “Why do you keep doing that?”

 

He sighed. “There’s a lot to sort through here. I get different levels of details on different topics. The more there is the harder it is to figure out.” He shook his head. “There’s nothing that bad for Glory Girl.” Amy didn’t like the way he said ‘that bad’. “There’s some feeling of concern around her. Not malicious, just like there’s not enough control. Maybe a lack of restraint?”

 

Amy remembered less than a week ago, the call from Vicky, the sixth time she had to save her sister from what would probably be at minimum aggravated assault if not a manslaughter charge. Still, it didn’t prove anything. Anyone could make that kind of guess by watching her behavior in cape fights.

 

“Is that the limit of your prognosticating?”

 

Rather than take the insult at face value he stood there and looked contemplative. “There’s also some level of concern connected to... proximity? Like being around her for long periods is a bad thing. That might be her aura. That messes with emotions right?”

 

“What of it?” Amy didn’t like the way this was headed.

 

“I guess if it’s on long enough it could change the way your brain responds to things. Emotions affect neurochemistry and neurons that fire together wire together, that kind of thing.”

                                                                          

“You can’t know that.” Amy’s tone was more defensive than she intended.

 

“No, it’s just a theory.” He concentrated again. “My power’s telling me that staying close to Glory Girl for long periods would be bad, so I’m going with that. For all I know it could be a specific power interaction that would be a problem for me and everyone else could be fine. The idea that it could cause emotional disorders is just a theory.”

 

Amy clenched her jaw. She hated anyone talking about Vicky that way, but details from his ramblings were jumping out at her. Had Mark’s depression been as bad before Vicky triggered? Did Carol get more distant? And her own feelings...

 

No, it was too convenient an explanation. She was being handed a way to shift the blame for all of her failings onto someone who did nothing but try to be a hero. Who was a proper hero, unlike her. She hated him for giving her hope. You couldn’t trust thinkers. Even if he wasn’t getting inside her head Tattletale could have sent him here with a list of things to say to break her down even more.

 

“Anything else?”

 

“Uh, maybe?”

 

“What?” She asked, more harshly than she meant too.

 

“I was just thinking about your sister’s powers. They don’t really make sense.”

 

Amy rallied at this. “So you admit your trigger theory is crap?”

 

“No, I mean they don’t make sense as coming from Brandish and Flashbang. There’s no basis for the emotional component. Unless... was your sister dating Gallant before she triggered?”

                                                           

Amy froze. She didn’t like Dean, but she wasn’t going to give away his secret identity to some mentally unstable thinker/tinker. “What makes you think that?”

 

“There aren’t a lot of other emotion based powers in the city, and he was active before she triggered. It seemed like a probable source for her aura. Maybe. I don’t have a good handle on Gallant’s power.”

 

The dread she’d been feeling dropped to a manageable level. Unlike that other bitch at least he could admit he wasn’t perfect. As frustrating as he was to deal with it was a million times better than the feeling that all your secrets were being dragged out of your brain.

 

“You know that stupid knife you gave Hellhound wrecked his armor.” She sneered. “If you were worried about the safety of the city maybe you should be more concerned about that.”

 

Annoyingly he just waved her off. “Tinker’s shouldn’t take anything into the field they’re not prepared to lose. He’ll have to use an older suit, or spend some time getting the next one ready.”

 

Right, the public fiction that Dean was a tinker rather than a blaster/thinker. Of course he would think the armor could just be rebuilt or replaced. In reality Chris would have to put days, maybe weeks of work into getting the suit back together. And no wonder he didn’t understand Dean’s power if he was working from the wrong starting point.

 

She must have shown some of that concern on her face, because he picked up something was wrong.

 

“Wait, I thought he was a Focal tinker. Is there something else going on?”

 

And once again Amy was lost. This conversation was becoming infuriating. She honestly didn’t know if she was dealing with mad ramblings or some kind of high level thinker insight.

 

“Sorry, what?”

 

“Focal tinkers concentrate on only one item, they just rebuild and refine it. They’re even more restrictive than hyperspecialists. They don’t have any specialization beyond the one thing they can make. I figured Gallant was like that, just rebuilding that power armor with emotion blasts over and over. But there are some tinkers that have some serious drawbacks to what they make, like a physical or mental cost. Is that what we’re talking about here?”

 

Amy blanched. This was deeper stuff than had been covered in her parahuman studies courses. She wanted to dismiss it as nonsense, but enough of it sounded familiar that there had to be some grounding.

 

“How do you know about that stuff? Is it your thinker power?”

 

“Not exactly. Or sort of? I have a pretty good understanding of how powers work, especially tinkers. Look, if Gallant is going to go off the deep end if he has to keep rebuilding his armor then the Protectorate should probably hold him back from frontline work. You don’t want to take risks with that kind of thing.”

 

“Don’t worry about it.” Amy hated absolving him for his responsibility in wrecking the armor, but if he kept picking at this there was a real chance that Dean’s identity could get exposed. She needed to change the subject. “You were saying something about my sister’s power.”

 

“Oh, yeah.” Amy wasn’t thrilled talking about this, but if he was able to identify a Ward thanks to information she gave there would be hell to pay. “About her powers, how close is Brandish to Manpower?”

And once again she was thrown for a loop. “What? Why?”

 

“Your sister’s powers suggest a link to him rather than to Flashbang. Usually that means there’s something of an emotional connection.”

 

“Are you saying my mom and Uncle Neil had an affair?”

 

He looked almost as uncomfortable with the subject as she was. “It could be she built up a trusting relationship with Manpower that facilitated the kind of connection that allowed second generation powers. Just, what I’m getting about her from my power says that’s not too likely. I guess an affair between them could explain it.”

 

“That’s ridiculous.” She drew herself up. “I can sense genetics when I heal someone. Vicky is not Uncle Neil’s daughter.”

 

“It doesn’t have to be genetic. You just need an emotional link. Even uncertainty over her parentage would have done the trick.”

 

“I’m not listening to this. You’re just spouting crazy image board conspiracy theories.”

 

“Maybe I’m wrong. My power’s not precise and I’ve had to reevaluate a lot of stuff from it.” That was what was so annoying. He was loose enough in his predictions that there was room for all kinds of errors without disproving his overall outlook. If he had absolute confidence in his guesses then she would be able to bring them down by refuting one aspect of them. Instead the best she could do was get him to admit some aspect of his theories was less likely than he previously thought.

 

“You wanted to know why I stayed away from New Wave. Well, I kept getting stuff like this from my power. I didn’t want to get caught up in someone else’s family drama.” She still wasn’t sure she believed him, but it was a harrowing idea that her family dysfunction was enough that someone would rather deal with villains than get involved with it.

 

And that brought up some dark thoughts. “Well what about me then? What does your power tell you about me? How do my powers make sense in your whole trigger theory model?”

 

From the way he looked at her Amy immediately regretted the question. She actually took a half step back, as if his answer was going to be a physical blow.

 

“My power is telling me that answering that question is not a good idea.”

 

Amy felt a surge of relief and hated herself for it. She knew there was something terrible waiting for her, but she didn’t want to face it. Just a little more time where she could pretend. Where she could pretend Carol wasn’t right about her. Pretend that she could make up for her past, for what a horrible person she was if she tried hard enough.

 

And she hated that all her feelings were on display for a half mad tinker who worked with villains and might just be following one of Tattletale’s scripts to set her up for another fall.

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

Amy snapped up to face him. Well, face him as well as she could through his stupid bandannas and visor mask. “You’re sorry? What are you sorry for? Supplying deadly weapons to villains? Breaking my wrist? Injuring and traumatizing the Wards? For digging into my life? Huh? What exactly are you sorry for?”

 

He stood stock still as she hurled abuse at him. She was red faced and near tears, but the bastard was just standing there and taking it.

 

Finally, after she caught her breath, he spoke. “Just so you know, I’m not happy with how this turned out. It was a mess.”

 

“A mess that you caused.” Her voice was bitter.

                                                                                            

He gave her a look that made her feel uncomfortable. “I’m taking responsibility for my part in this.”

 

“What exactly? The attack on the bank? The injured wards? The Undersiders getting away?”

 

“I don’t think you would have been able to beat the Undersiders even if I hadn’t made anything for them.”

 

“What?” Amy felt indignant at the suggestion. “They...”

 

“They were holding back. Massively. If they didn’t have my weapons they may have done something desperate. They were in a building full of civilians. They didn’t want to hurt them, but the Wards were putting that to the test.”

 

“You’re making excuses for villains.”

 

“Yes I am.” His lack of denial cut the legs out from under her. “I accepted what I was getting into when I made my deal. But there are conventions that are designed to limit damage, to keep normal people safe when capes start to throw down. Those were broken today, and not by the Undersiders.”

 

“What are you talking about?”

 

He looked frustrated. “The heroes were the ones who decided to escalate. They assumed the Undersiders would rather be captured than end up being seen as a more serious threat. Every villain holds themselves back and each time they go further than their limit the limit moves. Before this the Undersiders were restricting themselves to smash and grab jobs. If the Wards had let them run for it they might have gotten away or they might have been captured, but they would have had incentive to stay at that level of restraint. Instead they created a situation where they had to fight. Now people know they’re willing to take thing that far. Going back to their previous level of restraint is just not possible.”

 

The way he talked about limits, restrictions villains placed on themselves, how if you went past them there was no turning back. Did he know? Did he know why she was restraining herself? She looked at him, but there was no hint he was talking about her. It could be a coincidence, but could she trust that? He was a thinker, or very good at pretending to be one. Was he seeing inside her head, or was she just being paranoid?

 

“So they should have done nothing? Just let them get away?”

 

“There’s such a thing as a measured response and it’s a very important concept for capes.”

 

This was insane. The Wards were heroes and this was a villain, or at best an arms dealer who thought he could pass judgement. “Where do you get off criticizing them?”

 

He took a slow breath before continuing. “Tell me, you know these people. Did any of them look at this situation and think it was serious, or did they come figuring they would get an easy villain capture and a picture in the newspaper? There were thirty nine people in the bank with you. Did the Wards even confirm their safety before they lined up like they were on a photoshoot?”

 

“They’re not the bad guys.” Amy was beginning to feel like that was a desperate defense. “The Undersiders were the ones who robbed the bank. They were the ones who took hostages. They planted deadly insects on everyone there!”

 

He looked at her seriously. “Let me ask you something. When you messed with bug girl’s control, did you know what would happen to all the spiders she was commanding, or did you assume they would just stand down?”

 

Amy shifted awkwardly. “What do you mean?”

 

“I mean disrupting the control of a master like that could have put everyone at risk. So either you had complete understanding of the feedback between her and the spiders neural systems that allowed you to block direct commands without defaulting the creatures back to their base instincts, or you warped them to throw out a jamming field and hoped you didn’t end up with dozens of lethal bites from the feedback.”

 

Amy put up a front of indignity, but inside she was sweating. She had felt out the brains of those black widows. She’d felt the way they were being controlled and, though it had taken some time she’d been able to create feedback that blocked new orders and information without letting the other spiders run free. Vicky didn’t pick up on what that meant, but he did. So the only two explanations were that she had no regard for the lives of the public or that she’s been lying about not being able to affect brains. Damn it, she hated dealing with thinkers. Except this wasn’t some secret that had been dug out from the depths of her soul, it was basic logic that anyone with insider knowledge of the attack could put together.

 

“Once that giant cannon came out, or people started making threats about cancer...” she felt a pit open in her stomach. “There was no longer any reason to hold back. At that point the Wards were basically betting on the Undersiders being more concerned about casualties than they were.”

 

A cloud of dread settled on Amy and she tried to avoid showing how much this was bothering her. “So what should they have done?”

 

“I don’t know.” He cut her off before she could reply. “I mean I really don’t know. The situation makes no sense. I don’t know why teenagers were sent to deal with a hostage situation. I don’t know why the Wards are even allowed to operate independently in this city. I don’t know why a public super powered brawl in a crowded part of the city could be seen as a preferable option to anything else, including letting non kill order villains escape. How many civilian lives would it be worth to bring in a villain? There were stupid decisions on both sides here, but only one of those sides is supposed to be acting in the public good.”

 

Amy watched the frustration bleed off the man. Clearly the whole situation bothered him, but to her frustration she couldn’t find a way to frame it to turn him against the Undersiders.

 

“This whole system?” He spoke quietly. “It’s not stable. Those conventions, the unwritten rules, there the only things keeping it from turning to chaos. I’m not endorsing how things work, I’m just acknowledging it. That’s what I meant about Bakuda. That’s what happens when the breaks come off.”

 

“So that’s it? You’re perfectly fine with the way things went down? No guilt at all?”

 

“If there was no guilt I wouldn’t be here.”

 

“And you think I’m the only one you have to make it up to?”

 

“Well you didn’t decide to turn a hostage crisis into a publicity stunt.”

“That’s why you came here? Because I fit your moral standards and to make sure the city still had its healer for this imagined bombing spree?” He actually looked uncomfortable at that. Good.

 

“That’s not completely it.”

 

“Oh? What is it then?”

 

“My power, that is my thinker power? It’s kind of concerned about you.”

 

And Amy shifted once more from anger to dread. The emotional rollercoaster of this conversation was exhausting. Where Tattletale had kept pushing her further and further into despair he seemed content to throw her in a random direction every third sentence. One moment she was furious, then concerned, then defiant, then ashamed. Was that his game? Keep her off balance so she wouldn’t be able to counter him.

 

In a way it was worse than dealing with Tattletale. This wasn’t pulling her deepest fears straight out of her mind. He admitted he was working with limited information, which meant there was a semi-logical chain to his deductions. Sometimes it was blatantly wrong, like about Dean being a tinker, but generally she could follow his thought process. He knew she could alter living things. He knew she could mess with brains. He knew what she had threatened the bug girl with. Between his tinker and thinker powers he probably had a better idea of what she was capable of than anyone else. Of course he’d be concerned about what she’d do if she went bad. When she went bad.

 

Was all that stuff about capes holding back and consequences building to this? She hated the idea that it was a villain, well borderline villain, who finally saw her for who she was. That he was the only one really concerned about the threat she represented.

 

Amy steeled herself. “Concerned how?” Despite her best effort she felt her voice waver.

 

He seemed nervous. Of course he would be. He knew what she would become.

 

“Uh, are you doing ok?”

 

And once again he proved he was capable of pulling the rug out from under her. “What?”

 

“Like, personally, emotionally, are you doing ok?”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“I know you do really long shifts, and you don’t seem to have much going on outside your work. You usually look pretty tired as well. And I’m not sure how healthy your home life is. My power’s concerned you’re going to hit a wall.”

 

Amy was bouncing between emotions. Not knowing how to feel she decided to settle on offence. He spends half the conversation insulting her, criticizing her family, and trying to moralize against heroes and now he wants to pretend he cares about her? “Is your thinker power telling you about my family? You’re ok with it digging into my personal life?”

 

“It’s not really digging into anything, it’s just worried about you. I mean, from what it’s told me about Brandish I doubt she’s that easy to live with. Plus there’s your power.”

 

“What about my power?” Amy snapped, faster than she intended.

 

“There’s no connection to anyone else in New Wave. That means that there was a stronger emotional link from your biological parent than from anyone in your family.”

 

It was a brutally clinical diagnosis of her family dynamic. The idea that her villain father loved her more than anyone in her family.

 

“What do you know about my father?” She half growled. Years of frustration was coming to the surface. “What did your power tell you about him?”

 

“Um, I didn’t even know it was your father. I was just getting the sense of someone connected to you. It could have been anyone, but with your adoption it made sense that it would be a biological parent. That was an assumption.”

 

He didn’t know. It wasn’t like Tattletale where he could shout the secret to the world. He was looking at her life through frosted glass and making guesses. Really good, well informed guesses, but there was a sense of distance there.

 

“So what do you know?” He paused and looked off to the side. “Well?”

 

“You’re serious about this?”

 

She nodded, expressing confidence she didn’t really feel.

 

“Ok, I know that they, well I guess that’s he, really cares about you. Like, a lot. It’s endearing, really.”

 

Of course a villain would be the only one who could love her. “What else?”

 

“Uh, I’m pretty sure he’s a strong cape. Like top tier. There’s this feeling of respect and caution.”

 

“Because he’s dangerous.”

 

“Yeah, but not in the random violence way. The closest comparison I could make would be... I guess Miss Militia?”

 

Amy’s mind screeched to a halt. “What?”

 

“There’s this respect, and a kind of, like, honor? I’m dealing with this second hand so it’s hard to process. What I mean is, Miss Militia can create tactical weapons, but she’s not going to. She’s dangerous, but generally not a threat to people around her. That’s the sense I’m getting from your father.”

 

“Seriously?” What was she supposed to make of this?

 

He held up his hands. “My power isn’t great at moral judgements. I can’t really guarantee any of that.” His eyes went wide. “Oh.”

 

“What?”

 

He looked uncomfortable. “I’m not sure I should say.”

 

“No, you started this, you don’t get to back out now. Tell me what you found out.”

 

He looked pained, but he continued. “Look, I’m not sure about this. My power is hard to figure out.”

 

“Just tell me.”

 

“Ok,” He swallowed. “There’s something between your father and your current family.”

 

Amy felt the blood drain from her face. “What did he do?”

 

The tinker just shook his head. “It wasn’t him.”

 

“What does that mean?”

 

“What I’m getting is New Wave did something bad. Not like an atrocity or anything, but they did something immoral. Like they broke a convention that everyone’s agreed upon.”

 

“So what, New Wave is horrible and my father was great?”

 

He seemed to be struggling through whatever his power was giving him. “I told you, it’s not good at moral judgments, and it’s hard to sort out. I think they had a reason for it, but they went further than anyone else would have. Like to a dangerous level.” He let out a breath. “Frankly, this is a mess. I think more than Brandish the real reason I stayed away from seriously considering New Wave was there was just too much of this stuff to sort through.”

 

“What, you’re just leaving it like that? You accuse my family then decide to stop?”

 

“Look, I’m not going to be able to get you a perfect picture of what happened. You’re going to have to talk to your family about that.” He flinched. “But not Brandish.”

 

Carol? “Why not?”

 

“I don’t know why, but there is some serious bad stuff between her and your father. Whatever New Wave did, it was a lot worse on her part.”

 

That didn’t make sense. Carol and her father? What happened? Should she even believe him? This whole situation was a mess. He worked with Tattletale. He could have been playing her from the start, but that didn’t match up. Too many details. He was too casual. There was no sense of a plan. He was either a master level thinker or he was just blundering his way through this. She didn’t know which one she’d prefer.

 

She slumped like a deflating balloon. All her hopes of getting dirt on the Undersiders were long forgotten. This conversation had taken too much out of her and it felt like she barely got anything to show for it.

 

“You know, they still think the bug girl is the tinker. They’re not going to believe me when I tell them about this.” Some might, but the PRT could get legendarily obstinate. She had no proof so they would keep insisting for tentative classifications until something forced their hand.

 

“Actually, here. I meant to give you this earlier.”

 

He dug something out of a coat pocket and tossed it to her. She caught it on reflex and felt the heft of it. It was a piece of card with something pinned to it.

 

“What’s this?”

 

“I figured it would be harder to convince you I was who I said I was, so I made that as proof.”

 

She turned the card over and saw the object attached. It was a hairpin, but leaving the descriptor at that seemed like a criminal underservice. It had two prongs of the glassy metal she remembered from those monster knives, only this was tiny and delicate. Where the prongs met a bouquet of flowers had been sculpted from the same metal, only each petal was individually shaped. Somehow something had been done to the surface of the metal giving it a rainbow gleam. Somehow it reminded her of gasoline spilled in a puddle. The prongs shifted through hues along their length but each flower was a different color.  She ran a finger over the flowers and the individual petals moved. They felt like foil, but sprang back into shape immediately and the colors they displayed shifted slightly with their motion. 

 

It was beautiful. It was also terrifying. She could tell the entire thing was one solid piece of metal. The colors on the surface weren’t due to any paint or coating, somehow he had worked the metal to a rainbow sheen and also controlled how the colors presented. The tiny bouquet had nine individually sculpted flowers of different types. The precision and craftsmanship of someone who had made this just to prove his claim was at the disposal of the Undersiders.

 

She knew she should throw it back at him, but she didn’t want to. He had made it for her, not in any personal sense, but it was made for her and it had nothing to do with healing. There was no red cross, no doctor theme, no Caduceus. It was just a pretty object, a tinker level pretty object, but it gave the sense it had been made for Amy Dallon, not Panacea.

 

“It’s beautiful.” Damn it, she didn’t mean to compliment him, but it was true. And she was back to resenting him for working with villains.

 

“Thanks.” He sounded half embarrassed by the compliment.

 

Where did she go from here? All that and had she even gotten anything she could use against the Undersiders? All that effort and she’d only been talking in circles.

 

The door at the end of the hall slammed open as a blond figure in a white dress burst through.

 

“Amy? Amy, thank God. I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” In a faction of a second Vicky was next to her, the wind of her movement throwing Amy’s hair into chaos and making the tinker’s coat billow back. She glared at him. “Who’s this?”

 

He answered before she could. “I’m the tinker who made the Undersider’s weapons.”

 

Vicky’s eyes narrowed and Amy felt her aura flair. “Amy stand back.”

 

“Vicky, wait...” but her sister was already winding up. She saw the attack fly. And she saw it stop dead against the tinker’s chest. There was a faint ripple across his clothes but otherwise it was like nothing happened.

 

He looked over at her. “So, ‘lack of restraint’ was about right? Sorry to cut this short.” He threw another glowing mix into the air. Vicky interposed herself between Amy and the tinker, but instead of spreading like the last time the light settled over him, then flared as he vanished from the hallway.

 

She smelled vinegar.

 

Amy stared blankly at the spot that once held the tinker trying to figure out what had happened. She realized her sister was shaking her and quickly came back to her senses.

 

“Amy! Amy, are you alright? What happened?”

 

“Vicky,” What was the priority? Right, unknown tinker tech healing. “Vicky, I need to get upstairs right now. Get me to diagnostic medicine.”

 

“What? What did he do?”

 

“He used some kind of healing technology on me.” She held up her unsprained wrist and rotated it, as well as wiggling her fingers of her formerly broken arm. At the very least she needed to get that removed. “I need an exam. We have to make sure it was safe.” And maybe figure out how to replicate it, as much of a long shot as that was.

 

“He healed you?” Props to Vicky, she didn’t let her shock slow her down. Amy was scooped up and carried through the halls at a nearly unsafe speed.

 

“Afterwards I’ll need to speak with Director Piggot or Armsmaster.” And she had to figure out what she was going to say. The thought of repeating all his ramblings mortified her, but if there was any chance of bringing the Undersiders to justice she’d have to take it.

 

She just had to inform them the tinker who made those blades could also heal, teleport, and had defenses that could negate Vicky’s punches. Oh, and claimed that he was both able to analyze tinker tech and that he was a strong thinker with the ability to predict personal details and bombing sprees. And that he had an ongoing ‘business relationship’ with the Undersiders. They were just going to love this news.

 

She would have plenty of time. The number of tests she had coming would see to that. It would also give her a chance to calm down. That tinker was infuriating. She could see how he set Tattletale off. Actually that image greatly improved her mood. If nothing else at least she could imagine Tattletale curled up in the dark with a thinker headache.

 

For that she could deal with the fallout from this meeting.

 

Chapter Text

Escape was a frustrating formula to work with. I could combine wax and vinegar for the power to teleport. It sounded amazing, but the formula would only work to get me ‘out’ of places. I couldn’t use it to cross the city, I couldn’t even use it for tactical advantages in combat. It was totally useless in open areas without a concept of inside and outside to work with. Additionally, I could only vaguely affect where the formula would deposit me.

 

Fortunately I had enough control to make sure I appeared at a rear exit of the hospital. The door was a fire exit, so there was no chance of someone opening it and discovering me. Also the affinity Decadence gave me with surveillance devices let me make sure I was in a blindspot. The area had sparse coverage to begin with, so it wasn’t that much of a challenge.

 

I quickly accessed my workshop through the door and slipped out of my costume. Dropping the coat, mask, and metal details instantly transformed me back to a normal civilian. At that point it was just a matter of following the route I’d previously identified to avoid security cameras until I was far enough away from the PRT hospital to blend into the crowd.

 

Getting away from the hospital was a lot easier than what my infiltration had entailed. Still, sneaking into a place like that was something I never would have thought I be able to handle a week ago. As it stood the exercise barely challenged my abilities. I’d thought I’d need to use my monomolecular pen knife to bypass doors but it seemed that now I could pick locks. None of my abilities specifically were related to lock picking, but my understanding of mechanics and crafting skills was so excessive that any pin and tumbler lock might as well have been an open door. Electronic locks and sensors were more of a challenge, but I was able to find alternate routes or bypass the systems with a bit of effort. That was actually a bit surprising as I hadn’t practiced much with those kinds of skills. It was odd using them for the first time to get around security systems, but I was able to handle electronics infinitely more complicated than what they had in this place.

 

I was able to pick out surveillance cameras but I hadn’t been able to avoid them all. Fortunately there was an advantage to Decadence covering all aspects of design. A bit of alteration to my hair, the slightest touches of pharmacy makeup on my face and a change in how my clothes sat and I looked like a completely different person. Even if they could pick me out from every other civilian walking into this place they would never be able to match me to the person who appeared on their tapes. Same with any member of the hospital staff who might have spotted me. I hadn’t gotten a second glance on my way in, so I think I was probably safe on that front.

 

I had gotten damn lucky when searching for Panacea. I half expected to have to jump out, hit her with the Miracle Cure formula, and then immediately use my Escape formula. I’d spotted her slipping into the basement and had just enough time to duck into my workshop to change and cut her off when there was no one around.

 

I wasn’t sure how I was feeling about Panacea at this point. My passenger cared about her. Not as much as Taylor, but at least on the same level as any of the Undersiders. There was so much mixed up stuff around her I couldn’t tell if I’d done any good. From her reactions it was obvious there was something to my passenger’s predictions regarding her home life. She had tried to downplay it but it was clear how much it was bothering her. It was a strange experience looking as someone else’s family drama. I may not have helped on that front but at least she wouldn’t be nursing an injury for the next six weeks.

 

I thought Panacea would be pressing me for information, but she got almost nothing out of me. Plenty of stuff about my power, but I’d decided I was willing to share that anyway. In regards to grilling me on the Undersiders she either got distracted or is really bad at the whole subtle interrogation thing. The only new pieces of information she’d picked up was Tattletale’s headache and the nature of my arrangement with them. And that Taylor wasn’t a tinker.

 

I still felt kind of embarrassed about that hairpin. The idea that I’d need proof was a last minute decision. I originally thought about just taking a metal sample, but I figured they’d need some evidence that I could make things. Machinist was an unbelievable acceleration power for anything involving mechanics or fabrication. When it was combined with my Smithing and two design perks I’d let things get away from me. From her expression when I tossed it to her I could tell she thought it was ridiculous. Honestly, I was kind of relieved when her sister barged in if just for the distraction.

 

Also, it’s good to know my Force Field formula counters impact along with damage. It would have sucked to get the injury from the hit negated only to be sent flying through half a dozen walls. I was right on the money about Glory Girl’s restraint. That blow would have nearly collapsed my chest, and that’s counting the boost of my durability. There’s also the impact damage from being sent flying. Like, that was legitimately attempted murder. Well, she was a hero cape, so probably involuntary manslaughter. A villain would definitely get murder two.

 

Everything I did tonight was definitely going to be figured out by Lisa and thus communicated to the boss. Even if she didn’t have information sources inside the Protectorate she had enough insight to be able to figure out something was up, if not from the reactions to this then when Panacea showed up without injuries. That would probably be an interesting conversation. I ran through everything I’d said. Nothing gave details on the Undersiders, except the crack about Lisa not being able to figure out my tinkering. I let them know who I was and that I was hired, but that was entirely on my side. No details of powers, no locations, not even information on what I had made them.

 

I didn’t like the idea that everything I did and everything I was capable of was being conveyed to a mystery crime lord, but the fact was that my abilities were growing faster than she would be able to report. She might have a hint about the upper level of technology I could create, but with the blind spots in her power and how the more esoteric applications of my abilities seemed to stress her out I doubted she had a complete picture. I would still need to prepare for repercussions, both from her and from her boss.

 

Lisa might be angry, or she might just be exasperated. Either way I doubt this is going to end our relationship. And no matter what I stand by my position of not letting Panacea stay injured.

 

The day had been draining in the extreme. I was coming off a brutal work blitz with no proper sleep, and then this rushed infiltration and clandestine meeting. Now I was walking towards the docks in an evening drizzle and just wanted to crawl into bed. I’d made a commitment, both to myself, and to Mr. Laborn but there was no way I was dragging my tired ass to the gym tonight.

 

I was also in no mood to deal with Aisha. Since I didn’t know who her snitch was I had no guarantee that she wouldn’t show up for a ‘completely spontaneous’ surprise workout session. Instead I took the time honored strategy of cowardly putting off dealing with things. Maybe the girl could find a life outside of pestering me. She probably had all kinds of people to harass, some of whom might even be age appropriate for her.

 

As it stood I had only missed out on two days of scheduled workouts and runs. Still, that was exactly the kind of thing I promised myself I wouldn’t let happen. I doubted it would be easier to keep a training schedule when my projects ramped up, much less during Bakuda’s inevitable attacks.

 

That was the thing. Bakuda. She was definitely counting down to something. It had been nearly a week since Lung’s capture. There’s no telling the amount of tech she could have built up in that time. I badly needed to get started on countermeasures. My alchemy and reinforcement would only carry me so far. With Machinist I could do projects that should take days in a matter of hours. The cash I’d gotten from the Undersiders wouldn’t help anyone when the bombing started. I would need to get started tomorrow. Prioritize what can make a difference, work like a madman, and just maybe I’d be able to get ahead of things.

 

But there was something I needed to deal with first, before planning, before sleep, before anything. During my infiltration, along with a few failed connections, my power had latched on to the strongest mote it had managed so far. It was from the Clothing constellation and was actually one of two motes clustered together. By expending all of the reach I had developed my power was able to latch onto the larger of the two motes. The one I connected to was an object. I couldn’t get a good sense of the other one, but I could tell it was the skills needed to work with what the larger mote provided. One mote for materials, one for crafting ability. That meant I would have to figure out how to use what I received without any help. With something this powerful it might be able to turn the tide in the coming chaos. That’s why sleep was not an option. I had to get back to my workshop and start my analysis.

 

I had to figure out what the hell I was supposed to do with a spool of Life Fibers.

 

At the moment I didn’t have much to go on. I knew it could be used to enhance clothing, but that was about it. Fortunately I had an excellent quality lab to work with.

 

As soon as I got back to my apartment I opened my workshop. This was the first time I had gotten a small item and I wasn’t sure how it would arrive. It turned out a locker had been placed in the wall of my entry room. Inside was a medium sized spool of glowing red thread.

 

So I had a spool of material that was more expensive than any ability I’d received so far. I know not all powers have an equal relationship between strength and cost, but there had to be something extraordinary about this thread. I carefully moved the spool into my Laboratorium to see what I could learn.

 

The first think I learned was how many Xeno alarms my Laboratorium had. As soon as the spool touched the scanner every light in the oversized room was blaring red, the cybernetic skulls were thrashing around and more than a dozen fail-safes were trying to activate. I had to scramble to the command throne just to stop the plasma incinerator from activating.

 

I didn’t even know I had one of those.

 

It took half an hour of overrides before things calmed down enough for me to actually get a reading. It took another fifteen minutes of disabling safeties to get a reading that wasn’t a full page of warning signs and caution symbols. Finally after all that I found out what I was dealing with.

 

The thread was an alien parasite. Life fibers were, in fact, alive. The thread was composed of multiple cells, but each was impossibly long and thin. And when I say impossibly thin I really mean that. I don’t think they actually follow the laws of physics and there are a lot of aspects that seemed borderline unbelievable. For one thing they were incredibly durable. As in leagues beyond anything I could even conceive of making. This stuff made my best hyper alloys look like a joke and even if they were damaged there seemed to be a mechanism where they would restore themselves almost instantly.

 

My analysis could extrapolate how they fed on living creatures, either their blood or neural energy. They also seemed to have some mutagenic properties that let them alter their host. The hint about enhancing clothing made sense after I started looking into their feeding mechanism. Limiting the fibers to surface contact severely reduced the stress on the host’s system. Rather than burning out the host it could maintain the relationship indefinitely without serious damage.

 

The potential for genetic augmentation was fascinating. The fibers seemed to work to accelerate evolution, pushing their hosts towards more robust bodies with larger brains and advanced nervous systems. They worked to enhance whatever species they came into contact with. In theory they could drive a planet towards developing sapient life, but that seemed more of a byproduct of their self-interest. Those traits led to better hosts for the life fibers to inhabit.

 

There was also evidence of intelligence, or at least the potential for it. The cells were all seemingly identical, but the energy exchange between them resembled a neural network. What I had on the spool was highly truncated. Projections from my lab’s computers indicated there would normally be a significant mass of fibers coordinating the rest of them in a kind of hive mind. What I had here were the only life fibers in the universe, essentially a baby of its species. Not even that, more of a zygote.

 

It was naturally parasitic, but capable of a symbiotic relationship. It was also a living thing with the potential of developing intelligence. This wasn’t a tool or resource to be exploited. It was a potential intelligent being and I needed to treat it as such.

 

Seeing as it could be used as clothing there were some possibilities. I didn’t know how to combine it with other materials and if I used it by itself I’d estimate there was enough to maybe make a pair of gloves. I had no idea what kind of impact either act would have on the lifeform.  I would have to look after it and see how it develops.

 

I drew up some estimates for nutritional needs. It seemed that it was capable of stasis pretty much indefinably, as in for thousands and thousands of years with no issue. If I wanted to awaken the life fibers it would need food, either bio-neural energy or blood. Bio-neural energy provided less sustenance and required continuous contact. So I would either have to maintain skin contact with the spool or introduce it to my blood. Neither of those seemed like a particularly good idea until I knew more about them.

 

Almost all of the knowledge I had received since I got my powers was based around mechanical principles. The only exception was Nanite Sciences. Those Nanites, unlike the ones from Grease Monkey or Machinist, had so many biological and medical applications that even though the bulk of the knowledge from that power revolved around construction and programing of nanomachines it necessitated a firm grounding in biology, particularly microbiology.

 

A functional set of nanites would actually be perfect for managing life fibers. Unfortunately I was months away from having that project at a workable state, and that was assuming I had all the facilities and resources that I needed. Instead I would just have to work with the biological knowledge I had and try not to mess this up. It was more than a little infuriating that the knowledge of how to work with something was separated from the material to be worked with.

 

I wasn’t ready to leave things at that. I loaded myself with a full suite of defensive formulas and deactivated the stasis and suspension fields around the spool while leaving the scanners running.  I was about to engage in the most elemental manner of scientific discovery known to man. The first and most effective method of information gathering understood at a core level by every human on the planet. I reached out and poked the spool with my finger.

 

This wasn’t just because poking is the basis for scientific discovery. Life fibers could absorb neural energy through the skin. I needed data on the process, not just the extrapolation my lab provided. Based on everything I’d learned so far this should present almost no risk of injury.

 

I also wasn’t getting any major concerns about this action from my passenger, which helped with the decision.

 

When my finger contacted the spool of red fibers there was a flare of energy and the whole mass began to glow. That was nothing compared to my experience. It felt like lightning was shooting up my arm. Someone was taking a sandblaster to my exhaustion and replacing it with ten cups of coffee and a shot of adrenalin. The fibers seemed to twitch and writhe on top of each other as well as squeeze down on the spool with incredible pressure.

 

I pulled my hand away and the energy vanished leaving me even more exhausted than before. I reactivated the stasis field and reviewed the scanned data, both from the fibers and my own body. There was a fascinating interaction between the life fibers and a human being. The ultimate potential was something I couldn’t even guess at this point but at the very least it would be able to provide drastic physical enhancement. There would be significant stress on the person’s body, especially if there wasn’t some way of moderating it. That would be what the clothing integration could be for. Unfortunately I had no idea how to manage that. Working with life fibers in their raw state was a terrifying prospect, but I needed to press on, both for the sake of the lifeform and for the potential benefits I could see from it.

 

I wouldn’t be accomplishing any of that tonight. I decided the best thing for now was to collect more data. I assembled a suite of scanners around the spool and left it under observation in my Laboratorium, making sure to suspend the numerous Xeno purging protocols before I left.

 

Heading back to my apartment I started making a much needed meal as I considered my next move. I had no illusions about Bakuda. Eventually she was going to make a move. Whatever she was planning it would probably be before Lung was moved to the Birdcage. She might want to cut loose with her tech, but if the ABB lost Lung they would be on borrowed time. Would she try to ransom him, or go for a jailbreak? I assumed he was being held in the Rig, which would be a hard target even for Oni Lee. Or so I assumed. I didn’t know what his range or limitations were, so he might be able to jump into the holding cells from half way across the city.

 

So now that I had resources I needed to decide what I would work on. Ideally I would do the standard tinker procedure, build improved equipment to improve the quality and range of devices I would be able to create. If I put everything I had into upgrading my workshop and spend a few days on it I could be able to manage some serious technology, not just the material science tricks I’d pulled for the Undersiders. The question was whether I had the time to spare for that.

 

There was also the problem that such an upgrade could easily take all the resources I’d assembles to date. Having the capacity for advanced construction without being able to afford any of it is not a problem I wanted to run into. Even if they could afford it I wasn’t currently comfortable doing more builds for the Undersiders and calling on their boss for resources was an absolute non-starter.

 

I needed some gear that would let me function properly as a cape. I’d proven I could manage to some extent last weekend, but a city wide bombing spree was a different matter than a throw down with Oni Lee, especially since I think he was trying to keep the tinker tech grenades quiet at that point. That was an advantage I wouldn’t be able to rely on in the future.

 

So I needed to figure out what would serve me best in the coming crisis. The list I had made when Panacea asked me in the hospital had been made up on the spot, but most of it held up. I needed better electronic warfare options. Well, I needed any electronic warfare options. I also needed mobility, in case last Sunday’s street level patrol at walking pace didn’t drive that home. My dark alchemy would carry me pretty well, but it wouldn’t hurt to have some offensive options between ‘hit with stick’ and ‘wrath of god’.

 

The problem was there was a serious bottleneck as to what I could build at the moment. I might be able to manage some of the higher level items I could conceive of, but the fabrication process would be tedious in the extreme. I would have to create huge amounts of new alloys and I was doubtful even with full cannibalization of all the electronics I currently had at my disposal if I would be able to manage anything close to the computing power and control systems I would need for running something like a proper hardsuit. Also, none of that touched on the horror of powering tech like that. I needed a fusion system to break out any of the serious weapons or machinery, and getting one running is its own nightmare project.

 

When the time you need to complete a specific item starts to approach the time needed to get fully programed nanites up and running you need to reassess your priorities.

 

So, reevaluate the problem. The easiest of my projects to deal with is probably mobility. I wouldn’t say I could literally rebuild an engine in my sleep, but it’s a close thing. A car or air vehicle would be difficult to conceal without the kind of stealth systems Squealer was rumored to use. I needed something that would address mobility both in and out of cape identity.

 

I could build an incredible motorcycle.

 

The only problem was I didn’t know how to ride a motorcycle. Oh, I knew how to operate one. I knew every aspect of that. I knew how they functioned, and what maneuvers different kinds of bikes would be able to manage just from their technical specs. I just had no practical experience.

 

But I could build the kind of bike that only existed in science fiction. If I did that I could also probably rig a basic assistance program and some gyroscopic controls to keep me from killing myself. Even if I didn’t end up using it for cape work it would get me around the city much faster. With my workshop key giving me access to my cape equipment anywhere with a door I could do rapid response to a nearby area, change in my workshop, and then deal with the problem without any issue.

 

It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was leagues better than hoping I could manage with my current level of mobility. I did not want a repeat of this morning’s trudge through the city.

 

After I finished eating I pulled up New Hampshire’s transport regulations on my laptop. It seemed I could get a learner’s permit for a motorcycle with just a written test. That was more limited than I would have liked, but motorcycle license tests needed to be scheduled well in advance. If I could find something in budget I could get on the road tomorrow. Anything would do considering I would be rebuilding it completely.

 

I could also load my bike with a good amount of technology. Taking advantage of the power of the engine, especially once I was done upgrading it, I would be able to run a decent set of equipment off it. I’d still be limited to what I could make, but I could probably manage some decent scanners and basic ECM. The bike could act as a mobile support point, especially if I could build an advanced enough control program for it

 

The day was catching up with me in a bad way. I made a few token searches for what I could find in terms of used motorcycles, then finally let myself collapse to sleep.

 

I had not turned off my watch alarm. It was probably for the best since I would have been happy to sleep until the crack of noon. Still, it took just about all of my willpower and no shortage of encouraging feelings from my passenger to haul myself out of bed, well off of mattress, and back into my morning routine.

 

Toast, coffee, run. That was the routine I had held to, and that was the routine I had decided I would not let slide just because my tinkering picked up. It wasn’t as bad once I made it to the bay and started along the boardwalk. Yesterday’s rain had cleared the air and it was just on the edge of a chill. That was my absolute favorite exercise weather. This entire endeavor would get a lot more trying once the summer heat started to set in. Maybe by then I’d be established enough to get a gym membership somewhere air conditioned. The Boxing gym was great and cheap, but its idea of a cardio area was a set of jump ropes. I hadn’t been there in the summer, but I’m pretty sure they managed by sticking a fan by the door rather than the monstrous cooling costs a building like that would incur.

 

Since I got the Life Fiber Spool my forge had missed a couple of attempted connections, but on my way back from my run the Clothing constellation swung by and made a link. Sadly it wasn’t the one I’d need to work with life fibers. No, this one was much stranger, which is really saying something. This wasn’t a lifeform that could enhance things with the potential for intelligence. No, the Celestial Forge had just given me a fully intelligent being.

 

It was an expert crafter with telekinetic powers and thinker abilities that could both divine aspects of the future and details about anyone on the planet. Its crafting abilities could be shared with other people, eventually allowing them to develop skills approaching its level. It could also instantly transform a quantity of money into its value in raw materials, effectively bypassing all purchase and supply chain concerns. On top of that it was an ageless and tireless construct completely with no biological needs or vulnerabilities.

 

All of that sounded incredible, but there was one qualifier that moderated things. One massive, looming qualifier. All of these abilities were limited to one specific field. Not robotics, not weapon design, and not vehicles.

 

It was fashion.

 

My power had given me an immortal super powered fashion designer that manifested as an animated pair of gloves. The insanity of it was almost enough to overshadow the fact that I had just been given an intelligent creature like it was a prize from a cereal box. Two creatures if you counted the life fibers. I didn’t know if they’d been created by my power or snatched from somewhere else, though there was a giant room full of skulls I had the same concern about. I remembered how the spool arrived and realized that I may be confining what is effectively a person to a tiny locker sealed in an extra-dimensional space.

 

As I rushed back to my apartment another horrible thought occurred. Was the intelligence attached to the gloves human? By that I meant was it a person trapped in glove form now? I hoped not. I thought the cyber skulls of my Laboratorium were the worst my power could manage. I didn’t even want to think about someone sealed into the form of a pair of gloves for eternity.

 

I dashed up the shaky stairs to my apartment and barely took the time to bolt the front door behind me before rushing to the back closet and throwing open my workshop door. Like with the spool a new locker had been added to my entryway, though this had a more stylish feel than the industrial look of the one that appeared before. I’m not sure what the term was for the design, but the locker door had little flourishes on it that reminded me of something vaguely French.

 

The door was two feet square and centered at chest height. When I pulled it open there was a velvet stand like you would find in a store window. It supported a pair of pure white gloves. When I say pure white I mean it on an almost unnatural level. They were so bright they looked almost unreal. And then they started to move.

 

At first I thought they were on some kind of mannequin or stand that was holding their shape, but as they lifted up I could clearly see they were holding the form of hands with absolutely nothing inside them. The gloves rose into the air and floated out of the locker. They paused in front of me leaving me at a loss for how to proceed. This was a new lifeform. Either a completely new person or an intelligence that had just been created by my power. I had no idea how I should interact with it. There were too many questions. What did it want? How could I help it? Did it even want to stay here? Should I let it out? Could it function in the world?

 

All that was put on hold as the gloves lunged forward and started tugging at the light jacket I had worn on my run. It took a few seconds, but eventually I figured out that they were trying to take it off, not throttle me. I awkwardly slipped out of the coat and watched as the gloves held it up against the wall. They let go and the jacket stayed suspended in the air.

 

The gloves held themselves in the proportion that a human would normally have and started gesturing. It wasn’t as clear as speech, but the impression I got was that they weren’t happy with my jacket. No, they weren’t happy with everything I was wearing.

“What’s wrong with it?”

 

The gloves threw themselves up in and exasperated gesture and plainly pointed towards my jacket. When I continued to look confused they started tracing seams, feeling material, turning the jacket inside out and displaying the lining, and making strong gestures that seemed to express how it didn’t go with anything else I was wearing.

 

“Ok, it doesn’t look good.” The gloves expression suggested that was a gross understatement. “But this is work out clothing. It’s not like this is my cape costume.”

 

As soon as I said that the gloves immediately redirected themselves towards my costume which was currently in a loose pile next to my mattress. The splayed their fingers in shock, them mimed fainting at the sight of it.

 

“It’s...” What the hell was I doing? Why was I arguing with a pair of gloves? A few minutes ago I had been worried about imprisoning some intelligence and now I’m defending fashion decisions to a pair of hand coverings.

 

The gloves mimed rolling up their sleeves, which somehow stretched the cuffs to the length of opera gloves. They then used their new size to be able to fold their arms indignantly at me. Apparently Garment Gloves could shapeshift but used the power solely for the expression of scorn.

 

I knew they were trying to get to me, but damn it I had worked hard on that costume! “What’s wrong with it?”

 

In response to my question the pieces of my cape outfit floated out of the pile. The Coat stayed in the air while the rest of the items carefully folded themselves up and arranged themselves on my desk in a manner that seemed like a personal attack.

 

“Hey, I worked hard on that. You think you can do better?”

 

That was apparently the wrong thing to say. The gloves leapt up in excitement and started disassembling my costume. I mean totally disassembling it. Seams were being pulled apart, buttons removed, even the shoes I wore were dismantled in front of my eyes. I made a few frantic grabs into the cloud, but it was clearly too far gone for me to have any hope of stopping it.

 

Inside the storm of clothing the gloves had found one of my notebooks and were scribbling in it frantically. Eventually the telekinetic chaos dropped away and I was able to climb over the piled and neatly arranged cloth, threat and other materials to see what the gloves had done.

 

They had drawn a sketch of a new costume. I had to admit, it was good. It took the broad themes of my previous design and ironed out the last artefacts of when I was scavenging for materials. This looked tailored and professional. There was a cowl instead of the bandana combo and the coat had been completely redesigned to be tailored with what seemed like more of a military cut. The other items of clothing were actually parts of the costume and not random pieces from my wardrobe. The mask, metal panels, and gauntlet had all been redesigned to fit with the new style. The gloves tapped the pencil against those items.

 

“What?”

 

They tapped again.

 

“Oh, yes. I can make those.” I looked at the pile of cloth. “Can you make that with this?”

 

They waved a clear negative gesture, then rubbed the thumb and index finger of one hand.

 

“So you need money?” I hadn’t budgeted for this, but I was dealing with an entirely new entity. If this let me start off on good terms it was worth it. My passenger was amused by the whole situation and was being no help at all.

 

I considered what I could afford. “Is a hundred dollars enough?” The gloves mimed horror. Fine. “Two hundred?” A less extreme reaction, but still a slight indication upward with one hand. “Three hundred, final offer.” They clap the gloves together in excitement.

 

Well, that was settled. “I have to go. Are you good?” They made a negative gesture. “What do you need?” Thumb and forefinger rubbing, gesture to themselves. “You want to be paid?” Their movements seemed to indicate the tragedy of a lack of clothing. “You want funding for your own projects?” There were happy glove movements.

 

Well, they were effectively a person locked in my closet. Anything I could do to make it easier for them. I got an extra pair hundred dollar bills along with the funding for my costume and handed them to the gloves. The money vanished from their hands and fabric and thread started manifesting around them.

 

That may be limited to clothing materials, but there had to be a way for me to leverage that for my other projects. I left them to shower and get ready to head to the DMV. When I left the shower the T-shirt and jeans I usually wore were nowhere to be found and had been replaced with a loose approximation of the items that looked like they fell out of a designer catalog. I looked at the open door of my workshop where the gloves were somehow giving the impression that they were whistling innocently.

 

I sealed my workshop before I got changed. After putting on the new clothes, which were actually a great fit and really comfortable, I realized I had locked the gloves in my workshop along with every item of clothing I owned.

 

I elected not to think about that while I made my way to the department of motor vehicles.

 

It was a little ridiculous that my first step towards serious tinkering involved a test for a motorcycle learner’s permit. I had downloaded a copy of the guide book and between a quick review and my frankly ridiculous level of mechanical understanding it wasn’t really a challenge. Getting to the DMV right at opening hours also helped speed things along. After the written exam there was a vision test and a $30 fee, at which point I had my permit. I was restricted to riding between sunrise and sunset and couldn’t carry passengers, but at least there weren’t any limits on the types of motorcycle I could own.

 

This led to the real challenge. I only had a few grand in cash at the moment. I also didn’t have confidence in my cash flow. Plus there were tax concerns if I started paying rent and utilities through undeclared income, but that was an end-of-the-month problem. The point was I needed to somehow manage to get the vehicle and all licensing and insurance taken care of without blowing a significant amount of my funds. That meant getting the cheapest bike I could.

 

I was planning such an extensive overhaul that I could pretty much just shop based on the frame. My web search had proven fruitful. When you don’t care about quality and just want a vehicle there are always options. I did need to take the bus out of town to reach the place, but everything I’d seen said it would be worth it.

 

The place was called ‘Power Motor Approval’ and was probably the biggest used vehicle dealership within travel distance of the city. I use biggest in the literal sense, not in terms of grandeur or success. The lot had a spill over area onto surrounding plots and fields that was honestly shocking in scope. I’m not convinced the place actually owned any of the land their cars had flowed onto, but this was another one of Brockton’s depressed areas. If anyone actually owned these properties they weren’t under any illusions about their value. I imagine that during the city’s industrial boom this place was probably a lot more reputable and had close ties with the now ruined industrial estates that surrounded it. At the moment it was more a motor graveyard than a dealership, and probably only a zoning decision away from counting as a junkyard.

 

This place was also a wonderland for tinkers. There was an ongoing feel of ‘what I could do with this’ that pervaded the entire place. It was like a scrap pile except everything was still technically functional. It may have been paranoia, but I wondered if they kept an eye out for anyone showing tinkerish behavior to tip off the PRT. Well, that was the best case scenario. Worst case the Empire or one of the other gangs. Hell, I wouldn’t put it past some people to try to grab and sell an unequipped tinker to any number of organizations. There were some chilling rumors about the Fallen and how some of the cells shored up their membership.

 

The bikes were off to the side and made up less than five percent of the lot’s stock. I skipped right past the nicer models that were going for over ten grand and headed straight to the bikes that were stacked like cordwood. This was where I would find my bike. Going deep enough into the pile started showing bikes with stickers under two thousand, and for good reason. A cursory inspection could find a plethora of problems with all of them, and not just excessive mileage.

 

It didn’t take long to attract a sales person, and it also didn’t take long for him to realize he was badly out of his depth. He left to get a more experienced sales person, who switched out for an even more senior salesman, who brought a junior mechanic to tag along, who then passed me up the chain two more times until I was talking with their head mechanic and a member of the sales staff who had been with the company since the 80s.

 

It wasn’t anything cool. I wasn’t being incredibly charming, or threatening to expose some scam they were pulling, though I wouldn’t be surprised if there was something like that going on with some of the cars here. The thing is I’m generally not great with people and conversations make me uncomfortable. There’s one exception to that. If it’s a technical discussion I can go on for hours with no problem. It’s a trait that served me well in college. Really, that’s all that was happening here. They easily bought my cover story about being an engineering student and needing a vehicle on a tight budget, also with a partial rebuild in the cards. When the stuff I was asking became too technical for the person I was talking to I got passed up the ladder. I don’t think they had any illusions about getting a serious commission out of me, and if it wasn’t a slow Friday morning they would likely have had better things to do, but as it stood I spent a chunk of the morning discussing technical specs, changes in engine design over the years, and maintenance strategies with two professionals who probably spent most of their time convincing people that ‘yes, the engine is in fact supposed to sound like that’.

 

I wish I could say I’d gotten some killer deal, or that they’d thrown in some extra parts after I smooth-talked them. No, at the end of the day they were professionals and I was just a slightly interesting client. I got a ‘functional’ motorcycle with registration, helmet, and the minimum level of insurance necessary, but still paid more than the thing was worth. There was probably some amusement in the fact that I knew exactly how bad a deal I was getting, which likely saved me from being completely raked over the coals.

 

The bike I ended up with wasn’t truly terrible, but it was probably the last thing I thought I would end up with. It had a good deal of mileage and the bodywork wasn’t in great condition, but those weren’t the main issues. The big problem was that it was a Japanese motorcycle.

 

Since Leviathan hit Kyushu the Japanese motor industry had been in shambles. There were still some companies in business, but they were shadows of their former selves. Mostly they opened branch manufacturing facilities in places like Indonesia, Thailand, or Malaysia. Those facilities had little to none of the quality the parent companies were known for and the parts that came out of them were jokes. Keeping any Japanese vehicle operational was an exercise in frustration, and that was for cars with major dealerships. For motorcycles they were basically on a death march. Even enthusiasts couldn’t keep them going and switched over to other manufacturers. The lucky ones were bought out by American or European companies that started putting out decent replacement parts and even the occasional new model.

 

Suzuki was not one of the lucky ones.

 

The motorcycle I rode out of the Power Motor Approval lot had been patched together with some of the cheapest and most slipshod parts south Asia could churn out. Everyone who knew anything about bikes wouldn’t be caught dead on this thing, and if I wasn’t planning to rebuild it from the ground up I would never have stooped to make the purchase. Still, with my mechanical knowledge I might be able to turn a Suzuki GSX-R 750 into something other than an embarrassment.

 

The bike got me back to the city, but I could pick up on every problem it had over the course of the drive. I couldn’t think of any part of it that was in good enough condition to leave as is. Also, like the automatic transmission on the van I was essentially leveraging mechanical knowledge in place of vehicle operation skill. It wasn’t the smoothest or most stable ride, but then again I wasn’t exactly street racing. Cautious turns and moderate speed got me within a few blocks of my apartment without any hiccups.

 

As I looked for a way to get my bike into my workshop I felt the forge move again. It was the Alchemy constellation and my power latched to a tiny mote. The oddly named ability was called Kazooie Alchemy.

 

It let me make potions.

 

This was a fundamentally exciting concept. All of my alchemy so far had been closer to casting spells with material components than creating elixirs for later use. This ability addressed that disparity. With it I could brew and create actual potions. I was getting over how supernatural a lot of my powers seemed to be. When you had possessed gloves making clothes for you in your secret expanding closet drawing the line at potion brewing seemed kind of arbitrary.

 

The potions weren’t difficult to make. The ingredients were mundane and fairly inexpensive. With nothing but a pot and a heat source I could brew one in about an hour. A professional laboratory set up would help me cut down on that time and potentially boost the quality, but it wasn’t essential to production.

 

Unfortunately I could only make three types of potions. Their effects would last a few minutes at most and mixing them was a horrible idea. Also the potions would only affect me, there was an element of the ability that made them chemical messes for anyone else who tried to drink them. Still, the three effects I could create were seriously powerful.

 

The first and least noteworthy was an invisibility potion. Totally undetectable by sight until the potion wore off or I took some damage, which would dispel the effect. Other than that it was perfect invisibility, stranger powers in a bottle.

 

The second effect generated a type of shielding that completely negated damage. This would be colossally significant if I didn’t have an alchemy formula that did basically the same thing for a shorter period. Still, this was total, walk up to Behemoth and say give me your best shot invincibility.

 

It still didn’t excite me as much as the third potion I could now make. With that mixture I would be able to generate two copies of myself. They would only last a few minutes or until they took a hit and I didn’t have any link to them after creation, but they did have all the equipment I was carrying. With one minor ability I had gotten the power to beat Oni Lee and Bakuda at their own game. The significance of what I could manage with this cannot be understated.

 

I was going to make so many missiles.

 

I just needed a place I could brew them inconspicuously. They might not need expensive chemicals, but the brewing process would produce copious amounts of colorful smoke and a smell like a chemical spill in an aroma therapy center. My workshop didn’t have anything close to the ventilation needs to handle this and trying it in my kitchenette would bring the police or PRT to my door in short order.

 

It was much too powerful to let that stop me. Brockton had an abundance of abandoned buildings. It looked like I would finally have to set up a real world lab. It was bound to happen eventually, but I can’t help but feel a little disappointed in myself.

 

Finding a location for brewing would be a problem for later. I found an out of the way alley that I could pull into and started to figure out how to get this thing into my workshop. Unfortunately that would have to go through my entryway, which meant squeezing the bike past everything I’d stored there each time I wanted to store or deploy it. It wasn’t exactly set up for dramatic launches onto the street, but being able to always have access to my bike was worth the inconvenience.

 

I did find a larger door that made accessing the entryway less of a trial. One thing I had learned was that the main door scaled to whatever size I used to access it. Any size door. I tried it on a cubby locker once and got a roughly one foot square entrance to my workshop.

 

As I opened the large loading door to access my workshop I was understandably surprised to be greeted by the shape of a woman in evening wear. I say shape because there wasn’t actually a woman there. The gloves had apparently made a red evening dress and were suspending it between them with their telekinesis in a manner that made it look like it and the gloves were actually being worn by an invisible woman.

 

Once I got over my shock I realized it was actually a lot less distracting than seeing disembodied gloves flying around. The dress was arranged so it was ‘sitting’ at my desk chair and turned to face me as I entered. The simulated body movement also helped the gloves emote, which was a serious benefit.

 

“Oh, uh, hi?”

 

The gloves waved in greetings.

 

“Nice dress?”

 

They rose in a way that made it looked like they were standing up. The illusion was perfect and if I didn’t know how their powers worked I would have thought it was an invisible person standing before me. They ‘stepped’ forward and twirled to show off the dress. They had even made shoes for themselves and were managing them as well as any other aspect of the outfit.

 

Something occurred to me. “Sorry if this is rude, but are you female?”

 

The gloves made a gesture to where their pelvis would be, then an irreverent gesture that seemed vaguely positive.

 

“It doesn’t matter, but sure?” I guessed at a translation.

 

There was an excited response and an enthusiastic gesture towards the dress, and a dismissive one to a suit hanging on the wall.

 

“Female because women’s clothes are better?”

 

Again enthusiasm from them, or I guess that should be ‘her’, if that’s what she wanted.

 

“So what should I call you? The ability that brought you here, or created you, or whatever is called Garment Gloves...”

 

There was an excited snap.

 

“You want that as your name?”

 

More expressions of positivity.

 

“So Garment?”

 

There was a happy gesture.

 

“Right, ok Garment. I need to get this bike into the workshop.”

 

She leaned around me in a way that a normal human would, ‘looked’ at the bike, then reacted with horror. In a flurry of motion various items of clothing floated off surfaces to places as far from the path I’d have to take as possible. It ended with her ‘standing’ on the chair and making shoeing gestures as I wheeled the admittedly rusty and oil soaked machine through her workspace.

 

My metal workshop was largely untouched, but the components of the costume Garment had designed were laid out for assembly. It looked nearly finished and I wondered why she had left it like that.

 

Once the bike was settled in the center of the workspace I turned to see Garment at the door. “Do you need some help with that?” Given the level of skill on display from what she had thrown together I couldn’t imagine what she would need me for.

 

What followed was a bunch of abstract gestures that I had a hard time deciphering. Eventually I got fed up and happened upon an idea. I got one of the spare laptops Tattletale had included with my supplies and booted it up. I loaded a word processor and set it in front of Garment.

 

It seemed that while Garment may have been a genius in terms of clothing they didn’t include basic computer use in whatever skillset she’d been granted. She typed by hunting through the keyboard letter by letter with the speed of a glacier and the grace of a drunken sloth. Gradually a word appeared on the screen.

 

P...O...W...E...R...S

 

“You want to use my powers?” This brought on an excited flurry. It made sense, my Made to Last ability would make the clothing impervious to time and the elements. Making it in the workshop would let it repair itself in forty eight hours if it was ever damaged. My style abilities combined with her fashion sense and tailoring skill would produce a level of quality that dwarfed anything I could even imagine.

 

“How do you know about my powers?”

 

That merely got a shrug and a dismissive gesture. Well, that explained nothing. But I guess if she came from my powers it made sense that she would know about them. That was still bothering me. I had a sentient being confined to my workshop. I wasn’t going to pretend this was something normal. I had to make sure she was happy with whatever this arrangement turned out to be.

 

“Look, Garment, I don’t really get how you came here or what it means, but I want you to be ok. So what do you want?”

 

She made a contemplative gesture, then an exclamation followed by indications towards her dress and the half-finished costume.

 

“Clothes? You want to make clothes?”

 

The excitement was bubbling off her.

 

“Ok, I’ll make sure you can make all the clothes you want.”

 

That got a little hop of excitement.

 

“I need to move the entrance of the workshop before someone finds it. I’ll see you back at the apartment.”

 

She waved goodbye as I left and sealed the door behind me. As I started walking home something occurred to me. I didn’t own a suit. In fact, I didn’t recognize any of the clothes she had ‘saved’ from my bike. The duffle bag I used as a dresser was looking very flat and there had been a cardboard box in the corner with the word ‘RAGS’ scrawled on it.

 

Ok, I needed to have a word with her. I was going to have to put some limits on that promise before she dismantled everything I owned and I ended up drowning in formalwear.

 

 

***

Author’s Note:

 

Updates are going to slow down a bit from this point on. I had a buffer of drafts ready when I started posting and this chapter brings me to the end of them. The story will continue, but not with daily updates. I’m going to shoot for two chapters a week.

 

The writing exercise that started this story worked by wordcount. Every 2000 words was worth 100 points and triggered a roll for a new power. The power is purchased if enough points have been accumulated to cover its cost. That’s the meaning of the in story references to building reach and stronger and weaker motes. In the revision of my drafts the wordcount has expanded, so to accommodate this there will be a lot more powers coming in the next few chapters.

 

I wanted to thank everyone who provided feedback on this story as it really helped keep me motivated to continue writing and posting. I’m sorry to slow down the updates just as things are ramping up but I promise you there is more to come.

Chapter Text

10 Overhaul

 

I hurried back to my apartment and tried not to think about what Garment had been doing to my wardrobe. I’ve never been particularly fashionable. My strategy has always been to find something serviceable and run with it. When I was in college a T-shirt and jeans had practically been the uniform of the engineering class. I don’t think I saw one person vary from it in my entire time there.

 

Clearly that did not work for Garment. I didn’t know what she intended, but it made me nervous. I didn’t like attracting attention and what she’d replaced my earlier clothes with was already at the limit of what I was comfortable with. I really didn’t want to end up dressed up like some hipster just to keep Garment happy.

 

I guess I was her only model. I could do something about that. I had been able to build humanoid androids since I got my Grease Monkey power. High level synthetics required extensive development times, but I could cut down on that substantially by using cultured human tissue and repurposed neural matter to compliment processing.

 

Ok, no. I’m not building a borderline sapient cybernetic android just to avoid having to play dress up. A.I. was a dicey enough prospect to begin with, much less if you took those kinds of shortcuts. I’d promised myself I’d be responsible with any intelligences I created. I wasn’t going to bring new life into the world only to explain that the purpose of its existence was distracting the fashionista.

 

Garment was part of my power. We were stuck with each other and I’d have to come up with a compromise we could both live with.

 

As I climbed the stairs to my apartment I felt the Celestial Forge. The Size constellation passed by without any successful connections. I put that out of my mind and continued to the closet to open the workshop. Garment was standing there defiantly. Well, ‘standing’ there. It was incredible how quickly I had accepted the illusion. Really she was a pair of floating gloves with everything else telekinetically suspended, but it was a lot easier to think of the entire collection as one person.

 

“Garment, what happened to my clothes?”

 

She gestured at the various items folded on the assorted surfaces or suspended on the wall as if to say everything was fine. She also shifted slightly to obscure my view of the definitely empty duffle bag that had previously contained my wardrobe. Instead I looked over to the cardboard box and cracked the lid.

 

Inside were the disassembled remains of clothing. I wasn’t the best judge of things, but it didn’t look like enough material to account for everything that disappeared from the duffel bag. Looking over the new items there were some familiar elements, colors or broad designs that had been integrated into new items.

 

“Did you remake all my clothes?”

 

There was a sense of pride and accomplishment in her stance with no hint of shame. Looking closer with the benefit of my abilities I could see the effect. Everything had been tailored to be completely bespoke. Not everything had made the transition. It looked like some items had been cannibalized for fabric and others had been trashed completely. There were some new items, the suit being the most obvious, but it wasn’t as shocking a change as I’d been afraid of.

 

My personal style was definitely being altered, but that was mostly because I had no personal style to begin with. It was at least more subdued than I had been afraid of. There were no ridiculous runway flairs or poorly integrated vintage items. Miraculously it was not hipster clothing. I might go out in a shiny costume to fight supervillains but I still have standards.

 

“It’s incredible that you managed all this since this morning.”

 

There were some awkward qualifying motions from Garment.

 

“What?” I had seen everything stored both in here and in the workshop. What was she talking about?

 

There was the slightest gesture towards the Laboratorium door. Cautiously I edged forward and opened it.

 

Apparently I had badly underestimated Garment’s crafting rate and her level of boredom. I probably should have clued that something was up when all of the items in the entry way had been designed for me. Garment had seemingly decided that my Laboratorium would function perfectly as a walk in closet.

 

I was honestly amazed at the quantity of it. Assuming she kept to her budget how was it possible to buy this much material for what I had given her? Actually, how was the cost decided? Wholesale direct from a factory was a very different number than the retail price at a specialty fabric store. Even so, the only way I could make sense of this is if she was abusing the international exchange rate in some way. Somehow she had purchased enough supplies to fill the entrance of my gothic technology lab with outfits.

 

There were dresses, coats, sweaters, shirts, pants, and shoes. Those I didn’t have a problem with. What was bothering me was the hats. Only about a half dozen of them, and all nicely made. The problem was how Garment had decided to store them.

 

The other items were folded, hung on walls, or spread over computer altars. For the hats she had decided the Laboratorium had the perfect manner of displaying them. The half dozen cyber skulls nearest the entrance were all festooned with lovingly made women’s hats. The worst was probably the bonnet with silk flowers sown into it. Its skull warbled towards me, one eye socket empty and the other with a cybernetic lens, and managed to look confused at what was happening to him. The other skulls weren’t much better, particularly the one wearing a broad hat with attached peacock feather.

 

I slowly backed out of the lab and closed the door. How had she managed this? It had barely been four hours since she arrived. If this was the rate of work she needed to entertain herself then I was going to be both bankrupt and drowning in clothes within a few days.

 

“Uh, Garment?”

 

She stood there expectantly.

 

“Ok, uh, that’s really nice work, but please don’t store things in there. I’ll find you a place to keep your clothes.” Which would have to be outside my workshop. Or my apartment, since there was just no space for that amount of clothing. This would be getting complicated. Maybe a storage locker would work as a temporary option.

 

In the mean time I needed to find something for Garment to do that wouldn’t require any additional money or storage space. What did normal people do to kill time?

 

I looked over at the laptop I had set up for Garment and an idea struck me.

 

“Would you like to watch some fashion videos on youtube?”

 

She seemed a little nervous around the computer but was still excited at the concept. I took it out to my apartment and connect it to the wifi. I loaded Youtube and, remembering her typing speed, did a search for ‘Fashion’. Interestingly she kept up the illusion even when working on the laptop, giving the impression that she was curled up on the floor rather than just floating the gloves to the keyboard. With a bit of help she picked up how to use the track pad well enough and soon was working her way through a series of videos.

 

Setting aside the fact that I might be encouraging internet addiction as a solution to my problems, I took advantage of her distraction and returned to my workshop. I needed to get that bike in working order and install enough systems to keep my riding stable and provide some measure of cape support. I had barely started when Garment returned to the workshop and beckoned me outside.

 

She had a video loaded and was pointing to the section under it that said “Log in to comment or rate this video’.

 

This was a complexity I hadn’t anticipated. “You want an account?”

 

There was a positive gesture. I got where she was coming from, but the idea made me uneasy. Considering the alternative was confining her to isolation I decided it was worth the risk.

 

“You’ll have to be very careful.” Before she could respond I continued. “Very, very careful. You can’t say anything that will lead back to us, or share anything. Uh, I can probably obscure our location and set things up for safe browsing, but you shouldn’t test that. Stay on this site for now and let me see the comments before you send them.”

 

With her agreement I set to work. I dug into the best of my technical skills to manage a proxy chain that would hold up to most casual inspection, then set up and account. Her ‘name’ wasn’t taken, so she was officially online as GarmentGloves.

 

I navigated back to the video and gave her the keyboard. She slowly began picking out letters.

 

D...U...L...L

 

She sat back and gestured to the screen.

 

“That’s it?” Her reactions indicated that said enough and anything else would be too much work. I posted the comment and Garment navigated to another video and began typing once more.

 

C...H...I...C

 

I looked at the word and her satisfied movements.

 

“Are those what you want to say?”

 

She was affirmative and fairly smug about it.

 

“Anything else?”

 

There was a shrug and a dismissive gesture to the keyboard.

 

“Alright, if that’s what you want I can leave you to it as long as you can keep it short. Remember, no personal details.”

 

With her dismissive gesture and typing speed I didn’t imagine she’d be sending her life story to anyone in the comments section. I left her to the laptop and headed back. Interestingly she didn’t seem to be getting any better at finding letters on a keyboard and took the same ponderous approach every time she typed a reply. I really need to get her a typing course or computer class or something.

 

On my way back to the workshop I felt the Celestial Forge move and the last constellation I had yet to identify came into reach. My power was able to link to the smallest of the motes, but with it I could classify both it and the constellation.

 

The final constellation was called Magitech. It dealt with the integration of magic and technology. At this point I was pretty well past the concerns I had about magic. I could carve runes, make potions, and had a possessed set of gloves binging youtube videos in the other room. I wasn’t going to get caught up on the semantics of what my power was calling things. Whatever reality warping power capes used also seemed to fall under that category, so it would all come out the same.

 

The new ability I received was called Mechanist. It came with some decent mechanical knowledge, middling by my standards but still somewhat useful. The big thing was the knowledge of magitek.

 

Ok, since I was just talking about semantics I need to break down the entirely arbitrary definitions I was working with. Magitech was the integration of magic and technology on any level. Magitek was technology specifically powered by magic. There were some advantages, things that were possible when using magic as a power source, but mostly it was just machinery that ran on magic rather than chemical, thermal, or electrical energy.

 

When I say that it runs on magic I mean directly on the magical energy. If I built some magitek to draw from a lightning rune it’s going to be pulling the energy that empowers the rune, not the electricity the rune is putting out. On one hand it means I could run the devices from any magic source, on the other I can’t actually integrate the effects of whatever magic I’m using into the device. It’s all just fuel.

 

Conceivably that principle of fueling machinery from any magical source could even include parahumans. There’s a dark thought and that’s another thing to file away in the ‘too horrible to consider’ drawer.

 

The level of understanding I had gotten from this mote was pretty basic. I would only be able to build simple devices, but that should be enough for a power source. I could use this to finally sidestep my energy problems. All I needed was a concentrated source of magic and I would be able to power just about anything. The only question was what I would be able to use?

 

My runesmithing would let me make a weapon that could provide a decent level of power. The connections would be difficult and I’d need a fairly large weapon to hold enough energy. If I wanted to run my bike from this I would basically need a zweihänder jammed in the engine. The new potions I could make would also count, but they would have variable power outputs and I couldn’t accurately predict how long they would last. Plus they were so useful I’d hate to waste them as fuel. For the best option I would have to go to my original alchemy.

 

There was an alchemy formula I had never attempted that was Call Up. It creates a small crystal called a call bead. Call beads are links to massively powerful magical entities and allow free manifestation of their abilities to anyone who expends the crystal. The process of linking them and the implications of the power would have scared me off the concept even if the components weren’t so difficult to obtain.

 

But my new ability was designed to work with a crystalline material called magicite. Magicite was, somewhat distastefully, the concentrated remains of a powerful magical creature. Like a call bead it could be used to access the power of another creature. The principles for integrating magicite into a device should, in theory, work for a call bead.

 

It won’t be as stable as a full magicite crystal. The call bead would degrade as it expended its power, but I should still be able to get a titanic amount of energy from it. At least as much as a magicite shard. The only problem is creating the beads.

 

The Call Up formula requires two reagents, meteorite and dry ice. I had pretty much written off getting either of those before I dealt with Tattletale. Along with all the essentials for crafting the knives I had been able to add all the reagents I hadn’t been able to track down. The limestone block may have been an odd addition, but no one’s going to find it strange for a tinker to ask for gunpowder, ethanol, dry ice, or meteoric iron. Well, strange by the standards of tinkers.

 

Because of that request a small freezer of dry ice and some pieces of meteorites had been included in my supplies. Now, I had a highly finite supply of these materials. I would be running on a very limited resource and probably only be able to make six or seven beads. But that thinking was from this morning, before I had gotten the ability to duplicate myself.

 

With my duplication potion I could copy all the materials I was holding. The copies could then use the Call Up formula and generate as many beads as they could before they dissipated or expended the reagents. As long as I could brew that potion I effectively had infinite magical fuel.

 

Unlimited Power!

 

But I still needed to prove the concept. I hadn’t even seen a call bead yet. All this was theoretical. Furthermore I needed to calibrate the magitek device to the power source, so I at least needed a single sample to start. Also I didn’t get any feedback from my copies. I needed a sense of how the beads formed in order to properly integrate them. No matter what I would have to make at least one call bead without the duplication potion.

 

As I prepared to combine the formula I felt my passenger’s excitement building. Mostly the strong emotions were reserved for capes, but he was probably even more invested in the Celestial Forge. This would be a major step forward. Even if I had to do it with a specific type of technology this would address all of my power source concerns. No more worrying about fuel or the complications of building a micro-fusion reactor. How far I could take it would depend on my examination of the call bead, but this was a massively significant project.

 

I put on some protective gloves and collected a piece of dry ice and a chunk of meteorite. Carefully, in an open area of my workshop, I combined the two reagents. The formula glowed brighter than any had before. Rather than the light spreading out it condensed to a single point. Slowly a blue crystalline substance began forming around it until a bead about two centimeters wide was floating in the air in front of me. I placed a hand beneath it just as it began to dip and the tiny object fell into my palm. 

 

On basic inspection it looked like a plain glass bead, but if you looked closely you could see the faint glow in its center. There was something both enchanting and terrifying about that glow, like you were looking at light shining through a tunnel from an unimaginable distance rather than being generated by the bead itself.

 

I had done it. I had a massively powerful magical object, one that should be able to run every system I could want from my bike. But now I needed to analyze it.

 

Unfortunately my Laboratorium would not be helpful with this. Actually, I’m going to reclassify that as ‘fortunately’ since that meant I wouldn’t need to deal with the behatted cyber skulls just yet. The Laboratorium was designed to measure physical effects. It could measure highly obscure physical properties that I barely understood, but it couldn’t actually gauge magic, only what magic could do. The most it was capable of was identifying when something was magical. Without activating the call bead it would be no help.

 

Instead I had to assemble a basic magitek calibration system. Fortunately all of my other abilities made this a trivial task and I completed what would have taken at least a day in less than half an hour. With the apparatus in place I could start to gauge what I was dealing with.

 

As an expendable item it seemed a call bead was capable of immense power output, but only for a short time. When I say immense I really mean that. In theory I could dump all the bead’s energy in one massive burst, but it would completely destroy whatever system it was attached to. I just didn’t have the materials or technology to channel that kind of power. What I could make would barely be able to handle one tenth of that. If I was going to use this as an ongoing power source rather than for massive discharges I was going to need to moderate energy flow to the slightest fraction of what it was capable of. Fortunately even at that diminished level it would be able to run every system I had considered installing on my bike while also keeping the motor at max output. For civilian operation the bead could last for months. If I took it into combat or ran serious systems from the engine then the lifespan would be severely diminished. By serious systems I mean the type of ECM jamming that normally comes from naval ships. This could even open up installed weapon systems, or that motoroid idea I had largely dismissed.

 

Though building something like that would require a lot of programing support.

 

I was also going to be limited to vehicles or large devices. The best magitek core I could build was the size of a small engine block. I didn’t have any powers that would help me shrink that down, so this kind of power source would be limited to things big enough to accommodate something like that. Bikes, robots, and base systems were on the table, handheld devices were definitely not. If I wanted to run a man portable device off this kind of energy it would require a Ghostbusters backpack for the power source.

 

This also wasn’t going to be as easy as shoving a call bead into my bike’s engine. Magitek meant every aspect of the device was powered by magic. The engine wasn’t driven by an exploding fuel air mixture, it was turned by magic. The lights weren’t powered by electricity from a battery or alternator, they were powered by magic. Various auxiliary systems weren’t maintained by power transfer from belts, pressure, or gears. They all ran on magic. The energy was basically a cheat mode for all kinds of complicated technology. I could even build a magitek cogitator to imprint control procedures onto directly, allowing high functioning automation without any use of microprocessors.

 

That last application was beyond me for the moment. It was at the very limits of my skills with magitek. Also, without a preexisting control program to work from I would be flying blind and could easily end up with a rampant machine. Instead I would need to install an alternator to run a series of electrical systems. That would allow the control program to run in a normal computer environment. It would add extra complexity, but also allow much easier development of the support system.

 

I had to completely rip apart the motorcycle and start fresh on a new engine. With my powers that was utterly trivial and the bike pretty much flew apart. In addition, my Rationing ability allowed me to squirrel away every part, linkage, and potentially useful scrap material. Anything I ended up dumping from the bike I would be able to find another application for later.

 

As I was working I felt the forge again. This time it connected to a small mote from the Resources and Durability constellation. It was called Repair Savvy. In addition to even further boosting my mechanical skill it enabled me to make repairs for all of my weapons, armor, and personal equipment drastically easier. Maintenance for them would take minutes instead of hours. It didn’t help with design or new construction, but corrective work, assembly, or minor modifications could be accomplished in a flash. Combined with my other abilities I might even be able to work fast enough to repair equipment in combat situations.

 

What counted as personal equipment was somewhat arbitrary. Cars or other large vehicles didn’t, nor did anything that had to be installed into a location. A laptop would, but a server wouldn’t. A desktop was right on the line and would see very marginal benefits. Motorcycles were in a similar situation where the application was mixed and therefore marginal.

 

However, if I did that motoroid conversion it would suddenly completely qualify for that power’s effect. At that point it would fall into the armor category as well. A motoroid counted as very heavy power armor. It was just on the border between power armor and mecha, but it still counted. Incredibly it was right at the limit of what my duplication formula could copy in terms of personal equipment. That meant drinking a duplication potion while in armor mode would provide all of my copies with their own sets of power armor.

 

I would still need to sink the time in for design and construction, but I could churn out something barely functional and then get Repair Savvy’s acceleration on all maintenance and refinement processes. It was unbelievable that I could drastically accelerate the construction of my bike by adding the ability for it to transform into a suit of power armor.

 

At times like this I really, really loved my power.

 

I mean this was cheating, but it was cheating in a way that is practically an engineering tradition. This is the principle of something absolutely, totally being completed by the deadline, it just needs a few touch ups. Over several months. At a cost equal to half the original project budget. It was the equivalent of the ‘fix it in post’ or ‘patch it later’ mentality. I was kind of proud that such a core element of design and construction was included in my power set.

 

All I needed to do was build something that technically qualified as a motoroid.

 

My powers already allow me to work blindingly fast while operating to an impeccable level of quality. When I pushed myself to get something just ‘functional’ as quickly as humanly possible, well let’s just say things were happening in the workshop that defied grace, dignity, and the laws of nature. I’m pretty sure I could feel my Decadence power crying at what was unfolding before me. Strangely it was my Black Thumb power that was really shining through. I may have been driven to a bit of maniacal laughter as I took a hammer to the cycle frame in order to wedge in a magitek drive converter. Hastily built thaumic servos were shoved into gaps cut in the structural metal with my monomolecular pen knife and roughly welded into place. Anything not necessary for it to qualify as a bike or a motoroid was left out. The control system was nothing but a hastily coded series of servo operations connected to a hotwired laptop.

 

The entire thing was a mess that the combined efforts of both of my style perks couldn’t save. When it was finished the bike actually looked worse than it had in the lot. The casing didn’t fit together, the wheels were off alignment, the shocks had been torn off, and the seat was a mess of jagged metal. With a great deal of apprehension I activated the transformation. Sparks of thaumic discharge scorched the floor and nearby equipment leaving streaks of soot that glowed faintly green. The bike lurched like it was having a seizure, then slowly started to split in a way that reminded me of a John Carpenter film. I was half afraid it would fall apart on the spot, but with a series of shudders and no shortage of discharged magical energy eventually it pulled itself into a vaguely humanoid form.

 

It was hideous. The thing looked like a design that had been rejected from one of the Earth Aleph Transformers movies because theaters didn’t want to deal with the inevitable nausea it would trigger in their audiences. It was like someone asked ‘what would happen if a robot could get cancer and herpes at the same time?’ and then turned the answer into a modern art sculpture. It looked like someone had taken the results of an industrial lake dredging and sculpted them into a mockery of the human form.

 

With a final shudder the armor opened up revealing the compartment for the driver. There were continuous sparks of thaumic energy jumping back and forth inside it and the whole thing had a wet and greasy look. Enough spikes and loose wires were present inside the compartment for it to easily have been mistaken for a medieval torture device.

 

With a spray of hydraulic fluid from the outside of the right leg the entire machine began to list to the side. I watched helpless as the hulk tipped past its point of no return and impacted the ground with the sound of a plane crash.

 

It was hideous, but from the feel of my power it was just enough to qualify for my latest ability. That meant I could do repair and maintenance work at such an accelerated rate I would be able to get it in top form in no time. And as long as no one saw it at this stage I wouldn’t have to admit to falling into the worst of newbie tinker design practices.

 

Of course that was the exact moment when Garment rushed into the workshop. I suppose an event that sounds like a demolition derby meeting a trash compactor will attract some attention. On one hand it was a relief to know that she would have been there for me in the event of an accident. On the other hand the way she reacted when she saw what I’d done to my bike made me feel like she had caught me doing something indecent.

 

I didn’t know a set of animated clothes could look like they were about to break into tears. She ran off in horror before I could say anything. Eventually I found her in the Labratorium surrounded by the nicer dresses she had made. It was as if she was trying to create a barrier against bad taste.

 

She met my attempts at an explanation with accusatory stares. Well, accusatory body language. When I promised I could fix it she made a dismissive gesture and went back to checking the seams on one of her gowns.

 

Suddenly I felt like I was performing a penance. I returned to the workshop and looked down at the twisted mess of a motoroid. Yeah, that definitely counted as a sin against nature. And on the scale of sins against nature I was guessing this thing would be near the top of the list. I got to work.

 

There are varying levels of maintenance, from tune-ups to minor services to overhauls. What I was doing here was about two steps past a complete rebuild. It only technically counted as maintenance because there was a physical object that I was working on.

 

The Greeks have the story of the ship of Theseus that was maintained by replacing every damaged component until none of the original ship remained. What I was doing here didn’t go quite that far. I was keeping the tires.

 

Machinist would let me completely rebuild an aircraft in a single night. I was currently working about a hundred times faster than that. I was leveraging levels of technical understanding I had never explored while moving faster than should have been humanly possible. My Rationing power kept even a single bolt from going to waste as parts were replaced, refurbished, or full on fabricated. I swear I could feel blisters forming on my fingers. My muscles ached and head spun from how quickly I was moving.

 

The electronics were reworked. Software was transferred from the laptop to a custom made control computer. It was then deleted and rewritten with a prototype neural net designed to train itself in vehicle control. It was wired into the magitek systems with properly calibrated adapters rather than the equivalent of penny fuses that I’d been using before.

 

Through it all I was letting my style powers run rampant. Everything was being designed to an impeccable standard. I was really feeling like I needed to make up for my earlier performance, despite still believing the rushed quality of the early work to be fully justified.

 

When I took a short break for some lunch I found Garment had made her way back to the laptop and did her best to convey the idea that she was glaring at me while I ate. During lunch my power missed a connection from the alchemy constellation and my reach continued to grow. I powered through a quick meal to the sound of red carpet fashion commentary followed by the slow typing of a one word comment.

 

Really, really needed to get her a typing class.

 

After I cleared my dish I was right back to work. Systems were rearranged, tuned, refined, and tested. The control program was put through pathfinding and dexterity tests. Key components and structural pieces were replaced with custom formed hyper alloys. The entire magitek core and drive system was rebuilt from the ground up to improve efficiency and peak output. Every part that had been overlooked or ignored in the previous build was added in exquisite quality. The entire assembly was precisely aligned, polished, and presented in the best and most efficient manner possible. Even the seat was perfectly aligned for both comfort and control.

 

By the time I was done it was early afternoon. I had spent nearly two hours on the overhaul, which was accelerated to about two hundred hours thanks to my power. But that was two hundred hours at my typical level of proficiency and accelerated work. For a normal person that would be... I have no idea. Normal people don’t do this kind of project. Not without a team of experts and an extensive research budget.

 

The point was that despite the rough start I had managed a bike that would have taken weeks of work in a few hours. It was light on support systems or weaponry, but was more advanced, refined, and powerful than anything I would have dreamed of having ready at this point. I checked on the progress of the control program. This is something I’d envisioned as a fleet management program for when I had multiple vehicles to operate. Right now it was learning motorcycle operation through simulated scenarios, but eventually it would be capable of piloting assistance for anything I could build.

 

I would definitely need that assistance because this bike was fast. It was fast on a level that normally required a streamliner body shape and miles of salt flats to pull off. I was cheating with advanced knowledge of wind resistance and some variable geometry in the paneling, but this thing could definitely break three hundred miles per hour. Not that I would ever see those speeds inside the city, but it was incredible to think I was operating on the level of Armsmaster’s motorcycle, only with less gadgets and better acceleration.

 

Also my aerospace knowledge had let me break out some surprises for the motoroid form.

 

Finally, it was good enough that I felt like I had made amends for my earlier design. When I left to get Garment she gave me some skeptical gestures, but reluctantly came along. When she saw the rebuilt motorcycle she approached it with the attitude of a dog show judge. It was carefully observed from every angle. The material of the seats was evaluated. Exposed machinery and wheel wells were checked. She stepped back and made a ‘continue’ gesture.

 

At my prompting the bike began to transform. This time it was smooth and seamless. Within a second there was a robot standing where the motorcycle had been parked. The wheels were positioned above its shoulders exposing the integrated turbine blades with variable angles of attack.

 

Yes, it could fly. No, it would not be flying. My experience with piloting was nonexistent and the fleet program was still trying to learn ‘motorcycle’. With a lot of simulation and practice it could be an option in the future, if I didn’t mind significantly stressing the machine’s energy reserves. Until then it was just future proofing, though in a pinch it could provide a jump assist. If I was lucky I might even be able to land somewhat gracefully when I used it.

 

Once more Garment did that show judge thing, moving around and evaluating the robot from every angle. I had a feeling she wasn’t sold on every design choice, not for quality, probably for style reasons. She did have a better handle on that kind of thing thanks to her powers. Still, she couldn’t criticize the workmanship even if the design wasn’t fashion forward.

 

When she backed off again I signaled the fleet program and the front paneling opened up. The pilot compartment wasn’t anything like the nightmare it had been before. Parts of the seat were redistributed to cushion key points and everything was clean and ergonomic. I slid back into the armor and let it close around me. This was a bit weird as it was my first time driving it. I moved a bit unsteadily, but the fleet program kept me from falling. Garment gave me an approving gesture and motioned for me to continue.

 

Ok, this was the hard part, and if I had gotten any part of it wrong it could rip me in half. I mean, I was sure I didn’t get any part of it wrong. Like half a dozen technical powers were backing me up on that, but knowing how bad it could be if things did go wrong was still a bit nerve-wracking.

 

I had to rely on Fleet to coordinate most of this. With two short steps the armor leapt into the air and shifted around me. With a slam of shocks I landed, seated on the back of the fully transformed motorcycle.

 

It worked. And I hadn’t even dislocated an arm. Excellent.

 

Garment was clapping and I finally felt I had redeemed myself for earlier this afternoon. She did approach the bike and run a glove over the unpainted metal of the paneling then made a quizzical gesture.

 

“Right, I wanted to talk to you about that.” I climbed off the bike and moved to one of the workshop’s tables. “Your material summoning thing can generate dyes, right?”

 

She made an obvious gesture.

 

“Ok here’s my idea. Originally this was going to be my civilian identity bike, but it got a bit away from me.”

 

She sarcastically indicated a small amount with one hand.

 

“Yeah, I know. So I had to choose between cape vehicle or civilian, but then I had an idea.” I showed her the plans. “I built variable geometry paneling to help control air flow and drag, but that means I have limited control over the shape of the bike.”

 

I signaled the fleet program and the panels shifted around, contracting and expanding, changing angle. In the span of a few seconds they were able to create the impressions of three different shapes of motorcycle.

 

“That’s not enough to fool people, but if you can generate some thermochromic pigments I should be able to alter them to respond to the magitek drive. That will let the bike change color. That way when it changes shape it will appear completely different. I can ride it as a cape and a civilian and no one will make the connection.” I’d also have to fold away the license plate, but that was trivial with all the other modifications.

 

She looked thoughtful, then rubbed a thumb and forefinger together. I should really learn to expect this.

 

“Fine, what do you want for it?”

 

She gestured towards the paneling on the bike, then to herself.

 

“You...want to choose the colors?”

 

She gestured in the affirmative.

 

Well, she would probably do a better job than me. “Ok, it’s a deal.”

 

She waved a negative with one hand and indicated two fingers with the other.

 

“You want something else? What?”

 

She ran over to the bike and jumped on the back of the seat, then made motioning gestures with her arm.

 

“You want, you want to go for a ride.”

 

That triggered a bout of excitement.

 

I looked at her awkwardly. “Uh, there might be a problem with that.”

 

To that she gestured to herself, then to my helmet, then seemed to indicate a full body.

 

“You can cover up?”

 

There was even more excitement at that.

 

That could actually work. Biking gear with a full face helmet was one of the few outfits in which she’d be able to pass for normal in the outside world and interact with people. I looked at the door. I didn’t want to keep her prisoner, and she’d already subjected herself to half a day of youtube’s fashion community for a hint of escapism. I doubted that would hold her forever.

 

“Ok, it’s a deal. Work out the cost for what you need. Oh, and while we’re out we can find a place to properly store your clothes.”

 

She gave me a quizzical gesture.

 

Why? Because those skulls in hats are going to give me nightmares. “Because I don’t think the incense in there is good for the fabrics.”

 

She froze and looked momentarily panicked. She gestured emphatically, indicated two hundred dollars. As I was getting the cash she hastily, but still to a great standard of quality, drew a painting guide on the plans for both versions of the bike. As soon as she had the money the pigments appeared and she ran off to save her wardrobe.

 

As I was working on applying and modifying the pigment I felt the forge again. This time it was the Quality constellation and I connected to a small mote called Stylish Mechanic. In addition to giving me even more mechanical proficiency it provided another boost to design skills. Not only would everything I fixed look clean and pleasing to the eye but it opened up a bunch of weird and awe inspiring design possibilities without compromising function.

 

All together it was a fairly minor ability, but still compounded with the rest of my powers. My level of mechanical proficiency was approaching ridiculous heights and I had no idea if there was even an upper limit.

 

The painting process still counted as maintenance, so I blazed through it. Apparently my powers could even cause complex compounds to set faster if it wanted to. Not that I was in any way complaining about the convenience.

 

Garment had picked a white body color with blue highlights for the civilian mode and a rough extension of the black, grey, and silver of my costume for cape mode. It definitely came together better than what I would have chosen.

 

I exited the workshop to find all of Garments clothes piled in the entry room, and all of my clothes and a good amount of my furniture back in my apartment. She looked very pleased with herself.

 

“Ok, are you ready to go?”

 

She held out a finger, then gestured for me to stand back. I did so and with a flourish material began to appear in the air around her. I had never watched her make a complete outfit from scratch before. The effect was fascinating. The materials just appeared out of thin air as they were needed. Thread stitched itself into seams as it was conjured. Nothing was summoned as a completed item of clothing but some small pieces like zippers, snaps and buttons appeared completely intact.

 

The outfit came together one piece at a time. A white turtleneck sweater was assembled at blinding speed. Then a set of motorcycle leathers, jacket and pants both in pink and white. Probably with more detail and intricacies to them than I would have bothered with for a disguise. She then made a pair of boots in the same colors and watching those assemble themselves from based components was fascinating. Finally she conjured the components of a pink helmet with a mirror visor, assembled piece by piece in front of me.

 

It was interesting to watch, but it also meant she could summon synthetics, plastics, and any number of other materials. Nothing high tech by the look of things, but still an incredible resource I’d be able to draw upon.

 

With everything created she began rolling down the cuff of her opera gloves to transform them into something more conventional. I knew everything was just show and there wasn’t really anything but suspended clothing between the gloves, but she had put so much work into the illusion that watching her ‘change’ her clothing somehow felt intrusive.

 

“I’ll just be in the workshop.”

 

I retreated to the pocket dimension and looked at my motorcycle. It was beautiful, and not just because of my style perks. It felt like the first proper piece of technology I was responsible for bringing into the world. Like a real tinker I had taken an ordinary vehicle and turned it into something terrifyingly powerful.

 

It also occurred to me how terrifyingly powerful this thing actually was. The original bike had a fairly strong engine, but now it was running from a magitek converter drawing energy from a crystal linked to the realm of passengers. I was taking what might be the most powerful bike in the city out with nothing but a half trained A.I. to stop me from laminating myself to the side of a building on a single missed turn.

 

I considered the soccer shin guard I was wearing under my now designer jeans. That would not cut it. I needed something better.

 

God bless that Rationing power. Because of it absolutely nothing had been wasted in the construction blitz I’d just put myself through. I had burned through most of the stock of metals I needed for hyper alloys but with every scrap saved and recycled there was more than enough to build a replacement for the plastic padding in my shin guard. Luckily this counted under my maintenance power, so I was able to complete the work blindingly fast. I even improved the fit to make it less obvious that I was wearing a shin pad under my jeans.

 

I felt the protection increase. The way my Fashion ability’s reinforcement worked was oddly intricate. I had higher resistance to initial damage from the harder hypermaterial of the shin pad, but the bulkier build of my bracer let me absorbed more abuse. It was hard to explain, the best analogy would probably be to think of it like an RPG with armor and hit points. It meant there was still an advantage to large and bulky protective items.

 

One aspect of that power I had been overlooking was the fact that it took the most superior properties of the protective items I had equipped. It wasn’t that useful when I was scrounging for materials and couldn’t have done any better than strapping a chunk of steel to my body. Now that I had proper supplies there was the potential for multiple pieces allowing combined protection. One for hardness, one for compression resistance, one for bulk, one to be chemically inert, one for heat resistance, and so on.

 

The only problem was that the pieces would share protection with me and my clothing, but not with each other. I could make a panel of tantalum hafnium carbide that would keep me safe up to seven thousand degrees Fahrenheit, but every other protective item I had would have melted or probably boiled away long before then. Composite defenses would be useful, but I needed to remember it would never be perfect invincibility.

 

Garment rushed into the workshop now ‘wearing’ her pink and white motorcycle outfit, though without the helmet. She frantically gestured for me to follow her and led me out to the kitchenette. My cellphone was ringing.

 

I looked over at the caller ID. Dr. Campbell. My guts wretched. He was not actually one of the people I had made a point to cut contact with after my trigger event. Actually he had probably been one of the more stable influences in my life. Still, the thought of talking with him brought up a wave of anxiety that I desperately wanted to put off.

 

When I didn’t immediately pick up the phone Garment gestured to get my attention and pointed towards it. When I still didn’t take it she started tapping the ‘Dr.” part of the name on the display. Eventually the relentless concern and effort she was displaying broke down my resolve. I pulled the phone off its charger and answered the call.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Good afternoon Joe. This is Dr. Campbell.”

 

“Good afternoon.”

 

I felt my power fail to make a connection to the Alchemy constellation and ignored it, staying focused on the call.

 

“I’m calling to confirm our session tomorrow afternoon.”

 

I let out a breath. I had completely forgotten about that. I was still under my parents health insurance thanks to the technicality of a clause about ‘college enrollment’ that would be active until the end of the year. There was a limited allocation each quarter for therapy, so I hadn’t seen Dr. Campbell since early March.

 

If I was honest those four weeks without checking in probably had no small contribution towards the conditions of my trigger event.

 

“Uh, I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it.”

 

I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to get back into any of this. I was fine. I had moved on. And I had important work to do. Bakuda could attack at any time. Every minute of preparation increased my chances to contain the damage, maybe even prevent it. I couldn’t take time away from that.

 

“Joe, I heard about what happened a couple of weeks ago. I think it would be a good idea to check in and make sure you’re doing alright.”

 

Fuck.

 

Fuck.

 

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.

 

Of course. Of course he’d want to talk about my trigger event. This, I could not deal with this. Not now, preferably not ever.

 

“Actually I, I’m doing a lot better. I don’t think...” I dropped off. I didn’t even want to talk about this, much less think of it.

 

“Joe, I’ve always said your commitment to your recovery was extraordinary.” Yeah, for all the good it did. “It’s wonderful that you’re doing better,” he didn’t sound like he’d been completely convinced that I was actually ‘doing better’. Stupid insightful doctors. “But it would still be a good idea to touch base and make sure you’re on good footing going forward.”

 

God damn it I didn’t want this. I was doing fine. Since my trigger I had... I had leaned on my passenger so much I ended up building weapons for supervillains. I had nearly fallen apart the first time that relationship was called into doubt. I had gotten in massively over my head and was scrambling to try to keep my head above water.

 

I was not doing fine.

 

I felt the gentle reassurance of my passenger. It had become obvious that the link was a double edged sword, but it did try to push me towards healthy behaviors, and right now it wanted me to go to therapy. I flinched as I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see Garment doing her best to convey concern through body language.

 

Why did I have to be surrounded by supportive people who wanted the best for me? I swear, if my driving A.I. started expressing concern for my mental wellbeing I was giving up on this whole cape thing.

 

I sighed. Just last night I had been laying this out to Amy. Everything I had learned suggested that mental health was not the priority it should be in the cape community. If my passenger was right then Director Piggot was most likely traumatized and unstable. Brandish had issues from childhood that she was now inflicting on the next generation. Amy needed serious help and just wasn’t getting it. Could I be critical of them and neglect my own health?

 

Yes, I would just need to be a giant hypocrite filled with self-loathing and blatant contradictions.

 

If I went I would have to talk about my trigger event. I could probably dance around the cape stuff, but the rest of it... God I did not want to do this.

 

I felt my passenger’s concern and looked at Garment’s worried gestures. I took a breath.

 

“Ok Dr. Campbell. I’ll be there.”

 

“Thank you Joe. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

 

I hung up the phone and felt the life drain out of me. It was probably for the best. Not dealing with this would only set me up for bigger falls later. But I hated every aspect of it, including the fact that I hated it. Recursive self-hatred was a wonderful thing. But Dr. Campbell was so insufferably nice and supportive that there was no way I could skip out now. He was probably the only competent person I had seen through the whole mess and I owed it to him.

 

I could spare an hour tomorrow evening. I doubted anything serious was going to happen on Saturday night.

 

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The mood whiplash from the joy of having completed such a big project to all of this being dredged up was jarring. I wasn’t sure how to deal with it.

 

Garment crept towards me. She was holding a beautifully made white motorcycle jacket with a bomber collar, and what might have been my helmet after she had gotten through fixing the fit, design, and color scheme. She gingerly held them out like an offering.

 

I gave her a weak smile.

 

“Alright. Let’s go for a ride.”

Chapter Text

11 Power Trip

 

Garment retreated to my workshop and I sealed the entrance before leaving the apartment. If I was going to do this more often I’d need to find a better option than just hunting through back alleys for an unobserved door. Maybe something like what I pulled with the van would work, find a parking structure that I could use to access my workshop so people wouldn’t wonder why a motorcycle was constantly entering or leaving.

 

While I was heading towards the alley I previously used I felt the Celestial Forge move again, bringing the Alchemy constellation close by. This time I was able to connect to a mid-sized mote. The ability was called Deranged Alchemist. This, this was proper alchemy. Not component spellcasting, not the brewing of a quarter dozen potion types. This was the real deal.

 

In addition to all the medieval chemistry you could possibly want there were sparks of significant power. The most important was the ability to transmute materials. The rituals were a little elaborate, but with work I could transmute just about any material into a substance of the same alchemical base. I couldn’t turn lead into gold. I could, however, turn gold into platinum.

 

Setting aside the prospect of bringing WEDGDG down on me for disruption of the precious metals commodity market this would address a serious number of my supply problems. My workshop only restocked basic materials, but those included iron, lead, tin, and copper, four of the seven base alchemic metals. With some transmutation work that opened up effectively unlimited supplies of most of the metals on the periodic table. Unfortunately I was still limited on the ones I’d need to transmute from mercury, silver, or gold, but this had bypassed a massive hurdle for my supply chain.

 

There was another aspect to this power that I was a good deal less excited about. Among the alchemical knowledge I had received from this ability was a comprehensive understanding of the alchemical studies of Paracelsus, specifically those concerned with the creation of life. In short, I could make homunculi.

 

There’s a distinction between wet and dry tinkers that’s so stark people don’t even bother with the ‘dry’ classification. You’re either a normal tinker or a wet tinker. Homunculus creation was the wettest of wet tinkering. It worked by a variation of preformationism where you basically grew a tiny version of a creature from the hypothetical tinier versions of that creature that existed within their living bodies. Considering I was pretty sure I could already manage to build a cloning tank this application was both disgusting and redundant. The power was called ‘Deranged Alchemist’, and apparently for good reason.

 

There may have been some advantages if you got deep enough into homunculi research, but I was perfectly happy keeping my hands off on this one. It would be hard enough figuring out the alchemical transmutation alignment for elemental neodymium. I didn’t need to dive into a field of tinkering I’d been specifically trying to avoid since I found out what my powers would have been without the Celestial Forge. I really didn’t need this after the call I just had. I’d been reminded of that stuff more than enough for one day. 

 

Setting aside the horrible wet tinker aspects of this power there was an interesting element to it. This was actually an entire discipline unto itself. I was coming into it with master level understanding, but there was the potential for development, refinement, and even new discoveries.  The holy grail of this particular system was the creation of the panacea. That is, the medicine that cures all illness and extends life, not copies of the new wave cape, though with the homunculus stuff I could conceivably make small copies of the New Wave cape and I’m not thinking about that anymore. Combinations of homunculus distillation with parahuman biology had terrifying implications that I’m just not going to into right now. The non-horrible point is that there’s actually room for development and refinement in this particular discipline. It’s closer to the science related powers that allow new designs and discoveries than my previous two alchemy abilities which were strictly limited to the knowledge they provided. The formulas from Evermore Alchemist could be refined and improved in effectiveness, but I couldn’t develop anything novel. This actually had the potential for new discovery.

 

That would be a daunting prospect and something I normally would never have considered attempting, but I also had two intelligence boosting powers and the second one was specifically designed to allow me to become the foremost mind in any field. While I doubted there was much competition for the title of ‘foremost alchemist’ the end result was a massive increase in my ability to develop this craft. I wasn’t sure what direction I would actually be taking my research. The panacea was well out of my reach at the moment and I would be having enough trouble figuring out transmutation principles for metals medieval alchemists didn’t even have names for. I wasn’t likely to manage anything that would exceed the combat potential of my Evermore Alchemy, at least not without more research than was practical to consider with the scope of my current problems.

 

This was also truly the final nail in the coffin over the whole magic thing. The rituals needed to successfully transmute materials had an overwhelmingly mystical bent. I would never be able to dress them up as anything scientific. We’re talking circles, candles, placed reagents, chanting, and possibly robes. I’m really hoping I can avoid the robes, partially because I’ll be doing this in my machine shop and loose clothing is a death sentence in that kind of environment, but mostly because I don’t want to find out what Garment’s reaction would be if she saw me trying to cobble together a set of alchemical vestments.

 

The world is not ready for a line of designer cowls.

 

There was also some medical knowledge tied up in this mess, but it was seriously archaic. Barber surgeon skills or diagnosis by humors, that kind of stuff. Just enough to facilitate the squishier aspects of the power without providing any real proficiency in terms of modern medicine.

 

As much as I would have liked to get back to my workshop and start transmutations I had promised Garment a ride. The bike also needed a test run since there was no way I was having my first experience on something that powerful be a cape fight. The fleet program would also need all the training I could give it if it was going to be more than a glorified cruise control option.

 

I found a decent access point in the same alley I had stored my bike. Hopefully if anyone in the neighborhood had been watching me put it away this would negate any hint of cape shenanigans at play. In its civilian mode the bike still had the same broad features of what I had purchased, just seriously cleaned up. Providing no one was filming me when I drove in then it would probably pass any level of casual inspection. That was of course assuming a level of engagement that just wasn’t present in this part of the Docks, so I was feeling pretty confident about this.

 

When I opened the door to my workshop Garment was standing in the entryway wearing her full biker outfit, complete with helmet. The illusion really was perfect. If I didn’t know for certain it was a telekinetically suspended set of clothes I would have been completely fooled. I guess knowledge of fashion at her level gives you an understanding of how clothing is supposed to sit on a human body. By the way she arranged the outfit she was able to give a flawless impression of a rather pronounced female figure. The only thing that looked slightly out of place were the gloves, which were still that overly pure, almost unnatural shade of white. They had shifted from form fitting evening wear to the look and shape of white leather motorcycle gloves. I had no idea the extent of her shapeshifting abilities, but apparently she could adapt them to the most appropriate option for the situation.

 

She had cleared a path for the bike to exit the workshop, but with it in a much cleaner and less greasy state she wasn’t demonstrating quite the desperate defense of her clothing she had shown before. I wheeled the bike out of the workshop with a slight amount of assistance from the fleet program. Technically it should have been able to manage this itself with automated steering and gyroscopic stabilization, but I wasn’t ready to risk it so early in the program’s development. When I rolled it into the alley Garment hopped onto the back and excitedly gestured towards the open road. I sealed the workshop before turning to her.

 

“Ok, this is a quick run around the city and maybe a few errands. My permit doesn’t allow me to carry passengers or be out after sunset. Still we should be fine as long as we don’t get pulled over.”

 

She made and excited gesture and pointed towards the road.

 

“I’m serious Garment, I know you’re excited but we need to keep this low key. This is a trial run and I don’t want to attract too much attention.”

 

She gave me an adamant nod and turned to the street again.

 

“Ok, one last thing.” I reached into my jacket and pulled out a fold of bills. She immediately perked up. “This is emergency money. I don’t anticipate anything happening out there where you’ll need it, but if something does happen I’d rather you have the option. There’s three hundred dollars here, so it’ll be enough to cover most expenses, at least to get you someplace safe.” She nodded furiously. “Garment, this is emergency money. It is not for you to immediately spend on materials. Do you understand?”

 

She paused in reaching for the cash, then slowly nodded. Without being able to speak it would be difficult for her to use it, but if we got separated for any reason it would at least give her some options. I handed over the money and she tucked it under the hem of one of her gloves.

 

“Alright, let’s go.”

 

I mounted the bike and engaged the drive. I would be managing things until the fleet program developed enough to start assisting. With that in mind I carefully pulled down the alley and out onto the street.

 

It didn’t take long after we were on the main roads for me to realize things were not going to go the way I hoped. I probably should have seen this coming. Either ‘low key’ was not part of Garment’s vocabulary or, more concerningly, this was her idea of holding back. If that was the case her base level of engagement was probably a city wide rager. In retrospect my idea of avoiding attention had been doomed from the start. A white and blue super bike with a pink clad passenger clinging to the driver wouldn’t have been subtle even if said passenger wasn’t trying to engage every driver, pedestrian, and feral animal that crossed our path.

 

That was bad enough when we were on the side streets. When we pulled onto Bayside and started riding parallel to the boardwalk things were definitely getting out of hand. Garment alternated between standing up with her hands on my shoulders to get a better ‘view’ of the area and leaning back to wave at anyone willing to engage her. A convertible nearly veered off the road after Garment spent a quarter mile leaning back and waving at the driver.

 

Apparently my power had decided to curse me with an extreme extrovert.

 

The entire endeavor was about as far from avoiding attention as humanly possible. Eventually I pulled into the parking lot of one of the clusters of boardwalk stores just for a break. That turned out to be of mixed success as we shifted from endangering traffic to being a public spectacle for every tourist, boardwalk patron, and teenager that walked by. I may have badly underestimated the quality of work I’d done on my bike. I had to field a stream of greetings, compliments and the occasional technical question. Garment preened at the attention but I couldn’t help but feel like I was under a microscope. The occasional click of camera phones didn’t help. Come on people. This is a cape town. Is a motorcycle really that remarkable?

 

The Celestial Forge moved again and my power failed to connect to a mote from the Quality Constellation. I put it out of my mind as Garment communicated through gestures to a tourist that yes, it was perfectly alright for him to take a picture and she would be more than happy to pose for it. I stayed buried in my jacket and helmet to hide my discomfort at the entire situation.

 

I may have found a flaw in my plan to use the bike and as innocuous civilian transport. This thing was stark, unique, and memorable. If I really wanted to go with that idea I would have painted it in faded shades with fake rust and rode it in the drabbest outfit I could get away with. As I watched Garment pose for another picture I realized that plan was doomed from the start.

 

Apparently I had become one of those assholes who swings down to the boardwalk to hang out in designer clothes next to a car with a minimum price tag of a hundred thousand dollars. All I needed was some arm candy and the transformation would be complete. There was probably no better evidence of how much we had accidently embraced boardwalk culture than the fact that we were taking up a prime parking space for an overly expensive café and no one was making a fuss. Even when a hulking team of boardwalk enforcers passed by we got nothing more than a smile and wave with one of them commenting “Nice bike.”.

 

Eventually I managed to pry Garment away from her adoring public and get back on the road. The time spent dealing with Boardwalk patrons seemed to have sated her somewhat as she was marginally more subdued as we looped south along the coast. This was mostly a test ride and a chance for Garment to see the city, but I still had a few things I hoped to accomplish.

 

What I was going to do was a borderline violation of the unwritten rules, but considering the people I was subjecting it to had tentatively revealed their identities to me I would probably get a pass. The boardwalk ran nearly the full length of the bay, meaning I could get a sense of the entire city as I rode its length. By concentrating on the items I had made I was able to feel out their relative locations.

 

Some were easy to place while others were a bit more vague. My dagger and half of my karambit, the knives I’d made for Alec and Brian, were still in the direction of their hideout, so I was willing to bet they hadn’t been moved. My Bowie knife was further north, so that was probably a second location for Rachel away from the Undersiders’ lair. My experimental wind blade and impact baton were deeper in the Docks, probably at Taylor’s home. I could feel my stiletto somewhere Downtown, but I’d need a closer sweep to find where Tattletale was storing it. The other half of my karambit was clearly at the Rig. Whether it was being studied or stored I couldn’t say, but that would be taken care of when it repaired itself tomorrow. Finally the hairpin was somewhere downtown, so most likely kept at the PRT headquarters. I doubted Panacea was still there so it had probably been handed off as evidence.

 

I cringed at the idea of that rainbow flower pin being used to prove my identity. It seemed like a good idea at the time, do a bit of craftwork to give evidence of tinkering rather than just a material sample people probably wouldn’t even look at, but it turned into a game of ‘what’s the most I can do with a single material?’ and ended up with my style and Smithing perks running wild. I had a feeling that thing would be an ongoing embarrassment on the level of taking a steel club with me on my first night’s patrol.

 

When we reached the south end of the Boardwalk I turned left and started circling through Downtown. This route had me brushing against campus which is something I wasn’t too comfortable with. There was minimal chance I would run into anyone I knew, but there were still bad memories connected with the area. Getting that close to the university did result in a significantly different tone for the city. Brockton isn’t exactly a college town but the student population is large enough that the immediate area around the campus is clogged with businesses devoted to student college goers. Generally that means cheap take out, coffee shops, and bars that do the bare minimum in terms of checking for fake IDs.

 

The point is the tone of the city changed around the campus and Garment picked up on it right away. Whatever level of restraint our stop at the Boardwalk had granted her melted away as she did her utmost to grab the attention of any student she could. At least this close to the university this kind of nonsense was less likely to be remarked upon given some of the crap college students could get up to.

 

I shifted one street over and ended up on a road lined with mid-level stores, probably designed to suck as much money out of the student population as possible. Nothing more exceptional than what you’d find in an average mall, but for Garment it was like I’d spread the treasures of the world before her. At her prodding I reduced my speed to the minimum I could get away with while she took in every window display on the street.

 

My power failed to connect to a mote from the Vehicles constellation as we eventually ran out of stores for Garment to ogle. With how much she had been moving around on the back of the bike if she had any actual mass to her instead of being completely suspended I probably would have spun out three times by now. Also I really hoped that no one had been watching the rear shocks too closely because that would make it clear my passenger was effectively weightless.

 

Following the sense of my stiletto led me to a mid-range apartment building. Well, mid-range for Downtown. It would be positively opulent by the standards of the Docks. From the feel of things my knife was in an apartment about two thirds of the way up. It seemed like a likely location for Tattletale. Comfortable without being over the top and common enough to avoid garnering attention. I wasn’t sure if she was living alone, but I couldn’t really see her maintaining a villain career under parental supervision, and my passenger seemed to back that up. I might be able to nail down the exact apartment if I circled a few times or got inside the building, but I was already at the limit of what I was comfortable with in terms of violations of privacy and the unwritten rules.

 

Instead I pulled off and started towards the docks. From my sense of the hairpin I was certain it was either in the PRT headquarters or somewhere very close by. The last two points I wanted to check were the knives I’d made for Taylor and Rachel.

 

My route took me through the residential area of Downtown. Really it was only considered Downtown to set it apart from the economic conditions of the Docks. This was where upper middle class homes slowly merged into the areas of truly ridiculous wealth and borderline mansions that made up the south edge of the city. The stark wealth divide was probably as much of a driver of the unrest in this city as any of the parahuman gangs. The shift from the shipping industry to tech firms may have only resulted in a slight net reduction of the city’s economy, particularly if cape tourism was taken into account, but it resulted in that money becoming much more concentrated. The way the city had gone from largely having a common cause and identity to being driven by a few high power individuals and corporations almost felt like an analogy for the impact of capes on society as a whole.

 

Huh, maybe driving by the college had gotten me in an essay mindset again. That was definitely the kind of thing my parahuman studies professor would have eaten up.

 

We approached the kind of upscale version of a strip mall you would find in this part of town, the kind filled with big box stores and chain restaurants. It reminded me that I still needed supplies for my potions. Well, for both of my new alchemy powers. There were enough stores that I’d be able to find everything, but there’s also no way Garment would be allowed inside with her helmet on. I was ready to give it a pass, but she must have seen me looking because she gestured for us to pull into the parking lot.

 

I found a decent spot roughly central to the stores I’d need to visit and turned to Garment. “There are some things I’m going to have to pick up for my next projects. Are you alright waiting out here?”

 

She gave me a dismissive wave and gestured towards the other shoppers. In this area the general public tended to be slightly more fashion forward than the docks. Garment seemed perfectly content to hang out and people watch while I shopped.

 

“Alright. Will you be ok if someone tries to talk to you? I’ll be as fast as I can but...”

 

Garment shoed me away and I took the hint. I left my helmet on the bike and headed for the stores. I needed supplies and materials for potion making. Let’s add that to the list of sentences I never thought I’d say as a tinker. Really all I needed was a heat source and a container, plus a set of ingredients. The components for these potions were already fairly mundane. With the benefit of my Deranged Alchemist power my options expanded in terms of what I’d be able to use in the brewing process. When you considered my transmutation ability I could probably pull this off with a camp stove, handful of condiments and some soft drinks.

 

That may have sounded irreverent, but I was totally going to try that. I doubted even the most ardent monitoring for tinker purchases looks for suspicious quantities of sugar and mustard. I mean, most of the potions would end up tasting like barbeque sauce, but trust me, that’s one of the better possibilities I was looking at here.

 

I started with the camp stoves. They were easy enough to find along with some tins of Sterno. I grabbed a few other odds and ends that would let me set up a remote lab as well as what I’d need for my transmutation rituals. Well, most of what I’d need. Enough to manage. I’m not going full dark acolyte over this. I accept the necessity of the candles, ritual markings, chanting, and reagents. I’m not dressing like Emperor Palpatine every time I want to prep some titanium stock. I can take the efficiency drop in exchange for not having to do this nonsense in a dress. It wasn’t like I was working with a limited supply of base materials.

 

Really I would have done best with a dedicated ritual space and properly equipped chemistry lab. The problem was both were off the table for the immediate future. Barring a lucky connection with the Celestial Forge I was at the limit of what I could manage with my extradimensional space. Setting up a facility in the real world would require a secure location, acquisition or manufacture of all the necessary equipment, and trusting I would be able to access it without being discovered. While that wasn’t impossible with my skillset I was also under a time crunch. I had no idea about when Bakuda would strike, which meant I couldn’t afford to sink time into convenience projects that wouldn’t yield direct results.

 

The full shopping trip ended up requiring stops at a hardware store, housewares chain, and briefly ducking into a sporting goods outlet. I was on my way back to the bike with a set of bags when I felt the Celestial Forge move again, this time bringing the Size constellation within reach. The strength of my power had grown to the same level as when I was able to connect to the Life Fiber Spool and had just enough reach to form a connection to one of the larger motes in the constellation.

 

Unlike with the Life Fiber Spool there was no doubt about the applications of this power. The mote was called Master Builder and may have actually been underselling itself. It represented an absolute mastery of an entire field, no, innumerable fields of science and technology from an entire galactic age society. The information covered everything from new theories of spatial dynamics to mind numbingly advanced designs for robotics and computers. There were theoretically perfect energy storage medium along with more weapon systems than I could count. The technology on display ranged from mundane to world shattering and had all been dumped into my mind at once.

 

That was actually the problem. With most of these powers the information I received came in a largely human context. It was either raw knowledge, experience, instinct, or something similar. This information didn’t take any of those approaches. This was raw data burned directly into my mind in a manner that I could barely process. If I was trying to manage this without my intelligence booster powers I might have been floored on the spot. As it was I was still left reeling as I tried to process the sheer breath of information that my power had granted me.

 

There was one aspect of this ability that would have left me absolutely livid if I had gotten it at any earlier point. Most of this technology was dependent on a very specific material. Cybertonium was an incredibly advance engineered metal that was crucial to the production of just about every level of technology granted by this power. It was an amazing material by any metric. The fact that it functioned as a room temperature superconductor was one of its less impressive qualities, especially when you considered what was possible in terms of transwarp integration. The absolute nightmare involved in producing it would have relegated most of this information to background theory for my other projects. However, that was before I became a true alchemist.

 

I would be able to transmute base metals into cybertonium. When I said ‘would be’ I meant it was technically possible and therefore took this technology from a series of projects which could only tantalize me to something I could actually accomplish. I just had to get very, very good at transmutation.

 

For this I could live with the Emperor Palpatine cosplay, no matter what Garment ended up doing with it.

 

If I could seriously get this technology off the ground it opened up more options than I had ever thought possible. Aside from the personal equipment I would be able to make or the massive potential for upgrading of my other technology it would be ‘relatively’ easy to build a scaled down version of an interstellar teleportation array. That would allow me instant access to any point on the earth’s surface. It would be a massive project, but also a complete game changer in terms of mobility and S-class threat response. And sadly something I would not have anywhere near enough time to accomplish before Bakuda decided to go bomb happy.

 

The stress of managing so much new information had me stumbling along the final stretch to Garment and the bike. Fortunately she saw me coming and was able to rush over to help me along.

 

“You doing alright there?”

 

I shifted my attention to a blond man loading what looked like an unassembled boxed up crib into the back of a nearby minivan.

 

“Yeah,” I did my best to pull myself together. The information was still burning in my brain in all its inhuman glory, but I was able to put on a somewhat normal front with a bit of effort. “Just a bit dehydrated.”

 

I fished a sports drink out of one of my shopping bags and cracked it open. I had actually bought it to have a convenient potion container, so this was as good a time to drink it as any. Probably better seeing that it would buy me a few more precious seconds of recovery time.

 

The man nodded and shut the trunk. “You have to watch out for that.” The day wasn’t particularly hot, but it was bright enough that the excuse didn’t fall completely flat. He gestured towards my bike. “Not a bad machine there. That a custom job?”

 

“I’ve had to put some work into it.” I agreed. There was a faint buzzing from my passenger but between keeping up with the conversation, putting on a brave front, and dealing with the fact that my mind had just been filled with enough machine coded blueprints to sustain an entire civilization I was having a bit of trouble figuring out what the problem was.

 

He walked over and took a closer look. “I’ve got a BMW R1200 myself. You should really stick with German engineering. Better performance and a quarter the upkeep you need with these rice rockets.”

 

I shrugged. My passenger was still trying to get something through, but the information from the Master Builder power had barely settled and it was all I could manage to keep up with what this guy was saying.

 

“I enjoy the upkeep. To be honest I’m probably better at that side of things than I am on the road.”

 

He seemed to be considering something. “I can respect that. If you can keep this thing running I have a friend I should introduce you to. I know he’d love to meet someone as skilled at you.”

 

There was a spike of alarm from my passenger, but I was still having trouble placing his concerns. Blissfully we were interrupted.

 

“Justin, can you give me a hand with Aster?” A shortish woman with mousy brown hair had pulled a stroller alongside the van and was lifting a baby girl out of it.

 

“Be right there, Kayden.” I did my best not to show how relieved I was for the chance to recover. This information, the way it was being delivered, it was like it had been designed for a computer, not a human being. Actually, even with the immense array of technology there was a stark lack of biological applications, not even the inclusion of basic life support in most of the designs. I was developing some serious questions regarding the context of this information.

 

The man, Justin, helped Kayden with the stroller while she secured Aster into a car seat, then took to account to store it in the trunk. There seemed to be some kind of professional relationship between them, but it didn’t appear to be affectionate. Were they work friends or something like that?

 

“Got caught up in bike talk.” He gestured to my motorcycle. “You know how it is with gear heads.”

 

Kayden nodded, but there was a slight pause when she saw the model of my bike. Still she pressed on and smiled at Garment. “I guess you must be used to that kind of thing?”

 

Garment gave her a shrug and a dismissive gesture. At Kayden’s confused expression I broke in.

 

“Sorry, she doesn’t speak.”

 

The woman’s expression darkened. “No English?” Her eyes were jumping between Garment, the bike and myself with a concerning look to them.

 

“Uh, no. She doesn’t speak at all.”

 

“Mute.” The muttered word came from the blond man who immediately looked embarrassed for having said it. Kayden shot him a warning look and he cleared his throat and turned away. As I watched the exchange between them my head cleared enough that I was finally able to piece together what my passenger had been trying to communicate.

 

Empire.

 

Somehow I had managed to stumble across two Empire capes in their civilian identities. I wasn’t sure who Justin was but the complex arrangement of emotions surrounding the woman perfectly matched up with Purity. I was about eight feet from the most powerful blaster in Brockton Bay. The baby in the minivan explained some of the conflicting feelings from my passenger, but I doubted that made her any less dangerous.

 

More pieces from the earlier conversation were falling into place. I was fairly certain that ‘friend’ Justin wanted me to meet would be Victor. There was a lot of concern around Victor. Too many of my powers didn’t follow standard tinker rules. I really wasn’t sure how much that skill thief would be able to take if he got a free shot at me. I was fairly certain my magical skills and anything directly facilitated by the Forge would be beyond him. I believed that a lot of my seriously advanced technology required support from my power for part of the fabrication process, but I couldn’t be sure. Even without those abilities there were enough ‘mundane’ skills to take someone within spitting distance of a tinker rating, and I wasn’t about to give the Empire that advantage.

 

It also occurred to me that I was standing in front of at least one senior Empire cape, even if her current membership was a bit debated, with a hyper advanced motorcycle and shopping bags full of eclectic supplies. And the motorcycle was registered to me with my home address. I was a single guess on the part of either of these capes from a forced recruitment attempt.

 

It would be against the unwritten rules, but within that technical area where people are willing to dance if it means serious advantage, and the Empire was desperate for a tinker. After the debut of “Lord Khepri” the only two parahuman teams in the city without a tinker were the Empire and Faultline’s crew. I was confident I could personally resist any recruitment attempt, but if my identity was exposed that meant they could try to coheres me through family members. That is, providing they were willing to completely defy the unwritten rules, not just dance on the line. I wasn’t willing to take bets on the restraint of a bunch of white supremacists. I might not have the best relationship with my family at the moment but that was a long way from wishing super Nazis upon them.

 

Could I take these two? I had no idea who Justin was.  The best I could say was probably not Victor. Possibly Krieg, Crusader, or Fog. I wouldn’t really want to test my passive defenses against any of those capes. Purity was an offensive nightmare. My only hope of countering her was my Reflect formula, but unfortunately I only had reagents for some healing alchemy, and I’d grabbed those mostly as an afterthought. I needed to maintain a better loadout. Depending on who I was facing my power armor might be able to handle them, but the A.I. was so green I wouldn’t trust it to walk in bipedal mode, much less fight. This was a bad situation all around.

 

Miraculously Kayden seemed to interpret my borderline panic as offense rather than rushed combat assessment. “I’m sorry about him.” She sent the man another glare. “He has a tendency to put his foot in his mouth on certain topics.”

 

“Don’t worry about it. We should get going anyway.” I handed Garment the bags and mounted the bike. “It was nice meeting you.” I lied.

 

“Like wise.” She gave me a half-hearted wave as I pulled out of the parking lot as fast as I could without attracting suspicion.

 

There was some irony at my panic over the Empire potentially disregarding the unwritten rules while my power blatantly flaunted the secret identities of every cape I came across. I guess when you get down to it the knowing wasn’t the problem, it was what you did with it. Hopefully the fact that Purity had a baby daughter at home would be enough to keep her from trying her luck with the conventions that prevented this city from turning into a warzone.

 

I kept moving until we were well into the South Docks. Garment had picked up that something was bothering me and was reining in her usual enthusiasm, though that was probably helped by our transition to a part of the city that was significantly less prone to enthusiasm. My power missed a connection to the Clothing constellation as I pulled into a quiet alley and opened a link to my workshop. I stored the purchases and sealed the door before turning to explain things to Garment.

 

“They were Empire capes. The woman was Purity, I’m not sure who the man was.” That got me some confused looks. Right, how much did Garment know about the local situation? “The Empire are the local Neo-Nazi cape team. Purity is one of their stronger capes, flying blaster. She has a body count, enough for the three strikes rule but not as bad as some of the other capes. She’s split or on hiatus with the main group or something like that. I’m not sure how much risk we’re at from that encounter, but I don’t think she suspected anything.”

 

Garment proceeded to make a series of complicated and difficult to decipher gestures that seemed to be indicating a level of disapproval over Kayden’s fashion sense and how that implied unfavorable things about her character. At least that’s what I was able to take away from her movements. I mentally added sign language lessons alongside the typing course I needed to arrange for Garment.

 

I gave her a smile and we mounted back up. “There are a couple more places I want to drive past, then I think I know where we can find a storage place for your clothes.”

 

That lifted Garment’s spirits and we pulled back out onto the city streets. As we made our way through the docks I started closing in on the enchanted blade and baton I made for Taylor. It was in one of the older neighborhoods of the docks, full of family homes that were mostly going into disrepair or being sold off for whatever they could bring in. Honestly it was about what I expected when I first saw Taylor. I made a point of not actually driving past her house since I was even less subtle here that I had been on the boardwalk, but with a couple of passes I had a relatively good idea of where it was located.

 

After that I followed the sense of my Bowie knife north into the more industrial areas.  As we rode I considered the implications of my latest power. It was clear this was a big one. It was the strongest power I’d gotten so far both in what it cost and the level of technology it provided access to. It made the best technology my Grease Monkey power could put out look like a joke. This was the stuff of literal science fiction. There was actual faster than light technology possible through this power.

 

The problem was I would be running into the standard tinker dilemma, where I had to build the tools to build the tools to build the tools to build my technology. Even if I managed a stable supply of cybertonium I would estimate I was at least four layers deep on that particular nesting doll before I could start breaking out the serious tech. And that steady supply of cybertonium was not guaranteed. The best I could say at the moment was that it was technically possible to produce with alchemical transmutation.

 

If I did manage the higher level technologies this power could put out then that would be a game changer. The GroundBridge alone would be revolutionary, but there were unbelievable advances possible in robotics, energy management, weaponry, transportation, and more fields than I could name. This was a fundamentally disruptive power, I just needed to last long enough to pull it off.

 

Without some resource or assembly power I would be slogging through this tech base for weeks, and I didn’t have that amount of time. The whole city was on a ticking clock, so I needed to focus on what I could accomplish with what I had, not the dream technologies I wished I was able to produce. The level of robotics knowledge provided by this power was immense. In fact a lot of it felt almost... medical? Anyway, I would be able to refine the previous work on my bike a great deal. Adapting this to integrate with magitek would be a challenge, but it should be possible, especially for the mechanical portions of the upgrades. There was also the potential for serious refinements in A.I. development and my computer hardware setup, both in my bike and for what I was using generally. More than enough space for improvement there. Human computer science was a joke.

 

Ok, how concerned should I be that I just felt the need to classify every other computer system on the planet as being a product of ‘human computer science’ and didn’t automatically include myself in that category? That seems like something I should keep an eye on.

 

My sense of the Bowie knife spiked and I shifted my attention back to the surrounding area. The location became clear when we passed a house with obvious signs of numerous dogs. The kind of signs you get from dogs that are let into a yard as a substitute for taking them on walks.

 

I sped past before anyone could recognize me, and also ignored the Celestial Forge as it missed a connection to the Size constellation. I didn’t know if she was still there or if she would connect me with a random biker seen outside her house, but the bike stood out glaringly in this environment. Fortunately my next destination was a strait shot past Rachel’s home/hideout/dog shelter.

 

There were sets of storage lockers scattered all over the city. During the first economic crash they had acted as temporary housing for people who couldn’t afford rent but had just enough not to end up on the street. Given the entrepreneurial spirit of Brockton Bay you had dozens of cheaply made storage facilities spring up all over the place. Given that these were being treated as apartments without plumbing, sanitation, or security the inevitable happened and a series of high profile disasters led to the city cracking down on the pseudo apartments. By that point there were more than enough abandoned buildings to fill the need and the population migrated to even cheaper and less secure accommodations.

 

The consequence of this is the city having a ridiculous excess of storage facilities. They aren’t terribly profitable but probably bring in marginally more revenue than whatever else the land could be used for. When your primary competition is abandoned warehouses pretty much anything is a step up.

 

Brockton University isn’t exactly internationally renowned but we had enough students from out of state that storage over the summer months was a concern. I’m pretty sure the storage facilities charge students as much for a summer as locals paid for an entire year, but that revenue is probably the only thing keeping these places from turning into derelicts. The fact that they actually advertised on campus pretty much proved that.

 

I was heading to the most remote of the storage places I remembered from my time as a student. It was past the train yard and probably saw less traffic than any other facility in the city. Lord knows what was stored here since I’m pretty sure everyone who came out this far had something to hide. I only remember it from the horror stories of people who considered using it. The place ended up as something between an urban legend and inside joke for my class after that.

 

I put it out of my mind as we approached the storage facility. I seriously felt it would be the most remote and secure place to store both Garment’s wardrobe and various pieces of spillover from my workshop. My passenger begged to differ.

 

As soon as I saw the place dread started building. It was like something out of one of the stupid stories that would circulate around my class, only this was coming from a cosmic being with access to information beyond my understanding, not the guy who didn’t know when to let a joke die. I took one look at the collection of storage units and decided whatever was going to happen here I wanted no part in it. I was within spitting distance of being able to build a subspace pocket. Now was not the time to be taking chances on the storage yard of deadly portents.

 

So that wasn’t going to work. I could try to find a more centrally located storage unit to tide me through, but those had things like attentive staff, security cameras, and foot traffic. One of those I could bypass with no effort, the other two would be more of an issue. Ultimately my best option might be to follow the Undersiders’ lead and start an offsite base in an abandoned building. I had the advantage that I would be able to manufacture most of my equipment onsite or sneak it in using my workshop key. The trick would be finding something unlikely to be disturbed, but still accessible.

 

I actually had no idea how the Undersiders maintained any semblance of security in their base. Yeah, it would be stupid to approach the lair of that many supervillains, but someone must have noticed the foot traffic and been tempted to investigate. At the very least moving in that much high end electronics must have attracted some attention.

 

The answer was most likely tied to their boss. I wouldn’t be surprised if everything in that area was owned by him through shell companies. There were probably ways to decrease the chances someone would wander upon them. If every other building in the area was both abandoned and inhospitable then the odds of someone investigating that particular factory in enough depth to find their hideout was remote. Tattletale probably had something to do with it as well, likely some kind of prediction based on appearance and the local character or something like that.

 

So where did that leave me? I needed a place where I could set up a, and I still can’t believe I’m saying this, potion lab. I also needed somewhere to secure Garment’s clothes. Those were not likely to be the same location barring extensive renovations or a very lucky find.

 

Actually, for potion brewing the factory I’d used for the first access to my laboratorium could do the trick. It had enough chemical smells that I doubt any more would be noticed and was big enough that I could obscure the potion vapors with a minor amount of engineering. I had no idea what its ownership status was, but the place had clearly been abandoned since the first crash of the local economy.  Subtle access might be a bit dicey, but the industrial estate was big enough that I’m sure I’d be able to rig something. The obvious chemical contamination was a concern, but I had safety equipment from my workshop and extensive healing abilities beyond that. I also had enough alchemy knowledge to put together a decent idea of what sort of contamination I would be dealing with.

 

As I was heading back towards the docks the vehicle constellation swung towards me and my power connected to a small mote called Mechanic. It was another mechanical skill booster with some additional electrical understanding, this time particularly geared towards criminal enterprises like hotwiring or bypassing security systems. The big aspects of this power were the ability to rebuild vehicles perfectly even after they had been nearly destroyed and a drastic reduction in the complexity of tools required for the maintenance of anything, not just vehicles. A basic set of handheld tools from a portable kit would be able to manage the most complicated maintenance procedures of the most advanced systems imaginable. It didn’t help me with manufacturing, but being able to use the same basic toolset to maintain everything from computer systems to energy weapons to spacecraft would be an incredible advantage.

 

I decided I was probably overthinking things with my secrecy concerns. Access might be dicey, but for the moment all I was going to be storing was Garment’s spill over wardrobe. Someone happening upon that wouldn’t find it any more remarkable than the contents of any other storage locker. To that effect I headed towards a storage facility in the same general region as my apartment, not close enough that I’d be running into people I knew, but close enough for convenient access.

 

They had a locker available. Every storage facility has lockers available. It’s the advantage of having such an overbuilt industry to draw upon, even if it started from such a bad place. I picked out one that was as deep in the maze of storage units as possible to minimize the chance anyone would stumble upon us while we were loading the unit. I had to fill out a rather extensive form with a lot of agreements about what could be stored, liability for violations, and notice of seizure in the event the terms were breached. It was incredibly comprehensive, but the manager didn’t even look at it when he took my deposit for two months and didn’t even spare a glance at my driver’s license. He gave the two of us a slight squint as he handed over the key, then shrugged and went back to his paper. I guess there were advantages to the general level of apathy the economic downturn had created.

 

I figured two months of storage should be more than enough. By that point I’d either have subspace pockets figured out or have secured better accommodations. I led Garment through the rows of storage units to the one matching my issued key. When I unlocked it and pulled up the sliding door Garment was less than enthusiastic at the sight of the stained concrete floor and cracked celling.

 

“No, I’m not asking for another one. Look, you can tell the stain was from the previous tenant. There’s no sign of water ingress at all. You’ll be fine.”

 

There were questioning gestures and a vague indication towards the north side of town.

 

“That was because I was getting a bad feeling. Something’s happening there and I didn’t want anything to happen to your things.”

 

She seemed to indicate that this was at best a marginal step up from my previous assessment.

 

“Look, every storage facility is going to be like this. The only ones that might have better units will be the places Downtown that are designed to be climate controlled for antiques and stuff...” She started gesturing excitedly. “...which we won’t be able to book tonight, probably don’t take cash, and likely need an accounting of everything stored in them.”

 

Garment still seemed to be indicating it was worth the trouble.

 

“Also I need to start alchemy tonight. So either we use this storage unit or your clothes end up next to the room where I’m mixing transmutation catalysts.”

 

Garment looked more conflicted than I’d ever seen her before, constantly glancing at the storage locker, then away, miming the shifting of her weight from one foot to the other.

 

I took a breath. “I’m not asking for you to just dump them in there.” She perked up. “You can have a budget for tarps, garment bags, those kind of things.”

 

Garment rallied, and immediately jumped into negotiations. She may have had more luck if I didn’t know what she’d been able to pull together for a frankly insultingly meager amount of cash. In the end I talked her down to under a hundred dollars and still felt like I was overpaying. I was also a little concerned on how my default solution for dealing with any problem involving Garment had me throwing money at it. It wasn’t as bad as it seemed seeing as she was basically a link to a worldwide marketplace of clothing and clothing related raw materials. It just seemed like the kind of thing I should be careful about.

 

I accessed my workshop through the door of the storage locker opposite ours and kept watch while Garment summoned what was almost certainly an excessive amount of protection for her wardrobe before loading it into the locker. The number of layers and quality of the tarps and protective sheeting meant it would probably outlast the storage facility itself.

 

As she worked I considered the monumental amount of power I had acquired on this trip. What did it say when the least significant ability I’d been granted allowed me to grow human beings in jars? My Master Builder power was so strong that you’d think it would make everything else I’d received irrelevant, but it seemed my powers didn’t work that way.

 

Every power I had stacked with every other power. You’d think multiple powers that gave mechanical aptitude would become redundant, but every one opened new applications and skills. Even though I could now work on cosmic level machines my early powers were still providing benefits. Even abilities that would otherwise provide me the skills of a mechanic or just give basic repair abilities now let me apply that level of experience and aptitude to the insane levels of technology that were within my reach. There was a myriad of ways that skills and knowledge could express themselves. Each supporting power subtly improved my ability to work with all the other technologies I’d been given access to.

 

I guess it made sense, really. Earlier skills hadn’t become redundant when Grease Monkey gave me the power to build anything the cyberpunk genre could come up with. It looked like even taking things all the way up to space opera didn’t create any serious irrelevancies.

 

There was also the possibility to combine and integrate the technologies of different powers. Grease Monkey might not have any technology that could touch what Master Builder was capable of, but I could integrate that higher level of tech into everything from hard suits to cybernetics. In fact, the technology of Master Builder seemed unusually sterile. It tended to ignore organic life outside the odd containment vessel or analysis system. There was some information on technorganic technology, but it was treated with a level of caution that fell just short of it being considered blasphemy.

 

Combinations had immense potential but I was a long way from being able to pull off that kind of technological integration.

 

As Garment was moving the last of her creations and securing them with a care and thoroughness you didn’t normally see outside hurricane zones the Forge moved again and missed a connection in the Quality constellation. I checked my watch and saw we had killed the last of the afternoon. Actually, I was due to check the messages on the phone Tattletale had given me. That thing had been scanned for tracking devices, powered down, and secured in my workshop. Before now I’d had to rely on insane levels of caution in place of technical skill. Fortunately that wasn’t the case anymore.

 

Garment agreed to watch the entrance of the workshop while I worked. Well, she agreed to stay in the entrance, though seemed to be gazing forlornly at her packed up clothing rather than standing guard. Fortunately this wouldn’t take long.

 

Even when not working with the most sophisticated technology I was capable of my level of understanding had expanded to the point where I could assemble an advanced device almost instantly. It took some effort to break down and reconfigure the cell phone, but compared to what I was now capable of working with this was child’s play. I was altering the integration with the cell network to obscure the location of my call. Also adding a stronger signal, improved call quality, and extended battery life. What I was doing was almost certainly a violation of electronic communication guidelines, but the odds of it being exposed were slim in the extreme. Still, I had a phone that I could carry with me without worrying about being tracked by anything less than a serious thinker power or a tinker specialized in communications or surveillance.

 

 I felt a weight lift from my shoulders as I exited the workshop and resealed the door. My bike may have been my first real technical project but this was proof that I would be able to bypass the fears that had haunted me since I got caught up in this mess. I wasn’t ready to take on the Undersiders’ boss yet, but this was one point of vulnerability I had been able to completely patch. There were other points of weakness I was still justifiably paranoid about, but this was proof that I could deal with them, eventually, with the help of my power.

 

Garment sadly helped me lock the storage unit and I powered up the phone. A list of voicemails and text messages jumped out at me. Ok, I’d been expecting this, and I still stood by my actions from the previous night, but it was time to face the music.

 

Most of the texts were some variation of ‘call me’ or ‘call me immediately’. Not a lot of creativity, and frankly I expected better from a thinker of Tattletale’s assumed caliber. There were a few from Brian that basically amounted to ‘please call Lisa’ with an increasingly pleading tone.

 

Well, we were in an empty storage facility and I had an effectively untraceable phone. I pulled up her number and placed the call. Might as well get it over with and find out how well she was taking this situation.

 

Her first words upon answering the call served to resolve that mystery.

 

“What the fuck did you do?”

 

Chapter Text

I pulled the phone away from my head to give my ear a chance to recover from Tattletale’s borderline scream. I made a note to recalibrate the speaker. My custom work on the device had boosted the output a little too much, though it did an excellent job of conveying the thinker’s mood.

 

“I’m guessing this is about my visit to the hospital last night.” I kept my tone level as I spoke. This didn’t feel like the time to push my luck.

 

“You’re God damn right it is. Do you have the slightest idea what you’ve done?”

 

I took a breath. “I told you, I knew what I was signing up for, but things weren’t sitting right. I took it upon myself to resolve them.”

 

“Resolve? You seriously think you resolved...” She cut herself off and I swear I could hear teeth grinding through the phone.

 

“What?” There was a spike of anxiety worming itself into my mind. I knew there would be repercussions to this, but from the way Tattletale was acting I doubted it was something as simple as a new cape revealing himself without alerting her in advance.

 

“We need to meet. I can’t do this over the phone. There are things I need to ask and apparently a lot more things that you need to know.”

 

Well, that didn’t bode well. This was clearly more than just petty frustration. There was an actual note of concern to her voice that contrasted uncomfortably with her usually smug demeanor. I still didn’t believe that Tattletale had my best interests at heart. That said we were entangled enough that if something was bothering her this much there was no chance I would be insulated from the fallout. And vice versa, I suppose.

 

How bad could this have gone? Revealing a new tinker and healer was big news, but it shouldn’t have cause any major disruptions. Othala had been active for years without provoking any major response. Even Leet was rumored to have some level of healing tech, if just to explain the shorter recovery times from the massive array of injuries he and Uber were usually sporting after their broadcasts.

 

Something else was going on here. Was it connected to the rest of our conversation? The only thing that jumped out at me was my predictions about Bakuda. If anything was happening on that front I needed to find out immediately.

 

“I can head over now. Should we meet at your place?”

 

“God no.” There was a frustrated sigh through the phone. “Alec figured out something was wrong and has been making an ass of himself all day. I can’t deal with that right now. Meet me at the courtyard two factories over.”

 

“I’ll be there...” The call cut off. Okay, how comfortable did I feel going into this? Not very, but when calibrated to the usual level of discomfort I felt on things surrounding the Undersiders it wasn’t that bad. I was less concerned about an ambush than I was about how serious this news could be. I was acutely aware of how much of a ticking clock I was on in terms of the ABB’s response. Really I should have pressed Tattletale for information on them earlier, but I had been both exhausted and heavily preoccupied yesterday. I was going to have to make up for lost time.

 

I turn to Garment who seemed to have finished saying goodbye to her locker full of protectively cocooned outfits. “Change in plans. I’ve got to get to a meeting.”

 

She gave me an affirmative gesture and we headed through the maze of lockers back to the entrance. The attendant raised an eyebrow when he saw us but didn’t say anything as we climbed on the bike and pulled out of the parking lot.

 

The sun was getting heavy in the sky as we headed towards the docks and our shadows were beginning to stretch across the road ahead of us. I sped along a rough approximation of the route I had trudged the previous day and felt relief over no longer being shackled to the sidewalks and bus. Still, all good things must come to an end, particularly if you weren’t willing to parade your new transforming super bike in front of a thinker with questionable loyalties. I started looking for quiet alleys when we were a few blocks away from the Undersiders’ base. Fortunately this area was rife with them and was low traffic enough that I didn’t need to worry about running into anyone while accessing my workshop.

 

With Garment’s clothes and most of my furniture removed the entry room was looking cavernously empty. A five meter cube was actually a serious amount of space, which was evident by how easy it was to park the bike. I could probably have ridden it straight in with no real issue.

 

I considered my next move. I was fairly confident about this meeting not being a threat, but I didn’t want to get caught off-guard like I’d been with the Empire capes. Even if Tattletale wasn’t a threat at this point there were any number of other things that could go wrong. I needed to bring some reagents with me, and my motorcycle jacket wasn’t a good vehicle for that.

 

Actually it would be best to leave the jacket all together. I didn’t know how much information Tattletale would be able to pull just from my presence. Leaving my motorcycle and showing up with a jacket that says ‘I own a motorcycle’ would be kind of pointless.

 

That did leave me with my earlier problem. The consequence of bespoke clothing was distinct lack of baggy pockets. I might be able to manage the reagents for a few formula, but they would be blindingly obvious in these clothes. Using any of my belt pouches or bandoleer would only be more blatant. It looked like I would have to go into this a bit under equipped for my liking.

 

Garment gave me a quizzical gesture when she saw me removing my jacket.

 

“Tattletale is really good at picking up information. I don’t want to tip her off more than I have to.” I folded the jacket over my hand only for Garment to take it and store it with much more care. “I don’t want to give her any concrete hints about the bike, and since I don’t have a change of clothes that means going in a t-shirt.”

 

She made a signal for me to stop and moved over to a storage trunk that had been spared her purge of the entryway. If I remembered correctly it contained a few books, loose writing supplies, and various other items I couldn’t find a place for. It was basically my junk drawer.

 

None of those items were present when Garment opened the lid. Instead the trunk was filled to the brim with clothes which proceeded to float out and circle around me.

 

“I thought you left all of that at the apartment.”

 

Garment seemed horrified by the thought. Apparently she’d taken the precaution of ensuring I’d have an adequate wardrobe in the event something like this came up. Well, adequate by Garment’s standards, positively excessive by the metrics of any reasonable person.

 

The various items were spinning around me as Garment looked on in considerations. She seemed to be leaning heavily towards the suit, and while that may have been a power move for most negotiations it wasn’t something I wanted to get into with Tattletale.

 

“Look, I just need a different jacket, one with enough pockets that I can take some reagents with me incase anything happens.”

 

Garment seemed a bit disappointed, but relented and produced a dark grey jacket with epaulets on the shoulders and two sets of front pockets. Also another shirt because apparently my current one didn’t go with it at all. Given my history her constant criticism of my appearance and dress sense seemed like the kind of thing that should bother me more than it did. That was probably because, unlike what I was used to, it came from this odd place of encouraging improvement rather than leaving things at the insult. It was kind of weird, but in a good way.

 

The jacket was still slightly fitted, but the pockets were enough for me to carry a few sets of reagents without being obvious about my loadout. It occurred to me that I could have just asked Garment to make me something new. With the speed she had demonstrated when sewing her current outfit she would probably have managed a coat that could conceal half my stock of reagents while also being incredibly fashion forward. I guess I still wasn’t used to having someone that capable and dependable at my disposal.

 

I checked the time, then nodded to Garment.

 

“Right, I need to get moving. I’m going to have to leave you in here for now.”

 

Garment placed an arm in front of the door and shook her helmet before indicating towards herself.

 

“Uh, no. Definitely not. I can’t take that risk. There’s no way Tattletale won’t be able to see through this.” I indicated to her biker outfit. “If she finds out then that means their boss finds out. I’m not putting you in that kind of danger.”

 

She mimed thinking for a moment, then indicated an idea. She reached up and pulled off the glove from one ‘hand’, then folded it and indicated the inside pocket of my coat.

 

Right. Of course. I had gotten caught up in the illusion. Garment didn’t need to hold this shape. I could take her as the gloves and she wouldn’t be impaired in the slightest. I didn’t know if she’d be able to see or hear anything from inside my jacket, but I didn’t know how her senses worked to begin with. Or what the range of her telekinesis was. Or the limits of its strength. Or exactly how much information she could get with her fashion divination thing. Actually the only power that had even been close to properly explored was her ability to exchange money directly for materials. Everything else was still kind of nebulous.

 

“Okay, that works, but you have to stay quiet.” She made a sarcastic motion towards where her mouth would be. “You know what I mean. Don’t do anything to give away your presence. I don’t know how good her thinker power is. She might be able to pick something up just from how I’m behaving, so please don’t make it any easier for her.”

 

Garment nodded, then appeared to take off the other glove with an invisible hand. She placed them in the inside pocket of my jacket and ‘patted’ the outside of the coat. Crazy precise telekinesis. Which apparently could extend through fabric because instead of having the biker outfit collapse in a pile she started to mime taking it off, which prompted me to turn my back to her again. I’ll give her credit, she could really sell that illusion.

 

When I turned around her helmet and outfit were neatly placed on the desk with the boots sitting on the floor next to it. It was a little odd still knowing she was there but not having anything to focus on.

 

“Garment?” In response my jacket straightened itself and I felt wrinkles smooth out of my clothing. “Alright, good. But none of that when we’re outside.” There was the slightest tug on my sleeve in response.

 

I sealed my workshop and entered the docks in an outfit that, while less flashy, was still leagues above my normal style. While covering the last few blocks all my previous concerns flowed to the forefront of my mind. Was there any chance the ABB had an inside line on the PRT? I would give better odds of the Empire having a mole, but you didn’t stay a successful gang without some information sources. If they had gotten tipped off that a tinker was working to counter them they could have accelerated their plans. One thing everyone knew was not to give a tinker prep time. My knives had more than proven themselves and if they expected to be facing that level of force I could see them doing something drastic and stupid.

 

What about the rest of what I’d said? There were barely any details on the Undersiders, so if Tattletale was upset about that I had little sympathy for her. They had ditched their low profile with that public job and the breadcrumbs of information I shared were nothing compared to their public demonstration.

 

This could be about my rushed debut. I had made a pretty strong statement by taking credit for the knives and demonstrating my formulas. Without context on their requirements or limitations they could have come across as a lot more dangerous than they actually were. Escape might have looked like a serious and unrestrained teleportation power and Force Field could be mistaken for total invincibility if all you saw was the first hit being negated. I had been keeping that formula up continuously as a precaution ever since. The hope was that it would buy me enough time to get something else deployed in the event of an attack. What kind of brute rating would tanking a hit from Glory Girl net you? God, I hoped they weren’t going wild with the threat assessment.

 

As I neared the meeting place I put those thoughts out of my mind. I needed to be on point for this discussion and dwelling on hypotheticals wouldn’t help now. It was easy enough to figure out which of the industrial buildings Tattletale had been talking about. This area of the Docks was littered with them. I made my way into the large loading yard of what had probably been a supply building for a nearby abandoned factory. The yard had high concrete walls and reminded me disturbingly of one of those old style prisons, the types that were built like fortresses. The sinking sun stretched the shadows of the walls over the area leaving only a sliver of the far end illuminated. The blaze of light served to highlight the form of Tattletale, perched on top of a loading dock and staring down at me as I entered the yard.

 

I wondered if she made a conscious decision to go for the most dramatic placement possible, or if it was something she instinctively defaulted to. Was it part of her power, or did she just have a personality that liked to make the biggest impact she could? Either way the fact that she seemed to be trying to at least subconsciously create a power dynamic in this discussion wasn’t a good sign.

 

As I approached I was able to make out the long skirt and tightly buttoned jacket she was wearing along with an expression that did not look happy in the slightest. She waited for me to reach her side of the courtyard before even acknowledging my presence. Slowly she descended the steps from the loading dock, but stayed high enough to let her keep a height advantage over me. It was a transparent power play, but this close I could see a disheveled edge to her appearance. It was enough to make me a bit nervous. Whatever she wanted to talk about had clearly been weighing on her, and would probably be weighing on me in short order.

 

She stood there seething for a few moments before finally speaking. 

 

“You healed Panacea.”

 

There was a serious amount of stress on the word ‘healed’. I kept my expression neutral and nodded in response.

 

“Yes. Do you have a problem with that?”

 

I watched for her reaction. It was hard to tell where she was going with this. I couldn’t conceive of a situation where she would want Panacea to stay injured. She seemed to be struggling to determine just how to handle the situation.

 

“Do I have a problem with Panacea no longer being hurt? No, I do not have a problem with that. That might be the only part of this that I don’t have a problem with.”

 

I didn’t like where this was going. “What, did people have a bad reaction when she showed up without injuries?”

 

There was a brief flash where Tattletale seemed to return to her usual smug expression before the weight of the situation bore down on her again. “Panacea didn’t show up without injuries. She hasn’t shown up at all. That girl hasn’t left the PRT headquarters since you pulled your little stunt.”

 

“What? But that...” I checked my watch. “that was like twenty hours ago. What kind of debrief are they doing?”

 

“Debrief.” Tattletale muttered the word under her breath before turning back to me. “You hit her with an unknown healing effect.” Her tone shifted slightly on the word ‘healing’. “Did you really think they were going to let her walk out of there without checking for every possible complication?”

 

“Oh, right.” Ok, that made sense, but even with all the tests they could perform and assuming they would have called in specialists, what could possibly be taking this long? “What, are they holding her for the results of blood cultures or something?”

 

“No, they finished the tests in a few hours.” I waited as Tattletale stood on the steps to the loading dock looking down at me and clearly enjoying my confusion. It became obvious she wasn’t going to provide more information without prompting.

 

“So why hasn’t she left?”

 

“She’s being held under Master Stranger protocols.”

 

She was clearly delivering the information to maximize the impact. I wish I could say that I was above the manipulation, that I wasn’t letting her get to me, but it was so shocking I just didn’t know how to react. I ignored her obvious pleasure at seeing the effect of her announcement and pressed forward.

 

“Why the hell are they using Master Stranger protocols?”

 

“Do you want the reasons chronologically or in order of significance?”

 

I grit my teeth. “This is serious.”

“Yes. Yes it is. I’m glad I finally have you on the right page.” I gave her a harsh look and she let out a sigh. “That ‘debrief’ you mentioned? It took place under Armsmaster’s new lie detector.  Apparently she had an adverse reaction to some of the questions. ‘Emotional Instability’. It was enough for them to order a Voight-Kampff assessment and a period of isolation.”

 

“They can do that?”

 

“They can if your guardian consents. Brandish has been dealing with the rest of the fallout from your little chat. She was more than happy to hand her daughter off while she played damage control.”

 

“What fallout?”

 

She gave me a condescending look. “Here’s a hint. Brandish and Photon Mom aren’t speaking to each other and Manpower moved out of the Pelham house.”

 

I blinked. “They actually got into that stuff?”

 

Tattletale grit her teeth. “They got into everything.”

 

“Everything? Seriously?”

 

She seemed split between enjoyment of my confusion and frustration at my ignorance. “An unknown cape shows up with claims of serious power including thinker insight that provides information on other capes and the Protectorate. What did you think they were going to do?”

 

Not this, which was clearly stupid. I figured they would be focused on the Undersiders more than me. A new parahuman appeared that not only has some serious power but also the ability to gain inside information on hero teams? Of course they would freak.

 

“You’re getting it now. Good.” She gave me a hard look. “They got the closest thing to a transcript that they could squeeze out of Panacea, then set about verifying as much of it as they could. As an ‘assessment of the claimed thinker power’.”

 

The full weight was starting to hit me. “How, how bad is this?”

 

The blond girl let out a slow breath. “It’s not good. Their ‘verifications’ have probably caused more chaos than the information ever could. Not just in New Wave, the Protectorate’s scrambling.”

 

I tried to remember what I’d done that could have set them off, but Tattletale cut in before I could piece things together.

 

“Here’s one tidbit. The Protectorate is going to do a Ward exchange. Aegis and Gallant are being cycled out to give them ‘time to recover’.”

 

“Ok, you can’t blame me for that.” I may have made the knives but I didn’t plan the bank job or put them into action. The thought of it brought back the waves of frustration connected to that particular debacle. The absolute stupidity of the Undersiders’ plan. The moronic response from the Wards. The insanity of a system that let teenagers manage something that serious. Kid Win’s artillery based attempted murder. Taylor’s excessive force. Glory Girl’s recklessness. Taylor’s other excessive force. Tattletale’s clandestine activities. Panacea’s threats of inflicting terminal illnesses. Taylor’s third excessive force. Regents destruction of property. Taylor’s forth internet famous excessive force with a side of ‘Oh God, why did I give her a magic weapon?’.

 

“No, I’ll give you that one.” She conceded. “Something like this was probably coming anyway, they’ve just accelerated things. The point is who they’re exchanging them with.”

 

Once again Tattletale seemed more than happy to leave me trying to figure things out until I ended up begging her for information. She was probably doing everything she could to get me to bear some of the stress she’d endured over this mess.

 

“So who are they being traded for and why is it my fault?”

 

“Aegis is being sent to Boston in exchange for Weld. Case 53 ward, living metal guy. Gallant is going to New York and the Brockton team is getting Flechette, a striker/blaster.” She looked me square in the eyes. “Boston and New York. Can you think of any reason those teams in particular would be eager for some outreach?”

 

Yes, God damn it. Was every random statement I made being picked over by the PRT.

 

“You can probably count on every random statement being picked over by the PRT.”

 

I hated when she did that, and from the look on her face she probably knew it.

 

“So in addition to changing the local roster and throwing New Wave into chaos you managed to get Director Piggott under review, both for questioning her mental competence and that stuff about ward actions. They’ve got priority action from the Think Tank to assess this. Oh, and someone leaked all of this to the Youth Guard, so they’re up in arms and probably mobilizing for a full investigation.”

 

“Ok, I get it. I’ve kicked the hornet’s nest here. Everyone’s up in arms and I probably screwed myself over six ways from Sunday. Why are you so upset about it?”

 

“Because they think I did it!” Her voice echoed around the small courtyard. I let it die down before I even tried to piece that together.

 

“Sorry, what? How the hell does that make any sense?”

 

She grit her teeth before replying. “The prevailing theory is, rather than dealing with two thinkers appearing out of nowhere, they just have a single powerful one. That debrief included everything they could get out of her, including what happened in the bank.” There was just the slightest hint of regret in her tone. “The idea is I sent you in with a script of things to say in order to cause disruptions, since it apparently fits my ‘modus operandi’.” She shook her head. “Which also means all the chaos you unleashed with your stupid stunt is being attributed to me as well.”

 

Tattletale didn’t seem like the most humble person in the world and I had a hard time seeing the problem she’d have with being thought smarter than she actually was. “Is that a bad thing?”

 

She gave me a sour look. “They’ve provisionally increased my rating by two points. Thinker 8.”

 

And things fell into place. “That’s bad.”

 

She actually laughed. “Yes. ‘Bad’. That’s what you could call it. Engagement only by full teams of parahumans. PRT priority on evacuating civilians. Oh, and I get specific countermeasures.”

 

“What are you looking at?” I’d heard about some of the custom measures in place for high rated capes and they were universally severe and unpleasant.

 

She looked grim. “At the moment it’s mandatory audio blackouts. Noise canceling earplugs with radio link between team members. Zero engagement permitted. In the event of capture complete mute and blinder restraints.”

 

God, that was severe. No wonder she was pissed. Countermeasures of that level were just asking for something to go wrong. “They’re going to dial those back eventually, right? Classifications need approval, it’s not like local directors can just hand out anything they want.”

 

“Eventually can take a hell of a long time. And meanwhile I get to live with all the fun that new classification brings with it.” She gave me a vindictive look. “We both do.”

 

Right, the girl stuck in the PRT because she got nervous during an interview, which was apparently enough for them to assume I had mind control powers. “You know I don’t actually have master powers.”

 

Her expression softened slightly. “Yeah, I picked up on how you felt about that. Panacea, she’s kind of messed up.”

 

I nodded. “I got that from my powers.”

 

“Yeah, but like specifically messed up.” She gave me a direct look. “Amy’s in love with her sister.”

 

I stared at her. “Glory Girl? Seriously?”

 

She nodded. “Probably tried to keep from admitting it and got flagged as an outside influence. There was wonky stuff around it on the tests, so it came across as unnatural.”

 

Suddenly things fell into place. “Fuck.”

 

“What?”

 

“Fuck, so that’s what it was about.” I grit my teeth as the full implications hit me.

Tattletale gave me a very annoyed expression that from her elevated position came off like an irritated cat. “Care to share with the rest of the class?”

 

The act of directly asking for information seemed almost physically painful for her. I considered if I should share what I’d figured out. Well, at this point it couldn’t do much more harm.

 

“My power warned me about being close to Glory Girl. I wasn’t sure why, I figured it was either some specific power interaction or it meant that her aura...”

 

“Her aura induces emotions. Long term exposure, especially for a developing brain, changes emotional response and conditions reactions. Holy shit, Glory Girl brainwashed her sister.”

 

I cringed at how excited she was over this. I could only imagine what she was planning to do with this information. Still... “You think if that comes out I can avoid being labeled as a master?”

 

She took a breath. “Probably not, at least not before my ‘engagement procedures’ get rolled back. This is going to take ages to get sorted. Even if tests came back clean they could still have held her for up to twenty four hours. With this level of uncertainty and the fact that there actually is a mental effect in play it could take days, potentially even weeks before they figure out what’s going on and clear her for release.”

 

God damn it. That would weeks with the best healer the city, actually probably the entire country, out of commission. A disaster in any situation, much less when there was a bombing spree in the works. And with suspicion on my abilities I doubt they’re going to be comfortable if I try to step up and fill the gap.

 

Tattletale was watching the dance of emotions across my face with more enjoyment that was probably appropriate. “Plus, even if you get cleared for Panacea, there’s still that thing with Persephone’s Rainbow.”

 

I looked at her blankly. “I’m sorry, Persephone’s what?”

 

She grinned at that. “You haven’t been online since Alec showed that thread. The PRT were too slow with official statements so the cape fans started coming up with their own details. They’ve got names for everything you’ve made.”

 

I felt a twist of concern. “The internet named those knives? The internet?”

 

Tattletale seemed way too happy about this. “Oh yes. Taylor’s knife was dubbed the Scarab’s Fang.”

 

“That name makes absolutely no sense.”

 

“And baton is the Lance of Ammut.”

 

I cringed. “Which is clearly not a lance. And what does it have to do with a crocodile lion thing?”

 

She ignored my questions and happily continued down her list.

 

“For Alec and Brian you have Usurper’s Plot and Perdition.”

 

Those weren’t completely terrible providing you could get past how over dramatic they were. “What about you and Rachel?”

 

She showed her teeth. “Mine was named Ad Hominem.”

 

“Attacking the person, not the argument?” Tattletale seemed quite pleased about that. “And Rachel?”

 

“Well, it was going to be something along the lines of Bastard, but another name won out in the end.”

 

I took a breath. “Which was?”

 

“Clarent.”

 

“Clarent. As in the king Arthur sword Clarent?”

 

“It did bring down a knight and sent him scurrying to New York to try to buy some new armor, though he’s probably dressing that up as a noble quest or something.”

 

That broke me out of my train of thought. “Hold on, buying armor? I thought he made that himself?”

 

“Oh, right. Gallant’s not a tinker. Empath who can shoot emotion blasts.  The armor was made by Kid Win. He just had the money to pay for it and the maintenance. With Kid Win both on review and trying to rebuild what he lost in the fight Gallant needs to find somewhere else to buy his powers.”

 

The phrase ‘buy his powers’ triggered something from my passenger, but I didn’t have the time to figure out what it meant at the moment. From Tattletale’s reaction she clearly saw it, but elected not to comment on the matter.

 

“This is getting off topic. What the hell is Persephone’s Rainbow?”

 

She really seemed to be enjoying this. “PRT techs seem to follow PHO threads and decided to stick with that naming convention. Persephone’s Rainbow is what they dubbed that little token of affection you gave Panacea.”

 

I felt my guts twist. That stupid over decorated little trinket. Why hadn’t I just handed over a material sample?

 

“Alright. So they named it something stupid.” I ignored how she was grinning down at me. “What does that have to do with mastering people?”

 

“Apparently...” She drew out the word. “Some technician spent fifteen minutes staring at the thing while ‘fascinated by the iridescence of the petals’. It was enough to raise warnings of a possible memetic object and triggered containment protocols with staged and controlled assessments.”

 

I stared at her blankly. “They think I can tie mind control effects to objects?”

 

“Yes, that is the theory they’re working with.”

 

The weight of the situation was bearing down on me. “I have to deal with a master rating because one girl didn’t want to admit a crush and somebody else stared too long at a piece of jewelry?”

 

“That’s right.” Her tone had absolutely no sympathy in it.

 

Well this was horrible. “So they think I’m a master tinker.” She shifted to an expression with a cruel edge to it. “What?”

 

“Right now they have you with provisional ratings in master, thinker, mover, brute, and shaker.”

 

I ran through the list, connecting the classifications to the various abilities I’d demonstrated. “All that on top of tinker?” She stayed silent. “As a tinker sub-classification?”

 

“Nope.” She gave me a vindictive look. “There’s no tinker classification.”

 

I looked at her in shock. “How the hell did that happen?”

 

“Apparently, according to Armsmaster’s assessment, the items he was able to examine didn’t demonstrate conventional signs of workmanship. Furthermore there were indications that suggested the ‘direct application of a parahuman ability’. His recommendation was for a shaker classification.”

 

Damn it. This is why I’ve been holding off any public announcement. They’d only seen the magic bullshit, not all the work I put into those things. “What, they think I just willed these things out of the air?”

 

“That’s about it.” She grinned wider. “Oh, and they’re also suggesting the power profile indicates a second generation Empire cape.”

 

Well, that was just... “Fuck.”

 

“Ex-act-ly.” Tattletale was looking vindicated, but there were signs of exhaustion leaking into her expression. I knew she had some inside access on the Protectorate. How long had she been digging into this? I was guessing this meeting was as much about sharing the pain as it was about informing an ally to pressing developments.

 

Did we even count as allies anymore? She was clearly irate, but nothing indicated she wanted to break off our arrangement. I could only guess at what her boss thought of this mess, but if he was using the Undersiders as a cat’s paw then that elevated threat assessment would be nothing but an advantage for him. Response procedures like the ones they’d approved for Tattletals could let him bait the Protectorate to a level that just wasn’t possible with a conventional team. Depending on the length of his reach I could see him taking steps to keep the classification from getting resolved.

 

I looked up at Tattletale and considered my next move. I still didn’t particularly like or trust her, despite my passenger’s feelings on the matter. Still, her self-interest was probably served by keeping me in the picture. I could count on that at least.

 

“So, where do we go from here?”

 

She deflated a bit at the question. “For the moment? We both try to avoid the fallout. Oh, and you need to get yourself a cape name post haste.”

 

Right, they had a tendency to come up with their own labels for new capes. I grimaced at the possibilities that could be in the works. “Have they stuck me with anything yet?”

 

“Officially you currently have an incident number, but if you don’t get a proper debut within the next few days there’s a good chance you’re going to get stuck with Mammon.

 

I blinked in surprise. “Seriously? Isn’t that like a greed demon or something? How the hell does that work?”

 

“Remember all that online nonsense? The discussion somehow made it over to a jeweler’s forum. That started a debate over the appraisal of the workmanship on what you made for us.” Her tone was vaguely accusatory. I had the feeling she still wasn’t that happy with my personalizations for the knives. “And it was a big number. That got posted back on PHO. Between that and you’re stunt with the hairpin there’s this association with corruption and wealth. That led to somebody thinking it would be clever to mash the concepts together. Hence, Mammon”

 

I felt almost ill at the idea. Taylor hadn’t looked that happy with her cape name, but Egyptian god was a lot better than demon lord. Honestly I was surprised that name was still on the market, what with the Fallen running around.

 

“I’ll make sure to come up with something.” Suddenly finding the perfect name was a lot less important than just getting a non-villainous one. Really, anything would be better than being stuck with that moniker.

 

She nodded and looked me in the eyes. “As for our arrangement we have something to discuss.” She walked down the steps and closed the last of the distance to me. “Healing. How much?”

 

I couldn’t’ hide my surprise. “Excuse me?”

 

“Terms of arrangement. Price and schedule negotiation for services. What do you charge for healing?”

 

I blanked. “Aren’t you upset I kept this hidden?”

 

She shook her head. “I knew you were keeping some things from us. I didn’t push on the subject. If I had maybe I could have given some advice that would have let you avoid this mess. That’s on me, but it’s not what we’re talking about here. Things are going to be harder for all of us going forward.” She said the last sentence through gritted teeth. “So, what is it going to cost us for that thing you threw at Panacea last night?”

 

I looked down at her, but only saw the stress that had been clearly wearing on her for the last day. I didn’t particularly like our arrangement, or how naturally manipulative Tattletale was. With my passenger reigning in his reactions I could process that better. Still, I needed support to make it through the coming storm. She had illicitly sourced but essential information I absolutely required. Plus Taylor was still important. I couldn’t afford to cut off my support.

 

“Market.”

 

“Market?”

 

“Yeah, market rate. Work out what the cost of the medical care would have been for whatever the issue is. That’s what I’ll charge. You’ll just get it all at once instead of needing weeks of recovery.”

 

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You know that’s robbery right? That you could get away with charging so much more for that service?”

 

I nodded. “Call it a good relationship discount.” I glanced towards the exit of the yard and the city beyond it. “Maybe it’ll be incentive to keep me informed enough to manage what’s coming.”

 

She seemed to understand and took a moment to consider things. “Piggot? She’s blacklisted you. Even beyond suspicion over your healing. No support, resources, or collaboration from the local Protectorate. She ordered limited contact and priority dispatch response for any appearances. Officially you’re wanted for questioning, which is as much as they can do now, especially with the scrutiny she’s under.”

 

Well that was awful. I think my passenger was probably right about his assessment. Still, I hadn’t intended to poke that particular bear this early. I put that out of my mind and shifted to the topic that was my original concern.

 

“Thanks for the heads up.” I swallowed. “What about the ABB?”

 

Tattletale thought for a moment. “Piggot doesn’t want to take any action that would validate your predictions. The other departments have eyes on her now, and her reputation was pretty shaky to begin with.”

 

Right, and that was before I questioned her sanity. Shit, if I had accidently made things worse by trying to warn Panacea...

 

“Do you have anything on the ABB?”

 

She shook her head. “They’ve been unusually quiet. Some feelers going out, but whatever is happening they’re still preparing for it.” She looked directly at me. “Your power says it’s going to be bad.”

 

It was barely a question, but I nodded in response. “One of the worst I’ve gotten so far.”

 

“I’ll see what I can find, but it might take a few days. Lung isn’t planned to be moved until next week, and the Protectorate is mostly focused on tomorrow’s presentation of the new Wards.”

 

“Thank you.” I fished out my cellphone. “I’ve managed a secure line, so you can reach me if there’s an emergency. I can work on something for the rest of the team...”

 

“Don’t worry about it.” She let out a sigh. “You really put your foot in it, you know that right?”

 

“Yeah. I’m not sorry about healing Panacea, but the rest of it could have been handled better.”

 

She scoffed. “That’s an understatement.”

 

“But I’ll deal with it.”

 

“If you say so.” She didn’t sound convinced.

 

I nodded grimly. “Call me if anything comes up.”

 

She gave me a reserved nod. “Take care of yourself.”

 

We went our separate ways as we left the factory yard. I took a longer route through the docks than was necessary as I picked over the conversation. Things were significantly worse than I’d feared. Just twenty hours after I’d given the first hint of my power and things were going off the rails. I hadn’t thought I would have a good reputation with the Protectorate after working with the Undersiders, but a blanket contact ban seemed counterproductive. Even if the goal was to bring me in that kind of thing would just make it harder.

 

Enough questionable decisions had come out of the local PRT that I had seriously wondered if they were compromised. My passenger wasn’t giving me that sense and you should never attribute to malice what can be blamed on gross incompetence. At any other point I would have called the local director being under review a good thing, but we were headed into a disaster and needed all the help we could get.

 

Then there was the Undersiders’ boss. This nebulous criminal overlord who I knew nothing about. There were only a few types of parahumans who consistently worked from behind the scenes. Nothing I’d seen indicated he was a master or tinker, so that just left thinker.

 

A thinker making a power play meant things would get complicated. What’s more, the fact that he had a stream of information on me when I knew nothing about him was nerve wracking. Really I only had one defense, and it’s the same one used as a standard PRT countermeasure for thinkers. The same one I’ve been employing against the strongest thinker on the planet.

 

Limit available information.

 

See, there’s a terrifying element to being a tinker, particularly a strong tinker. Most people would assume that your top concern should be a visit from the Slaughterhouse Nine. They had a serial killer who specifically targeted tinkers with the power to change the world. They also had Bonesaw, who not only permanently tainted wet and medical tinkers in the eyes of the public, but took an active interest in anyone working in that field.

 

That was terrifying, and something I was certainly concerned about, but it wasn’t my biggest concern. The problem wasn’t Mannequin. It was the person who had turned Sphere into Mannequin. The Simurgh.

 

Endbringers were largely thought to be random in their attacks, but there were signs of direction. Hits to vital resources, major initiatives, or even specific individuals who had a chance to change the world. It didn’t always match up, but then who could track every possible cape in every city? When one of the Endbringers could see the future what hope did anyone have? What could a normal person do against someone with the power to predict their every move?

 

This was the kind of thing that ended up debated and discussed extensively online. There was one solution that was believed to be at least sort of effective, and anyone could do it. No matter what, no precognition was perfect. There were blind spots. Scion was the best known one. There was anecdotal evidence about being able to disrupt foresight powers by timing your actions based on Scion sightings. The Endbringers were another, but no one wanted to try to base their plans around them. There was a third that was significantly less well known than the other two.

 

Apparently precognition couldn’t predict the effects of a trigger event. There was even less evidence for this than the other two possibilities, but rumors suggested foresight thinkers had been stumped when they encountered a fresh trigger. Still, that wasn’t the kind of thing you could count on to disrupt precognition. It wasn’t like a person got new and unknown powers with enough frequency to be able to use it as a determining factor for their future actions.

 

That is, unless they were connected to a massive celestial array of powerful tinker abilities that were continuously being granted to them.

 

I didn’t know what my next power would be. My passenger, who had the capacity to predict future events, didn’t know what my next power would be. From the look of things Tattletale couldn’t figure out the array of powers I was being granted, much less predict what was coming. Everything I knew about how this operated suggested that it was my only hope to disrupt precognition.

 

The principle was simple, do nothing that would attract attention until you got enough power to handle the situation, then act immediately and without restraint. For the Simurgh that meant avoiding anything that brought down Endbringers. So no commercially released tinker tech, no global scale projects, and no mass uplift. As appealing as the GroundBridge project was it would be limited to personal use, not mass transport or deployments. There would be no wide scale deployment of technology, not until there was no doubt that I could handle whatever they could throw at me.

 

It wasn’t a guaranteed strategy, but it was the best idea I could come up with. If it didn’t work then there was nothing stopping that bitch from dropping out of the sky, destroying everything I’d done, jacking all of my technical knowledge, and mind warping me past the point of no return. It was the only plan I could come up with to get the slightest bit of agency over my life.

 

If that strategy was good enough for the Simurgh then it should work on any thinker. It didn’t matter if they worked by analysis, precognition, spying, or modeling. I was basing my actions on something that I could not predict, that to the best of my knowledge no one could predict. With the Undersiders’ boss it was the only plan I could come up with to deal with the anxiety over my complete lack of information. Endure his presence until I was sure I was strong enough, then strike immediately. It might not work perfectly, but it was the most thinker proof stratagem I could come up with.

 

Once I had taken enough turns through the city to be sure I wasn’t being followed I found another alley. I picked a convenient door and accessed my workshop. There was a tug at my sleeve and I took Garment’s gloves out of my jacket pocket. They floated in a way that gave the impression that someone had taken them from my hand, and then appeared to be pulled onto the hands of someone in front of me.

 

Once again the biker outfit started being picked up and put on in a way the made it feel intrusive to watch. I diverted my eyes until I saw the helmet get picked up by a now fully ‘dressed’ Garment.

 

“So,” I turned to her. “What did you think of Tattletale?”

 

Garment’s gestures seemed to indicate Tattletale’s jacket, skirt, and shoes with a fairly negative take on them.

 

“Really? I thought she looked pretty fashionable.”

 

Garment patted me on the arm in a gesture that suggested she was dealing with a particularly slow child.

 

“Alright. Anything else?”

 

She gave me an irreverent motion. Fashion had been critiqued, so what else was there? The sense I got was less that she didn’t care about any of the other aspects and more that she trusted me to be able to deal with it. It was actually a pretty big vote of confidence and came across as fairly reassuring.

 

I changed into my other jacket and wheeled the motorcycle out into the alley. Garment jumped onto the back as I sealed the workshop. As I was getting ready to mount up I felt the Celestial Forge again. It was another mote from the Size constellation and a big one at that, the same strength as Life Fiber Spool or Master Builder. When the connection was made I found out exactly how strong it was.

 

The mote was called Nanite Removal and Control. It was tangentially connected with Nanite Sciences, but much more powerful. This wasn’t information on nanites, this power actually filled my body with them. Innumerable atomic scale machines were now bonded to me at a molecular level. There was even some aspect of the power that would continually replenish my supply if it was ever depleted. The nanites were unprogramed so if I wanted to use them for manufacturing, physical enhancement, or more esoteric functions I would have to find a safe method of extracting them and code the functions into them directly. However, there was one nanite application that I could manage. I had the full breath of nanotech healing at my fingertips.

 

Direct application of my nanites could address almost any medical issue, up to full mutations. Shockingly I might actually be a better healer than Panacea. This kind of healing could easily address brain damage and even managed to cheat on conservation of mass by rebuilding body parts from nothing but nanotech. She would still have me beat on whatever her other biological control powers were, but this healing was massively more potent than what my Light Alchemy could manage.

 

The third aspect of this power was just as powerful. Nanite Removal and Control. That was the name of the ability and completely described its core aspect. I could control any nanobot or nanite based technology I encountered. I could even absorb nanites into my body in massive volumes. It was an even more flagrant violation of conservation of mass than what my healing could manage. Unfortunately it was an aspect of the power rather than a technology that could be recreated. It would remain on the same level of mystery as my workshop key or Fashion reinforcement.

 

With that control aspect all my fears regarding rampant nanotech were suddenly a lot less significant. Even if I decided to make something catastrophic like gray goo I would be able to directly control the technology in the field, or just absorb the nanomachines for later reprocessing. This one power shaved months off of my schedule. The only remaining elements of the nanite project were the construction of the containment vessel and the programming of the specific application.

 

I looked down at my hand and focused on activating the nanites in my system. There was a sound reminiscent of an electric motor as glowing blue lines spread across my arm like printed circuitry. I could feel the tiny machines inside my body checking for damage and making incidental repairs. That was another point. I could heal myself. It took focus and wasn’t as good as regeneration, but it addressed every possible medical issue from injury to infection to poisoning. As long as I was conscious I could manage a complete restoration in a matter of seconds.

 

It was a powerful ability and a big step forward, but it wasn’t enough. Not enough to act against the Undersiders’ boss, not enough to take a stand against the Endbringers. Not enough to oppose any of the other major factions that were operating in the world. But it brought me a bit closer. There were more powerful motes than this one. With enough of them I could afford to make a real change.

 

Until then I would have to endure. I would make what difference I could at the level where it was safe to operate. I didn’t like it, I wished I could do more, but it was my best chance of being able to make things better, someday.

 

I mounted my bike and rode off in the direction of my apartment. I was going to have a busy night.

Chapter Text

Interlude: Thomas

 

In one universe Thomas Calvert sat in his office. The door was sealed twice over and the only people in this area of the base were Mr. Pitter and his pet. Here he didn’t need to maintain the vestige of a supervillain. He could relax somewhat, but was far too paranoid to ever let his guard down. After all, paranoia was a virtue.

 

Unfortunately it was a virtue that had been enthusiastically adopted by his Tattletale. He had left her to resolve things with the new tinker after she had failed to predict his actions the previous night. She had of course chosen a meeting place that was unobservable from vantage points, blocked directional listening devices, and made laser microphones useless. It was one of her petty acts of defiance even in the face of his displeasure. She would have her little chat unobserved, and then he would debrief her on the table. You could never really trust information until it had been verified by a visit to the table.

 

In another universe Coil worked in his command center coordinating his men. The acquisition was going poorly, as his pet had predicted, but he had the luxury of examining exactly how poorly it would turn out. He had the advantage of learning his opponent’s capacity without risk.

 

“Conventional weapons are clearly having no meaningful effect. Does the squad have any explosives left?”

 

The comms technician, a weasel faced little man, turned to him with deference. “Four fragmentation grenades and two claymores.”

 

“Set up the mines and try to drive it into the kill zone.” He doubted they would get anything close to a kill, but this was about learning and establishing the limits. The shambling mass recoiled as troopers started flinging grenades to try to drive it towards a nearby alley.

 

In the first universe Thomas reviewed PRT correspondences. His Tattletale was marvelous at ferreting out passcodes and backdoor accesses. What portions of her investigations she wasn’t openly willing to share could easily be extracted during one of their little debriefing sessions. As entertaining as it was to watch the girl’s shock at realizing her carefully concealed sources were open to him he did have to be cautious. It was clear she was beginning to suspect the true nature of his power. Even a full understanding would do her little good, but there was no reason to make things easy for her.

 

She’d been running herself ragged ever since word of the new tinker’s encounter with Panacea had reached her, desperately searching for answers and trying to find a path through the chaos. Thomas himself may have been in the same mindset were it not for the reassurance of his pet. Dinah’s predictions had confirmed his safety and the integrity of his long term plans, leaving him free to watch the aftermath and poke things in directions favorable to himself.

 

So many things that would have left him livid were no longer pressing concerns now that he had his pet. The tinker, for instance, would never have been allowed to remain in play. Such a late addition to the situation at such a critical time had caused no end of apprehension. Tattletale’s assurances had mitigated things somewhat, but regrettably he had yet to get the boy on the table. You just couldn’t trust someone without seeing how they behave after a few hours of ministrations from a skilled professional.

 

Thomas remembered his first attempt at interrogating the boy. A throwaway timeline had been used to check the tinker’s touted durability. Whatever it was capable of in combat it failed to help him against a high velocity sniper round fired through the windshield of the van as he pulled out of the Undersiders base. Well, not completely failed. His head remained largely intact, which was something of note. Unfortunately the tinker had the sense to not carry anything identifiable with him on that particular endeavor. His men had found nothing but a pittance of loose cash and a key ring.

 

It was frustrating, but his identity was hardly secure. Between the information Tattletale had provided and searches of local records every aspect of his life would be uncovered within a few days, if not sooner. Once that happened things would fall into place. Everyone had their levers of control, whether they were vices, fears, loved ones, or just pride. And with this tinker there were unlikely to be many obstacles to bringing him in line.

 

The follow up attempt to capture the boy had confirmed Tattletale’s predictions about his character. If he proved to be bold, adventurous, or daring that could have led to any number of wrenches being thrown into the machinery of Coils operation. Fortunately he was none of those things. The boy was a pure coward.

 

His highly active and possibly precognitive thinker power was an incredible risk, but only if it was directed properly. The boy did not captain his power, he was driven by it, and primarily driven through fear. It was a lofty claim, and one that would have been hard to accept if Thomas hadn’t seen the results himself. At the first sign of his men the boy had fled. With no hesitation he abandoned thousands of dollars’ worth of precious equipment in a desperate attempt to escape.

 

He’d had to use multiple timelines to confirm it, but the mere hint of the presence of one of his men sent the tinker scampering for safety without the slightest delay. It was fascinating to watch. Nothing could draw the boy from his flight. Even arranging situations where civilians were being slaughtered before him bought nothing more than a second’s conflict before the boy bowed to his power and fled once again.

 

Thomas knew how strong his power was. It had cost him everything and put him into such debt that years of perfectly manipulating the markets had barely been enough to pay it off. Even after that considerable fortune in payments he still owed a week of service at a time to be chosen at the discretion of the power brokers. He had hopes of gaining enough influence to resist their demands, but that was still a lofty and distant goal. Despite the significance of his power its nature demanded he work in secret, deriving silent enjoyment as his opponents were outmaneuvered without even knowing how they had been beaten. He’d never had the pleasure of watching someone cower before the full might of his strength as a parahuman. That is, not until now.

 

This boy’s power feared him. It drove him to flee the slightest hint of Coil’s presence. The tinker clearly had no idea what he was running from, but he moved like the gates of hell had opened before him. An opposing thinker power saw the might of Coil in his full majesty and decided immediately that the only paths open to them was terror and submission. It gave Thomas a sense of satisfaction he had rarely been able to experience.

 

It still wouldn’t have been enough to let the boy operate with impunity. Fear can drive people to strike out as often as it causes them to cower. Only his pet’s insight had saved the boy from being resolved with the other loose ends. The percentage chances of opposition on any front were pitifully low regardless of what revelations the boy became privy to. Thomas remembered his pet’s face as she cycled through the chances of the tinker attempting to rescue her in increasingly obscure situations and watching the numbers change by less than a percentage point.

 

He hadn’t maintained that timeline of crushed hopes and tears. Thomas wasn’t a NEEDLESSLY cruel man.

 

In the other universe squads Delta and Epsilon had arrived with improved munitions. The detonation of the claymores had barely phased the creature and what little damage they’d been able to cause to its shambling mass quickly repaired itself. One member of Beta squad had gotten himself entrapped, leading to a squad mate acting against orders to try to cut him free. Of course this failed and resulted in both men being lost. Coil would have to separate them for future missions. Comradery in defiance of the mission was unacceptable.

 

“Launch incendiaries and distribute extra battery packs to all active men. I want them prepared for mass laser fire.”

 

The attack proved to be nothing more than a waste of good phosphorus. As Coil directed his men to maximize the damage of the opening salvo Thomas attempted to pick through the chaos still unfolding amongst the city’s heroes.

 

It was a wonderful symphony of panic on every front. The tinker’s works had already elevated what was intended to be a disastrous encounter for the Wards to a tragedy that would live on in the memory of the public for years. Had he done nothing else it would have still caused massive upheaval, investigations, and probably put Emily’s career on life support. Instead, while they struggled with damage control for the previous incident, he had blundered in with such a perfect mix of power display, accusations, and speculation that Thomas could barely believe it. Still, he was never one to let a serendipitous situation pass him by.

 

He skimmed over a PRT assessment of the tinker’s abilities. The display at the hospital had answered more questions about the boy’s abilities than even Tattletale had been able to guess. The previous working theory was that he had a material science specialty. Hardened materials, reactive metals, and advanced metallurgy neatly addressed most of the feats attributed to him. His display in the hospital has disproven those assumptions. It also answered the question of how the van he had been issued was found emptied in the bottom of a parking garage when his men had been watching every exit.

 

They weren’t dealing with a materials tinker, they were dealing with a matter tinker. A tinker with the ability to alter the substance of the physical world. A colossally powerful specialization, potentially only equaled by the legendary Hero, yet too meek to do anything of note with his abilities. In his short time he had been able to demonstrate teleportation, reinforcement, medical alteration, and material enhancement. With the slightest initiative any one of those could have yielded ten times the amount he had charged the Undersiders for his services. He would have been offended by the waste of potential if it were not so useful to him.

 

Of course the PRT was behind in their assessments. Thomas smiled to himself as he re-read their theories on the matter. Armsmaster’s insecurity was a blessing on that front as the man would rather pull out his own teeth than admit a novice tinker was responsible for every feat that had been displayed. He had seized on aspects of the boys work to prove his case. Apparently the alloys used could not exist without corroding to uselessness in a matter of hours. Since there was no detectable effect at play the most likely explanation had to be a shaker power. And of course the idea had been snapped up by the entire organization as increasingly unlikely theories were proposed.

 

Some of that had been due to Thomas’s interference. After her handling of the bank robbery and the Dallon girls interrogation there was a real risk that Emily would face suspension. That posed the unacceptable prospect of someone competent being assigned in the interim. No, the more attention placed on the tinker the less she would need to contend with, at least until the truth came out and the speculation would be another black mark against her. Thomas was confident he could hold off that particular event until it would be most beneficial to him.

 

Once the theories started flying it took barely any effort to keep them going. A cast pebble of supposition resulting in an avalanche of conjecture. He had nothing to do with the second generation Empire theory, though it had a certain logic. The Empire had more than its share of metal manipulators, durability powers, and the only healer cape in the city outside of New Wave. The idea was helped by the boy’s decision to decorate his costume with metal plates and claim his first cape battle against the ABB’s enforcer in defense of three Caucasian capes and one whose ethnicity remained unconfirmed.

 

He hadn’t created or encouraged the theory, but he did make sure a complete copy of it found its way into the hands of one of the Empire’s PRT moles. Whether anything would come of it, who could say? Perhaps Kaiser had an adventurous youth and didn’t keep track of his paramours. It was a free opportunity to send rivals on a wild goose chase and Thomas wasn’t one to let opportunities slip past unexploited.

 

“Concentrate fire on the humanoid portion. Ignore the lower mass.” The purple beams were amassing some damage, but the penetration was shallow, the holes they burned into the creature quickly resealed themselves. Coil’s men shifted to closely grouping their shots, but that only resulted in a shift in the creature as it brought more mass in the way of the laser fire. It lashed out at some of the troopers who we’re too close or behind insufficient cover. One man was snared but managed to empty his power pack onto the unnaturally tough tether before he could be entrapped and scramble back before a second lash could reach him.

 

“I want a full analysis of damage, response, and a proposal of countermeasures. Immediately.” Around him technicians and support staff scrambled while in the field more explosives were spent uselessly against the creature.

 

In the first universe Thomas perused a triply classified assessment from the Think Tank. Protectorate thinkers were tripping over each other in their work on this case. It would get sorted out eventually, but lasting damage and nonsense assessments would stay in circulation long beyond that. His Tattletale’s increased threat rating was just one such example. He took even more pleasure in her frustration at the countermeasures she’d be facing than he did at the gift the PRT had handed him by rating his team as a priority threat. Between the spectacle at the bank and the presence of a thinker 8 their mere presence would demand the level of response usually reserved for the city’s major gangs. That level of action couldn’t sustain itself, but until someone saw to correct it he would be able to steer half of the city’s protectorate with nothing but the appearance of his team.

 

Armsmaster truly deserved the credit for setting the thinker pileup into motion. It was turning a moderately confusing situation into a cyclone of chaos. The power dynamic between the director of Brockton’s PRT and the leader of its Protectorate branch was anything but healthy. The man did a poor job of concealing his enjoyment when Panacea relayed the boy’s prediction that Armsmaster might be difficult to work with, but Emily was insane, incompetent, a danger to her employees, and actively hostile to parahumans. The hint about their shared history in Ellisburg was just icing on the cake.

 

The Protectorate leader had decided to try to score some cheap points against Emily by sending the records of the debriefing to virtually every verification channel available to him. Half the thinkers in the Protectorate must have access to it by now. The absolute idiocy of that man is breathtaking at times. It’s debatable if he even understood how his technology assisted interrogation came across, though the Youth League will no doubt be happy to inform him. The point is he deliberately took a video record of a teenage girl being grilled for information she either didn’t have or could barely process and sent it to a group of people who largely triggered due to not having or being unable to process information. The fool had galvanized those capes to a level rarely seen outside a national crisis. This event did not warrant priority attention from the Think Tank, but after seeing the nature of the interrogation capes were volunteering their time.

 

Of course, that meant it was being conducted without the level of direction necessary to keep the team’s lofty minds on track. There was no telling when or if they would yield anything useful regarding the situation. More likely they would drop off one by one as their outrage settled and other projects drew their attention. For the moment they were spinning theories that made the most ludicrous predictions of the local PRT look rational and sensible.

 

In the second universe Coil coordinated a sustained bombardment of anti-armor weapons that had finally arrived with Zeta squad. Much longer and the battle was certain to draw the presence of capes. While that would be informative it could be troublesome to sustain information flow in that situation. Regrettably the anti-armor weapons seemed no more effective at causing sustained damage than any other munitions tried against the creature. He started looking through the more exotic options brought with Zeta for testing.

 

Back in his office Thomas opened a newly arrived email. It was both simple and concise in the extreme. A picture and a number. It seemed Accord had become privy to the events of Brockton’s Protectorate and was making a polite request, most likely with the implication that an impolite request was also a possibility.

 

It had been trivial to encourage lines of thinking that would become troublesome for the boy. Any fool could see the master concerns were a false positive, but they provided an excuse to prevent any outreach to the tinker. The Dallon girl was a wreck from her experience in the bank. Her encounter in the hospital may have mended her broken bones but it did little for her frayed nerves. Armsmaster had limited testing and only tenuous approval for the use of his lie detector. In any other situation its results would be immediately discredited. However Emily was desperate for any excuse to keep the girl contained, Armsmaster was overly proud of his technology, and poor Brandish was desperate to attempt any measure of damage control.

 

The woman’s face was a sight when they informed her that they had chosen to independently verify details of the accusations with other members of New Wave. The poise of a lifetime practicing law couldn’t prepare a person for the moment their world decided to fall apart. Manpower had apparently elected to confess everything to Lady Photon the moment they questioned him. While their marriage had spent years as a façade for the sake of public appearances the leader of New Wave apparently still had enough affection for the early days of their relationship to be devastated by the revelation. It ended with Manpower departing the household and Brandish being left to take the brunt of her sister’s rage. That combined with the accusations of Brandish’s mental health, parental skills, and some dark secret involving Marquis meant she would probably have signed her adopted daughter up for a witch trial if it would have let her get out of that building five minutes sooner.

 

Once one accusation of master effects had been leveled it opened the door for less well founded allegations. That brought things to Sebastian Slight, a notoriously unprofessional PRT lab technician who decided to cover for the fact that he was wasting time staring at a trinket by claiming to be fascinated. At least half the fault was on the lab manager who instead of reprimanding the tech decided to file an official report. With the recent charges and the rumors already flying suddenly a hairpin was being treated as a memetic object. Images of said hairpin seemingly were included in standard briefing packs, at least one of which was intercepted by Boston’s most powerful villain thinker.

 

Thomas didn’t see the appeal of the object, but he could admit his own limitations when it came to evaluating artwork. Thankfully his power hadn’t caused the obsessive mannerisms that Accord was forced to deal with. He could appreciate the workmanship necessary for the level of detail displayed on the hairpin, as seemed to be included in every item the tinker produced. As signature styles went it was certainly more striking than the typical tinker drive to recreate the look of a Flash Gordon serial or Star Trek episode.

 

It seemed that whatever his own thoughts on the matter were, Accord had decided that the item was sufficiently elegant to be worth acquiring. It was incredibly rare for the Boston thinker to acknowledge the adequacy of another person’s workmanship, much less express an interest in obtaining it. The price quoted was no doubt carefully calculated to ensure it was sufficient to be worth the trouble he would have to go through to acquire the item. Additionally, there was the unspoken implication in the message. This was an acknowledgement of Coil’s rights in Brockton Bay. Should he reject the offer it would be a tacit approval for Accord to launch his own operation in the city to retrieve it. Given the complexity of the man’s plans it was doubtful that would be his only objective. If he wanted to keep the Ambassadors out of his city he would need to complete this job.

 

The price wasn’t ungenerous, and upon completion would recoup the investment he had made in the new tinker several times over. It even presented opportunity for some small alteration to the PRT staff composition. The accusation of master abilities was a crippling drawback for the boy, but it would never be sustained. However, should a PRT tech who personally examined his work happen to vanish along with the item in question it would cast a shadow over every item the tinker produced for the foreseeable future. The removal of Mr. Slight would take some work to arrange, but would leave a position open in the heart of the PRT. One that could be filled by someone more malleable to outside influence. There was another technician who had been considered for promotion on the grounds of the excellent quality of his work and due to the fact that he had kept his financial problems well concealed from his superiors. Thomas had profited heavily from high risk investments, but had seen the markets destroy men with callous indifference. For many it was just a more dignified version of an addiction to the track, and just as exploitable.

 

He replied to the message with a confirmation and estimated timeline. He would also have to take steps to frame this event in a way that served to validate some of Emily’s public concerns. While her inevitable fall was part of his grand plan for the city this incident had the potential to accelerate matters to an unacceptable degree. Should she be removed before he was able to secure his power base there was a remote chance someone competent would be assigned to the Director’s office.

 

There were a number of areas where he would have to act, and in most of them he wouldn’t even need to be subtle about his support. Emily was callous enough to assume ulterior motives for any action that favored her, but he could just present her with a few advantageous contracts when she confronted him on the matter. Additionally, she would assume that he would be even more eager to conceal the events of Ellisburg than she was. A consequence of his former comrade’s insistence on seeing the worst in everyone was a failure to look deeper once she had found the first defect. It was an odd mix of being both excessively and insufficiently paranoid.

 

On the subject of paranoia the battle in the second universe was proving to be completely futile. The full brunt of Coil’s arsenal, both conventional and tinker tech, had accomplished nothing against the creature. His men had been worse than useless as the number of captured rose higher. The thing moved through jerky shifts of its lower mass as if trying to drag itself across the ground. It contrasted harshly with the speed at which it was able to strike out at his men or act to defend itself.

 

One trooper moved forward with a last ditch effort, a chemical sprayer loaded with a combination of corrosive and highly toxic compounds. Under the cover of the last of the heavy weapons and final charges of tinker tech lasers the man rushed forward and hosed down the humanoid portion of the mass with caustic and poisonous fluid.

 

Finally the creature reacted as if it was actually threatened. With what might have been genuine panic it flailed, bringing up parts of its lower mass to shield its upper form. It was too late, the chemicals completely coating the creature’s humanoid portion before it could react. Then it all went wrong.

 

The chemicals exploded off the surface of the creature as outer layers of its mass were flung free. Once separated they lost their exceptional toughness and were quickly consumed by the caustic substances coating them, but that didn’t affect the trajectories which seemed directed towards every location his men had elected to use for cover. Coil heard screams through the com links as his troops were splattered with the most virulent mix of acids and toxins he had been able to mobilize. That was nothing compared to the fate of the attacking trooper.

 

The creature lashed out, not with the tethers it had used throughout the rest of the battle but with razor thin sinews that ensnared the chemical trooper. They were as thin as threads but had the same unnatural toughness as the rest of the creature’s body. Unlike the previous entrapments these were fine enough to cut into the trooper’s flesh and equipment. The man screamed as he was pulled into the shambling lower mass, caustic liquid pouring from ruptured feedlines into the open wounds the wire like material had dug into his skin.

 

He shifted to one of the wider video feeds and reviewed the situation. His men were scattered and struggling to regroup. All munitions had proven useless, with their one marginal success quickly turning against them. In the center of the scorched and broken street their opponent remained, unfazed by the attacks and repairing the damage of the chemical strike. The multilayered hooded robe was quickly restored to its unmarred state, creating the impression of a shrouded figure suspended upon a billowing mass of fabric. Half a dozen of his men were entrapped within the flowing folds of that material, restrained with thick ribbon like bands. Most had stopped struggling when it became clear they had no hope of escape, with the exception of the flailing screams of the chemical trooper. The substance of the creature was stronger than steel and composed of multiple layers that acted as ablative armor against any attack. It was a marvelous and impressive defense and quite the unexpected trick for the new tinker to have been keeping in reserve. Interestingly his over designed style was still apparent in the monstrosity, with the material wrapped and folded in elaborate drapings and bearing striking coloration and markings that hinted at embroidery.

 

Coil pulled up records of the start of the attack. His pet had been invaluable in enlightening him to the nature of the boy’s defenses, but it was still useful to see them in person. Sniper rounds were not predicted to be as effective as in the previous encounter. Coil remembered the first timeline where his men had charged the courtyard. The first round stopped dead against the boy’s head without the slightest reaction and follow-up shots merely knocked him down until he was able to activate his teleportation and flee from the encounter, taking Tattletale along with him. Use of explosives had a better success rate, but it was essentially a race against the tinker’s ability to deploy countermeasures, and none of the attack scenarios resulted in a live capture.

 

Interestingly his pet had predicted that dispersed tranquilizer gas had a high chance of subduing the tinker, but a negligible chance of capture. She had been unable to illuminate the reasoning behind that contradiction, so it was left to Coil to see the results for himself. There is no simple or guaranteed way to safely deploy knock out gas. It is not chosen as a method of crowd control for a very good reason. The concentration that would incapacitate one man would be lethal to a smaller person or only marginally effective against a larger one. The quantity deployed to subdue the tinker had most likely been lethal to his Tattletale, but taking risks like that were a privilege of his power.

 

Coil watched the events play out on the video records from the start of the encounter. As predicted the boy quickly collapsed under the effects of the gas. On the surface everything appeared to be going perfectly. It would have been a simple matter to transport the boy to the base, administer a counter agent, and spend a few hours of spirited discussion regarding his motives and capabilities. Instead the extent of the tinker’s paranoia had revealed itself in a defense of last resort.

 

As Coil’s men approached the boy’s clothing began to twitch, as if it was trying to drag him to safety. Before any of them could react a shroud of material spun itself around the tinker in a protective cocoon. With seemingly infinite resources of matter to call upon it extended the length of the robe, holding the boy’s protected form above a billowing mass of layered sheets. The substance appeared thin as cloth but was infuriatingly tough and resilient. Damage done to it was quickly repaired and attempts at close engagement only resulted in the unfortunate trooper being entangled in ribbons of the same material before disappearing under the folds of the cloak.

 

The technology on display was fascinating. Whatever was directing the mass had the ability to demonstrate basic decision making and threat assessments. It was mobile, but just barely. The construct seemed to move through momentum of its summoned material rather than being able to exert force directly on its passengers. Folds of the fabric like mass would be pulled to speed and either drag or collide with the passenger to cause movement. It was fascinating, and potentially evidence of a Manton limit at work. The result was a lurching motion of the cloaked humanoid shape containing the tinker and stumbling dragging motions of the lumps representing his captured men.

 

Whatever sluggishness affected the motion of its passenger was not applied to its control of its own material. Billowing masses a dozen layers thick were able to move with the speed of a flag caught in a gale. The ribbon-like tethers that extended from the lower portion of the creature cracked like whips as they lashed out at anyone who ventured too close. There was little strength to the tethers, but the speed and toughness was enough to batter his men at long range and entrap any who dared to approach.

 

It was a fantastic defense and a true demonstration of the boy’s exceptional cowardice. The technology that created this spectacle could have allowed him to become the most feared tinker in the city in short order. Instead it was used for a desperate last defense. How many resources had he committed to this? What was it that caused such power to be committed to desperate cowering?

 

There was a potential explanation for that behavior. Buried in the assessment of the Dallon girl’s report was an offhand mention of a specific tinker principle, one everyone involved was pointedly avoiding mentioning out of fear of what it could mean. In his babbling regarding Gallant’s supposed tinker status and the reconstruction of the boy’s armor he had mused on tinker classifications. Focal tinkers and hyperspecialists, terms that most people don’t ever bother with. Following that the boy alluded to another kind of tinker. Specifically those with a ‘physical or mental cost’ to their work, casually referencing something people either are ignorant of or avoid mentioning. The worst class of tinker; the mad scientists.

 

Before Ellisburg Thomas had put in his time as a PRT agent. You saw things in that line of work that did not bear repeating. A list of the worst momments would have to include any encounter with a mad scientist tinker. Tinkers whose work drastically exceeds that of their contemporaries, but at a vicious cost. He remembered a raid on the lab of one particular tinker who paid a literal pound of flesh for all of his creations. Another who descended into madness each time she began a project and never made it all the way back, the cost of multiple sessions compounding until she completely split from reality. Mad scientists were the reason for the existence of the Three Blasphemies and vigilance against them was the only reason there weren’t eight or ten of the creatures.

 

No one talks about mad scientists. It would foster unrest in the public and drive capes towards dangerous actions. The best possibility was that the boy’s thinker power allowed him insight into the nature of tinker abilities. A less appealing prospect was that he had personal experience with that kind of tinker, a situation that could easily lead to a trigger event. That posed the concerning question of what had happened and how far the damage went. The worst possibility was the boy knew the classification from personal experience, that everything he built was a step towards madness.

 

His pet didn’t indicate that scenario was likely, but it was difficult to frame queries about the tinker’s abilities in a manner that she could quantify. She needed to picture exact situations to give her numbers, and some things were difficult to present in that manner. In the first universe he skimmed through various thinker reports on the subject, most as garbled as the nonsense circulating the local PRT. Nobody was directly commenting on the possibility because it wasn’t the kind of accusation to be leveled lightly. Fortunately Coil had the ability to put those fears to rest.

 

Put to rest for himself, that is. It was fully in his interest to keep the local authorities distrustful and fearful of the new cape. All he needed was a way to get the boy on the table and things would be sorted one way or another. No defense was perfect and everyone had their points of vulnerability.

 

In the other universe the Protectorate was beginning to mobilize against the boy’s defensive construct. Velocity and Dauntless were the first to arrive on the scene. A shame. They were the most likely to be reasonable and the construct’s programing had shown capacity to evaluate threats. It would have been enlightening to see Armsmaster try his luck against the boy’s work. The construct wasn’t standing down, but it was not attacking either. His men had been forced to retreat, cutting off his surveillance. It was unlikely he would be able to learn any more from this timeline.

 

In the first universe a report reached him. His spotter confirmed his Tattletale was concluding her meeting with the tinker. He dismissed the second timeline and began changing into his costume. It looked like it was time for them to have another chat. She could be so enlightening when provided with the correct motivation.

Chapter Text

13 Exposure

 

As I rode back towards my apartment I started tallying the work I’d need to do. I probably had a few days before anything serious happened with Bakuda unless she decided to jump the gun on Lung’s transfer. I tightened my grip on the handle bar as I thought about how much I was banking on that assumed schedule. Putting those thought aside I focused on the pile of new technologies I needed to start experimenting with.

 

First priority needed to be nanites. My healing abilities were phenomenal, but there was so much more I could do with them if I could manage proper programming. Even without that I could still control them directly, though that would be ponderous and I’d need to monitor them through every task. To accomplish any of that a nanite containment unit needed to be my immediate priority. Once I had that I could start syphoning nanites from my body and amassing enough to actually complete one of my projects.

 

Not gray goo. Safer projects. Well, safer by nanite standards which was still pretty dangerous. This was really the ultimate dual use technology. I was going to have a hard time explaining how I developed nanite healing without going through all the intervening steps that would allow aggressive mutations or complete biological destruction.

 

There was a lot I could do with properly programed nanites, but my priority should probably be those life fibers. I might even be able to manage to make some progress on the problem of how to use them with my current nanite resources. Given how strong, how incredibly, overwhelmingly strong Master Builder and Nanite Removal and Control were I could only imagine what the ultimate potential of the life fibers was. I just needed to be able to safely experiment.

 

I also needed to check on my fleet program’s development. I had a full day of driving and navigation to call upon. That might not be that much experience, but it was a big step up from the previous simulations that had been running. Also, I needed to upgrade the bike’s hardware and software. After what I had learned from Master Builder the custom control system I’d developed suddenly seemed horribly outdated. I wouldn’t be able to build top end processors without cybertonium, but with even basic nanite assembly I’d be able to yield massive improvements.

 

Right, cybertonium. I also needed to get to work on my alchemy. That meant setting up a ritual space, still not too comfortable with that concept, for transmutations and find a safe location for potion brewing. Damn did I need a proper base that wasn’t just crowded around my workshop. Unfortunately I also needed the trifecta of security, anonymity and ease of access. At the moment I wasn’t even at the point of picking two of the three. I’d be lucky to get one.

 

Case in point, we were nearing my apartment and I had to find another alley to store my bike. That was going to be trouble before too long. I couldn’t rely on the apathy of my neighbors forever. Eventually someone was going to take an interest in where the overbuilt superbike was being stored each night. Additionally, while I had enough financial resources to resolve some of these issues, everything I would need to purchase would be a large enough commitment to attract serious attention. My bike was pretty much the limit of what I could get away with. Moving to a bigger or more accessible place would cause all kinds of problems of a tax and money laundering variety.

 

The Celestial Forge missed a connection to the Magic constellation as I was pulling into the alley. I ignored it and found a decent door to access my workshop. The fleet program had advanced enough that once I got it through the door it was able to navigate the rest of the way to the workshop. That was a very good sign for both pathfinding and AI development.

 

I said a temporary goodbye to Garment and re-sealed the workshop. In the later part of the day with shadows stretching out I was suddenly feeling a little uncomfortable in the clothes she had provided. This was not a well to do area and I had no idea what this outfit would have cost if it hadn’t been manifested by a spirit of fashion. The fact that the colthes fit in at the boardwalk was probably not a good sign. I was confident I’d be able to handle anything this area could throw at me, but it was certain to attract more attention than I would want to deal with. Of course I’m confident that if I told Garment I couldn’t wear clothes like this in this neighborhood she’d immediately start digging through rental listings for better parts of the city. I could probably at least find something less flashy than the white bomber collared motorcycle jacket I was currently wearing.

 

Thankfully I made it back home without more than a second look from my neighbors. When I opened my workshop Garment had changed back to her red evening dress with gloves in opera mode. She immediately headed to the laptop and opened up Youtube. My attempts to check on her were dismissed with a polite wave as she caught up on new posts from her subscribed channels.

 

I made my way through the unusually empty entryway of my workshop. I’d need to move the rest of my furniture back at some point. At least Garment had left the mattress, even if it was propped up against the wall. It hadn’t been not fun the first time I had to move that thing in here from my apartment. I could handle interior decorating later, I had a nanite containment unit to build.

 

Actually, that joke about interior decorating reminded me of something. My Decadence power wasn’t all about aesthetics. It could do interior decorating to an almost inhuman level, but could also optimally attune a space for any purpose. My workshop was still largely in the arrangement it had arrived in with the odd stapled on space for the pieces of equipment I’d gotten from the Undersiders. I’d been meaning to rearrange things since I started work on those knives, and that was before I was supernaturally skilled at efficiently utilizing space.

 

Probably what had been holding me back from rearranging the place was the size of the things I’d have to move in order to manage that task. The workshop came with its share of heavy machinery, not particularly advanced, but still serious industrial milling machines. I would need a forklift to shift them. Or a magically driven suit of power armor.

 

I could probably count this as additional testing. It was certainly needed. The Fleet A.I. was still massively unsteady when directing bipedal movement. Considering it was eight feet tall and close to five hundred pounds ‘unsteady’ was not an adjective you wanted to be dealing with. I had to take things ponderously slow and carefully shift the equipment in short bursts. It was like doing one of those sliding block puzzles, only more frustrating and without the picture at the end. The one definite benefit was the steady progress the Fleet A.I. was demonstrating. As the work progressed I could see the small corrections it was able to make in motion and placement. It was a long way from being independently combat ready, but I could probably trust it to walk across a room without tripping over anything.

 

When I finished I decided I needed to reevaluate my statement about not getting a picture at the end. The workshop looked amazing. It had that kind of sleek elegance that comes with efficiency, but also somehow ended up with both pleasing site lines and easy access paths. I don’t think I had any of that tinker obsession going on, so the relief I was feeling was probably connected to how much easier my work would be from now on.

                                                          

I heard a clapping from the door and turned to see Garment standing there with approving gestures. Actually, with the combination of my other abilities the workshop was now much cleaner and had a slight elegance to it. Still, I wasn’t sure what had pried Garment from her videos.

 

I shortly found out as she pointed at an icon on the page of one of the Youtube channels she had been watching.

 

“Twitter?”

 

She gestured enthusiastically.

 

“Garment, Twitter is different from Youtube comments. Are you sure you want to do this?”

 

She switched to the next tab, a twitter account for a fashion journalist. I couldn’t make any sense of it, but Garment seemed excited. At that point I noticed the rest of the open tabs. She must have had seventeen different twitter threads loaded.

 

This could go very wrong. On the other hand if she kept to her brief comments and didn’t give any personal information the worst she was likely to endure was some nasty comments and a series of blockings.

 

“Alright, I’ll get you set up, but be careful.” She gave me a series of affirmative gestures as I started setting up the information for her account. It was easy enough to link to her Youtube and keep the information consistent. She also directed me to another open tab for her profile picture, some classic Hollywood actress. After a bit of her framing things with her hands I figured out she wanted it cropped down to the gloves.

 

Well, at least that was consistent.

 

As soon as things were set up she practically tore the computer from me as she immediately began typing out a response to a tweet on celebrity spring fashions.

 

Typing slowly, while continuing to search for each letter in turn. Even when she needed to type the same letter twice she would hit the key, then hunt through the entire keyboard looking for the key she just pressed. I was beginning to suspect there was something going on here that a typing course wouldn’t be able to address.

 

Still, she seemed to be enjoying herself, so I left her to the commentary and headed back to the workshop. Nanite containment vessels are not that easy to build. I had to cannibalize the magnetic suspension rigs I had used to make the monomolecular blades in order to assemble a proper restraint field. I also couldn’t get anywhere close to the vacuum conditions I’d need for optimal transfer, meaning every loading period would be extended from seconds to minutes. Finally the volume I’d be able to manage with my resources was severely limited. At best it might contain enough to program a group of nanites for a very specific application.

 

All those were problems I could address later. Just getting any active nanites out of my body would be a victory considering what I could do with them. Yes there were incredible things I could accomplish if I could program them for autonomous function, but even the direct piloting from my latest power would be incredibly useful.

 

When I was finished the results sat on a table in the center of my workshop. It was roughly the size of a bar fridge and composed of large plates of reinforced metal spaced with supports and power cabling for the internal magnets. The input port was a pair of handles that looped out of the front, hollow pipes with the closest thing to a vacuum I’d been able to rig. In theory I could activate my nanites and have as many as possible drawn through the conduits to the comparative small containment chamber in the center of the apparatus.

 

It was time to give this a try.

 

The nanites in my body were essentially dead weight. The ability to direct them to heal was completely independent of their programing or lack thereof. Because of that I couldn’t direct them to anything else, so my only option was to flood my body with the largest activation I could manage and hope the containment unit could syphon them into the chamber.

 

I focused and blue circuit like lines began to spread across my entire body. They formed on clothing as easily as the surface of my skin, but my awareness showed them going much deeper than that. People have no idea just how small a nanite is. They hear the word nanobot and assume it’s something along the size of a germ. Maybe a bit smaller, but somewhere in that area. There’s a good reason for that, people just aren’t designed to think on the atomic scale.

 

Each of my nanites was a roughly twenty nanometer diameter sphere of crystal surrounding a computational core running entirely on quantum effects. There were a few nano structures extending from the sphere, but they were unbelievably delicate. As in you could count how many atoms thick they were on one hand. These nanites were able to rewrite DNA on an atom by atom basis. That requires a level of fine manipulation most people can’t even picture. Without my power I’m not even sure devices like these would be physically possible.

 

The activated nanites were much more responsive to magnetic fields than dormant ones were. The miniscule machines flooded through my body making tiny and incidental repairs to cells, breaking down pathogens, and processing toxins. The glowing bands near my hands bent slightly towards the handles of the containment unit as nanites were pulled through the vacuum tubes and into the central chamber. It was an odd sensation and not an entirely pleasant one.

 

I maintained a white knuckled grip on the conduits until the flow dropped off, the concentration of nanites falling below the threshold the system could affect. I took a moment to compose myself before reviewing the data. It looked like I had managed to transfer a little under three percent of my nanites. I could feel them being replaced by my power, but that would take the better part of an hour. At this rate of transfer and ignoring any refinements I was able to make to the system it would take roughly a hundred and fifty transfers to get a cohesive colony that I could start programing.

 

So roughly a week, and that was assuming I kept up the transfer schedule. It wasn’t that bad. As I built up a higher concentration of nanites I would be able to start directing them through independent control. It would be a bit tedious, but there were all kinds of applications for that kind of work, especially with the rest of my crafting abilities.

 

I took a breath while I considered what to try for next. Alchemy, life fibers, computer upgrades, weaponry. It was too much to handle all at once. What would I normally be doing right now?

 

I’d be going to the gym. That wasn’t a terrible idea. With everything Tattletale had told me I had some stress begging to be burned off. I’d skipped two days between my crafting blitz and the aftermath of the bank battle. That was something I’d absolutely promised myself I wouldn’t do. I had options for physical enhancement now, but one of them was a week of nanite transfers away and the other was based on some questionable alien symbiosis. Neither of them would help me develop combat skills.

 

I needed some time to work out the details of my next project and let my nanites replenish. A quick workout would be a good way to handle with that.

 

It took me some time to find my workout clothes. It seemed Garment had rebuilt them along with the rest of my wardrobe. They weren’t as intricate as some of the other things she’d made, but they had an air of dedicated exercise clothing rather than the old shorts and t-shirt I usually went with. The Celestial Forge missed a connection to the Time constellation as I was getting ready to leave, with Garment continuing her slow typing and barely bothering to wave goodbye as I made my way out the door.

 

I had missed two full days of workouts. It wasn’t that bad all things considered. I’d been following online workout advice and allocating one rest day per week, so my missed time could be counted towards that. With the prospect of physical enhancements on the table I might be able to skip my conditioning work and focus on entirely technique. My God, I might actually be able to avoid my early morning runs. That life fibers project suddenly received a significant jump in priority. Of course I had no idea how I was going to hide super strength from people at the gym. I might end up having to cut ties with the place entirely.

 

The thought affected me more than I anticipated. In the time since my trigger this gym had quickly transitioned from being a discount fitness option to something of a refuge. It was actually nice to have a chance to blow off steam and clear my head at the end of the day. It was just social enough to be a comfortable point of contact while having enough of a directed purpose that it never got uncomfortably personal. Frankly I wished I’d found this place two years ago, but I know I wouldn’t have been able to motivate myself to train like I had after my trigger.

 

That was a concern for later. I had over a week, probably closer to two, until I had a complete set of nanites ready. It was tempting to direct them for physical enhancement, but there was also all kinds of potential applications in construction, manufacturing, diagnostics, or enhancement of my other projects. There was enough draw on this resource to cover what I’d be able to generate for months, even if I was able to increase the efficiency of my storage and extraction system.

 

Instead I dove into my workout, focusing on footwork and combinations. I rhythmically struck the heavy bag as I considered what my next step should be. After the second offload I should have enough nanites to manage some micro-assembly. With the rest of my knowledge base I would be able to directly manufacture computer components. Not the best components I knew how to make, but the best I could do without a superconducting material with resonance patterns that extended beyond the material universe. With those complete I could improve my computing resources, accelerate the development of my A.I., and maybe even advance my interfaces for better direct control. It was a project that would start yielding results instantly and have serious advantages to getting deployed immediately. Thanks to the conservation from my Rationing power I would even have enough materials to work with so I wouldn’t need to resort to alchemical transmutation.

 

My thoughts of computer architecture were interrupted by the sudden arrival of Aisha Laborn. I had the remote hope that she’d given up this nonsense after the last time, but apparently I wasn’t in the clear yet. She had taken nearly fifteen minutes after my arrival to show up and I still had no idea who her informant was. I made eye contact with Doug who shrugged slightly. It seemed he was at least assuming I had no bad intentions, but was going to keep an eye on things just the same.

 

That was probably for the best because right from the start I could tell something was wrong. First off her outfit was completely different. It was still vaguely the same style, but she had switched the loud neon colors for a spectrum of grays. She had fewer pieces of jewelry with all the bracelets and lose pieces absent and even her piercings were more sensible. It almost looked like she was actually here to work out.

 

This could not be good.

 

Her behavior only compounded my concerns. Unlike last time she wasn’t prancing in front of me trying to get my attention. There were no over the top pseudo-stretches or showy work outs designed to provoke a reaction. Most of the time I couldn’t even see her, but she could see me. She carefully cycled through workouts and watched me like a hawk. It was so out of character for what I had learned to expect that it was actually a good deal more unnerving than if she had jumped straight into her teasing. I wondered if that was her plan, but Aisha didn’t seem like the type of person to play mind games with that many layers to them.

 

The rest of the gym had picked up that something was wrong. The members who knew what to expect from Aisha were reacting to her drastically altered behavior and the newer members were reacting to the reactions of everyone else. It said something that Aisha had managed to pretty much shut down the entire place just by acting slightly less eccentric. Doug was actually looking seriously concerned and I’m guessing he was weighing the pros and cons of calling her father. I’m not sure how Mr. Laborn would react to a receiving call along the lines of ‘Something is very wrong. Your daughter is behaving herself.’.

 

I tried my best to ignore her and focus on my projects. I still had to work out the alchemical transmutations I’d need for rarer elements in addition to the formation of cybertonium. I had a loose idea of how to form that super metal, but it would take something like sixty eight steps of incredibly precise transmutations. If I wanted any to work with in less than a month I would need to refine the process significantly. Unfortunately I wouldn’t be managing any of that here.

 

There’s a very disturbing element to the feeling that you’re being watched. It involves this building sense of dread, subtle changes in the behavior of people around you, and a gradually ramping up of stress. It’s one of those base instinctual things that was probably designed to allow our species to avoid being eaten by saber toothed tigers. The fact that it also triggers under the observation of a moderately difficult thirteen year old girl is either a bug in the survival programing or evidence of more foresight from natural selection than I ever gave it credit for.

 

The second half of my workout was thoroughly unproductive, not even helpful as a means of stress relief. Eventually I made a tactical withdrawal and ducked into the locker room when there was no chance of being intercepted. I stood under a borderline scalding shower and tried to figure out what the hell was going on here. Either Aisha had upped her game significantly or there was something new and concerning in play. I had no clue what it could be, and from the looks of things I doubted the rest of the gym had any idea either.

 

I stretched my shower as long as I reasonably could before I bit the bullet a, got changed, and packed up my things. I slipped out of the locker room ready to make a break for the exit in the event of an ambush. Instead I found the gym had returned to a semblance of its normal activity and Aisha was nowhere to be found.

 

“She just left.” Came a rough voice. “You doing alright?”

 

I turned to see Doug in all his gruff glory leaning against the wall. The students he had been working with were packing up their things with the usual half-shell shocked expression Doug’s training seemed to inspire.

 

“Uh, yeah.” I took a breath. “Do you have any idea what that was about?”

 

The big man shrugged. “Best guess, she’s playing with us. Girl’s been in and out of this place since she moved back in with Laborn. She knows he has the regulars looking out for her so she tries something to throw us off every now and then. This is a bit more subtle than her usual plays.”

 

I nodded. I hoped that was the case, but it seemed like there was something else going on. The idea that someone as seemingly random as Aisha would show up, treat me like a research specimen for half an hour, and then vanish didn’t sit right, but I didn’t have a clue what she was up to.

 

“Missed you the last couple of days. Some of the guys thought she managed to run you off.”

 

I forced a laugh. “No, started a new job.” He quirked an eyebrow. “It was a bit of a last minute thing, but the pay was good so I had to take it. Decent money but terrible hours.”

 

Doug nodded slowly. “People need to take what they can get in this city. You’re a smart kid. Make sure you look after yourself out there.”

 

It took me a second to figure out his meaning, but by that point he was half way across the gym. I wished I could dissuade him of that notion, but I actually had been working for a gang, one in service to some kind of parahuman crime lord. Trying to downplay that wouldn’t do either of us any favors.

 

I really hoped I hadn’t just tanked my reputation at this gym, but then again probably a third of the older members had what looked like prison tattoos. The implication that I was doing some kind of illicit work on the side would probably just make me fit in better. How Mr. Laborn would react I had no idea, but he seemed like the kind of man who could tolerate a lot as long as you held up your obligations.

 

The city was entering twilight when I made my way outside. The streetlights were on, but it was at that weird point where they weren’t any brighter than the dimming ambient light and basically did nothing to improve visibility. That was probably why I didn’t get any sense of the person sneaking up on me as I left the shadow of the gym.

 

“Hello Jozef.” The name was as over-pronounced as the last time I’d heard it. I spun to see Aisha leaning against the mouth of an alley, a slight grin on her face as her eyes shone in the half-light of the early evening. She was wearing her workout outfit with a light jacket and one of those overly small backpacks on her shoulder.

 

“Oh, Aisha. Hi.” It was unnerving. She had dropped all the teasing mannerisms and jovial attitude. It was like dealing with a completely different person.

 

She shifted slightly to block the path I was taking back to my apartment and looked me up and down. It occurred to me that her waiting in this location meant she knew the route I would take on my way home.

 

“Heard you missed training the last couple of days.” There was a knowing gleam in her eyes.

 

“Yeah, something came up.”

 

“First time since you started, right?” She looked at me dead on. “Heard you signed up one day and started training like mad. Like you were working towards something. What was the deal? Something happen that got you all fired up?”

 

God damn, I thought this girl could be unnerving when she was just being inappropriate. Somehow when she went serious it was a whole other level of unsettling.

 

“I just decided to give it a try.” Damn it, I was bad at this. Yeah, I had been desperately training to try to get ready for cape life. Why was she picking at this? What the hell was she working towards?

 

She glanced off to the side and quirked her lips in a faint grin. “Lot of stuff happened while you missed your training. You hear about that thing at the bank downtown?”

 

I kept my face neutral, but I could feel blood draining from it. “Wards fought some villains, ended up losing, right?”

 

She nodded. “Wards fought the Undersiders. They showed up with a new cape and a bunch of weapons and shit. Went through the baby Protectorate like they were made of paper. They’re calling it the worst loss in the history of the team.”  For some reason she seemed almost proud of that statement.

 

The Magitech constellation approached in the Celestial Forge and my power just failed to connect to it. I cursed internally, I really needed a better grasp of the powers from that constellation.

 

“Hey, what was that?”

 

I shifted my attention back to the girl in front of me. “What? What was what?”

 

“That thing you just did. It’s happened every time we talked.”

 

She picked up on that? How observant was this girl? “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

 

She gave me a flat look. “Uh-huh. What’s that thing they say? Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence, all that shit. So what, is it part of your power?”

 

I swear I felt my heart stop. “What do you mean?” I was doing my best to play dumb but felt like I was doing a shit job of it.

 

“Your face looks good.”

 

The non sequitur threw me for a loop. “Uh, thanks?”

 

“Really good.” She moved in closer and my discomfort started to override my fear of being exposed as a cape. I wondered, if I just ran for it would that do anything to throw her off? Probably not, but it was looking like a better and better idea.

 

“I, uh.”

 

She smirked. “Bruises like those should have stuck around for a couple of weeks. You were fine the next day.” She glared as if daring me to challenge her knowledge of facial contusions. “Also, you took that beating really well. Better than you should have.”

 

I desperately tried to come up with some explanation while also dealing with the implication of exactly why Aisha would have such a thorough understanding of those kinds of injuries. What the hell was I supposed to say? I heal fast? It wasn’t as bad as you thought? I had been sparring with Vince. By every metric my face should have been hamburger by the end of the night. I was probably only saved from worse speculation by the fact that everyone minded their own business at this gym. Everyone but the unusually observant daughter of the chief coach who was apparently badly underestimated by everyone who dealt with her.

 

She looked at my poorly concealed distress and smiled. “Your acne scars are gone.”

 

A hand flew up to my cheek before I could think to stop myself. I didn’t have the worst case of acne scarring, but there were some flare ups when I was a teenager that I didn’t manage as well as I could have. My fingers ran across smooth unblemished skin.

 

Light Alchemy did not deal with scarring, but medical nanites did. Boy did they ever. With the scale at which they worked breaking down and rebuilding collagen was trivial. My nanite healing is fairly precise and directed so it’s not like this is a default effect, but if you happen to be ramping up every nanite in your system in the hopes of being able to syphon off a decent amount the effects can get away from you. At this point I doubted there was a shred of my body that hadn’t seen some medical attention. The clearing up of years old pockmarks was probably the least of its effects.

 

Aisha’s expression had turned smug. She was clearly confident in this, and that was largely helped by the terrible job I was doing at covering things up. The part of this I didn’t get was why? Why was she confronting me? She wasn’t going to the Protectorate, or the gangs, or the press, though most of them wouldn’t touch a story about a cape’s identity. She was confronting me alone in a rapidly darkening street with nothing but implications about my durability and potential involvement in a federal crime.

 

“If I was a cape...” She grinned at that. “It probably wouldn’t be a good idea for you to confront me.”

 

“Right, because you’re SO dangerous.”

 

“Capes are dangerous. This city, the things that are out there, you have to be careful. If you tried this on the wrong person who knows what could end up happening.”

 

She gave me a critical look. “Are you telling me you’re dangerous?”

 

“If I was a cape I could be.” It was a paper thin denial of my status as a parahuman, but she didn’t even focus on that part.

 

“I’ve been coming to this place for two years. That ‘look out for Aisha’ thing you’ve been doing? You’re not close to the first. My Dad’s recruited dozens of guys to his little protection detail, and plenty of them were scum. Some of them, they just wanted an excuse to hurt people while feeling good about themselves. Some of them wanted to get on my Dad’s good side. Some of them just like the idea of having someone under their control. I’ve seen dangerous.”

 

Her stance was completely unthreatened and she gave me a look that made me feel uncomfortable. I’m not sure why, but for some reason her not considering me a threat felt vaguely insulting. I mean, I fought Oni Lee. I could hurt people. Her just making a blanket implication that I wouldn’t somehow felt intrusive. It was also a bit harrowing to think about the kinds of experiences that would build up confidence in that kind of ability to judge character.

 

I was at the point where a denial would do me no good, but at least I wasn’t going to admit to anything. Nothing was going to be accomplished here, and she didn’t seem to be pressing for any kind of extortion. “Look Aisha, you should get home. I doubt your father or brother would want you messing with capes.”

 

The look she gave me was complicated. “You never met my brother?”

                                      

“No, he’s never been here while I’ve been at the gym.” I hadn’t heard anything bad, but I wasn’t really here to gossip and hadn’t been a member for that long.

 

Aisha’s grin widened until it looked like it might split her face in half. “Right.” For some reason she seemed to be holding back a fit of giggles. “Well, I better get back to my brother. See you around Jozef.”

 

She sauntered off leaving me standing there hoping this wouldn’t come back to bite me in the ass. Of all the people who could have figured out my secret identity... well okay, there were a lot of possibilities worse than Aisha, but at least with them I would know what to expect. I had no clue what that girl’s next move was going to be. She didn’t seem keen on exposing me, and didn’t have anything but incidental information. Enough to indicate I was a cape but nothing that would tie me definitively to what I’d done so far.

 

My passenger still liked her. In fact, he wasn’t really worried about this whole situation. Whatever she was likely to do, running to the Protectorate was probably not on the table. Also, I think I could safely eliminate the chance of her selling me out to the Empire. She also seemed way too comfortable with the idea of dealing with a cape. I knew she had a hard life, but how far into the parahuman side of things did that go?

 

I could find out. I had more technical knowledge than anyone in the city, probably even beating out Armsmaster at this point. Once I finished my computer upgrades I could tear through the joke of digital security that was human telecom networks and find any information I wanted.

 

Ok, that was another case of me thinking of conventional technology as ‘human’ and not including myself. I really needed to keep an eye on that. The knowledge from Master Builder wasn’t at risk of flooring me anymore, but there was no denying that is was from a decidedly mechanical perspective. Working with the technology of that power made it easy to fall into that mindset. I needed a way to remind myself. Maybe get a pickle jar and start putting quarters in it whenever I slipped up? I could call it the mental dysphoria jar.

 

Setting aside the obvious power related alterations to my mind, I needed to become more active in tracking what was going on in this city. I might be bribing analysis from Tattletale with criminally cheap medical care but that was too unreliable to be my sole source. If I had a better monitoring system I could probably have headed off some of the chaos in the city’s hero community, or at least been prepared for it. They might have tinker level security on cape related systems, but there’s no practical way to protect the entire internet, especially if I can get a serious computational set up.

 

For that I need to build a neural interface. I’ve had the theory for the technology since my Grease Monkey power, but now I actually have the capacity for it. Getting that rolled out would actually let me take advantage of the kind of hardware I can build, plus be a huge improvement for my A.I. development. I just need to make a series of sensors and transmitters delicate enough to target and read individual neurons along with an advance enough computer system to be able to map, process, and transmit data in a meaningful form.

 

Wow, a few days ago that would have been borderline impossible. Now it’s just a matter of doing the drudge work.

 

When I got back to my apartment Garment was still slowly typing responses into twitter. I half wondered if she was still working on the same tweet, but a glance confirmed she seemed to have adopted the policy of single word replies she’d been using for Youtube comments. It might seem a bit odd, but this was twitter. I’m pretty sure someone runs a joke account from the perspective of Armsmaster’s halberd. A glove account making single word statements to fashion tweets is basically par for the course.

 

I got a half-hearted wave as Garment continued slowly typing a reply to some account with a medusa head inside a circle for their profile picture. I left her to it and opened up my workshop.

 

The first thing I did was check on the nanite confinement. There was no degradation in the field strength and the nanites had maintained their integrity. It looked like this would actually work! I was a matter of days away from every nanite application I could ever want. I just had to keep maintaining the transfers.

 

On that note I prepped the chamber for extraction, grabbed the input port and activated my now restored nanites. I should have seen that detail with scarring coming, but it wasn’t like they could cause any more changes. This was just going to be a regular medical overhaul every time I attempted transfer. The ‘damage’ had been done and at this point it was at most a preventative measure against pathogens.

 

Once again my skin lit up with glowing blue circuitry with the lines on my hand bending towards the containment vessel. I stood there, counting down the time as the process would ran its course. After a few minutes the transfer petered out and I checked the progress. Once again it was successful and now I had a high enough concentration in the chamber to actually attempt some nanoassembly.

 

This was going to be delicate work. For one thing I hadn’t experimented with direct nanite control before. I had a solid understanding of the capabilities of the nanites, but there were so unfathomably many of them that wrapping my mind around the idea was a challenge. I basically had to avoid thinking about fine mechanics and only focus on objectives. Additionally I had to modify the containment chamber to give it access to raw materials. This had the risk of causing a containment failure and dispersal of nanites, but I was confident in my ability to make it work. It just meant I had another construction project before I could actually start the nanoassembly.

 

I elected to work directly in the containment vessel rather than try to manage a nanite transfer system. I was basically jury rigging most of this with the help of my Master Builder power and there was a lot of places things could go wrong. The easiest option turned out to be a pseudo airlock that I could attach to the vessel and use as an entry point for raw materials. Fortunately at an elemental level computer parts weren’t that difficult to source. The doping agents were more of a challenge than the silicon, but easy enough to acquire in the miniscule quantities I’d need.

 

It took some creativity and another couple of high powered magnets to manage everything, but eventually I managed to fully load my raw materials into the containment chamber. With some apprehension I laid my hand on the side of the vessel and concentrated. Glowing blue lines spread from my hand across the casing of the chamber. I could feel the multitudes of nanites floating inside the containment chamber. I could extend my will to them and direct their actions. I could feel them strip the materials down to their base elements. I could feel the assembly process begin, layer by layer of silicon wafers manifested at the atomic level. I could feel the exhilaration of controlling the world on a scale that to most people is just an abstract theoretical landscape. And I could feel the Celestial Forge move again because it had absolutely no sense of propriety.

 

I scrambled to stabilize my crafting as all the reach I had built was used to connect to a larger mote from the Size constellation, one the same strength as Master Builder or Nanite Removal and Control. It was called Hybridization Theory and the power let me literally combine two machines into one. I could basically mash a pair of disparate devices into a single functional mechanism with twice the power they had individually. It was mind boggling what this was capable of.

 

There were limits. Hybridizing something that I had already hybridized would get complicated to the point of probably not being worth it. Merging two items with independent A.I.s would just be asking for conflicts. If I tried to work on items of significantly different scales there could be issues with power distribution that would require extra work to resolve. Beyond that this was flawless. It was the perfect combination of the features of any two machines I could want without impacting size, weight, power use, or any aspect of their individual utility. I could combine a tank with a fighter jet and not lose any functionality or advantage of either form.  

 

This one power had effectively doubled the utility of everything I could make. Hell, if I just hybridized an item with a copy of itself I could instead just double the power of everything I made. I didn’t even need a separate machine, I could build the hybridization in from the start. It would even be less resource intensive than constructing both items independently.

 

I looked down at my current work, the largely awkward set up from my attempts to merge a nanite containment and fabrication chamber. This power naturally lent itself to combining vehicles, weapons, and other large scale machinery, but it was just as effective at small scale applications. Applications like allowing a containment chamber to function as a manufacturing facility without compromising the integrity or function of either device.

 

I focused on finishing the processor I had been working on. Knowing the equipment I could now be using made the previously wondrous process tedious. Yes, I was doing near atomic scale construction of what was a true tinker level microchip, but I could now see every extra step that would be eliminated when I was able to overhaul the containment unit. The inconvenient placement of resources, the poorly positioned assembly space, even the tedious manner I had to use to extract my finished product from the chamber.

 

I looked down at the square inch of plastic coated silicon wafers. It was a good processor, but it was mind boggling how much design and careful assembly had gone into such a tiny object. Despite my best efforts I hadn’t been able to get the transistors smaller than three nanometers. With my current supplies there were some limits I couldn’t break. Maybe I should move on to optical processors? They were a big step up from what I was working with, but a lot more difficult to integrate into conventional electronics.

 

Also my design powers had run a bit rampant when I was finishing the casing. Most microchips made due with a plain plastic casing and printed label. They typically didn’t have quite so much engraving in their design and I’m fairly certain the use of illuminated script for processor labels was against some standard industry practice.

 

I set the chip aside and got to work on my first hybridization project. It was strange watching this work with my level of technical knowledge. This appeared to be mechanically sound, but actually it was entirely facilitated by my power. Effectively it didn’t matter how different or contradictory the devices were, I would still be able to perfectly integrate them. That’s why stacking hybridizations wasn’t possible. In order for that to work I’d need to reverse engineer the first hybridization and somehow get it to function without my power facilitating things. It was possible but would get more difficult the further apart the machines were in function and principles.  I could probably merge two guns, look at the result, and build something that would function without my power holding it together. That example of a combined tank and jet would be significantly more difficult. Also, the more I nested the hybridizations the more complicated figuring out the necessary engineering would be.

 

None of that was an issue for this project. In short order I had a successfully combined nanoforge and containment vessel. This was something I could probably have managed with some design work and careful assembly, but with my new power I could basically mash it together and call it a day. I could easily feed in raw materials for assembly and extract finished products without any of that nonsense with attached vacuum canisters. Right now the only limiting factor was nanite concentration and my ability to direct them.

 

The new apparatus neatly fit in with the other equipment of my workshop. Once again I was thankful that this place seemed happy to cover the power requirements of anything that counted as crafting equipment. Without that the electricity draw of the magnetic suspension field would have been crippling. It was easily the most advanced fabrication device I had access to, even if the build volume was barely a hundred cubic centimeters. I was limited to very small objects, but considering that I essentially had to direct nanites on an atomic scale I’m not sure I could handle anything bigger. Not until I managed to devise some kind of automated construction programing.

 

My nanites had nearly recovered from the previous transfer and loading a third allocation would make construction substantially easier. Eventually the limiting factor would shift from availability of nanites to my ability to direct them, but that was a ways off and there were some potential methods to address it. I would just have to maintain transfers as my nanites restored themselves, which could get tedious, but the results were well worth it.

 

A nudge from my passenger made me realize I had forgotten to eat dinner. Weirdly I wasn’t that hungry. Was that the nanite activations? I knew they cheated on conservation of mass and could work directly on chemical compounds. In theory they could restore a person’s blood sugar, available nutrients, and energy reserves. I hadn’t been thinking about it, but I hadn’t really been thinking about anything but activating as many nanites as possible. I had gotten kind of complacent thanks to my understanding of the principles at work rather than the practicalities.

 

On reflection I wasn’t feeling that burn in my muscles that I’d grown used to after a hard workout. I really needed to use my Laboratorium to start picking through exactly what this healing was doing to my body. Instant recovery was great, but there was a chance it would be effectively erasing the benefits of my workouts. It was too late for that now, but the next time I did a post workout healing blitz I needed to make sure I was under the best scanners I had.

 

Still, food was important. Even if my nanites were helping I didn’t want to rely on them until I knew exactly what was happening and any limitations or side effects they might cause. I slipped out of my workshop past Garment who half waved at me while continuing to type. I moved into my kitchenette and checked what I had available in terms of provisions. There was a stark divide between my earlier supplies of cheap high protein foods, beans, lentils, canned tuna, and plain yogurt, all blankly labeled generic brands in bulk portions, next to the set of brand name and flavorful foods I had splurged on after my first payment for criminal services.

 

A better person than me would probably feel some guilt or conflict over this. But that theoretical better person probably hadn’t been eating discount health food that tasted of wet cardboard for the better part of two weeks. I dove into the good food and felt no remorse.

 

Also, master level alchemy knowledge partially transfers to cooking skills. At this point I probably could have managed something decently appetizing even with my earlier ingredients, but with my ill-gotten quality food the result was positively succulent.

 

As I plated the results of my cooking spree I turned to find Garment waiting with her laptop held in front of her. I glanced at the screen and winced.

 

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

 

She excitedly tapped the open page, then gestured at me.

 

“Look, that’s a whole different beast from Twitter, much less Youtube. I know you’re excited, but maybe give yourself a bit more time to get used to things online before you try it.”

 

Her body language looked devastated and she made a forlorn motion towards the screen.

 

“Look, how did you even find that?”

 

She navigated to another tab. Okay, cape fashion Twitter accounts. That made sense. And wow, Garment had retweets? Who was retweeting single word commentary on fashion topics? Apparently cape fashion twitter accounts, obviously. Still, it seemed a bit odd even for social media.

 

Actually, checking her activity for the night she seemed to be handling herself fairly well. Considering how caustic these communities could get I was kind of impressed. I looked at the other tab and Garment’s expectant motions.

 

“Alright...” She looked positively electrified. “But you have to be careful. I mean you need to review full terms of service, community guidelines, don’t get into arguments. All that. And everything from before still applies, but even more so. No personal information or revealing details that could lead back to you.”

 

All through my lecture Garment was making excited gestures of affirmation. I sighed and started filling in the sign up form. I confirmed her email and updated her account with the picture from her Twitter profile. Just to be sure I brought up all the site rules and guidelines and went through them with her. Finally, it was all set and I was certain I had done everything I could to prevent this from ending in disaster. I loaded the up main page for her new account.

 

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I handed over the Laptop and hoped for the best. Garment was practically skipping on her way back and settled in with a level of focus I hadn’t seen from her outside of clothing design and assembly. She was still typing with the speed of a glacier. It was kind of odd seeing such excited body language contrasting with the slow methodical searching for letters on the keyboard.

 

My cooking proved appealing enough for me to finish despite a lack of appetite. Afterwards I cleaned my dishes and made my way back to my workshop. The first thing I did was complete my fourth nanite transfer. Once this computer project was complete I needed to work to improve the efficiency and draw rate. It was still a novel experience, but I’m fairly sure after the twentieth time I had to spend three and a half minutes grabbing transfer conduits while focusing on activating every nanite in my system at the same time it would wear a bit thin.

 

Once that was completed I started work on my computer system. The night was getting on and I would probably have to put my alchemy work on hold until tomorrow. Those potions might be amazingly useful, but there was a serious time sink involved in getting to a place where I could make them without being discovered. The abandoned chemical factory remained the best idea I had, but it took a long time to make that walk. Taking my motorcycle had been my plan, but in that neighborhood I would probably attract less attention if I showed up in full cape costume.

 

Weirdly, that unmarked van the Undersiders boss had provided would be perfect for that application. That is, it would have been if it wouldn’t have exposed the location of my secondary base to a parahuman crime lord rather than just to the residents of one of the more run down areas of the Docks.

 

The Celestial Forge missed a connection to the Clothing constellation as the transfer finally concluded. With four transfers worth of nanites and a proper assembly structure I was able to fabricate computer parts at a greatly accelerated rate. My Rationing power was still effective at the nano scale and was proving to be incredibly useful. A major portion of this kind of work involved stripping down other materials. Since I wasn’t working with pure elemental samples that meant I had to pick apart my feedstock to remove impurities or hunt for trace elements that I needed. Rationing let me make sure that any odd elements or useful compounds were properly squirreled away for later use. If you think that kind of thing is handy in vehicle manufacture imagine what happens when you’re working on an atomic scale.

 

The real problem with working at an atomic scale was, well, you were working at an atomic scale. I could construct incredibly advanced components, but the more complex they were the longer it took, especially if I was building anything bigger than a grain of sand. I was manually directing everything. Holding the complete plans for a processor in my mind was hard enough. Without external reference I just couldn’t manage construction of the more complex items I knew how to build. Actually, without the mechanical mindset that came with Master Builder I probably wouldn’t have been able to manage this at all.

 

I could still handle assembly of processors, sensors, and various computer components. With some creative integration with the server parts I still had available and a bit of abuse of my latest power I was able to complete a combined computational core/neural interface. The work took long enough that I was able to make another transfer of nanites before I finished and it was close to midnight when I finally finished everything.

 

Despite the somewhat improvised and rushed job the project came together well. With my style powers it basically looked like a chrome throne positioned to overlook my workshop. Decadence had more than saved my rough work from looking anyway sloppy or unpolished, and that wasn’t even counting the effects Bling of War and Stylish Mechanic were having. The point was that I now had a properly powerful central computer for my base, not that human crap I’d had to work with before.

 

Okay, that was another one. Probably time to start putting quarters in a jar.

 

Alien mindsets aside I had a proper mind-machine interface directly hybridized with the most powerful system I could build. That is, could build without getting into exotic physics applications. It was close to the level of those ancient church computers from my Laboratorium and much less creepy. There was still a little creep factor with the read/write access the thing had with the brain of anyone who sat in it, but that was the point. Proper speed-of-thought access to a digital system.

 

It was late and I needed sleep, but there was no way I was going to leave testing this until the morning. I climbed into the seat and started the neural mapping. It was a complicated process even with how technically advanced the system was. I had a conventional interface to help guide things and was working in machine code to build the framework that would let me directly access the computer with my mind.

 

Process came in a series of flashes. I was effectively writing and reading directly to my brain, an insanely dangerous process for anyone who didn’t know what they were doing. Each calibration triggered a bout of synesthesia where I could suddenly hear the color purple or thought the room smelled like a fog horn. But with each flash I felt the connection grow deeper and more substantial until the room fell away and suddenly I was existing as a computer system.

 

The difference between building the interface and computer core separately and combining them with my Hybridization Theory power was immediately apparent. This wasn’t directing commands to the system, it was like the entire computer was an extension of my body. I could feel every process running and sense its connections to every other system in the workshop and apartment, from the still running driving simulations on my motoroid to Garment’s continued meandering through cape forums. If I could scale this interface down to a reasonable size I would be able to assume direct control of any vehicle I could create like it was my own body.

 

I needed to check on the development of my Fleet program and this was the best space to do that. I partitioned a section of processing resources and connected with the now laughably primitive control system piloting my bike. I was able to gain remote access through a virtual environment and see how the software was developing. I immediately found a major problem.

 

In a world where any tinker can churn out a shockingly well programed drone most people wouldn’t expect there to still be a place for robotics engineering. Most people think that about science in general and are kind of blind to the fact that conventional technology advancement continues even when people are building laser guns and teleporters in their garages. Trying to get an actual non-tinker robot to develop certain skills can be challenging, particularly when you leave exploits in the environment for them to take advantage of. Try to teach a robot to avoid obstacles and it starts driving in a way where its sensors can’t detect collisions. Train it to pick up green marbles and it will find a way to point its optical sensor at its own power LED. Those kinds of blind stupid exploits are all over the place and my A.I. had found its way into one.

 

It was designed to simulate piloting a bike effectively. It was also responsible for programing the test environment it was using to run simulations. In short it had managed to learn to perfectly drive a motorcycle without crashing provided it was on a perfectly flat straight road that was about fifty thousand miles long.

 

This was probably a consequence of leaving the program running without input for so long. With the processing resources of the core computer I could accelerate development, but there was still the problem of it potentially optimizing along another stupid path. It needed some kind of counter agent to actually drive improvement.

 

And I needed data management resources. Maybe this could present a solution to both problems. I set aside the Fleet A.I. and started work on a new neural network. It was basically a survey program, designed to analyze and simulate environments. I could initially feed it map data for it to create virtualizations of roadways for the Fleet program. It would help the other program’s pathfinding development, and prevent those errors that grew in isolation.

 

The work came together slowly, but in many ways better than when I had set the basis for my fleet program. I was working with a lot more technical knowledge at this point and was able to make subtle optimizations that it was too late to include in the other program. It started basically, with a generation of flat 2D maps for the Fleet A.I. to develop on, simple geometric shapes. Eventually the two programs were playing off of each other with Survey designing simplified models of entire cities with rough three dimensionality and Fleet picking its way through them.

 

The development was fascinating to watch. Survey was pulling data continuously and starting to extrapolate details from incomplete sources, generating estimated road conditions and visibility estimates. Fleet was massively improving as well, actually stressing its handling and navigation skills.

 

I was in the middle of all of it. Incredibly I could practically sense the development of both programs and the feel of the artificial world being constructed around me. It was easy to get caught up in the sensations, but eventually the exposure became uncomfortable. There was an off-putting sense of motion, and disorientation in something like a rhythmic sense, almost as if I was being shaken.

 

Hold on.

 

I disconnected from the interface to find a frantic Garment standing over me. Concern spiked as I took in her appearance. I had never seen her this upset. It wasn’t just the way she was moving. There was a slight delay in the way her clothing synchronized with her glove movements. It was like she was having trouble literally holding herself together.

 

“Garment? What’s wrong?” She made some frantic gestures towards the workshop exit and I followed her trembling form as she led the way back to the apartment. I quickly checked my watch. 3:34am. Somehow I had completely lost track of time while connected to the system. What could have happened while I was out of it?

 

There was no obvious sign of disruption when I exited the workshop. The apartment looked fine, but Garment was frantically gesturing towards the laptop sitting on my old desk. I approached and immediately saw the source of her distress.

 

You are currently logged in, GarmentGloves

You have twenty six infractions and seven warnings.

Infraction categories include:

(Spam)

(Zero Content Posts)

(Bad Faith Arguments)

(Trolling)

(Failure to observe moderator warnings)

(Failure to follow thread guidelines)

You have received a two week global ban. You may not post, comment, or send personal messages during this time. Your ban expires on April 29, 2011. Your probationary status expires in 90 days, on July 14, 2011.

You have been permanently banned from the following boards:

  • Places ► America ► New York
  • Places ► America ► Los Angeles
  • Places ► France ► Paris
  • Places ► Italy ► Milan
  • General ► Cape Culture ► Costumes
  • General ► Cape Culture ► Capes in Media

You have been permanently banned from the following threads:

  • Places ► America ► Brocton Bay ► Capes ► Brocton Bay Heroes Discussion Thread (Sticky)
  • Places ► America ► Brocton Bay ► Capes ► Brocton Bay Rogues Discussion Thread (Sticky)
  • Places ► America ► Brocton Bay ► Capes ► Brocton Bay Villains Discussion Thread (Sticky)
  • Places ► America ► Brocton Bay ► Capes ► Parian Discussion Thread
  • Places ► America ► Brocton Bay ► Teams ► Protectorate ► Protectorate ENE Merchandise
  • News ► Events ► America ► Politics ► 2012 Presidential Candidate Discussion
    • General ► Cape Culture ► Cape Fashion Discussion Thread
  • General ► Cape Culture ► Cape Sponsorships ► Cape Merchandise Review Thread
  • General ► Cape Culture ► Protectorate Merchandise ► Branded Clothing Review Thread
  • General ► Cape Culture ► Cape Sponsorships ► 2011 Cape Fashion Lines
  • General ► Cape Culture ► Cape Sponsorships ► 2010 Cape Fashion Lines

If you wish to contest this ban you may appeal to a moderator

 

In the reply field Garment had started typing something, but had apparently given up to come get me. The only thing there was a brief string of letters spelling out “I M SORRY”.

 

I looked over the list of bans and infractions, then at Garment’s distraught and much more importantly disheveled appearance.

 

“All right,” I sighed and gave her a tired smile. “Let’s see what we can do.”

 

Chapter Text

I might have signed up for an argument with forum mods at an hour so late it might technically count as early, but seeing Garment literally pull herself together in response made it worth the trouble. I just had to figure out how she had managed to cause this many problems in a few hours.

 

As I loaded her posting history I felt the Celestial Forge pull the Vehicle constellation towards me and connect to one of the smaller motes called Fingers of Silver. It was essentially reverse engineering on steroids and would let me understand and copy the inner workings of any technology I could get my hands on. Well, provided it was actual technology and not something facilitated by parahuman powers. More advanced tinker tech would be difficult to analyze, but with my other technical powers and my Laboratorium it would be considerably easier.

 

That was something to deal with later. For now I had to try to sort out this mess. I started by looking through Garments posting history. There was a lot of it. It looked like she had been posting pretty much continuously since I had set up the account. There was a delay between posts, but that seemed to be based on typing speed and her ability to find content and navigate between forums. Other than that she just hadn’t stopped.

 

Looking at some of her earlier posts they seemed to be met with bemusement and the odd positive comment or question. The problems started when she began posting on more active forums or people tried to engage her directly. PHO was a great site, but the quote/reply set up wasn’t as good as it could have been. On an active thread someone would question Garment, then there would be a half dozen posts before she would be able to reply. This led to the reply being misconstrued, which would lead to Garment correcting herself, once again after a pile of posts that changed the tone of the conversation and turned would have been a fairly reasonable reply to something either nonsensical or provocative.

 

Things got worse in private messages. Garment did not like using more than one word replies, so when people started messaging her directly the conversations usually went badly. Early stuff seemed lighthearted enough with people engaging on fashion topics and asking for single word evaluations, but when people started with serious questions and just got the same there were a few meltdowns, both in her PMs and in the threads.

 

That was around the time the warnings started. There were accusations of her being a bot or just trolling, and her efforts to counter them were as hampered as any other part of her communication. Eventually the mods stepped in. She had actually gotten some people riled up to the point where threads were locked or specific rules were put in place. Following that there were direct messages that she hadn’t been able to answer sufficiently, followed by the ban.

 

It was exactly the kind of shit storm I had been worried about, though Garment had managed to pull it off in record time. I felt a little guilty since I had been dead to the world while Garment had been trying desperately to defend herself. Also I had been fully merged with a computer at the time. I had at least passive awareness that Garment was still posting, but I hadn’t paid attention to exactly what was happening.  It wasn’t a question of respecting privacy, I had dumped her into the deep end and left her to sink upon her failure to swim.

 

The worst part was knowing there was a good chance I wouldn’t be able to patch this up. I didn’t have a lot of experience with online forums but I knew this kind of thing was pretty much poison for a new member. At this point anyone who didn’t think she was a bot probably assumed she was trolling the board with a disposable account.

 

I looked over at Garment’s nervous movements. She was actually wringing her gloves as she watched me go through her posting history. I gave her the most reassuring smile I could manage and started typing in the reply field.

 

 

GarmentGloves:

Hello, this is Garment’s friend. I want to express her apology for what happened on the forum. Garment has significant communication difficulties and didn’t intend to cause any disruption. I have reviewed her posting history and I believe she was sincerely trying to follow the forum guidelines and moderator instructions but was unable to effectively convey her intent.

 

I helped Garment set up her account earlier tonight and did not check on her until she informed me of the current situation. I should have been more attentive of her actions to prevent something like this from happening so I would like to offer my own apology as well.

 

This forum and online interaction has become a very important outlet for Garment. She was extremely distraught by the sudden suspension and the permanent ban from topics she is passionate about. If there is any way to alleviate the restrictions I assure you I will work with Garment to help ensure there is no repeat of tonight’s events. Thank you for your consideration.

 

P.S. The following message is all Garment was able to compose before she came to me for help.

 

I M SORRY

 

 

I couldn’t bring myself to delete Garment’s typing. I just hope it doesn’t come across as manipulative. With the message sent I sat with Garment as we watched her inbox. I had heard about how vigilant the mods on this forum are, so there was a good chance of getting a ruling even this late at night. The fact that they had consolidated so many violations against Garment rather than leave things for a later ruling shows that.

 

Sitting there refreshing the page made the minutes seem like hours. Finally a message appeared in the inbox. Garment froze in anticipation as I loaded it.

 

 

Tin_Mother:

Thank you for your sincere appeal. I would like to express my sympathy for your situation. Unfortunately given the number of complaints filed and a lack of supporting evidence I have no choice but to uphold the ban. Upon the end of the two week period I will be willing to revisit the possibility of access to some of the permanently banned boards subject to moderator review.

 

 

I let out a breath. That was about as bad as I feared. Garment slumped beside me, almost deflating. I skimmed through the list of infractions and warnings again and reviewed the specific complaints. This was a mess. There was basically no chance of getting this resolved with what I could communicate through personal messages.

 

My eyes fell on the laptop’s built in camera, then swung over to Garment. That was an idea. Was it a good idea? Who the hell knew, it was nearly four in the morning and I’d spent most of the night thinking like a computer.

 

Okay, seriously consider this. It would resolve this issue. It would get Garment back on the forum, if not completely unbanned than at least engaged. And it would effectively give PHO a cape account, and those were always popular.

 

Downsides? It would mean announcing a ‘cape’ to the world. That would attract attention, but nothing as bad as what I had done for myself. Also, announcing like this would spare Garment any association with the baggage I’d built up for my own debut.

 

“Garment, if there was a way to fix this, but it would mean a lot more attention and scrutiny, would you be okay with that?” She immediately perked up. Oh yeah, asking Garment if she was alright with attention was kind of a no brainer. Was I okay with this? It would let Garment be her own person, and that was important. Besides, it was Garment.

 

Additionally, I was getting an uncertain but somewhat positive impression from my passenger regarding Tin_Mother. Not enough to completely bank on, but definitely no warning signs. I wondered if the rumors about tinkers working as mods for PHO carried any weight. The reaction wasn’t the deciding factor, but it provided a comforting level of reassurance. I opened the message and started composing a reply.

 

 

GarmentGloves:

Thank you for your sympathy. If we were able to present evidence of the reason behind Garment’s communication problems would that be enough to reconsider the ban?

 

 

Tin_Mother:

That would depend heavily on the nature of the evidence. Please don’t feel the need to share any private or medically confidential information over this matter.

 

 

I looked to Garment and got an encouraging and hopeful gesture.

 

 

GarmentGloves:

If you could temporarily remove the ban Garment would like to post a video explaining her situation.

 

 

Tin_Mother:

I am willing to unblock a single board. Please note if this privilege is abused your ban may be extended permanently.

 

 

Garment put a glove on my shoulder as I typed the reply.

 

 

GarmentGloves:

Thank you. Please unblock General ► Cape Culture ►Cape Introductions

 

 

Tin_Mother:

One moment.

 

 

There was a period of interminable waiting before the next message arrived.

 

 

Tin_Mother:

Your connection is reasonably secure. Please continue. Note that abuse of the Cape Introductions board can result in permanent suspension of account.

 

 

Well, that was slightly concerning. Maybe what they say about PHO moderators lived up to the hype.

 

A short time later I was sitting with Garment in front of the freshly loaded and unlocked board hosting a newly posted thread and the first one from GarmentGloves. Despite everything I had done to check things and make sure the transfer went through properly Garment was still a bundle of nerves. She probably would be until she saw the video on the site.

 

I navigated to the first and only post and loaded the video, which was the full sum of the post’s contents. The video began to play, showing the limited resolution and framerate of the built in webcam. I could have managed so much better, to the tune of a tiny 4k 60fps video camera churned out with a minute’s effort from my nano forge. That would have been too much. This was going to attract enough attention without Garment suddenly having access to movie studio level equipment. The webcam was recognizable as such and gave the production the improvised edge that lent sincerity to this situation.

 

It was the same reason this had been shot in front of the wall of my apartment rather than in a custom built set inside my workshop. My powers may have been able to assemble the ideal environment for this purpose, but in this case the ideal environment was one that didn’t look over-produced. That hadn’t stopped Garment from dressing it up slightly with some suspended drapes bordering the shot. They nicely framed the image of Garment as she stood in her evening dress and white opera gloves and waved at the camera. She made some conciliatory gestures that had an apologetic air to them. Then she raised a glove and fabric began to float around her.

 

I had insisted that she not show her manifestation of any supplies. Explaining the mechanism would get confusing and lead people to believe she could freely produce her materials. It was easier to avoid a misconception than try to correct one.

 

Even without her spinning cloth out of thin air the display was breathtaking. Everything had been prepared around her so as needed thread and cloth flew up to be integrated into her work with perfect surgical precision. Garment had embraced the opportunity for her debut with a level of flair I had never seen from her before. There were elaborate flourishes, careful placement of materials to create elaborate patterns before they were integrated into the work, and even a certain rhythmic timing to the entire endeavor. It was like watching the seamstress equivalent of a master hibachi chef at work.

 

It wasn’t just flash either. There was a certain pride displayed in what was she doing that you only got from master craftsmen. I could tell the times she slowed down her work to make it clear exactly what was happening, the type of stitch she was using, the paneling, the fabric compositions. It didn’t come across perfectly due to the limits of the webcam. The resolution left a lot to be desired as did its ability to change focus. Still both the level of skill at work and the sense of pride in the act was conveyed loud and clear.

 

Everything came together with the grandeur of an orchestrated finale. Disparate pieces were aligned and joined with perfect seams, details fell into place, and the entire item went from a complex and confusing assembly to a finished piece of clothing in an instant. All the tiny bits of workmanship from the entire process unified into a single beautiful finished product.

 

Garment had made a jacket. It was one of those formal looking half jacket things that go with evening dresses. There was probably a proper term for it, but I was still largely fashion illiterate. It was white with an elaborate border and embroidery. The sleeves were short enough to not quite reach the tops of Garment’s gloves in their opera form and she was able to smoothly slip into the coat. It fit perfectly with the rest of her outfit, matching the color pallet, style, and level of formality.

 

Most importantly the boarder coloring and embroidery matched the pallet of the PHO forums. It was blatant pandering, but that was exactly the point of this endeavor. PHO wasn’t exactly a force in the cape world, but it was an important source of information and a representation of public perception. More than a few news articles pulled directly from the PHO wiki and the forums were largely considered the best feedback medium for the general public. Making a good first impression here would be important if Garment was going to be able to operate as her own cape.

 

The next part of the video was the important part that would explain this mess. Garment bent down out of frame and picked up one of the spare laptops. I had loaded it with a word processor with large font that was easily visible even with the limitations of the webcam. With great seriousness she began picking through the keyboard for individual keys.

 

H...E...L...L...O

 

Garment once again had to search through the keyboard to find the letter L after she had just typed it. After the word was complete she stared at the keyboard, considered things carefully, and then finally found the spacebar. Following that she began typing again.

 

P...H...O

 

The level of pride and excitement upon finishing her message was borderline unbelievable. She turned and presented the laptop screen to the camera and enthusiastically waved as the video concluded. So there it was, Garment’s debut to cape society. She had beat me out, officially, and I needed to come up with something soon if I didn’t want to end up with that greed demon cape name.

 

This would have repercussions, but I could deal with them. I would deal with them. It was clear she needed more points of contact than I could manage, and operating through what was regarded as the most secure forum in the world was a good place to start.

 

I felt the Celestial Forge again, this time bringing the Knowledge constellation within reach. The mote I connected with was an odd one. It was a cluster of twelve motes each the size of the smallest ones in the constellation and each representing a different category of information. The entire cluster was called Skills and the one I was able to link to was Physics. It provided an incredible comprehensive understanding of not just conventional physics but high level principles of gravity, matter & energy, and even quantum phenomena.

 

Like with many of my skills I wondered if some of these high level aspects were actually part of the universe or if they were facilitated by my power. This didn’t provide any new technology, but applications of the principles opened up everything from faster than light communication and travel, advanced holography, force fields, weapon systems, instant matter assembly, and even effective teleportation. It would take some work to sort out the engineering, but there was an incredible wealth of potential here.

 

It also provided a solid grounding in research and analysis. It wasn’t just knowledge, it was an understanding of how those principles were discovered and how to analyze new unknown phenomena. That was a boon both to my other technical skills and any efforts for analysis of other technology or parahuman effects.

 

An announcement from Garment’s inbox broke me out of my contemplation, revealing another message from the moderator. I quickly opened it.

 

 

Tin_Mother:

Thank you for that sincere and impressive introduction. I do not have the authority to remove all aspects of Garment’s ban at this time but I will maintain her access to the Cape Introduction thread. With your permission, and based on her posting history I will open a cape discussion thread in the Brocton Bay Capes board. Also, while there is no obligation and this will not influence your appeal status, I would appreciate it if you could answer some questions about Garment’s situation and your relationship with her. Capes in a vulnerable situation, particularly those with non-human features or limitations are often subject to exploitation. It would be beneficial if I could head off any community fears around this subject.

 

 

I looked over at Garment. It wasn’t a full reversal, but it was something, and probably a path towards getting her access back. Also, the mod seemed to be coming from a place of genuine concern, which was encouraging. At my questioning look Garment gave a gesture of consent and I started drafting a reply.

 

 

GarmantGloves:

It’s my intention to keep Garment as safe and happy as possible. I would be willing to field any questions that would not compromise her security or privacy.

 

 

Tin_Mother:

Thank you. How did you first meet Garment?

 

 

Well, I should stick as close to the truth as possible. It’s not like weirder things didn’t happen in this world.

 

 

GarmantGloves:

She appeared outside of where I work. Then she insulted my fashion sense and everything I was wearing.

 

 

Garment actually seemed proud of herself when I typed that.

 

 

Since then I have tried to provide her with material for her projects and access to safe forms of communication. She is both passionate and highly skilled regarding clothing and fashion principles and I’ve done my best to facilitate her.

 

 

Tin_Mother:

When she appeared did Garment have any level of memory loss? Additionally does she have a mark resembling a stylized U or C anywhere on her body?

 

 

She was checking about Case 53s. I remembered reading that actual proper Case 53 capes were much less common than parahumans with altered features, but the terms were used almost interchangeably by the public.

 

 

GarmentGloves:

Garment hasn’t demonstrated any desire to share information about her past. I don’t know if this is related to her memory, communication difficulties, or if it is simply not a concern for her. I am not aware of her having any markings of the type you described or otherwise.

 

 

Tin_Mother:

Thank you. Finally, with the skill level she was able to demonstrate there will certainly be people attempting to contact Garment regarding business prospects. Given concerns over exploitation I would like to temporarily block incoming private messages to this account and provide you with some material on guidelines and programs for capes with Rogue classifications.

 

Additionally, I feel I should ask if you believe you are able to provide the necessary support for Garment given the issues she has demonstrated. I can put you in contact with organizations specializing in assistance for parahumans in similar situations.

 

 

Well, it was nice of her not to come out and accuse me of taking advantage of Garment. Still, independent operation and Rogue status would be a good fit for Garment, and there would be a flood of PMs for any confirmed cape. I should take her up on the first offer at least.

 

 

GarmentGloves:

I believe it would be good to block PMs until Garment has established a plan for how she wishes to proceed with her cape status and business policies. I will be working with Garment to address the issues that led to tonight’s misunderstanding and don’t believe any additional support will be necessary, but thank you for your offer.

 

 

Tin_Mother:

Acknowledged. Please contact me if you need any support. I will be happy to direct you to the relevant agencies and organizations.

 

 

I leaned back and let out a breath. Beside me Garment was a mixture of excitement and apprehension.

 

“I think it will be alright. PHO loves cape interactions. They’ll definitely roll back the restrictions once this gets out. We just have to give them some time.”

 

I failed to suppress a yawn as Garment made anxious gestures towards the computer. That reminded me.

 

“Let me see what I can do with this laptop. There’s no reason for you to be stuck with a retail model anymore.”

 

Once again I was struck between being objectively impressed by the technological advancement of my upgrades and how frustrating it was to be unable to build what I knew I was capable of, instead reduced to realigning human computational frameworks.

 

Okay, that’s it. I’m starting that jar retroactively. Four quarters in it and maybe then I’ll be able to get a handle on this.

 

The point was that despite the quality of what I could build I was still working with technological architecture of a conventional nature, the species which built that technology not being relevant to this line of thinking. Shifting to optical processing would be a big step up, particularly with what my latest batch of knowledge allowed me to do with isolinear circuitry. The problem was none of that would directly interface with the technology what-is-common-in-this-world so I’d have to build everything from scratch. The best option would be working with multidimensional processors, but that wasn’t possible without at least trace amounts of cybertonium for key junctions.

 

At this point I couldn’t even build a proper datatrax. The new laptop’s storage drive could barely hold half a petabyte of rapid access flash memory, and that wasn’t even getting into the compromises I’d had to make in terms of processing power or battery life. I was able to make up for some of it with hybridization builds, but I honestly felt bad handing this over.

 

Garment had been waiting patiently as I worked, doing her best to conceal her anxiety over the situation in general and her laptop in particular. The forge missed another connection to the Knowledge constellation as I put the finishing design touches on the computer. Bling of War let me personalize it to Garment’s style and Decadence ensured the workmanship was impeccable. Her reaction to the engraved and filigreed computer casing was the most positive I’d seen since this mess began.

 

Now came the hard part, attempting to give Garment a typing lesson. I started with basic finger placement and a keyboard guide, but that got nowhere. She would still check each letter before typing it and seemed to have trouble remembering placements with respect to her fingers. Online typing guides and mnemonic devices proved useless and just resulted in frustration as Garment struggled to decipher them.

 

That was when I decided to get creative. Unfortunately creative doesn’t mean effective. I thought I was being clever with the modified keyboard that had cloth swatches on the keys for telekinetic manipulation. All that resulted in was avoiding the time for the key to be pressed by a glove instead of telekinesis. The search time was exactly as bad. I didn’t understand how she could read language and understand speech but had so much trouble with writing. Then again I had no idea how she sensed the world or what her thought process was like. The results of these efforts were proving there was a much more significant barrier than I had anticipated.

 

The cloth type keyboard didn’t help. A color coded keyboard didn’t help. A customized alphabetical layout didn’t help. I was about ready to try putting together some kind of visual alphabet like you find on the walls of a kindergarten, only with fashion concepts instead of pictures of farm animals when I realized I’d been approaching this the wrong way.

 

I could try to work with Garment to overcome whatever was causing this through her own effort and with supporting equipment, but what she really needed was help. The easiest thing to set up would be an autocomplete, but those could easily go wrong and I didn’t ever want to risk a repeat of tonight. She needed an assistant and fortunately I had just began development of a data management program.

 

The laptop was cobbled together crap, but it should be able to run a truncated fork of my data management and survey program. It would have the benefit of allowing development in linguistic skills while providing more support than any autocomplete would be capable of. Anyway, Garment deserved an assistant.

 

I left Garment to admire the aesthetics of her laptop and moved to my computational throne. Once again the world fell away and I was part of the computer system. I reached out to the partition where my Survey and Fleet programs were engaged in their optimization and development routine and opened my mind to it.

 

Suddenly I was standing by a river on a bright summer day. I could feel the humidity in the air, the slight breeze blowing off the water, and the sunlight dappled between occasional clouds. In the distance the iconic shape of the Eifel tower rose over the city of Paris. I could see boats on the river and pedestrians milling around, taking in the weather. And in the distance the beginning of a symphony of engine sounds.

 

An entire pack of vehicles peeled past me at clearly unsafe speeds. It was a mix of sports cars, roadsters, six types of motorcycles and what looked like a small hovercraft trailing behind. They wove around each other and the obstacles of the road in a bid to claim the lead before swerving down a side street leaving nothing but the sounds of their engines and the screech of tires.

 

I pulled back from the surface level of the simulation and examined the code beneath it. Fleet was simultaneously piloting multiple vehicles through an environment being generated in real time by Survey. The entire city wasn’t modeled, just areas relevant to the track with the visuals of the rest of the landscape approximated based on internet research and iterative simulations. Factors like road surface, visibility, directional glare, air resistance, even wind and humidity were being calculated. From Fleets side the program was simulating multiple vehicles at the same time while also piloting them through the course and responding to changes in conditions. It looked like the different vehicles were approximated from available specifications with their performance extrapolated using the data from the day’s drive.

 

Both programs were working in competition, but were also collaborating to a greater deal than I expected. Pretty much the full sensor records of the day being used as a true to life reference point for the simulations. The programs weren’t really advanced enough to express any agency, but there was a desire for more practical data in order to improve their simulation development. I provided them with a timeline for the next probable excursions and some commentary on their simulation records, which already included a half dozen cities and six times as many vehicles.

 

The development was impressive, but it would soon reach the limit of their processing capabilities and be reduced to optimization cycles. That was regrettably by design since unrestrained A.I. was one of the biggest black list technologies out there. If it didn’t bring down the Protectorate on my head it could easily draw the attention of the Endbringers. It meant I would have to do staged upgrades and guide both development and any copies to be generated rather than allow them free agency. At this point it was barely a concern as both programs were too primitive to handle anything beyond their initial parameters, and just barely that.

 

Still, the Survey program was functioning well and would be able to assist Garment much better than any level of autocorrect. I adjusted the objectives and created a truncated copy running in parallel with an update link to the core program. After a final review I disconnected from the interface and went to check on Garment.

 

She was idly playing with the assorted pieces of my planned costume redesign. With everything that had happened our joint project had completely slipped my mind. I made a note to make sure to follow up with that assembly but focused on introducing Garment to the new interface. There was still a bit of work to that. Survey had access to her entire posting history, including Youtube, Twitter, and PHO. Upon the first letter typed the program was able to start making suggestions. Unfortunately Garment had a bit of trouble indicating when the suggestion was correct. I ended up adding an extra button to the computer solely for the purpose of signaling the survey program. I watched Garment work on the new system. It was still painfully slow to start, but at least she didn’t need to type the entire word before Survey was able to narrow down what she was going for.

 

I quickly checked PHO. The ban was still in place with the exception of the introductory thread. Despite the stupid hour that post had already seen some traffic.

 

“Alright, you should be safe sticking with this thread. Be careful and see how things go. I’m going to get some sleep.”

 

Garment made a series of grateful gestures and waved me off as I left the Workshop to try to get some rest. When I opened the door to the entry way I saw that Garment had returned my mattress to the floor. I also saw that she had assembled a complete set of new bedlinens, pillows, and comforters that looked like they would be more appropriate in an imperial court. The opulence was in stark contrast with the fact that the entire assembly was sitting flat on the floor without even a bedframe holding it up.

 

I glanced back at Garment who broke her attention from the computer to make shooing gestures towards me. With a sigh I got changed and slipped into bed. The new sheets were smooth and unbelievably comfortable. It was like being embraced by clouds and I felt kinks in my back I had barely been aware of, likely the result of hours on that interface throne, begin to unspool themselves. The stress was just melting off me and I could feel the fog of blissful sleep settle over my mind.

 

Which was exactly when my watch alarm went off, signaling the time for my morning run.

 

I considered a lot of things as I lay in bed with my watch buzzing at me. I considered if my earlier commitment to an exercise routine was that well placed. I considered if this cape business was actually worth the trouble if it resulted in what was now three six o’clocks in the same day. I considered the existence of Noctus capes and the massive injustice they represented. I considered the various theoretical temporal manipulation technologies I was now aware of and whether a few extra hours of sleep on demand would be worth risking irreparable damage to the space time continuum. In my current mindset I was leaning heavily towards a yes on that last question.

 

Eventually the strength of routine overwhelmed all other objections and I peeled myself out of bed and into my workout clothes. Coffee, toast, run. The coffee and toast part took longer than it should have and involved considerably more coffee, but I got myself out the door.

 

I made it half way down the steps when I realized I had left my workshop open. Well, it wasn’t that bad. Garment was there and I at least trusted Fleet to be able to intercept intruders at this point. Also the chances of a break in were fairly low given the look of the apartment and the presence of better targets in literally every direction. If I had sealed the workshop that would have cut off network access to everyone inside, meaning Garment would have had to move to the apartment and Fleet and Survey would lose access to reference data. It should be fine as long as I made this run fast.

 

That was actually the deciding factor in why I had chosen to stick to my schedule. I needed reference data for what my nanites did when I triggered a mass activation for transfer. Mass activations for transfers like the ones I’d forgotten to do through the night and before I left. Needed to watch out for that. It would be hard enough to assemble that nanite colony even if I adhered to a perfect schedule. Miss too many and that week could easily turn into months of work.

 

In order to get a good sense of how the nanites treated damage due to exercise I needed to perform an activation under a scanner following the harshest workout I could manage. That was why I was abandoning my usually measured pace in exchange for a speed usually reserved for cases of pursuit by large carnivorous predators. In short I was booking it like my life depended on it.

 

It nicely set me apart from all the happy Saturday joggers who looked so thrilled to be out in the stabbing sunlight of the hour of the damned. I don’t like this time of day when I see it from the front. Coming at it from the back adds a whole other element of disgust. Thankfully my desperate blitz of a pace blew past the casual morning canter of those mad people.

 

I deliberately ignored any claps or cheers of approval that came my way. I don’t need the endorsement of anyone who endures this time of day by choice.

 

I maintained the pace along the road to the bay, for the north leg of the Boardwalk, and nearly back to the midpoint before I crashed badly. It snuck up on me, but suddenly there was just nothing left in the tank. That ended with me half collapsed on a bench, soaked with sweat, and panting like my life depended on it.

 

Despite the less than noble posture it seemed if you were wearing nice workout clothes you were allowed to lounge on the Boardwalk while trying to figure out if your lugs had actually exploded, or just felt like they did. I even got some more of those encouraging looks from the early morning joggers. God I hated them. Stop being friendly! I’m not one of you!

 

It turned out to be something of a blessing that I was sitting down because the Celestial Forge circled around again, once again bringing the Size constellation into reach. My power connected to a similar mote to my previous one, but this was only two motes clustered rather than twelve. I had enough reach to secure connections with both of them at which point I found out exactly what they were and was very glad that I had not been sprinting at a mad pace when this hit me.

 

Certain motes had a kind of similar feel to them. For instance, any motes clustered together had a similar association. It was less common, but there were motes that weren’t connected that had a sense of familiarity. Fingers of Silver and Bling of War had some association, but I had no idea what it was. My latest power had a similar relationship, but the nature of it was blindingly obvious.

 

The motes were called Science! Mechanics and Science! Engineering and they were the same kind of power as Master Builder. Where that power had been a civilization’s worth of technology these two contained the theory and principles behind it. With these two powers I had a crazy mechanical society’s equivalent of a PhD in both topics. The raw information had been hard to deal with. This power brought insight, nuance, and experience. There was less information but it was so much richer that I had to struggle to keep my mind straight. It made me long for the feeling of my neural interface and the sensation was made so much worse by the way my legs and lungs were currently screaming at me.

 

I did my best to push aside the perspectives that were making my current existence an unfamiliar sensation and focused on what I would be able to do with these powers. Master Builder had been an incredible ability, but I was limited to the applications of technology as it presented them. My new abilities gave insight into the theory and development behind that technology. I could actually come up with workarounds for some of the obstacles and resource constraints I’d been suffering under. It would be enough for me to develop my own new branch of applications rather than use standard configurations or jury rigged human technology.

 

Okay, not that I needed reminding here, but that’s five quarters total for the jar. I committed to set it up as soon as I got back and worked to pull myself off the bench. Despite the difficult mental state I managed a stable jogging pace on the way back to my apartment. As I ran I reviewed the mental shifts I was dealing with. Previously I had danced around this issue with terms like inhuman mindset or mechanical perspective, but at this point there was no reason to be coy. This shit had come from robots.

 

I had the technology and science of an entire civilization of space age robots floating through my head. I didn’t really know what to make of that. This was a serious step away from just having an abnormal tinker power. It was full on alien conspiracy stuff. Between the Celestial Forge and the reality of multiple universes that we all lived with it shouldn’t be that hard to believe, but there’s a big difference between something as a concept and having that something as part of your own personal experience. I did my best to hold on to the mantra of the Celestial Forge. Fiat backed. It just works. That would be a lot easier to accept if I wasn’t trying to parse personal lived experience of a robotic existence at the moment.

 

I made it back to my apartment drenched in a layer of sweat that wasn’t entirely due to the intensity of my workout. The first thing I did was dig out an old jar, currently holding various pens and small knickknacks. I dumped them into a random drawer and set the jar on the counter of the kitchenette. This might be an empty gesture, but I needed to keep an eye on this thing. One after another five quarters dropped into the jar. The act actually made me feel a little better about the whole situation.

 

I hoped I wouldn’t run into any powers in the forge with worse mental effects than this, but some of those motes were terrifyingly powerful. Something that strong acting directly on my mind would have a serious impact no matter what my hopes were. I just had to deal with it. Already the new information was becoming less distracting. I didn’t know about long term effects, but that’s what the jar was for. That’s right, I might have a cosmic power warping my mind in a way I couldn’t control or understand, but I also have a jar of coins!

 

Sarcasm is damn essential for stress management and anyone who says otherwise is a filthy liar.

 

Before I moved to the Laboratorium to carry out the point of this whole endeavor I went to check on Garment. She was still typing on her laptop in the workshop, only now she would type two or three letters, check the screen, then press the approve button. It wasn’t that much of an improvement, but it probably more than doubled her typing speed.

 

She jumped up when I entered and gestured me over. From the look of things she was alternating between her introduction thread on PHO and her twitter account, which had picked up a few hundred followers in the time I’d been gone. She excitedly directed me to a personal message announcing that her ban was under review and she should expect an update later in the day. Her account currently had an Unverified Cape tag on it, but another message explained that was tied to forum policies regarding public appearances.

 

 Her discussion thread also seemed to be picking up steam. I checked on the first page.

 

♦ Topic: Garment Discussion Thread

In: Boards ► Places ► America ► Brocton Bay ► Capes ►

Tin_Mother (Original Poster) (Moderator)

Posted On Apr 16th 2011:

In response to the recent announcement post I have created this thread for discussion of the newly debuted cape, Garment. Confirmation efforts are still ongoing, but there is sufficient confidence in the details that have been provided to staff to justify opening this thread.

 

(Showing page 1 of 23)

►SackBagger

Replied On Apr 16th 2011:

Fake

 

►Great_Divide (Veteran Member)

Replied On Apr 16th 2011:

Who the hell would put that level of effort into faking a webcam quality video?

 

► SackBagger

Replied On Apr 16th 2011:

Ploy to get people to buy into it. You can tell by the reflections, the whole thing is CGI.

 

►Tumbles

Replied On Apr 16th 2011:

Isn't that the guy that was trolling boards all night?

 

►Noddy

Replied On Apr 16th 2011:

Girl, by the looks of things.

 

► SackBagger

Replied On Apr 16th 2011:

Neither, it's a fake.

 

►Great_Divide (Veteran Member)

Replied On Apr 16th 2011:

So your theory is someone joined the forum, trolled in a very specific way in order to get banned, reached out to the mods for a single thread exception and then posted a specifically prepared video with what would take thousands of dollars in CGI all for the purposes of deceiving a bunch of cape forum yahoos?

 

This thread came from a mod and required a ban exemption for the post to be made. Something has happened behind the scenes here that's more complicated than someone pulling a lame prank.

 

►Forgotten Specter

Replied On Apr 16th 2011:

Cape Forum Yahoos Represent!

 

Seriously though, shouldn't it be Garment Gloves? Garmentgloves? How is that supposed to go?

 

►Great_Divide (Veteran Member)

Replied On Apr 16th 2011:

Garment comes from the Mod, so I'm guessing that's the cape name? Could be difference between screen name and hero name, or even first name last name. There's clearly been some PMs going on here.

 

End of Page.   1, 2, 3 ... 21, 22, 23

 

Rather than dig through twenty pages of similar material just I jumped to the end.

 

(Showing page 23 of 23)

►RowOver

Replied On Apr 16th 2011:

Holy Shit, Invisible Fashion Cape!

 

►BB_Fashionista

Replied On Apr 16th 2011:

God, read the previous posts. It's not invisibility. At 2:34 you can see a piece of lint moving through where her head and body would be. It's either selective intangibility or some kind of telekinetic projection.

 

►Asian_American_Doll

Replied On Apr 16th 2011:

It's probably Parian. She's just doing everything from off camera.

 

►BB_Fashionista

Replied On Apr 16th 2011:

For fuck sake, not this again. For the hundredth time there's no way this is Parian. Parian doesn't make bias cut evening dresses in a modernization of Madeleine Vionnet's 1930's style. Parian hasn't touched bias cut since her first attempt got panned during New York Fashion Week back in September 2009. I don't know if you ever watched one of Parian streams but their techniques are completely different. The embroidery alone should tell you that.

 

I’m sick and tired of making this point. But maybe your right, Maybe Parian decided to create a new online identity and coordinate postings at the same time she was guest co-hosting on the Fashion East-North-East podcast. Maybe she set all this up, the ban, the mod appeal, the new identity despite the fact that it's grounds for having your main account suspended, because it's not like forum rules apply to capes. Maybe she did all this to premiere an actual innovative style and show she's finally moving in a new direction.

 

If seriously she did all that I could totally forgive her for the fact that her fall 2010 line was just the second bustle era with shorter hemlines and no color sense, but somehow I doubt it.

 

►Asian_American_Doll

Replied On Apr 16th 2011:

God damn, can anyone on this forum mention Parian without BB_Fashionista having to write an essay in response? And you're crazy. The fall 2010 line was her best work to date and it's sad that you can't see that.

 

►Dingo_Day

Replied On Apr 16th 2011:

Guys, we're getting off topic. Can we talk about how crazy it is that Brockton Bay has more than one telekinetic fashion cape? What do they put in the water up there?

 

►BB_Fashionista

Replied On Apr 16th 2011:

We certainly have more than one telekinetic cape, I'll give you that.

 

►Asian_American_Doll

Replied On Apr 16th 2011:

Ladies and gentleman, a cheap shot from BB_Fashionista that doesn't read like they're being paid by the word. Will wonders never cease?

 

►Tin_Mother (Moderator)

Replied On Apr 16th 2011:

I'm getting tired of saying this, but move the Parian discussion to her own thread or take it to PMs. There will be no more warnings.

 

End of Page.   1, 2, 3 ... 21, 22, 23

 

Well, that got more heated than I anticipated, but cape debates are inevitable and have a tendency to fly off the rails. I quickly skimmed Garment’s introduction thread. Fortunately with the video out there people seemed to be taking her one word replies in good humor. They weren’t getting much detail, but anyone who complained about it got shouted down pretty fast. It was incredible how quickly the tone of a site changed, or at least the tone of the members willing to post on a cape’s introduction thread.

 

I felt the Celestial Forge again and braced myself. Getting caught up on Garment’s reception had nicely distracted me from the impact of my last power, but now everything was flooding back to me. As I watched the approaching constellation most of my concerns vanished. Toolkits. The constellation that had given me my workshop and Laboratorium. I didn’t know how many workshop upgrades were in there as opposed to actual toolkits, but I was desperate for more work space. The only disheartening thing was how short my reach was after securing the last two powers.

 

Fortunately I managed to connect with something. Unfortunately it was the smallest mote in the constellation, possibly the smallest in the entire Celestial Forge. It was actually two motes, not related in any way, just bunched up to look like a normal mote. The toolkit constellation had finally given me some tools.

 

The first mote was called Diagnostic Tools. To my understanding it was a small set of scanners connected to a display screen that allowed diagnostic work on both simple and advanced technology. Nowhere near as good as my Laboratorium but infinitely more portable. I would have to examine it to determine the exact limits and how well it compared, but it presented opportunities in the field I just didn’t have before and might even allow rapid, if superficial, analysis of tinker tech.

 

The second item was called Micromanipulators. These were a set of mechanical gloves that allowed precision work to the level a single micron. While I had been working a thousand times finer than that in my nanoforge these would let me extend high precision to every task I undertook, even those outside of a crafting and research environment. Once again, the limits and potential could only be guessed at before I had a chance to examine them, and unfortunately I had more pressing concerns.

 

“I’ve got to run some tests in the Laboratorium. Are you alright here?”

 

Garment gave me an affirmative gesture and bid me farewell. As a pleasant surprise so did the copy of Survey running on the laptop. It was an impressive amount of development, though dealing with forum posts would likely do that. I would need to spend more time monitoring both programs in the neural interface, but that was on a long list of projects I was working to tackle.

 

I did take enough time to check on the new arrivals. A pair of new lockers had been added to the entry way. One had a nearly industrial look to it and swung open to reveal a flat screen the size of my palm. There were various ports with cables attached to them that led to an array of scanners and probes. I would need to take a closer look to get a sense of the range and level of detail of its scans.

 

The next locker was sleek and futuristic, just a white metal panel recessed into the wall. Rather than swing open the panel slid apart with a smooth hydraulic motion. Inside were stands holding a pair of mechanical gloves that would extend to the elbow when worn. There was a dark layer of some synthetic material covered with metallic structures that looked almost skeletal. Around the wrists, knuckles, and elbows were bulges representing the clusters of precise servos and artificial muscles that provided the level of precision that the gloves were capable of. Once again, incredibly useful, but a project for later. The longer I left this examination the less accurate the data would be.

 

Actually, if I was being examined I’d need someone else to operate the scanner. I didn’t want to tear Garment away from her laptop and frankly given her skill with a conventional keyboard I didn’t trust her to operate a gothic computer shrine. Fleet had shown serious improvements and should be able to manage a basic series of operations at this point. I guided him out of the workshop and through the door to the Laboratorium.

 

I knew my Laboratorium didn’t like magic. I knew my Laboratorium didn’t like alien lifeforms. At this point I should be used to the idea of my Laboratorium randomly freaking out over stuff brought into it. Despite that I wasn’t prepared for every skull in the cathedral sized room to start convulsing at the site of my motoroid walking inside.

 

Apparently the systems in the Laboratorium took issues with robots. Well, specifically artificially intelligent robots, or as the computers insisted on calling them, Abominable Intelligences. It was a level of panic I couldn’t even override. Every computer in the room was going into lockdown and cutting itself off from connections like it was about to be infected by some invisible plague. Only the skulls remained operational and they were definitely not happy.

 

I couldn’t understand it. I knew there were the equivalences of A.I. in some of the Laboratorium’s systems. Ok, they were referred to as machine spirits, but they were a lot more advanced than Fleet. Why were they acceptable and not my driving program?

 

I had to dig into the documentation to figure out what was going on. By that I mean actual paper documentation. I didn’t even know that existed, but apparently there was a hardcopy reference library included with the lab. The shelves were just usually covered with a series of murals depicting nine figures posing in heavy armor with advanced weapons. Eight men of various levels of gruffness, their armor a spectrum of colors, and one beautifully depicted woman with angel wings and golden armor. The entire assembly slid open to reveal a density of literature I hadn’t encountered since the hell that was my second year engineering research project.

 

Fortunately the reference library had its own set of skulls. There was something about them that just conveyed a sense of librarian. There’s a certain aura to that profession that can’t be dispelled even when reduced to a skinless head suspended on a coil of servo cables. They somehow managed to convey both annoyance and helpfulness at the same time as they directed me to a volume that would put phone books to shame. Luckily they were also able to direct me to the relevant section.

 

In short, in order to get the place out of lockdown I needed to confirm the limits of the program’s development to ensure that it was an upstanding automaton rather than some renegade A.I. out to devour all innocent circuitry that crossed its path. By the way, that was a direct quote. That task could be accomplished by verification of the programs resources, parameters, and hardware through an isolated terminal. Once that was passed I had to move on to the induction process.

 

Just to getting the green light from the analysis wasn’t enough to appease my lab systems. No, there needed to be a specific ceremony before they would accept my motoroid’s presence. Which is why I was watching a skull reverently attach a wax seal to a strip of inscribed parchment and mount it to my robot’s chassis. It seemed like pointless showmanship, but once the blob of wax was stamped with that image of a two headed eagle every system in the room immediately relaxed. It was a seemingly arbitrary requirement and while I was worried about running into any more of these limitations I wasn’t going to trudge through that entire library trying to figure out the arcane procedures for this place. Not until Bakuda was no longer a threat.

 

With the seal in place the skulls were more than happy to assist Fleet in operation of the Laboratorium’s systems. I stood in one of the larger bays and ran a full activation of nanites as the scanners spun around me. The faint blue glow of the circuitry lines contrasted sharply with the eerie gloom of the room’s ambient lighting. I ignored everything around me and focused on the effects of the activation.

 

The burning in my legs vanished almost immediately. The physical edge of my fatigue went along with it, though I was still mentally exhausted. I felt energy return to me as the machines worked. It was almost as if the effects of the run were being erased, which was actually my concern.

 

When I stopped noticing any more changes I let the nanites stand down and checked the sensor readings. There was a chance that I had just wiped out all the benefits of my morning exercise. If that was the case nanite extraction would get complicated and probably be limited to a single burst on rest days. Fortunately that couldn’t be further from the case.

 

I scrolled through the sensor data and watched the work of the nanites. Given how advanced they were I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it was still impressive to watch. They weren’t just fixing damage, they were extrapolating natural recovery, including the benefits of exercise. The effects weren’t being erased, they were being accelerated. I could probably do a week’s worth of high intensity workouts in a single day, break them up with nanite repair sessions, and immediately get the full benefit of the exercise. It effectively truncated my training program.

 

There was also an alert from the historic analysis of the Laboratorium. It seemed the sensors had recorded a related phenomenon earlier. I drew up the record and immediately recognized the potential.

 

Life Fibers.

 

My brief contact with life fibers had been recorded by the Laboratorium’s sensors. The manner in which they stressed the body was connected with my post workout condition. Essentially contact with life fibers counted as serious strain on the body’s systems, but in a generally non-damaging way. With standard recovery periods it could function as accelerated physical conditioning. Except with my nanites I could reduce the recovery period to mere minutes. Repeated life fiber exposure could quickly bring me to peak human condition, potentially further given the symbiotic enhancement the fibers were capable of. I wouldn’t even need to used them in the field, they could be my training regimen and condense weeks or months of work down to hours.

 

I suppressed a yawn as I considered the implications. There would be no more morning runs. I wouldn’t have to bother with weight training. That planned calisthenics program could be abandoned. I’d have no need to run early in the day. Without having to carefully monitor my nutrition I could eat normally, saving time and money. I could abandon the planned expansions of my conditioning program. I wouldn’t have to wake up early to fit cardio training into my schedule. I would have more desperately needed time for tinkering. I would be able to sleep in.

 

I looked to the stasis field where the spool of life fibers was suspended and started considering the best experimental procedure for this project. Fleet would be essential since robots didn’t have any biology that would trigger or attract the fibers. With that I’d be able to devise a system of controlled exposure. If it worked the way the scans suggested then I’d be able to create a regime of brief exposure and recovery that would completely take the place of all of my physical development work.

 

When I had completed my preparations the final apparatus involved both myself and the motoroid in one of the larger bays with continually active sensors. The spool was locked down in an improvised vice with a carefully controlled length of life fibers strung between the robot’s arms like a cat's cradle. It would provide a large area of contact while still being controlled enough to facilitate an abort if needed. I was preparing for contact using my forearm while ready for retreat in the event of any mishaps. The fibers had been completely inert during the setup procedure, but I remembered how they moved the last time I experimented with them.

 

The Celestial Forge missed a connection with the Magic constellation just as I was finishing preparations. I stifled a yawn and shook the cobwebs out of my head. Nanites were great for physical refreshment, but that did precisely jack for my mental state. I should probably get some sleep after this experiment was complete.

 

I considered my safety procedures. I had gotten my hyper alloy shin guard, so in the event of any kind of breach I would be safe until I can contain the fibers. I doubt that will be a problem since they’re being restrained by my motoroid who’s made of the same stuff. My nanites should be able to mitigate any bodily effects from contact with the life fibers. In an emergency the bay’s stasis field controls were within arm’s reach. The narrow field configuration would catch the motoroid but also immobilize the fibers.

 

I braced myself, checked the scanner inputs, and laid the back of my forearm against the mesh of fibers. The glow that burst from them dwarfed the emission seen during the previous experiment. It was actually painful to look at, but that was nothing compared to the feeling of power extending up my arm and into my body. It was electrifying and overwhelmed my senses.

 

That was probably why I didn’t register the creak of metal until it was too late. There was a wrenching crash as the fibers snapped together, tearing the motoroid’s limbs apart and ensnaring my entire arm. The sensation of energy and power I’d been struggling elevated to insane levels as they wrapped around me. With my entangled state the stasis controls were out of reach. Even if I could activate them they would do nothing to the portion of the fibers that had pulled away from the spool. I heard a warning beep from the terminal’s biometrics and channeled all my focus to the activation of my nanites.

 

Blue lines clashed with red as more and more of the thread spun its way around my body, knocking me to the ground. Fleet struggled futilely with the shattered remains of the motoroid’s arms in an effort to keep the spool contained. Even if the motoroid form wasn’t crippled it was doubtful anything could be accomplished against them. The level of restraint necessary had been badly miscalculated. My analysis had been of the fibers in their dormant state. They were an entirely different beast when connected to a host.

 

The restoration effect of my nanites proved to be a double edged sword. It was preventing any serious harm from being caused by the fibers, but also creating an essentially infinite feast for the creature that had been trapped in hibernation for Lord knows how long. The result was a level of activity that dwarfed the reactions seen before and eclipsed even my most aggressive estimates. Steam started to fill the examination bay as sweat began to boil off my skin. My exercise clothing began to singe under the fibers grip, its enhanced durability no match for the exotic energies they were putting out. Anywhere fibers touched skin they glowed like a magnesium flare, sending waves of power through my muscles, but they were still useless against the strength of the threads. My body felt hot and cold and electrified all at the same time. Flesh bulged around the fibers as they pulled against both the strength of my reinforcement and the restorative power of my nanites.

 

The nanites were the only thing letting me survive this mess. Theoretically I could last as long as they held out, which thanks to their flagrant disregard for conservation of energy and mass would be until I could no longer direct them. So I was trapped here until I passed out at which point the fibers would drain me dry.

 

This had been a bad idea. It was inevitable really. No good ideas happened after 3:00am. I knew that before I got my powers, but it was only more evident now. Post-3:00am thinking had decided giving magic weapons to a teenage super villain was a great idea. Now post-3:00am thinking was responsible for an experiment with an alien parasite that amounted to sticking my arm into it to see what would happen. I needed to get serious about my sleep commitments if I was going to have any chance of surviving this cape thing.

 

My options for survival in the current situation weren’t exactly plentiful, but I had one hope. In a desperate bid I attempted to stretch the limits of my nanite control and reached out to the fibers entrapping me.

 

It was similar to my healing effect, but much more directed. When I said the fibers were impossibly thin I wasn’t kidding. The individual cells had a diameter that was barely recognizable on the nano scale. There was also an immediate restorative effect, so even if I could directly damage them with my nanites it would be instantly healed. But by propagating nanites through the structure of the fibers I could feel out the mass, including the complex energy discharges that passed for its cognitive processes. It took some work, but I was able to get a rough sense of what it was thinking, sort of.

 

Everything was instinctual, which was probably why I was able to piece it together. Any more complex thoughts would have been completely opaque. The drives were basic in the extreme. Connect. Feed. Grow. I couldn’t do anything about the first or last directive, but I extended my nanites and focused on the restorative effects I’d theorized about with my own healing.

 

The tiny machines flowed between the fibers and worked to supplement the energy flows they were pulling from my body. It didn’t loosen the grip, but the overwhelming surges of power flowing to and from my body dropped off and I could feel my head clear slightly. I got a sense of what might have been satisfaction from the fibers. It was difficult to understand and I wasn’t sure they were complex enough for emotional reactions, or even capable of such. Still, the current situation had definitely dropped the level of aggression I was experiencing.

 

It struck me again just how complicated this creature was. It was obviously sentient and had the potential to become sapient. It had its own drives and desires and the capacity for both restraint and, theoretically, reason. If it developed enough communication might just be a possibility. Of course, that relied on me being able to get out of this mess without being devoured.

 

Suddenly, miraculously, the life fibers pulled themselves off my skin. I watched in amazement as the entire mass uncoiled itself from my body and lifted into the air. It still glowed faintly, but nothing like the blinding radiance from before. As it departed I felt the tumultuous energy go with it, leaving me panting and exhausted, but finally safe. I lay on the floor staring at the floating assembly of thread and wondered just what had brought my salvation. Then I saw the white gloves.

 

“Garment?”

 

I twisted to see Garment’s form standing by the scanning bay gesturing casually at the massive alien parasite. The insane strength of the fibers seemed completely irrelevant to Garment’s telekinesis as she absentmindedly examined the hovering creature. It appeared that it didn’t matter what kind of force something could bring to bear. If it counted as sewing materials Garment could handle it.

 

“Garment.” I panted and struggled to pull myself to my feet. She reached down to gently help me up without as much as a tremble from the contained fibers. “Garment, thank you.” I glanced around. “How did you know what was happening?”

 

She gestured to the motoroid and then to her laptop, which was now sitting on one of the computer altars. Fleet and Survey. Of course they would be in communication. This was an excellent sign for their development. I really needed to check on that. I’d check later. Boy I was tired.

 

One of the skulls was reverently affixing a wax seal and scrap of parchment to the laptop’s case while Fleet looked on with what could be construed as pride. Yes that was good. Seriously, I was really, really tired.

 

“Thank you Garment. That was very good. Uh, be careful with those. Fleet knows where they go.” I looked at the damaged motoroid. I would have to fix that as well.  Huh, I wonder if I would be able to stand on my own without Garment’s support. Ok, that’s a nope, definitely not happening. Thank you Garment. Nice catch.

 

“The fibers are important. If you could help me with them they could do a lot of good.” She made a dismissive gesture of consent before pointing out my current state. The fibers had managed to burn dozens of lines through my workout clothes reducing them to shreds. The nanites had kept my body from ending up in a similar state, but weren’t able to counter all of the effects from removing the fibers. My brain felt like a lead brick.

 

“Right, I need to deal with that. And a bunch of other stuff. I’ll get to it.” I felt my eyelids droop. “I’m just going to take a little nap first.” And with that the Laboratorium and everyone in it faded from my senses as darkness swallowed me.

Chapter Text

I floated back to consciousness slowly, trying to piece my way through the soft and fuzzy feelings clouding my senses. It took me longer than it should have to figure out that the feelings weren’t artifacts of my mind, but rather physical parts of my surroundings. I was in bed. I was in a version of my bed that was a great deal softer and more comfortable what than I was used to. I blinked away the last of the sleep from my eyes and sat up in the dim light of my workshop entryway.

 

In addition to new sheets, new blankets and new pillows I was also in new pajamas. Really well made new pajamas, which meant Garment had put me to bed after that stupid mess with the life fibers. There was a flash of panic at that. I hadn’t exactly been able to get things safely stored away before I had ignobly collapsed. Then again, it seemed if anyone could keep a handle on those things it was Garment. The idea of Garment putting me to bed complete with custom made pajamas was a little weird, but I had another pressing concern that was overriding ever one of those worries. A concern serious enough to drag me away from what seemed like the most comfortable bed I had ever experienced in my life.

 

I was absolutely starving.

 

Seriously, I don’t remember the last time I had been this desperate for food. My mouth was watering just at the prospect of some of the cardboard flavored health food I’d been subsisting on since my trigger. I was so desperate for anything to eat that it felt like I was being dragged towards the workshop door solely by the will of my stomach.

 

When I pulled the door open I saw garment sitting at my old desk with her laptop active in front of her. My motoroid was sitting on the floor next to her, its robot form, its arms now ending in a shattered mess. I would have to deal with that. After food. The Celestial Forge missed a connection to the toolkits constellation as I stumbled into my apartment.

 

Garment jumped up as soon as I entered and rushed over. I waved her off as I pushed through to the kitchenette. “Yes, thanks. Really, really starving. Talk later.”

 

That didn’t stop her from hovering after me as I stumbled through the overly narrow shape of my apartment. My motoroid was attempting to follow as well, but between its missing hands and the magnitude of its weight compared to the durability of the apartment floor it moved significantly more cautiously than Garment.

 

I wrenched open the door of my small refrigerator and frantically searched for anything with nutritional value. Taste, texture, and freshness were completely irrelevant at this point. All I wanted was something technically eatable that I could get into my body.

 

Fun fact; if you’re hungry enough yogurt counts as a beverage, and when properly motivated it is indeed possible to shotgun a family sized container in one go.

 

I’m not sure if Garment was concerned by the fact that I was powering through every piece of food I had that was technically edible without needing to be cooked. Generally she seemed to be happy I was on my feet and only expressed unease when I was attempting to consume something that put the new pajamas at risk of serious staining. I had reached the point where I was seriously considering if lentils could be eaten raw when the ring of my cellphone brought me back to my senses.

 

The first thing that jumped into my head was the fact that I had a therapy appointment today. I had diligently not been thinking about it since Dr. Campbell had called to confirm and I had a brief flash of panic at the prospect that I might have overslept and missed it. That was resolved and replaced with a whole new level of concern as I realized the situation.

 

It wasn’t my personal phone. It was my ‘work’ phone.

 

I quickly grabbed it from the shelf. Unlike my civilian phone the rebuilt power cell would last for weeks, so it didn’t need to live on a charger. I saw Brian’s number on the display and quickly answered.

 

“Hello?” I tried to keep my voice level. There were all kinds of horrible things that this could involve. The best case scenario was a business call for more tinkering work, but that would be fairly short notice. I really hoped they weren’t calling in emergency medical services already.

 

“Joe?” Brian’s voice wasn’t panicked, but there was a bit of unease to it. “Uh, I just wanted to let you know, that thing you said would happen happened.”

 

God, I was too hungry for this coded language stuff. “Look, you can talk straight. I’ve secured this line against anything short of a surveillance tinker. Actually...” I gestured to Garment and she brought over her laptop. A few commands to Survey got me an inside look at the telecom network. “...yeah, we’re clear of that. If anyone’s listening it’s not through the phone company.”

 

There was a pause before he spoke. “Right. Well, the knife you made? It just fixed itself. I was watching it and the blade showed back up out of nowhere.”

 

That made sense. I focused on its location. I wasn’t getting two readings any more, just one in the direction of the Undersiders’ base. I hoped that half of the knife disappearing from the protectorate headquarters wouldn’t cause any problems. It probably wouldn’t help with that ‘actually a shaker’ misconception, but at this point that was more their problem than mine.

 

“Oh, good. Guess this means you’ll be missing out on that kitchen set.”

 

“Yeah...” his voice trailed off. “About that. I wanted to ask you about the knives.”

 

“Is there something wrong with them?” There shouldn’t be. I mean, they had been a rush job and they weren’t my best work, particularly by my current standards, but they should be completely functional.

 

“No, that’s not it.” There was another pause. “Look, I talked with Lisa about this. She told me what it meant if the knives held up like you said, with the repair thing.”

 

I was still ferociously hungry. My early binge had pulled me back from the point where I was questioning the nutritional value of everything in front of me, but still left me at a point of calorie deficit that would normally require a half-marathon to build up. As I spoke I started tearing into cupboards looking for anything that could be eaten without prep work.

 

“What do you mean by ‘what it meant’?”

 

There was a pause before he replied. “Look, I know you cut us a deal on those knives, and I appreciate it. I’ve seen what people are saying about them online and I know we never would have been able to afford them if you had charged what they were worth.”

 

I did my best to push past the growling of my stomach to focus on what he was saying. I mean, it was obvious really. Tinker gear didn’t sell that often and even if the cost of the equipment and materials was factored in, my knives had been seen trumping power armor. Well, Kid Win tier power armor. I didn’t know how they’d fare against Armsmaster’s stuff. The fact was they basically negated most brute durability, at least if it wasn’t force field based. That was what, striker 3? Striker 4? I’m not sure where it stood, but power like that didn’t come cheap.

 

“Don’t worry about it. I was starting out and you were mostly on small time jobs. It’s not that strange to get a good deal at that point.”

 

“No, that’s not what I’m talking about.”

 

I considered things. “Is this about the prices for future work?” I hadn’t even considered that. Frankly I’d been able to coast off my initial supplies to the point where I had independent solutions to most of my logistics issues. Aside from a need for alchemy space, which I wasn’t going to farm out to their boss, there wasn’t much I could use the money for outside living expenses. Not without front companies or significant money laundering efforts. Actually, I might be able to handle that myself at this point, since it just meant some basic manipulation of human financial records.

 

I bit my tongue at that and hunted around for another quarter.

 

“Actually it’s about what we paid for your last work.” If he heard the coin drop into the jar over the phone he didn’t say anything about it.

 

“Like, as a reference for stuff going forward?”

 

“No, look. With that repair thing Lisa told us what they’re probably worth. I figured you were giving us a good discount. I didn’t think we were paying what amounted to a rounding error on the final value.” He actually sounded upset at the concept. Brian did kind of strike me as the type of person who like to deal with people in an upfront manner.

 

“You’re upset I didn’t charge you more?”

 

“Well, I would like to know why you didn’t. I also wanted to make sure you didn’t’ think we’d cheated you out of the better part of a million dollars and end up trying to settle things.”

 

“It’s not a...” what he said punched through my hunger and sleep addled mind. “Seriously? That much?”

 

Brian sounded slightly nervous as he replied. “Probably? Even Lisa said she didn’t have a good reference point for this. Thanks to those things, apparently the whole team’s been rated striker three...” Ha, I was right. “...and there’s not much precedent for the cost of that kind of permanent power up, so best guess was a couple hundred thousand each.”

 

And probably significantly more for Taylor, but he wasn’t bringing that up, and probably for good reason. Based on the display from her equipment I was guessing the cost for her gear would be close to the rest of the Undersiders’ weapons put together.

 

I tested the edibility of a dry lentil as I replied. “So you’re wondering why I let them go for that kind of price?” It was tough, difficult to chew, and generally unpleasant. Pretty much a food of last resort. I elected to only eat half a handful as I waited for Brian’s response.

 

“It was a bit of a concern, yes.”

 

I considered what I could say. Really, I had barely considered the implications when I offered to make the knives. God, that seemed like ages ago. That had been the absolute peak of my skill when I made them, now it was something barely worth the effort. That didn’t seem like the best answer for Brian. I seriously doubted that lamenting on how worthless they were by my current standards would do much for his state of mind. I swallowed the last of the dry lentils and decided to take my best swing at a response.

 

“Honestly, I don’t have a good answer for that.”

 

“Seriously?”

 

“Look, I know you’re used to working with Lisa and dealing with plans five levels deep on a four dimensional chessboard, so this might seem like a step down.”

 

“She’s not really that bad.”

 

“Not my point. Really, what it came down to was I needed some starting cash and I got the sense that you would be all right to work with.” Wasn’t as convinced now as I had been then, but that probably wouldn’t do much for his state of mind.

 

“That’s it?”

 

“Pretty much? I’m not likely to offer that kind of deal again, even for you guys. Lisa’s already negotiated some incredibly cheap medical coverage, and that’s likely to be it for a while.”

 

“I’m sorry, what? When?”

 

“Oh yeah, last night. She’s probably been tied up, what with that thing with Panacea and everything. She didn’t fill you in?”

 

“Panacea? And no, she didn’t. Said she’d have an update for me later. We’ll need to have a talk about the importance of sharing information.”

 

“Well, it just happened last night. Also open communication doesn’t seem like her strong suit.”

 

 “You have no idea.” There was a sigh. “So you have healing tech now?”

 

I scanned the fridge and considered the nutritional value of possibly expired condiments. “Yeah, she worked out a deal for it. You should get the details from her.”

 

“Oh, I will.” There was a pause. “Uh, are you doing alright? You seem a bit off.”

 

I blinked. “Right, sorry. I just woke up and I’m still a little out of it.”

 

“Late night?”

 

“Actually I was trying out an experiment and it got away from me. Knocked me out for...” I checked my watch. “Jesus, six hours?”

 

“Uh, is everything okay?”

 

“Yeah, it’s fine. I got them back in containment.” I paused, pulled the phone away from my ear and turned to Garment. “You did get them back into containment, right?” There was an affirmative gesture. “Properly contained? In the stasis field? You didn’t just lock them up somewhere, right?” Another affirmative gesture, mirrored by my motoroid to the best of its ability. A glance at the laptop showed a report from Survey of the status of the Life Fibers suspended in one of the scanning bay’s stasis fields.

 

I pulled the phone back to my ear. “It’s fine. Everything’s under control.” There was silence on the line. “Hello?” No response. “Brian?” I checked the status from Survey’s assessment of the telecommunications network. “I know the call hasn’t dropped. Is there some problem on your end, or...”

 

“It’s fine. There’s no problem at all.” Brian was speaking very quickly as he answered. “I mean, if you’re sure you’re alright?”

 

I considered things. “There might be some muscle atrophy, but that’s kind of expected.” My stomach rumbled and I looked through my fridge again. “I’ll have to manage that better, but it shouldn’t be a problem in the future. So are we good?” I was probably a bit too eager to get off the call. I was already considering the nearest fast food restaurant and how big an order I could get away with without rousing suspicion. To make matters worse I missed a connection to the Magitech constellation from the Celestial Forge. Damn it, why did that constellation have so many powerful motes? Unless I had built up immense reach before it showed up there was just no way to land a connection.

 

“Yeah, as long as you’re okay with the knife thing then we’re good. I just wanted to make sure everything was on the level.”

 

I wondered if he had to do that often when working around Tattletale. How much time did he spend sorting out her nonsense? Probably too much. There wasn’t enough money in the world to get me to take his job.

 

And money was what this came down to. Sure, apparently I could make a million dollars’ worth of tinker tech in a day, but that was market dependent. The Undersiders wouldn’t have been able to afford the actual value, and anyone who could have wouldn’t be paying that on a daily basis. What was the actual market for purchased powers? There was something there that my passenger was trying to hint at, but I couldn’t put it together from the information I had.

 

I guess his main concern was that Tattletale had done something that ended up royally pissing someone off and created a situation much more dangerous than the one she had ‘resolved’. It was probably a fairly common occurrence and it made sense that he would want to make sure the group didn’t have a pissed off tinker after them for being cheated out of seven figures in commissions. Particularly one with inside knowledge of their base and who could probably hire any mercenary team on the planet in exchange for a few hours of tinkering work.

 

“The deal’s the deal. You won’t find me arguing about it now. Like I said, you’re probably not going to get that kind of bargain again, but for this one...”

 

“I understand. Thanks for being above board on this.”

 

“Right. Call me if anything comes up.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

I ended the call and realized that I had effectively run out of easy to access food. My options were to power through dry ingredients, take the time to actually prepare something, or completely abandon my diet and head for the nearest fast food place.

 

I don’t think I’ve ever gotten changed so quickly in my life. I would guess it took less than a minute for a complete turnaround, and explanation to Garment, and I was out the door and hunting for food. There were more concerns here, both physically and what was happening with the Undersiders, but those could wait until after my stomach stopped screaming at me.

 

The nearest fast food place to my apartment was a tiny outlet of some third party pseudo-chain that I’m not sure even existed outside this state. It was called Burger Shed, and rather than compete with the big chains on quality, price, or service it seemed to be operating under the business model of putting outlets in areas major chains wouldn’t touch. There was a certain logic to it. A McDonalds or KFC in this part of the docks would be robbed on a weekly basis. Who the hell would try to stick up Burger Shed? Yeah, the take might be roughly the same, but the place gave the impression of completely matching the destitution of the area. It was that special kind of urban camouflage that seemed to have evolved in the docks, safety by avoiding attention.

 

Despite being designed like it was a placeholder for a real restaurant it did have a decent menu, and fortunately almost no line. I don’t think they got that much of a lunch rush, but I seemed to have just missed it. I badly wanted to place an order that would make the Fugly Bob Challenger seem like a health conscious meal, but was able to hold myself back. It wasn’t like a big order would immediately point towards me being a cape, and there could be all kinds of reasons for it, I’d just prefer to maintain something of a low profile. I had just been lamenting on the importance of avoiding attention, and I could still get a decent amount of calories with a somewhat sane order.

 

Hey, if I got take out I could pretend to be ordering for two.

 

Thus I was walking back to my apartment with two jumbo shack combos with double fries and a pair of large milkshakes, the first of which I’d killed before I’m made it a block from the restaurant. Already I was feeling more clear headed. Despite the fact that I questioned whether anything approaching a milk product had been included in the shakes, they at least had enough calorie density that I no longer felt like my internal organs were digesting themselves.

 

With a break from the mind consuming appetite I was able to start evaluating the actual situation. My experiment with the life fibers, which was still a stupid move, had clearly taxed my system in a way that my nanites couldn’t fully compensate for. Hopefully it was just a matter of metabolism and my impromptu binge would address it, but I couldn’t know that until I got a look at my scans.

 

I entered my apartment to find Garment, my damaged motoroid, and the modified laptop all waiting for me in the kitchenette. Garment looked a little off put by my sudden departure and return, but there was nothing but blank acknowledgement from the two A.I.s.

 

“Sorry, whatever happened with the fibers left me starving.” I considered things. “That might have been actually starving. I need to check on the effects after I eat.” Garment shifted from annoyance to concern as I started wolfing down the combo meals. I think at least part of that concern was the proximity of grease and condiments to the clothing she had recently crafted. I did my best to eat carefully, despite the fact that I probably wouldn’t have bothered removing the paper wrappers from the hamburgers in any other circumstance. I don’t think I was even tasting half of the meal as I powered through it. If this was what life fibers did to a person’s metabolism I would probably need a giant platter of fried food each night just to break even.

 

I glanced over at my ‘work’ phone as I ate. There were definitely some aspects of that conversation I could have handled better. Ok, pretty much everything about the Life Fibers experiment should have been left out. It wasn’t enough to reveal anything, but I doubt it did much for Brian’s piece of mind. His reaction was understandable. If I’d gotten any other power set and found out a tinker had sold me several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of gear for a sliver of the price I’d also be looking for the catch. Either you were a pawn in some scheme, or you were dealing with someone notably unstable. Regrettably I think I gave the impression that it was the second one, and that wasn’t too far off from the actual situation. There’s no way to explain my reasoning without a full breakdown of how my powers work, and that was just not happening. I’m going to have to deal with the fact that the leader of the Undersiders now thinks he’s dealing with a seriously unstable tinker.

 

Not a great situation, but I could work with it. At least it could buy me some breathing room. That was an interesting thought. How much of the ‘deranged tinker’ thing villains put on was sincere and how much was an act to keep people from constantly pestering them? If someone thought you were half a second from breaking out the death rays they probably wouldn’t be too aggressive about commissions or service calls. There was probably a delicate balance to it, find a point where you were still approachable for serious matters without being constantly pestered.

 

That was getting kind of abstract. I had more pressing concerns, like figuring what the hell those life fibers had done to me and why I woke up ready to eat a week’s worth of food in one sitting. Even after that huge meal I was still just barely sated. This seemed like the kind of situation where people would joke about hollow legs.

 

Fortunately I had an excellent lab with all the intrusive scanners a person could ever want, which is where I found myself with my cadre of roommates hovering around the door, and I was counting the networked copy of Survey running on the laptop in that group.

 

It turned out the answer to what the life fibers had done was ‘a lot’. In more detail every level of augmentation they were capable of had been exercised to at least some degree during that less than consensual hug fest that Garment had saved me from. It was easy to assume life fibers just built muscle, and there was certainly some of that, but really these things were a force of evolution. There were alterations to my bones, tendons, proportions of fast twitch and slow twitch muscles, organ function, and even my peripheral nervous system. None of it was that drastic a change, but it was complex enough that the healing function of my nanites hadn’t been able to fully supplement the investment, thus the excessive food cravings. I still felt like I could work my way through a couple of pizzas without much of an issue. If I did go with life fibers for physical development I’d have to throw out my diet plan and replace it with something more in line with the heightened calorie needs. With the way my digestive system was going to town on what I had eaten so far it seemed like quantity heavily outweighed quality as far as my training diet went. I had lost a good amount of body fat from the previous event and didn’t want to think about what would happen if I really bottomed out.

 

Did I want to go forward with this plan? This lab wasn’t specialized for medical work, but it had the capacity to examine biomodifications and cybernetics to such a degree that it was good enough to give me a picture of what was happening. It was a definite upgrade. I couldn’t say how much, but everything indicated a slight increase in strength, durability, reflexes, endurance, and even cognitive function. There might have been some downsides to normal use, but my nanites dealt with whatever they were before the symptoms could appear. Overall the benefits were too significant to abandon this project.

 

I did need a way to properly moderate the level of contact, and fortunately Garment was hovering behind me while I worked. Her attention seemed to be split between my displays and the floating mass of life fibers suspended in a stasis field. With how neatly they were packed away you’d never guess they had almost taken me out of commission this morning.

 

“Garment? Could you help me with this?” She cautiously approached the terminal displaying holographic records of the previous encounter. I gestured towards the image. “I want to try this again.”

 

I had never seen that particular flavor of exasperation from Garment before. She stood there and gave the sense that she was waiting for me to recognize the stupidity of my previous statement.

 

“Ok, I know it seems crazy.” There was a flippant gesture from Garment. “But. But I know what went wrong last time. With your help I know I can do this properly.”

 

As Garment reluctantly considered things I felt the Celestial Forge again, this time bringing the Alchemy constellation into reach.  The mote I connected to was called Innate Talent: Alchemist. It considerably increased the versatility of what potions I could make.  Well, it would have if not for one problem. It gave me the ability to make true instant healing potions, but also to create potion versions of any spells I knew within the system of ranked spellcasting.

 

I did not know any spells within the system of ranked spellcasting. I didn’t even know there was a system of ranked spellcasting. Before I got this power I don’t think the system of ranked spellcasting actually existed.

 

There was the considerable advantage in that now that I knew it existed I could theoretically learn magic. It would run on mana, an internal energy source that I would at least be able to measure and quantify with my magitek equipment. The problem was that without a teacher, reference material or any examples to draw upon it could take ages to learn a spell. I would be flying blind here. In ideal situations a talented person could learn spells at a rate of about one month per tier. Without that support infrastructure it could take several times longer, and someone without talent could take years to learn even a simple spell. I may have a good grasp on science, but I wasn’t sure how much of that extended to magical principles.

 

The healing potions would have been enough to satisfy me, but having an entire system of magic dangled in front of me but kept just out of reach was infuriating. It would have spoiled my mood if not for one consolation from this ability. There was another mote attached to it. It effectively came with a free power on the side, one even smaller than the two I had received together from the Tookits constellation. And despite effectively being free it was unfathomably valuable to me. That was because my power had finally given me an alchemy lab.

 

Like my workshop it came stocked with a replenishing supply of reagents. Unlike my workshop the equipment wasn’t fixed. Somehow it would upgrade itself based on my level of skill, meaning I would automatically be able to manage every form of alchemy I had already learned. If I got additional abilities or increased my skill the equipment would upgrade itself. It was incredible and made my plans to attempt to brew potions in the basement of an abandoned factory look laughable.

 

I had to see this.

 

Garment seem to have realized something had happened because she had broken out of her contemplative posture and was making inquisitive gestures at me.

 

“Oh, new power. Alchemy, you know, potion making? This one came with a lab. Want to see it?”

 

There was moderate excitement from Garment, possibly because I was shifting focus to something less likely to get me killed. I exited the Laboratorium with Garment. Fleet’s motoroid trailed after us, cradling the laptop running a copy of Survey in its damaged arms. I really needed to deal with those. At least it could move normally inside the workshop rather than that ‘thin ice’ shuffle it hab been doing in the apartment to keep from damaging the floor.

 

It was kind of impressive that it had figured that out on its own. Both A.I.s would be getting close to the limits of their original parameters pretty soon. If I waited until I got a new power as a trigger for their growth I could tie upgrades to an undetectable event and keep precogs blind to the development of my A.I.s. It would also let them have a steady growth rate, so I wouldn’t feel like I was lobotomizing or brutally shackling them.

 

My entry room remained unchanged from the last time I had seen it, so there was a serious question of where the alchemy lab was. Checking the workshop door quickly answered that question.

 

Essentially the alchemy lab had been added next to the workshop. The space had been shuffled around to create a small hallway/entry space with doors to each of the workplaces. On the left was my metal workshop and on the right was the monstrosity that was my alchemist’s laboratory.

 

Monstrosity might have sounded like an overdramatic term, but I couldn’t think of a better word for it. The space was massive, not as bad as my Laboratorium but easily more than twice the size of my workshop. The truly monstrous part of it came from how it seemed to interpret the clause about upgrading equipment based on skill level.

 

My proficiency with alchemy was all over the place, and that was fully represented in the laboratory. I had basic chemistry knowledge from my own education, which was supplemented by my intelligence boosting powers. I now had four different alchemy powers which ranged from alchemy in name only to very specific potion brewing to full on Frankenstein-esk life creation. On top of that I had Master Builder and Grease Monkey which, while not specifically alchemy centric, did include a lot of chemistry knowledge, even if Master Builder treated organic interactions as something of a novelty.

 

To describe the end result imagine taking a set of a third rate occult horror film, a chemistry lab, an oil refinery, and a herbalist shop, and cramming them all into the engine room of a science fiction spacecraft. That was roughly what I was looking at. There was a ritual space set up bordering energized chemical conduits which ran above an array of impeccably crafted alembics and retorts. Distillation columns shared space with bags of dried reagents and runic plates. The entire place was a mess of contradicting applications.

 

Garment certainly seemed to think so as she wandered through the new addition to my workshop, poking the occasional piece of equipment or raw ingredient with clear apprehension. Her attitude suddenly changed when she reached a corner of the lab. Excitedly she waved me over. It took me a moment to figure out what had her so excited.

 

“Oh, right. It makes sense that dyeing would be included in this stuff.”

 

From Garment’s posture it was clear she did not appreciate my lack of enthusiasm over this discovery. It was a fairly impressive set up that could easily accomplish a pretty complex array of resist dyeing and other techniques. That didn’t exactly align with any of my alchemical knowledge, but it made sense under Decadence or one of my other aesthetic powers.

 

“I should probably sort this out properly. Do you want to...” I didn’t even get to finish my sentence before Garment began gathering up the equipment and scouting out the ideal location for it. The whole project ended up as a rough repeat of my realignment of the workshop, and once again my interior design power came through. In the end I managed to turn the random mess of a chemical workshop into something both functional and somewhat aesthetically pleasing. Shifting some of the heavier equipment did require a rushed repair of my motoroid, and I wasn’t at the point of running new conduits, so the piping had to be worked around. Still, it was at least a functional workspace by the end of it. I was even able to get the first of my potions brewing. It was bubbling in a beaker that belched blue smoke and smelled like a cabinet of cleaning supplies, but this place actually had proper ventilation so I didn’t have to worry about asphyxiating myself.

 

I moved over to the workspace that Garment had claimed with the confidence and determination of a British colonialist. She had already done an inventory of equipment and was digging into some of her discretionary budget to improve the stock of available dyes. She had been working some intricate pattern into a scarf and seemed to be considering adding another layer to the design when I approached. Upon seeing me she excitedly presented the item.

 

“Very nice work.” She beamed. “Garment, about the life fibers…” Her attitude shifted immediately, the enthusiasm draining out of her. “Garment, it’s important. It’s the kind of thing that could make a huge difference out there.”

 

She looked contemplative and gestured for me to continue.

 

“Something bad is coming. Something dangerous for the city and everyone in it. If I’m not ready I can only guess how bad things could get. The life fibers? They could make the difference. They could get me ready for a fight I wouldn’t be able to handle otherwise. Even if all they do is save me the training time that might allow enough extra crafting to make the difference.”

 

She looked conflicted and made an uneasy gesture.

 

“I know they’re dangerous. I don’t think I can do this safely without you, but I think I need to try it. Can you help me with this?”

 

There were some uneasy motions as she considered things. Unlike previous requests this didn’t come with a demand for payment or extra privileges for her. No, what she wanted took a lot more effort to communicate.

 

Which is why when we finally assembled in the Laboratorium I was wearing four additional pieces of protective equipment. My current load out included my original hyperalloy shin guard. At Garment’s insistence it had been joined by its counterpart on my other leg, this one carrying a plate of the most chemically inert material possible. If anything happened its reinforcement would be able to intercept any reactive effects of the life fibers. Similarly my bracer had been rebuilt into a precision matrix of reinforced metal with enough compression resistance that all the force the life fibers could exert wouldn’t be able to even dent my skin. My opposite shoulder was sporting a small pauldron of a rather complicated alloy of heavy metals and rare earth elements that should be able to resist the insane radiation the fibers could put out. Finally I had a chest plate of a seriously thermally resistant ceramic that I’d had to nanoforge. There was no chance of the fibers burning me or anything I was wearing this time.

 

All together it was an excessive amount of protection, especially with Garment managing the fibers, but she had insisted. She wouldn’t go forward until I could show I had accounted for every warning displayed on the earlier analysis. She also insisted on the five extra-large pizzas that were stacked next to the sensor bay where we were conducting the test. That was one part I was more in favor of since I’d pretty much cleared out the kitchenette in my earlier binge.

 

Finally she was satisfied that I wasn’t likely to kill myself and consented to begin the test. I rolled up my right sleeve and held out the arm. The stasis field around the fibers deactivated and Garment floated the spool over to me. Slowly she drew out the glowing red strand and assembled it in a cross work above my skin. At my signal she carefully lowered it to make contact.

 

There was the blast of energy again, but this time there was no movement from the fibers even as they lit up. I checked the readout for the status of my biometrics. The additional safeguards were definitely mitigating some of the damaging effects, but mostly it was Garment’s ability to moderate the intensity of the contact. With access to the scanner I could see the alterations caused by exposure to the fibers. Most of them were clearly temporary and sustained by the energy they were giving off, but some had permanent effects. Mostly simple stress based growth, but there were indications of ongoing developments like I had gotten hints of earlier. Life fibers seemed to want their host in the best shape possible, even if that required borderline bioengineering.

 

At my signal Garment pulled the fibers back and returned them to the stasis field. I felt the exhaustion hit as the energy dissipated and activated my nanites to try to compensate. With the scanner active I could see the effects in real time. Conventional damage was repaired but the serious advancements were too complicated for the nanites to compensate for. I felt a gurgle in my stomach and instinctively gravitated towards the pizza boxes. That was a very good call from Garment, even if I had gotten a weird look from the delivery guy. Still, a questioning glance from a random pizza employee is better than drawing attention from my neighbors, like the burger shop feast could have done.

 

As I worked my way through the pie I felt the Celestial forge again, this time connecting to a small mote from the Toolkits constellation. The result of this connection truly proved that I had no idea how any of this was supposed to work. I foolishly thought the Toolkits constellation contained tools. Well, tools and facilities for crafting things. Sure I had gotten the Life Fiber Spool from clothing, but that was an outlier. Garment also, but it wasn’t like she counted as a tool. Then Alchemy had rolled around and given me an entire chemical laboratory. Once again, a bit of an outlier. Then this mote came along and blew all my conceptions out of the water. For what it was worth it was called Class: Engineer, Specialization: Mechanic. It sounded a lot more innocuous than it was.

 

I mean, I could see why this was in the Toolkits constellation. I got a wonderful tool from it. I also got a suit of armor, a pistol, and various other supplies. The serious thing was that I also got the skill and, more importantly, the experience in how to use all that equipment.

 

Like with Master Builder I had gotten an entire life worth of experience from this one minor power. Thankfully it wasn’t from an inhuman perspective, but it was close. It was a complete set of training and experience in how to be a military space engineer. It wasn’t the technical stuff that was bothering me. Sure there were new technologies, new principles of physics, and new applications to deal with. Despite the volume of it I could actually handle it pretty well, probably because I already had so much of it that new technical information just wasn’t that disruptive anymore. No, it was everything else that was the problem.

 

I had military training. I knew elementary marksmanship and weapon discipline. I had the experience of basic training and how to function in a unit. I knew, like from personal experience, how to use the new skills I had just picked up in a combat situation. I knew how to be dangerous with the gear I’d been given.

 

The primary and most important piece of this was my omni-tool. It was amazing and something I would have loved to get my hands on ages ago. It was a wrist mounted combination of a super computer and micro fabricator. It was absolutely incredible in its utility, but even more so in its military applications, and the model I’d been given was fully combat ready. In addition to the horrifying potential of fabricating weapons mid battle it could also disrupt other technology, discharge incendiaries, or even launch drones at opponents. And that wasn’t even getting into the hacking and ECM applications.

 

But this wasn’t raw information. It was like I’d been trained to do it. Like I had personal experience on the battlefield, except I couldn’t give any details about what I’d done. It was experience without context and the contradiction was maddening.

 

It didn’t hit me like Master Builder had, but there was enough of a reaction that Garment was becoming concerned. I waved her off, making sure to keep the half eaten slice of pizza in my hand well away from her dress.

 

“I’m okay. It’s just a new power. Hit me pretty hard. Uh, I got some new stuff from it that I should check out soon.” She calmed substantially. Huh, I had both my micromanipulators and omni-tool. I was just racking up high precision crafting items today.

 

I needed to get away from the sense that I was suddenly a veteran, so I focused on the readings from the experiment. Everything I’d been looking for was there in addition to the more esoteric developments being introduced. None of those were negative, just something I would need to account for. I can only imagine how crazy a world that actually evolved under the influence of life fibers would be.

 

Still, it was a tragedy that I couldn’t utilize the energy of the life fibers. It was simply tremendous. It could easily take a person to the level of a mid-tier brute, and that was ignoring the side benefits of life fiber exposure. The problem was the detriments of life fiber exposure. It was easy to see why an entire alternate skill set was required to manage this kind of thing. Without a regulatory medium exposure would be a none-too-slow death sentence for anyone without innate restoration abilities that ignored physical limits. Even with my nanites working full blast to restore the damage I still couldn’t utilize the power the fibers granted because I couldn’t overpower the damn things. The only ways I could see this working would be to basically lobotomize them, somehow advance them enough that you could strike an accord, or come up with some way to overpower them. But good luck finding someone who could pull that off.

 

My eyes settled on Garment, white gloves and red evening dress, casually examining the glowing red spool.

 

That was an idea.

 

Was it a good idea? At the very least it was probably a better idea than most of the ones I’d had today.

 

“Garment?” She perked up. “First, thank you for your help. And for saving me last night. I couldn’t have done any of this without you.” She gave a bashful wave. “But I just had an idea that might make a really big difference.”

 

She looked closer as I pulled up the readings. “The life fibers give an incredible amount of power, but I can’t use it because I have no way to control them.” She made a ‘go on’ gesture. “Right, so I would have to limit myself to conditioning. Maybe it would eventually let me use them properly, maybe not. But then I had an idea.”

 

I pulled up the record of the test. “See how you were able to moderate the shape of the life fibers when they were in contact with my skin?” She made an affirmative gesture. “If you could do that as I move around, then I would be able to use close to the full power of the fibers without getting restrained.” I turned the hologram towards Garment. “Do you think you can handle it?”

 

Garment seemed to be considering things, then slowly made a negative gesture. I slumped, but she signaled for me to wait. As I watched she mimed pulling off one of her gloves and offered it to me.

 

“You can do it if I have your gloves with me? Like the other night?” She made another negative gesture, then pulled the glove back on. “If I’m wearing your gloves?”

 

There was an exuberant expression from Garment. I sat back and thought about things. I had spent so much time with Garment being Garment I had nearly forgotten the core utility of her gloves. If you wore them she could share her skills, if not her power, with you. It was how we planned to work on my new costume. It made sense that it would give her a better sense of the person she was working with, it was just such a different concept that I hadn’t even considered it.

 

I looked at the readings, then at Garments enthusiasm. We were planning on doing this anyway, and for something a lot less important than this. Why was I feeling apprehensive? Maybe I had gotten to like thinking about Garment as her own entity rather than another tool of the Celestial Forge. Using her like this somehow felt like it was cheapening what she represented.

 

Still, she seemed excited about this. If I was going to handle what this city could throw at me I would need all the power I could get. If she didn’t have a problem did my hang-ups really matter? Well, they did, but I could deal with them.

 

“Alright, let’s do it.”

 

Garment actually jumped in excitement. Still, it wasn’t as simple as just diving into things. Even with the security precautions we needed to plan out the experiment properly. Without decent data there would be no point to this. Additionally, reviewing the previous experiment and the records from before I passed out led to another conclusion.

 

“Okay, so to minimize contact and avoid buildup of heat, steam, or life fiber energy I need to minimize the amount of coverage, both from the fibers and other clothing.” Garment made a gesture of assent.

 

“Yes, I get that, but this is plenty. There’s no cause for or benefit to going further than this.” Garment plainly pointed at the display showing the additional 7.35% improvement in energy moderation and sensor coverage that could be gained.

 

“I can see that, but it’s within acceptable limits for safety and data coverage.” Not to mention other coverage. In response Garment pointed at me with both index fingers, then pointed sharply to the ground.

 

“Garment, the underwear stays on. That’s final.” Garment seemed annoyed, but relented and made a casual gesture towards me.

 

There was a slicing sound as new seams appeared on the last item of clothing I was wearing and significant portions of it fell away. Let’s just say my boxer-briefs lost all of their boxer and became considerably more brief. I was left with an amount of clothing that would only be appropriate attire on European beaches. Garment was proudly indicating how energy moderation and sensor coverage had improved by a whole 4.83%.

 

God damn the Laboratorium was drafty.

 

With her final alteration complete Garment approached me in the scanning bay next to the life fiber spool. My current outfit consisted of my boots, five pieces of armor, and the remnants of my underwear. If I had been more buff and attractive I could have passed for the cover of one of those garbage romance novels, or one of those sword and sorcery books from the early eighties. I’m beginning to see why those books always took place somewhere warm or tropical.

 

Garment stood in front of me and raised her gloves, palms forward. I gingerly returned the gesture and she pressed her palms into mine. She shifted slightly to line up the tips of our fingers, and then the gloves began to turn inside out, folding over my hands.

 

I watched the progression as they folded off her ‘arms’ and ‘hands’ and slid down over my own. As I watched her dress was carefully folded across a computer altar and her shoes were set aside. That was only a loose distraction from the connection I was feeling.

 

Suddenly I KNEW fashion. I mean, I had known how to make things look good. I could control aesthetics to a near supernatural level. My crafting abilities extended broadly enough that I could have made almost any item of clothing to incredible precision. I thought I knew what I was doing. I was wrong.

 

With the knowledge at my disposal I could look at an item of clothing and pick apart every aspect from the fabric to the way it hung from the body. I knew how it would make the person wearing it feel, how to influence the reactions of the people who saw them, how it would affect every aspect of their daily life in ways they would barely notice but live with all the same.

 

And that was just the high level stuff. I could understand every possible interaction of thread, fabric, seams, cut, and accessories. I could design on a level I never imagined and it was only the faintest sliver of how Garment saw the world every day.

 

I suddenly had a slightly better understanding of why she had trouble focusing on a keyboard.

 

I shook my head clear and concentrated on the test. I flexed my fingers in Garment’s gloves, getting a feel for them. There was the slightest resistance in response, just enough to signal that she was still there.

 

I signaled Fleet and the motoroid disabled the stasis field around the spool of life fibers. Instead of dropping it floated towards me. Even with the link to Garment I couldn’t direct her powers, but I could vaguely feel them. She pulled on the glowing red thread and it began to unspool, slowly at first then accelerating to an incredible speed. It wasn’t flowing into a tangled mess either. Garment was weaving it into a complex mesh of red lines that were pulled to float just above the surface of my skin. I was so transfixed by the spectacle I barely noticed the Celestial Forge missing a connection to the Alchemy constellation.

 

Eventually the entire mass of fibers was floating just out of contact with my body. Garment had spun it into a tight pattern that looked slightly Celtic and wrapped it so that the coverage would be mostly even. I swallowed my apprehension and gave Garment a slight nod.

 

The entire mass crashed down on me at once. I felt the surge of energy as well as the concerning drain on vitality. For my part I focused and activated every nanite I could. It was easier than it had been before, probably because of the military discipline that I was trying not to think about. Anyway, I could manage my nanites and still remain mostly functional, though I probably wouldn’t be up for any delicate work.

 

Experimentally I slowly raised an arm. Despite being covered in life fibers it flexed freely. I had a loose sense of Garment directing them along with my movements to keep them from restraining me. I tried a faster motion and swept my arm across my body.

 

The movement was a blur and the wind of its passing shook cyber skulls and almost blew Garment’s dress off the altar. That was more force then I anticipated. I considered halting the test to look at the current data, but decided I hadn’t come this far just to back off now.

 

I tensed my legs and jumped. Seriously jumped. I probably would have hit the celling if not for the state of my reflexes allowing me to flip in midair and spring off like a rebounding basketball. I dove headfirst into the ground before handspringing back into the air with just enough force to launch me half way to the ceiling. I had a perfect view of the cathedral like space before the hang time ran out and I plummeted again. This time I was able to turn the landing into a roll and then a run. It was barely a run as my walking pace seemed blindingly fast. In even more blatant disregard for the laws of physics I angled myself towards one of the walls and started strolling up it with the speed of a formula one racecar.

 

I may have been humming the baseline to Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain as I moved. Sue me, my foot steps were perfectly matching the rhythm of the song.

 

I was phenomenally lucky to have this kind of space to play with. Most new capes would be messing around in the boat graveyard or one of the abandoned warehouses, and that was just asking for trouble. Meanwhile I got to parkour across gothic architecture without a flight to Europe or annoying any historical conservationists. It really was exhilarating, even if I got the sense that some of the skulls were less than thrilled with the way I was treating some of the icons as springboards.

 

They were the only ones annoyed by this. I was legitimately having the time of my life. Between the rush of energy of the life fibers, which was like a runner’s high times a million, and the superhero tier acrobatics this may have been the best time I’d had since getting my powers. Garment seemed to be enjoying herself as well, at least as much as I could tell. It was certainly no challenge for her to manage the life fibers, even at the speed I was moving. She even shifted the designs around, possibly for more even coverage, possibly just to exercise her creativity. Amazingly it seemed like even the life fibers were enjoying themselves.

 

I had limited feedback from them, but I was drowning in activated nanites at the moment so there was a level of connection. The drives I had picked up before, connect, feed, grow, they were all there, but there was also something else. I hesitated to call it joy, but there was definitely a sense that it was good to be moving, good to not be contained or dormant any more. I had no idea what it meant for the fiber’s development, but at least it wasn’t malicious.

 

Actually, nothing from the fibers had ever been malicious. Dangerous, sure. They were definitely dangerous, but they just weren’t advanced enough to have malice behind their actions. Maybe that was a good sign, or maybe it would change. I couldn’t say, but at the very least it was one less red flag to worry about.

 

And when I was nearly flying around my private cyber cathedral with the strength of a superhero it was hard to come up with things to worry about. Actually, scratch that. There was one thing. The same thing I was worried about when I woke up. I was getting really, really hungry.

 

It seemed to have taken longer to build up, but it was gaining steam. As I understood it my nanites could handle basic needs, but some of the exotic effects were too much for them, so that stuck through and suddenly I was desperate for food. As the hunger crept up so did a million other doubts, including a seriously self-conscious feeling about my current attire. Suddenly jumping back and forth in scraps of armor, immodest underwear, and a mesh of red thread with glowing blue circuit lines on my skin seemed somewhat bizarre.

 

God damn it, I was supposed to be using life fibers properly, not running around nearly naked in a ridiculous battle costume.

 

I took a pair of bounding leaps and landed back in my original scanning bay. With a signal to Garment the fibers pulled themselves off me and neatly spooled themselves up. A quick signal to Fleet and the stasis field was reactivated.

 

I was worn out, but not to the extent I had been previously. The pizza was calling to me, but first I needed to get Garment. Not really knowing what to do I held my hands back in the position she had indicated before. Slowly the gloves peeled themselves off my hands, turning right side out as they went. When they finished the gloved hands were pressed against mine. I turned my back as Garment started to mime putting on her dress again. I would probably never get used to that. It just felt too intrusive.

 

Instead I dove into another pizza and was two thirds of the way through it by the time Garment finished getting ‘dressed’. The data was roughly what I had expected, enhanced strength, agility and general physical abilities. There was one factor I hadn’t seen coming.

 

The mass of the fibers had increased by 12.325% from their first measurement.

 

My interactions, the energy they were drawing from me? It was feeding the fibers. They were growing. I had no idea what the end result would be, and if I didn’t have Garment I would probably be pretty concerned about the entire situation. Still, more mass meant more complexity. It might mean the chance to develop sapience, and then actual communication, not this rough empathy stuff I’d been groping at so far.

 

I didn’t need to worry about the life fibers. I had a much more pressing concern. Garment wanted to change the design of my costume.

 

“No. Absolutely not. That was a test environment, not the basis for a new style.” Garment seemed to pout as she presented yet another sketch of an outfit design that would have done Frank Frazetta proud. Considering how much she loved clothing it was odd how keenly she seemed to be latching onto the idea of minimalist design.

 

“Look, wide weave fibers in any of these select materials will facilitate enough ventilation and prevent absorption of the life fiber energy. It will be perfectly safe while still being fully concealing.” Garment seemed to look down at her sketches, then over at the disassembled costume, then at my calculations. Grimly she seemed to accept my decision and trudged off, pencil in hand.

 

I shook my head. I hated to disappoint her, but there were certain conventions I just wasn’t ready to accept in terms of my cape identity. I was at a highly unstable time where anything I did could be held against me forever. Now was not the time for stylistic experimentation.

 

I listened to the scratch of pencil on page as I worked on my own project. Micromanipulators were amazing devices, but unfortunately too bulky to be used along with the haptic interface for my omni-tool. This would have been a serious problem for anyone without the blanket ability to merge technology. Thus the product of my latest work, the hybrid omni-tool/micromanipulator. It was incredible really. Not only was the interface so much more precise in terms of controlling the output and setting design parameters, but the tools it could create could now be used with micron precision, and that’s not even getting into the combat applications.

 

There were a few other things I worked to get out of the way as Garment finished her design. I had retrieved the complete potion from my alchemy lab. The first potion I had even created. It was capable of generating two copies of myself that would last for about seven or eight minutes, or until they were damaged. Mainly I would use it to let me generate additional call beads without depleting my alchemy reagents, but it would also be interesting to finally see exactly how the duplication worked.

 

I had also completed a brief interface with my computer core and expanded my A.I.’s parameters slightly. It wasn’t much, but the growth should be unpredictable if I did it each time I got a new power and it would provide steady, consistent development. Both programs were mostly optimizing within a partitioned section of the core and operating the motoroid or laptop with truncated versions of themselves. I took some time to offer assistance and optimization advice as I increased their allotment of resources and growth boundaries.

 

They were coming along nicely. Survey should be able to facilitate a basic voice interface soon and Fleet’s ground travel modeling had progressed better than I had hoped. I’m not sure if it could handle bipedal combat, but complex navigation was already well within its capabilities. I also had slated for a complete rework of the motoroid’s systems now that I had the omni-tool and micromanipulators to facilitate things.

 

On that topic I’d been able to test my diagnostic scanner on both my micromanipulators and all the equipment I had gotten from Class: Engineer, though thanks to my weird experience I already had a seriously through understanding of that gear. The scanner was significantly less accurate than the Laboratorium, but was actually extremely adept for identifying damage and understanding programing. Its ability to discern the workings of advanced tech was a bit lacking, but its portability made up for it. I was considering hybridizing it with a heads up display or sensor visor of some kind, but I hadn’t committed to a decision yet.

 

The new equipment was a bit of a conundrum, as was the technology behind it. Most of it was conventional and meshed nicely with the rest of my knowledge base, but all the advanced functions were based on a single exotic material. I seemed to be running into that problem fairly often. The best tech for Master Builder was locked behind access to cybertonium. I could do incredible things with my physics skill power, but the higher level stuff required quantum paired crystalized lithium to manage antimatter and higher dimensional effects, a kind of di-lithium crystal. Still, as complex as those were they paled in comparison to the basis of this new technology.

 

Everything was built around Element Zero. Yeah, neutron matter. Cybertonium could be artificially engineered, but it required the precise use of nuclear decay as part of its production. Paired crystalized lithium could form naturally in areas of enough spatial distortion. Element Zero needed a supernova. I might eventually be able to produce some of it with alchemical transmutation, but it would be so difficult that it would make my other metamaterials projects look like child’s play. Until then I was limited to what was included in the equipment my power had provided.

 

I was deliberately avoiding thinking about that project as I stared at an open page on one of the spare laptops. The laptop was completely redundant with the better computer options I had at my disposal, but I felt like doing this step on a conventional PC. Now that I had my omni-tool I even had a portable computer that wasn’t an embarrassment on the level of the rest of this human junk.

 

I got up, went to the kitchen and put a quarter into the jar. Did I need to expand the jar’s use for my military memories? They weren’t a problem yet, but I could see them causing some issues.

 

When I got back I continued staring at the page. This was a serious concern, and one I’d been struggling with for a long time. I wasn’t sure how to approach it, but this seemed like a good step. If it wouldn’t completely address the problem it could at least provide a counter point for if things got out of hand.

 

I was distracted from my contemplation by the Celestial Forge moving again. It was the Clothing constellation and connected to a mote as large as any I had secured. When I felt the link I understood why. The mote wasn’t that individually powerful, but the implications of what I could do with it were staggering.

 

It was called The Flock’s Fleece. Its most basic function was the ability to create clothing. Since I had experienced Garment’s skill first hand I had more respect for what that phrase meant, but this was still significant. Tools were nearly unnecessary, as was just about every step between raw material and finished clothing. And wondrous clothing at that. Not only could I make beautiful clothes from raw wool, leather, or any other base material, but I could enhance them beyond what was conventionally possible. Anything I made would keep whoever wore it comfortable in any environment on the surface of the earth, from the middle of the Sahara to the depths of Antarctica. It would also protect them physically, probably not to the point of being bullet proof, but definitely stab proof and probably bullet resistant.

 

It wasn’t the kind of power that increased my own combat potential, or brought any serious utility. The armoring would stack, but was so minor compared to my reinforcement that it was barely noteworthy. The environmental resistance was nice, but hardly worth a power of this magnitude. No, the significance of this was the fact that I could keep anywhere from a large city to a small civilization in supernaturally enhanced clothing for a trivial amount of effort and resources.

 

Given how this power basically turned me into a human textile factory and considering how fast Garment could already work it was staggering to consider what we would be able to accomplish together. That is, providing she finally abandoned this barbarian chic idea.

 

I prayed for that to be the case when I saw her approaching with another sketch. Fortunately it was more conventional, largely in line with her earlier design, but with white paneling added to compliment the gloves. Her gloves. It was weird to think we could end up working together like that.

 

She seemed happy at my reaction, but made a quizative gesture towards the screen.

 

“Oh, I’m thinking about setting up an account.” I turned to the laptop as she looked over my shoulder at the PHO signup page. “I figure it might be a counter point if they try to stick me with a bad cape name. I mean, it’s not guaranteed, but it’s a shot.”

 

She made an encouraging motion towards the list I had been working on. It wasn’t comprehensive or even particularly creative. I still had no idea for a theme. My best idea had been to go with something vague and hope for the best. A couple of names had been crossed off due to being in use, and a couple more had been eliminated on further consideration. I was almost down to a selection, but was still a mess of nerves over it. There was one name I was leaning towards, and it was something I had remembered from my college days.

 

My first year geometry professor had been a serious career mathematician. He was the kind of person who went on about how mathematics was the only ‘true language’ and never missed an opportunity to talk about how he’d read Euclid’s Elements in the original Greek. The only thing that kept him from being insufferable was his sincerity about the importance of the material and how passionate he was to share it. Honestly, dropping random Greek terms and facts about the development of mathematics was a decent way of keeping the class engaged.

 

There was one word that had stuck with me, largely because I hadn’t heard it before or since. The word meant ‘unlimited’, but in a fundamentally different sense from infinite. Specifically, it translated to ‘without boundary’. There was something I liked about it on principle.

 

There’s a split among capes as to whether you should have a meaningful name, or something completely separate from your abilities. The shift seemed to happen between junior capes and experienced ones. Capes just starting out wanted their abilities fully on display. I’m pretty sure someone would try to call themselves “Captain-Firehands-that-I-can-direct-after-I-shoot-the-blasts-but-not-when-it’s-raining-Man”. Experienced capes wanted to get as far away from anything that would expose their capacities as they could. Alexandria was probably the best example of this, since the fact that she had perfect memory and started out as ‘The Library of Alexandria’ was pretty much regulated to obscure cape trivia at this point.

 

What I liked about this possibility was it did both. It was vague and epic sounding while also being indicative of my power, but all it revealed was the lack of limits. Even if someone understood what it meant there was pretty much no tactical advantage to that bit of information. I had checked it, both on cape sites to make sure the name was open and a Greek translator to make sure I had the spelling and definition correct.

 

“What do you think about this for my cape name?” I pointed at the top of the list. Garment reviewed it and gave an enthusiastic motion. I still wasn’t sure how up to date she was on culture or society, but she had a pretty good sense for how things fit together. Plus I needed to commit to something before the PRT made a public statement. They had been tied up with today’s Ward debut, but that wouldn’t occupy the press forever. If I wanted to avoid something ominous and mythological I would need to take a step forward. A PHO account wasn’t a guarantee, but it was movement in the right direction. I confirmed the name and opened my account.

 

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Garment gave me an approving gesture, then indicated towards her sketch. The day had been draining away and I needed to get cracking if I was going to finish my projects before my appointment.

 

“Alright. Let’s get started.”

Chapter Text

Thanks to my latest gift from the Celestial Forge I had another option when it came to my costume. My Engineer Class skill provided me with a seriously advanced armored spacesuit complete with life support, power generation, and integrated shielding. The localized reactor would be a serious boon to some of the more advanced tricks I could manage with my omni-tool. The fact that it provided a sealed environment with a regenerating oxygen supply addressed one of my remaining vulnerabilities. Unfortunately there were two problems with just going out in my new armor.

 

First, despite the advanced material and integrated shielding it actually provided less protection that a set of clothes under the effect of my Fashion reinforcement power. It would have been borderline before I included the additional pieces I had made to protect me from life fiber testing, but with those included it was miles ahead. The shield had a serious advantage in blocking physical impacts, but would deplete and have to recharge. Even with the shield taken into account I was well ahead of the armors protection in terms of chemical, thermal, and radiation resistance, not to mention straight up physical toughness.

 

The second critical factor was Garment. While she definitely cared about my safety she seemed to consider fashionableness to be of equal importance. She made it absolutely clear that she did not spend all this time designing my costume just so that I could switch out to ‘generic tinker’ armor at the last minute. She would have no part in it, which also meant no life fibers. They would have been tricky to integrate under the armor even with her help, and completely impossible without it.

 

It was possible that I might be able to integrate some of the armors systems into my costume’s defensive plating, but that would take time and testing and Garment had waited long enough for this. She was positively fervent when I approached the workbench. Actually, a lot more eager than I anticipated. Which could mean...

 

“Garment?” She shifted her attention back to me. “Uh, do you know about the power that I just got?” There was a very excited motion of assent.

 

Well, I knew she knew about my powers from before she appeared, but I wasn’t sure she had been kept up to date. Actually, she probably had a better idea of what I could do and how I worked than anyone short of my passenger. The Flocks Fleece was a serious clothing power. In addition to granting environmental resistance, durability, and perfect fit to every item of clothing I made it seriously increased my skill at tailoring and turned me into a one man textile factory. I could go from raw materials to finished products in a flash, even products that would require additional chemicals or extensive and time consuming treatments. I could only imagine what Garment’s plans for a power like that would me.

 

I didn’t have to imagine because they were impeccably documented. Garment may have had issues with text, but she could convey an incredible amount of detail through sketches including exact fabric thread counts and composition. From the moment Garment slipped her gloves over my hands I was tearing through a blitz of precise diagrams and exacting measurements. My power would let the costume fit perfectly no matter what the sewing was like, but Garment seemed to think that was no reason to get lazy.

 

There were aspects to her design that were pushing our combined skills and the limits of my aesthetic powers to the absolute max. The Time constellation passed by in the Celestial Forge with no connection and even less notice as we focused on completion of my costume. Tiny complex stitches in precise arrangements of threads caused seams to either vanish or be integrated into the detailed embroidery that replaced the metal plating of my old costume.

 

Incredibly this was even beyond the stellar quality of Garment’s work. In addition to our combined skills I was using both my micromanipulators and omni-tool. I was able to achieve a level of precision that may have never been seen in the history of fashion. The equipment and techniques I was using were intended for precision alignment of technologies that altered the very fabric of the universe. I was using them for incredibly complicated stitches and the assembly of stylistic touches on a level of quality that had possibly never been seen in the history of the world.

 

It was subtle, but I could pick up on Garment’s excitement as well. We were supporting each other, her directing the broad design choices and me handling the detail work. There was an eagerness in the way she would move materials to be exactly ready for when I needed them, or a certain flair to the way things were coming together. Everything else she had done was just dressed up conventional clothes-making. This was the first time she really got to push the limits of what was possible, and we were doing it together.

 

And then we were done. My costume was complete. This was a real cape costume. I had been able to do an alright job before, but this was beyond polished. I’m pretty sure there were leaders of regional Protectorate teams who didn’t have this level of quality in their wardrobe. With the cowl and color scheme it looked sort of like a utilitarian mix of Alexandria and Eidolon’s styles. The coat was tailored now, not that thrift shop nonsense. I still had my storage belts and bandolier, but they properly matched the design as well as now being more ergonomic and organized. There would be no more spilling reagents across the street. It took advantage of my crafting and reinforcement powers to allow lighter construction and more ease of motion than a costume of its apparent bulk should have.

 

Pride was absolutely radiating off Garment as she examined every facet of the construction. I don’t think I’d ever seen her that satisfied. Even with the quality of work we had managed to set a serious pace. I still had time to deal with some of my other projects before my appointment.

 

Right, my appointment. God, I did not feel ready for this. I contemplated if there was any way I could possibly get out of it, then hated myself for the thought. This was just a check in, it would be fine. I mean, I’d have to dig into my trigger event, but...

 

Hey, I should really test out that potion. Don’t want to leave that for the field. Nothing like the exploration of some new supernatural effect and all of its implications to distract from something I was definitely not avoiding thinking about.

 

I left Garment to continue admiring the costume and moved to the Alchemy Lab. There were actually some doors linking the workshop without needing to use the entry hall, possibly to facilitate transfer of materials. It would certainly make things easier once I started transmuting metals. In the center of the lab was a beaker of faintly glowing blue liquid. The brewing process had taken a little under an hour from start to finish. If this worked well I could probably set up some level of industrialization to improve production rate or volume, but I needed to get a handle on this first.

 

The main reason for this test was duplication of my limited reagents. Dry ice was trivial to produce with the resources of my new lab, but I had a limited supply of meteorite. Just enough for six beads. Still, that meant twelve free beads with every potion. I just had to deal with the fact that I would be duplicating myself.

 

That was my real concern. I didn’t think my clones would turn murderous or anything, but there were some unsettling aspects to bringing someone into existence with a lifespan of seven or eight minutes. That was basically a game of ‘how fast can you speedrun the stages of grief?’. Then there was the whole problem of making additional copies of myself.

 

I really didn’t know what to expect here. I’m at least self-aware enough to acknowledge that I have some serious issues. I wouldn’t be going to that appointment I’m not thinking about if that wasn’t true. So here I was, about to take someone who wasn’t that stable, and make two more of him. With limited lifespans. In a contained environment full of dangerous equipment.

 

Ok, this was silly. I trusted myself to act fairly reasonably. Shouldn’t I trust my clones? Or was the fact that they were my clones the reason I shouldn’t trust them? This was confusing. I wonder if Oni Lee had to deal with this kind of thing? Maybe that was why he was so grim and serious all the time.

 

This was turning into circular thinking and accomplishing nothing. It was a Celestial Forge power. It might have some quirks, but it’s not like it would be actively dangerous to me.

 

Deliberately not thinking about the life fibers.

 

There was nothing to do but press forward. I loaded up on my vital reagents, picked up the beaker, and downed the potion in two gulps. The effect was not exactly what I had expected, though I’m not really sure what I expected the mechanism of a cloning potion to be. With each gulp there was a shifting around my limbs, like another image was superimposed on it. It was like bad clipping of a 3D model. One after the other the images stepped away from me and I was looking at a pair of copies.

 

So this was it. My first encounter with a duplication of myself. I didn’t know what to expect. Both copies were looking around the lab, seeming to get their bearings. I waited to see how they would react. Would they have questions? Concerns? Doubts about their existence. The first copy looked over at me and opened his mouth.

 

“You really need a haircut.”

 

I blinked. “What?”

 

“He’s right.” The second chimed in. “It wasn’t clear before, but yeah, that’s seriously past due.”

 

“That’s what you’re worried about?”

 

The first responded flippantly. “Well it needed to be said. And it’s not like I have any pressing concerns over the nature of my existence to worry about.” He looked over to the second for confirmation.

 

“Me either. Probably some failsafe in the effect. Actually, I find it kind of freeing.”

 

“I know, right?”

 

I considered things. “So all you want from your existence is for me to get a haircut?”

 

The first shook his head. “You don’t have to do that. We’re not like Garment. This is a temporary situation. There’s no need to make sure we have a validating experience. That would just bog us down from what we’re trying to accomplish. Actually, here, take the reagents. You need the practice with the formula, and it’s not like we’ll benefit from it.”

 

“From me too” The second also handed over his dry ice and meteorites. “But I’m serious about that haircut. Actually, I bet we could manage it for you.”

 

I stopped from my attempted combination of the formula. “Okay, that’s not happening. No scissors near my head. Not by someone untrained.”

 

The first raised a hand. “I’m pretty sure that Decadence power more than covers things. Plus, we can do a couple of test runs while you work on those formulas.”

 

“Wait, you have all my powers? Do you have a connection to my passenger? Uh, I guess our passenger now?”

 

“Yeah.” The second nodded to the first copy. “Hey, is he as amused by this for you guys as he seems form me?”

 

He was, damn it. Highly confusing situations seemed to be regarded as quality entertainment for him.

 

The first copy nodded as well. “Tell you what, you start on those call beads and we’ll brainstorm what to do with the remaining duration.” There was a grin shared between the copies that didn’t make me feel that comfortable. Still, this was what I was here for. Even if I hadn’t gotten obedient drone copies at least they seemed to be working towards the same objectives.

 

Call Up was by far the most serious formula that had been provided by Evermore Alchemy. I had only used it once and didn’t really understand the significance of what was happening at the time. Other formulas could manifest healing energy, teleportation, or all kinds of energy blasts. This formula worked on a substantially higher level. It affected the very fabric of the universe.

 

When the formula activated it punched a hole in reality. This effectively created a tunnel to a fundamental source of magic, one that by its very nature would collapse in short order. The only thing stopping that from happening was the thin layer of blue crystal that formed over the breach like a scab. Well, it was actually a material a lot more complicated than ‘crystal’, but that’s not worth getting into right now. All it would take was the disruption of the crystal and all the power of that conduit could be unleashed in an instant.

 

Unfortunately I still had nothing I could link the other end of the breach to. I knew other passengers were a possibility, as were any other sufficiently powerful forces or beings, but I hadn’t encountered options that seemed like a good idea to pursue. I had seen what passengers looked like and had a decent idea of how they saw the world. That wasn’t something I was going to blunder into. Until I got a better handle on that kind of thing call beads would just be compact magical batteries for my Magitek devices.

 

I was almost finished working my way through the copied reagents when Garment entered the room, either drawn by the sound of the formulas or just finished admiring our work on my costume. She looked at me, then at the first copy, currently measuring ingredients near the potions stand, and the second, making some notes at the ritual space. She repeatedly glanced from one to the other then back to me. She made an excited gesture, motioned for us to wait, then rushed off.

 

“Uh, what was that about?” I looked at the two copies.

 

They shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. I’m sure it’ll be fine?”

 

“Should I really take advice on that from someone who will be gone in a few minutes?”

 

That got me a critical look. “I’d say we’re in a better place to recognize trivial concerns. Now finish up, you need that haircut.”

 

“Ok, this is getting really weird.”

 

“Getting weird?” the second copy called from across the room. “You’re in a pocket dimension talking to magically generated clones of yourself as part of an experiment you dove into to avoid having to think about an impending therapy session. What part of this isn’t weird? Oh, and I know we think our hair is fine, but take a look at it from the back and seriously tell me you’re comfortable going out like that.”

 

The first copy turned around and I could see what they were talking about. I also recognized the shameless tactic of using my insecurities against me. When I worried about my clones using insider knowledge to subvert me I assumed it would be towards a more significant purpose than hairdressing.

 

I glared at them as I worked through the last of the copied reagents.

 

“Did everyone just feel that?”

 

“Yeah, missed magictech constellation again.”

 

“Damn it, we really need more of those skills. It’s been nothing since we built the motoroid.”

 

“I know. At least we got this workshop and are no longer trying to set up a potion lab in some abandoned factory.”

 

I really can’t explain how weird it was to watch your own inner monologue being discussed externally. Also their convincing of me to sit down while they collaborated on the process of a haircut, mostly from first principles, added a whole other dimension to the meaning of ‘talking yourself into something’.

 

Fortunately the process was fairly simple and completed well within the duration of the copies existence. Most of the barber tools were fabricated on the spot using omni-tools, which networked with copies of themselves seamlessly. There were some potential future applications to that, but I was mostly distracted by the fact that I was being picked over by copies of myself in what seemed like a demented version of self-care. Fortunately my copies at least shared my taste and were keeping the haircut fairly conservative, just cleaning things up rather than going for any crazy style.

 

That was the state I was in when Garment burst into the lab, three sets of clothing floating after her. I gaped at the collection. I was at a loss for how to process this. I wasn’t sure how connected Garment actually was with modern culture. She had an excellent handle on fashion based aspects of it, but seemed to have some holes in her experience. Whatever the gaps were the world of cinema didn’t seem to be one of them.

 

I didn’t know Garment was fan of James Bond films. I also didn’t know how she had been able to assemble three of the most famous Bond suits in so short a window. I also didn’t know why she was insistently offering me the white tuxedo while my copies looked on whith amusement.

 

“Garment, no.”

 

“Garment yes.” I glared at the second copy and he shut his mouth.

 

“We have maybe two or three minutes before this wears off. That’s not even enough time to get changed.” Much less whatever she wanted to accomplish with this dress-up.

 

“But there’s always next time.” The first copy chirped as he examined the grey three piece suit.

 

“Yep, that’s a promise.” The second copy added, looking over the black tux.

 

“Okay, you can’t make promises. You’re not going to exist in a couple of minutes.”

 

“Like you would actually turn her down.” I looked between the first copy and Garment’s excited stance. Fine, that was true, but if I admitted it I would never get out of playing dress up for her. I glared at my copies, who were clearly enjoying themselves. This was a new kind of self-hatred I was totally unfamiliar with.

 

“So, done here and transferring the last of my notes.”

 

“Me too.” My omni-tool pinged as it received files from its duplicates. “Last couple of minutes of existence. Any ideas?”

 

“External examination when one of us is in the neural interface? Maybe get started on the motoroid overhaul? Oh, and make sure this guy doesn’t duck out of therapy.”

 

“Seriously?” I looked at the first one.

                                                           

The other raised a hand. “I would offer that we are you, and thus know how you feel about it.”

 

“Easy for you to say, you’re not going.” I realized I had become frustrated enough that I was no longer morally conflicted about their impending end of existence. If that was their plan all along then I had to give them credit. Give me credit? God, this was confusing.

 

“That just makes it easier to make sure you do it.” He turned to Garment. “Don’t let him skip out, right?”

 

She gave an enthusiastic gesture as she packed away the suits. I sighed as I joined my copies for a final work blitz. The work on the motorid was actually extraordinary. We were already operating under powers that let us work blindingly fast. Combining that with three sets of hands who all had the same goal of an overhaul and that final three minutes might as well have been days of construction. One copy coordinated from things the neural interface, linking with the networked omni-tools while the other managed computer components and I rebuilt the mechanics. I knew immensely more about transforming robotics than I had when I built this thing and was able to convert the transformation process from an awkward and jerky mess to a smooth process worthy of the alien robot technology I was so familiar with.

 

For some reason it did produce a strange five part electric grinding sound that was oddly familiar, though I couldn’t quite place it.

 

We didn’t finish everything by the time the copies disappeared, potion duration 8 minutes 34 seconds, but it was enough that I was able to mop up the rest of the tasks myself. And duck into the neural interface quickly because the developing A.I.s were having some difficulty handling the sudden disappearance of a networked mind from their awareness. Once I got them calmed down and reviewed their development, which should now be able to handle basic language interface on Survey’s part, I disconnected to find Garment standing in front of me with her laptop, a copy of my schedule, and the estimated travel time to my doctor’s office.

 

I would be annoyed by it if I hadn’t sort of been the one to put her up to this. At least this experience would help reaffirm my aversion to cloning technology. Time saver my ass, I’m not dealing with another me running around full time if this is what it’s going to be like.

 

“Fine, fine, I’m going.” I looked at Garment. “I’m going to have to seal the workshop. If you’re in here you’ll be cut off from the internet. Do you want to wait in the apartment?”

 

She seemed to consider things before making an affirmative gesture and picking up her laptop and thus the copy of Survey. I got them settled at my old desk and sealed the workshop. I’d be taking my bike which meant another trip to the secluded alley with hopes that no one had caught on to it yet.

 

I said my goodbyes and exited the apartment with the enthusiasm of a death march. All my concerns were flooding back and my strategy to not think about them wasn’t holding water, not this close to the appointment. There was no more dancing around the issue. I had to deal with my trigger event. Really deal with it, not just lean on whatever way that my power decided to mess with my mind and hope for the best.

 

I retrieved my bike and started towards Dr. Campbell’s office. It was weird not taking the bus there, but I knew the area well enough that there was no issue finding it. Rather than hide my bike I decided to actually park it and slowly approached the building’s entrance. It was technically downtown, but closer to the college than the corporate district. As such the office had a small parking lot that was mostly empty this late on a Saturday.

 

That really sheds some light on things. How isolated were you during your recovery? Isolated enough that a reoccurring therapy session on Saturday evening never had any conflicts.

 

It wasn’t something I really complained about. I was grateful that Dr. Campbell could fit me in to his schedule, though I suspected this was outside his normal hours and he held it as a concession for me. And I realized I was ruminating on past therapy to avoid facing the current situation and was literally dragging my feet to draw out the time it would take to reach the entrance.

 

I steeled myself and pushed forwards. I greeted the receptionist he shared with a few of the other Doctors in the building and dropped into a waiting room chair to stew in my apprehension. You know what, screw those copies who thought this was so important but knew they wouldn’t have to deal with it. They got the easy way out, those bastards with their temporary existences.

 

I was jarred out of my moderately ridiculous chain of thought by the office door opening to reveal a short late-middle aged man with thinning hair and a beard flecked with grey. He smiled when he saw me and waved in greeting.

 

“Joe, it’s good to see you again. Come right in.”

 

I pushed down my anxiety and followed him into his office. He took his usual seat and I sank onto the couch, suddenly aware of the awkward placement of my motorcycle helmet. I shifted it a few times before setting it on the floor without comment from Dr. Campbell.

 

He picked up a notepad and turned towards me. “So, how have you been doing?”

 

“Good.” I tried.

 

It didn’t feel like enough detail, so I struggled for how to press on. Uh, what are some positive things in my life? I mean things that aren’t cape related.

 

“I’m still exercising.” He nodded. “I actually joined a gym as well. It’s been good. One of those points of contact we talked about.”

 

“That’s excellent. Is it still helping with your sleep?”

 

“My sleep’s been... it’s been better.” I didn’t want to comment on that too much. “I’ve been getting out more. I started some new work, met some people. It’s, it’s been good.”

 

He made a note. “And how’s your mood?”

 

“Better.” I felt like I was repeating myself. “not at the point of being an obstacle, at least.”

 

“It’s good to hear that. Have the mindfulness exercises helped with that? Previously you were having some trouble with them.”

 

I took a deep breath. It was more than ‘some trouble’. It was like fighting my own brain. I put the thoughts aside. “Sort of? I’ve been able to recognize when things are getting out of hand. It’s been easier to counter negative thoughts, manage self-care, that kind of thing. Probably too easy.”

 

“What do you mean by that?”

 

I struggled to come up with an explanation that wasn’t ‘I have an extradimensional entity serving as a moderating influence in my brain except when it arbitrarily decided to make things worse’. Said influence was still there, but seemed to be taking a back seat to allow me to deal with all the emotions of therapy in their raw state. I wasn’t sure if I should be grateful or indignant at that. Instead I grasped back to the original problems I had with the concept of mindfulness.

 

“It’s kind of like the thoughts don’t feel natural, like what you’re thinking and feeling is normal no matter how destructive, and it’s somehow dishonest to try to go against that.”

 

“I understand. It’s a very difficult skill. Even recognizing your own mental state is an accomplishment. Taking additional steps to try to correct it takes a phenomenal amount of effort. As I said, your commitment to the process was extraordinary.”

 

I nodded blankly. Really I hadn’t gotten past the recognition step, and that mostly just served to make me aware of how bad things actually were. Well, no. Those skills had proved pretty useful at figuring out what my passenger was trying to convey. If I hadn’t spent months trying to understand what was wrong with my own mind I doubt I would have been able to get half the details I’d been able to gleam from my passenger’s reactions.

 

“It doesn’t feel like it.”

 

“What makes you say that?”

 

I grimaced. “It just feels like this is meaningless. No one really takes it seriously.”

 

“Clinical depression is serious.”

 

“I know. I mean I try to keep that in mind, but people say they’re depressed when they’re tired, or have had a bad day. There’s not really a sense that it’s something that’s justified in upending your life.”

 

“Societal perception of mental illness is difficult to deal with.” He stated in a clam tone.

 

I was grateful for him leaving it there rather than asking about how my family was dealing with the idea. I struggled for something else to talk about that would kick that topic and the event tied to it down the road.

 

“I met someone.” He raised an eyebrow. “Not romantically, but she’s been a good friend.”

 

“That’s wonderful. How did you meet?”

 

Stick closest to the truth. “I ran into her after work. She’s a fashion designer. Really talented as well.”

 

Maybe it was serendipity, but when mentioning Garment I felt the Celestial Forge make a connection to the Quality constellation, and it was a mote that she would love. It was called Beauty in the Arts, and it took the quality of my aesthetics beyond even what Decadence was capable of. This was borderline divine beauty in form, and it had no impact on how functional the end product would be. The only downside was Garment would probably want to remake my entire costume from scratch.

 

Dr. Campbell nodded slightly and seemed to be evaluating my wardrobe. Damn it, I forgot how perceptive he was. Well, just press forward.

 

“She has some communication problems, but she’s really nice and supportive. I’ve been helping her out with some of her projects.”

 

He seemed concerned for some reason. “So she’s in the fashion industry and she has trouble communicating?”

 

“Yes?” I couldn’t figure out where he was going with this. He just looked at me flatly until it finally clicked.

 

“You think this is about Sabah?” I couldn’t keep the tone of my voice level as I spoke.

 

“There are some similarities. And you’ve been fairly reserved about approaching people since then.”

 

My mind spun. This was not where I thought the discussion would go. “Gar… She’s nothing like Sabah. They couldn’t possibly be more different.” Even the association felt wrong. Last I heard Sabah was still a fashion student. The idea of her telekinetically assembling clothing like Garment was beyond ridiculous.

 

Besides, Garment’s communication problems were nothing like the slight difficulties Sabah had with English. The idea that there could be any similarity between them… it was just insane.

 

“I just wanted to draw attention to the parallels. I know it still bothers you and if there’s a connection we should discuss it.”

 

I took a breath and let it out slowly. “I hate what happened with Sabah. I mean I hate the event, what I did, the situation, the aftermath. Really the aftermath.”

 

This was seriously well trodden ground for us, but I knew he didn’t mind me repeating myself. It felt like the only way I could deal with the emotions the topic brought up. It was really more of a case of venting in a safe space than any move towards progress.

 

“I didn’t know what I was doing. I mean, that was the first time I tried to have a relationship with someone and it crashed and burned spectacularly.” I shook my head. “It’s all stupidly obvious looking back. All through high school what kept me going was the idea that things would be better in college, but things can’t be better if you don’t know how to handle them.”

 

“We’ve talked about that. Do you want to...” I shook my head, cutting him off. It would be too easy to get sidetracked talking about earlier stuff.

 

“No, it’s just.” I let out a breath. “Going into a situation like that when the only advice you have for dealing with women was ‘be nice to them’ it’s no wonder things went horribly. I thought I was expressing interest, she thought... I don’t even know what she thought. That I was being pushy out of nowhere? That I was like, holding assistance hostage for something more? I didn’t even realize something was wrong until that public blow up, and even then I didn’t figure it out until she changed programs.”

 

I dropped my eyes before continuing. “I mean, the first time I try to let someone know I like them I end up driving them out of the department.” I shook my head. “That would be bad enough, but everyone thinks that’s where all this stuff came from. That I liked a girl and she broke up with me and now I’m depressed. We didn’t even have a relationship. I just did things for her and she tolerated my presence.”

 

“Are you still getting that sentiment from your family?”

 

And there it was. No way to dance around it forever. “Sort of? Everyone seems to have a different idea of what’s causing this, or that I’m faking it all to get attention.” Thank you for that Natalia, it really makes interactions with you a treat. “I’ve probably convinced my mother that it wasn’t the cause, but that just means she’s digging into anything else to avoid admitting my home life could possibly be a contributing factor.”

 

“But it still bothers you?” He leaned forward slightly as he asked.

 

“What I did bothers me, not how it ended. I’m upset that I hurt her and didn’t see it happening, not that she dumped me, if you can even call it that. There wasn’t enough between us for it to be any kind of loss.” I shook my head again. “It was a bigger deal when my faculty advisor died.”

 

“I know that was a big shock for you.” His tone was sympathetic as he spoke.

 

I nodded. “She was the only teacher I had that seemed to seriously care about her students. Also the associate professor they got to replace her couldn’t find his ass with a map and flashlight.” I let the bitterness leak into my words. “My mother said I should have picked someone from the engineering faculty rather than my English professor.” I shrugged. “Maybe things would have gone better if I had support from inside of my department. Could have put off my breakdown by two, maybe three whole months.”

 

I let sarcasm seep into my voice, but it felt like the life was draining out of me. Therapy was wonderful, the worst parts of my life all come screaming back. I sighed.

 

“I talked with someone about Sabah.”

 

Dr. Campbell gave me an encouraging look. “How did that go?”

 

“One of the coaches at the gym I joined asked about my time in college, what happened, if there was a girl.” I grinned slightly as I remembered Doug’s complete lack of tact.

 

“What did you say?”

 

“I gave him the broad points. None of the stuff around it. He pointed out what should have been obvious at the time, but he was pretty understanding.”

 

Dr. Campbell nodded. I needed to get off this topic. It was at the point where even my family was looking like a more pleasant item of discussion.

 

“Would you like to talk about what happened a couple of weeks ago?”

 

And there it was. I took some time before I replied. I really appreciated him not mentioning how he heard about it. I knew my parents talked to him, but he had made it clear that it was one way communication, that nothing we talked about was shared in return. Still, it was more than a little stressful to deal with. At least he didn’t use my family’s version of events as the basis for how he approached me, which was a big step up from, well from pretty much my entire childhood.

 

Still, this was a path that led straight to my trigger event, and it wasn’t a pleasant one. Both for the path and for what the destination could have been.

 

I really, really didn’t want to talk about this, but I knew I needed to. My passenger might have helped me function in the aftermath, but if something happened, if that was called into question or something else came up I knew how badly things would hit me. There was nothing to be gained by ignoring this. I took a breath and started.

 

“My mother? She’s been trying to ‘help’ with my depression.” I didn’t actually make finger quotes, but it took some effort to restrain myself. “Some of it was harmless, omega 3 supplements or a sun lamp for seasonal effects.” I swallowed. “But she started reaching out to my psychiatrist.”

 

My new psychiatrist. I’d been through four since the one at the college clinic. Too much changing of locations and health plans, and most of them weren’t a good fit anyway. I had a somewhat stable medication regimen, but...

 

“I remember discussing it.” He noted. “The change to your medication was affecting your sleep.”

 

I nodded. “The sleep medication they added didn’t help, it just left me hazy all night. Running made a difference.” I had to do so much of it to get an effect that it bordered on insane. I think I was hitting seven miles a night, and at that point it was only slightly less disruptive to my schedule than the insomnia had been.

 

“When we last met you mentioned you were discussing another change to your medication?”

 

I nodded. “A different serotonin uptake inhibitor. We didn’t make the change for a few weeks, and at that point...” I trailed off, not knowing what to say.

 

“You were with your family?” He spoke cautiously, like he was being careful of my reaction.

 

This was it, time to get into the trigger event. I braced myself and did my best to push forward. “It was my first day on the new medication. I didn’t realize how it was affecting me, not at first.”

 

“You had a bad reaction?”

 

If he had spoken to my parents he knew damn well I had a bad reaction, but I appreciated him leaving them out of it. Instead I just nodded and continued.

 

“One of my sisters was home for spring break, so my mom wanted to have a family dinner. I took the bus back to Captain's Hill.” Family dinners were not a pleasant experience, but there was no decent excuse I could use to get out of it.

 

“What happened when you got there?” He leaned forward slightly, but gave me space to answer.

 

I let out a slow breath. “My mother acted like everything was normal. Natalia was ok, at least at the start. There were a few comments, but nothing that bad. My dad was there, but he tries to stay out of this kind of conflict.”

 

Dr. Campbell nodded and waited for me to continue. I took a deep breath and pressed on.

 

“It’s crazy, but sometimes I wish they were at least consistently horrible. Well, I don’t mean to say horrible, but...”

 

“It’s alright. Use whatever terms you feel work best.”

 

“Alright. I mean, they act nice and normal seventy or eighty percent of the time, then just cut into me like it’s nothing. Well, my mom and sisters. And it makes it feel so trivial. I have a major mental disorder because my family was mean to me? What kind of reason is that?”

 

“Emotional abuse is highly damaging and traumatic. Inconsistent environments and treatment only exacerbate things. Have you considered what we talked about earlier?”

 

I turned away slightly. “I’m pretty sure my mother doesn’t actually have undiagnosed bipolar disorder.”

 

He made a placating gesture with one hand. “I’m not offering a diagnosis, but some of the signs are similar enough that it’s worth looking at ways to deal with it. Something like Cyclothymic disorder would be hard to diagnose, particularly when your mother was growing up.”

 

It also felt like too convenient an excuse. But this was digging into old issues, and I knew how they could overwhelm an entire session. Instead I did my best to push on.

 

“Things got worse as the night went on. My sister started making comments about taking advantage of my parents and not trying to deal with my condition.”

 

He frowned. “I thought you weren’t getting any support from them anymore?”

 

“I’m not.” And the decision had been mostly to try to stop crap like that. “She was bringing up my years in college, how they paid for everything then and supported me until I moved into the city.”

 

“But they paid for her education as well?”

 

I ignored a missed connection to the Toolkits constellation. “Yeah, but she’s graduating this year, not some dropout with no prospects.” Exact quote. I sighed. “I wasn’t taking it well because of the medication. When I tried to counter her my mother stepped in, and that made things worse. Then I got the letter.”

 

“Letter?” He looked concerned.

 

“I hadn’t given the college an updated address for my apartment, so my parents were holding some mail for me. It turns out my medical withdrawal had expired to a normal withdrawal, meaning I’m now a proper college dropout.” I grit my teeth. “So I’d have to reapply to get back into the program. My sister saw it and started laying into me, and my mother wanted me to explain what happened and how I could fix it. And then I just realized it.”

 

“What was it you realized?” His tone was level but he looked concerned.

 

I took another breath. “I realized that I was never going to beat this thing.”

 

“I don’t think...”

 

I waved off his response. “I mean never as in not fast enough to get my life together. Everything I’d done, it was just enough to let me know how bad things were. All that work just let me understand the magnitude of the problem and how big the issues that caused it were. How long would it take to fix? Ten years? Fifteen? Even just five years would pretty much destroy every idea I’d ever had about where my life would go. And then...”

 

“What happened then?”

 

And then I triggered. A tinker trigger. An unsolvable problem builds up over an extended period and comes to a head in a critical instant. The world peels back and you get to see the entities with all their passengers, arbitrarily picking who gets to have powers and who doesn’t. And lucky me, I had a giant meat computer with my name on it.

 

And then it happened. The Celestial Forge. My trigger got hijacked by a passenger from outside the cycle. No memory loss for me. I got to see the entire horrible operation in action. All the mechanisms, the motivations of the shards, and how they restrict, manipulate, and alter their hosts. And I got to choose if I wanted the power or not.

 

I also got to see what I would have ended up with otherwise. Extended periods of isolation means control tinker. The added fun of triggering under a bad reaction to antidepressants meant a dual specialty. It was a bad joke. I always wanted to be a tinker. Fate leads me to a tinker trigger and what do I get to specialize in? Bioengineering and Neurochemistry.

 

I don’t even like normal chemistry. The specialties came with no more mechanical knowledge than was absolutely necessary to facilitate their work. And the work in question was some of the worst tinkering imaginable.

 

It was like someone took the phrases ‘Make Friends’ and ‘Change Your Mind’ and decided to use them as tag lines for a horror movie. That’s basically what my tinker power would have been. Nilbog meets Heartbreaker by way of Bonesaw.

 

And I would have gotten all those lovely powers while under the influence of drugs that seriously compromised my mental state, while in a house with people I was currently furious with, and with a passenger who would have had no intention of moderating my response.

 

I took the Celestial Forge and never looked back.

 

“I left.”

 

He raised an eyebrow. “You just left the house?”

 

I rubbed the back of my neck. “There were some harsh words first, but yeah. Busses weren’t running that late so I just walked back.”

 

“All the way from Captain’s Hill?”

 

I nodded. “It gave me time to think. I had a lot to sort out. When I got back I kind of cut off contact and started trying to get my life together.”

 

He smiled at me. “Good.”

 

I blinked. “Good?”

 

“This is clearly a positive step for you. You’re looking in better form than I’ve ever remember seeing you, and you took a sensible action in a highly stressful situation. That’s excellent progress.”

 

I let out a slow breath. “I doubt my family will see things that way.”

 

“You need to focus on your own care and what’s right for you.” His words were measured, but his expression implied some much stronger denouncements for my family and that raised my spirits.

 

“I’m glad you see it like that. I’ve been worried about what I did.” I flinched. “You know, how it came across.”

 

“From the sound of things you’ve been handling yourself very well. New connections and opportunities, a positive outlook, and a serious attempt to move on. All of that is a very good indication.”

 

It was mostly the same kind of affirmations that I’d heard throughout my therapy, but this seemed a little more sincere. Or maybe I was just able to believe it now? My passenger was still holding himself back, but what little I could pick up from him seemed supportive. None of this was easy to believe, not with my history, but maybe I could do it.

 

“Thank you.” The words felt like a bad underservice, but from Dr. Campbell’s expression he seemed to appreciate them. He smiled and nodded.

 

“Is there anything else you would like to talk about?”

 

Yes, but cape stuff is pretty much off the table, so probably not.

“I think I’m alright...” I cut myself off at the sound of a distant rumbling. It wasn’t thunder. I knew too much about the mechanics of these kind of things. That was an explosion. More than that, it was a series of explosions.

 

Dr. Campbell looked towards the window. “What was that?” Suddenly the lights cut out and the office dropped into darkness. The full implication of what was happening hit me.

 

“Fuck.” The word echoed around the darkened room.

 

“It’s alright, I have a light.” He fished out a cellphone and activated the flashlight.

 

“Fuck, it wasn’t supposed to happen this early.” I rose to my feet. “Lung isn’t being moved until next week.”

 

“What are you talking about?” He looked up at me with confusion.

 

“It’s the ABB. Baukda started a bombing spree!” All calm had left my voice as the implications raced through my mind.

 

Dr. Campbell’s face was grim in the dim light. “Are you sure?”

 

“Those were explosions. This was in the works since Lung was captured.” I grabbed my helmet. “I’ve got to go.”

 

“Joe? Where are you going?” His voice was thick with concern.

 

Crap, what do I say here? “I have to leave.”

 

“That’s not a good idea.” He spoke levelly, but his expression was morose. “If there is a bombing spree going on you need to stay off the roads. You can wait here until its safe, or at least until the power comes back on. It won’t be safe on the streets until then.”

 

“No, I have to go, now.” The anxiety I was feeling was badly creeping into my voice, and it wasn’t helped by my passenger reinforcing all of my concerns.

 

He gave me a hard look. “Joe, I never believed you were a risk to yourself, but as a doctor I can’t condone you entering into a situation like this.”

 

I grit my teeth. There would be a potential liability issue if he let a patient enter a dangerous situation. I didn’t think that was the main reason, but he was clearly willing to use it if it would keep me safe. I appreciated the sentiment as much as I hated the action.

 

What the hell could I do here? My options were massively limited. I doubted he would stop me if I just ran out, but that would damage our relationship. It might also require him to report things which could cause a whole host of problems for me in the future.

 

There was one option that would get me out. Did I trust him enough for it? Well, it would be his job at the very least if he tried anything with it, and I couldn’t afford to let this delay me any longer.

 

“Dr. Campbell.” I spoke slowly and clearly. “That night with my family was the worst night of my life. I can say it was a specific Event that was particularly bad. But that’s behind me. I’ve changed, my life has changed, and now the city is being attacked by a supervillain and. I. Have. To. Go.” I looked him dead in the eyes. “Do you understand me?”

 

I watched as comprehension slowly dawned across his face. “Oh.” There was a pause and he seemed to realize that wasn’t enough. “I see.”

 

I nodded. “So, can I leave?” I edged towards the door.

 

“Uh, yes. Of course.” I started to go before he added. “I’ll see you next week.”

 

I stopped dead in my tracks. “Excuse me?”

 

“With everything you’ve dealt with, and everything you’re going to be dealing with I’m not going to leave you without support. I’d like to meet with you once a week to make sure you’re doing alright.”

 

I was stunned by his suggestion and the idea that anyone could be ‘alright’ in this type of work. “I don’t think my coverage...”

 

“It’ll be off the books. No records.” He ran a hand over his beard. “I know you’ll want to make a difference out there. Let me help you this way. You might be managing things for now, but I cannot overstate how stressful this new… business is. Once a week, just to check in.”

 

I nodded. “I can handle that, but for now...”

 

“Go. Do what you can. Officially our session has ended before the power outage.” He smiled at me. “There’s no record of this.”

 

“Thank you.” I nodded and rushed out the door before his reply. If my passengers foresight was any indication the city was about to burn and I had to do everything in my power to stop it.

 

I just hoped I it would be enough.

Chapter Text

Weld suppressed any reaction to his current situation, falling back on his extensive public relations training. It wasn’t easy. Generally these things were better planned and exectuted, but like everything since he touched down at the Brockton Airport this morning the event had a sense of desperation that was highly unnerving.

 

“Damn it, this isn’t going to work. I’m getting nothing but glare.”

 

“We could wait for a cloud? Something to diffuse the light?”

 

“Look around. You see any clouds? We’d need to get a screen set up, and that’s not happening. Whose job was it to read the weather forecast?”

 

“It was supposed to be good light for the photoshoot!”

 

He ignored the bickering of the publicist and photographer. As one of the more photogenic Case 53s he had done more than his share of publicity work, promotions, and even some acting. He had seen this kind of thing before, but you never really got used to it. Out of all the things he had to deal with because of his ‘condition’ excessive glare when being photographed under bright sunlight was a fairly minor one. If he was back in Boston the PR department would have known how to deal with it, but it seemed Brockton hadn’t had that level of foresight.

 

He’d been talking about the potential of a transfer with Director Armstrong for ages. It was clear what the purpose of it really was. The leader of the Brockton Wards was set to promote out of the program in a few months. It created a convenient leadership opening on a team big enough to be nationally relevant while small enough to be manageable. A perfect situation for someone to sweep in and make a name for themselves.

 

Weld was painfully aware of his trailblazer status among Case 53s. Some of it bordered on tokenism. First Case 53 to get a national ad campaign. First Case 53 to appear in more than a single episode of a TV show. Then there was that meme that just refused to die. 

 

He understood how important it was, how much it meant to the rest of the Case 53s, or even just the ‘monstrous capes’ out there. Hunch, his teammate back in the Boston Wards, had practically worshipped him despite the fact that the boy’s own physical traits would never let him ‘enjoy’ the spotlight like Weld did.

 

There were times when he hated the entire situation, but he’d learned to focus on the good things. He had a fresh start and a new team, even if the introduction and promotional shoot was turning out a little rocky.

 

“It’s no good. We’ll have to fix it in post.”

 

“You think there’s time for that? These are supposed to be circulating this afternoon. You want to leave the new leader of the Wards out of the publicity shots? Screw it, just slap on a tinted lense and we’ll adjust the balance of the rest of the photos to match.”

 

He held his position as the PRT employees bickered with each other. It was one of his lesser talents, but the diminished sensation in his skin coupled with the reduced physical demands of his body meant he could effectively hold a pose indefinitely. Well, not indefinitely, but longer than any photoshoot would require.  Behind him the Protectorate Headquarters glistened in the same bright sunlight that was causing so many problems for this shoot.

 

The rest of the Wards, he hadn’t been able to think of them as ‘his team’ just yet, had finished their own photos and were off interacting with the crowd, signing autographs, and generally doing their best to pretend that the entire hero framework of the city hadn’t been turned on its head over the past couple of days. There was a particular flurry of activity around the purple costumed form of Flechette. As the other new arrival she had novelty value, though for a different reason than his own. She was decent at dealing with the public, not a natural but clearly someone who took their PR lessons seriously.

 

The performance of the Brockton Wards was a mixed bag. He could understand why they needed to play to the public, to show that things were alright, but something like this seemed callous so soon after Thursday’s… event.

 

Event. Right. They still didn’t have an official name for it, probably because most of the names people would default to involved too much profanity. That was the real reason for this show, a desperate attempt to get anything else circulating through the news cycle. He remembered the first time he had seen the footage from the end of that event. After that it was unlikely any cape battles involving wards would see a live broadcast for a long time. Generally you shouldn’t have footage of an incident that would be inappropriate viewing for the age of the people involved in it.

 

They had brought the full roster out for this event, even Shadow Stalker, who had missed the mess at the bank. The girl looked incredibly out of place in the clear midday sunlight. The aesthetic of her costume clashed sharply with those of her teammates. The rest of the wards were in bright colors with smooth lines and clear angles. The designs fit in with the look of more prosperous parts of the city, the Protectorate Headquarters, the skyscrapers of the downtown area, the boardwalk.

 

In contrast she looked designed for the more decrepit parts of the city. The Docks, they had called it. Weld had only seen it while flying in, but the division was stark. Boston had its share of historic regions mixed with modern advancement, but there was a fundamentally different feel to it. Despite all the problems with Boston’s older areas, particularly regarding traffic, there was a certain pride in them. With this city it was like they were ashamed of half their neighborhoods. Weld wondered if that sentiment bled over to the dark themed Ward who was only being approached by the most adventurous members of the public.

 

Next to Shadow Stalker the least outgoing Ward was clearly Browbeat. The hulking boy was a contradiction as he tried to avoid attention while towering over the rest of the team. Some people just seemed to hate the spotlight, and he appeared to be one of them. It was a bad combination for a Protectorate cape, even more so for the Ward’s program where the bulk of your duties involved some level of community outreach.

 

Browbeat apparently had the only real victory to come from this mess, and was being touted as such, much to the boy’s annoyance. He had at least destroyed one of the Undersiders’ weapons before being taken out of commission himself. Weld had never seen so much emphasis being put on the damaging of a single piece of tinker tech, but with how dark the situation had turned out to be it was one of the few rays of light and was being played up for all it was worth.

 

It had bought the young cape a level of attention that he seemed at a loss for how to handle. Clockblocker, Kid Win, and Vista were engaging the public with jokes, autographs and harmless displays of their powers. Clockblocker froze an autograph pen while handing it back to a fan, then posed for a selfie with said fan and the suspended object. Vista was creating distortions behind her that it had taken Weld a while to realize were bringing the Rig into focus for anyone who wanted a photo. Even Kid Win was managing a bit of flash to his actions. Browbeat was doing nothing more than nodding and signing autographs.

 

At least for the rest of the team it was an encouraging shift from the mood that permeated the group when he’d met with them before the presentation. The team’s faces had reminded him of after actions reports from encounters with S-Class threats. Between his meetings with Director Piggot and the Youth Guard investigator he’d barely had time for a quick series of introductions before they’d had to leave for the event. He hoped, seeing how things seemed to be turning around, that this posting wouldn’t be as bad as it seemed.

 

Apparently he was not that fortunate.

 

“Well, that was a fucking waste of time.”

 

The ride back to the PRT Headquarters had dispelled any hopes he’d had of this situation being easy to resolve. As soon as they were out of the public eye a black cloud seemed to settle over the team. Shadow Stalker was the only one who seemed actively hostile, which was odd considering she hadn’t even been at the bank. Had she been close to Aegis or Gallant?

 

“Take it easy Sophia, it’s part of the job.” Clockblocker had been quiet since they boarded the vans and even this interaction seemed stilted and artificial.

 

“Yeah, well I wouldn’t have to give up my day off if you idiots hadn’t screwed up so royally.”

 

Vista’s face darkened. “That’s not fair and you know it.”

 

“Yeah right. Outnumbered them and had the element of surprise and you still fucked it up. Just because your crush ran off in shame you think it’s ‘not fair’?”

 

“That’s enough.” Clockblocker’s tone was completely at odds with everything Weld had seen from his public persona. Sophia just shot him an ugly look.

 

“You think being third in line means anything? Piggot would rather bring in fresh blood than let a moron like you run things.”

 

Weld bristled slightly as attention shifted towards him and Flechette. Of all the concerns that had caused his transfer to be rushed Clockblocker’s leadership potential was certainly not among them. This wasn’t good. He had expected an adjustment period, not this level of open hostility.

 

“That’s not what this is about. You were out of line.”

 

“No, what this is about is the rest of you fucked up so bad we’ve got that bitch from the Youth Guard sniffing around. Or am I the only one they’ve inflicted that on?”

 

“You’re not.” Flechette spoke up. “We both had meetings. It’s standard practice after a major incident.”

 

Sophia looked less than mollified. “Whatever. I need a shower. After that bullshit I’m swimming in this costume. Out of the way midget.” The girl dumped her cape and mask on the couch and pushed past Vista towards the locker rooms.

 

Flechette looked conflicted as she watched the girl strut away. She didn’t seem to be having any better luck connecting with the local team than he was. They’d known each other from training exercises, but Weld was reluctant to rely on that lest it cause and even worse dynamic between the new arrivals and the rest of the team.

 

Clockblocker let out a sigh before turning towards the two of them. “Sorry about that. Sophia can be a little intense.”

 

“By that he means she’s a gigantic bitch.” Vista glared at the other Wards as if daring them to contradict her. Kid Win shrank away, Clockblocker just looked tired, and Browbeat diverted his eyes.

 

“Uh, I’ve got console duty for this afternoon. Better get on that.” The bulky cape slunk off to the operations room while avoiding Vista’s eyes.

 

“Yeah, I’ve got to get to my lab.” His hand shifted to one of his forearms where a device Weld recognized as part of the boy’s flying skateboard was mounted. When Director Armstrong had first shown Weld the footage from the bank he had been shocked at the destruction of tinker tech by the Undersiders’ weapons. Even if nothing else happened the loss of a full suit of power armor and what was clearly Kid Win’s most prized possession would have been a dire setback for the tinker and the team.

 

Then Aegis made his last desperate strike and suddenly no one was thinking about the loss of tinker tech anymore.

 

The team’s tinker had mounted the damaged pieces of his board on the outside of his costume, turning them into an improvised set of bracers and greaves. Weld had seen him fiddling with exposed electronics or parts of the paneling when he thought no one was looking, occasionally moving a component from one part to another. The parts were somehow still active, which was remarkable in its own way. He’d seen bursts of thrust from the equipment that allowed bounding leaps onto the platform at the introduction and a trick where he held a fan’s action figure floating in some kind of suspension field. He would say the cape was making the best of a bad situation, but he seemed genuinely engaged with the damaged components rather than mourning their loss.

 

As Kid Win peeled off part of his armor on the way to his lab Weld shared a wince with Flechette. The boy’s exposed skin was a rainbow of unpleasant shades, yellow, purple, blue. Basically a giant bruise covered half of the cape’s body. It was incredible he hadn’t shown discomfort during the press conference or autograph session. Was he on painkillers? Clockblocker saw their reaction and broke in.

 

“Chris was with the director when Panacea dropped by. He missed out on the healing, and now, you know.” He pulled off his mask and they could see his concerned expression.

 

Weld tensed and so did Flechette. By the looks of things Vista was well aware of the reason for their discomfort. The account of the encounter with the healing cape had been the most pressing driver for their transfer. It may have happened sooner or later, but it’s unlikely Weld would have been rushed out with little preparation and a set of special orders from Armstrong.

 

“You’re lucky to have a healing cape nearby. Even in New York there are only a few who can handle that kind of thing, and usually it’s not worth the trouble of contracting them.” The group’s attention shifted to Flechette. “How is she doing since the incident? Have you heard anything?”

 

Clockblocker smiled at her and edged closer to Flechette. “From what I heard she slept for about eleven hours, then spent the day eating snacks and reading. Once she learned she wasn’t getting out of there she kind of turned the whole thing into a mini-vacation.”

 

Vista smirked. “They let you request stuff to see if there’s a pattern, check for influences, that kind of thing. Unlimited snacks are pretty much the only good thing about being stuck in that tank.”

 

Weld shared a quick glance with Flechette. Thanks to his nearly unique Manton interactions he didn’t really have to worry about master effects, but he’d seen their impact on both teammates and other capes. It was unsettling seeing someone as young as Vista talk about Master/Stranger protocols so casually.

 

Clockblocker seemed as inured to the concept as Vista was. He closed the last of the distance to the new capes. “Uh, just wanted to say, despite what Sophia said there’s no hard feelings about the transfer.” Flechette’s eyes darted towards the locker room, missing the darkening of Vista’s expression. “I wasn’t trying to challenge your authority or anything. I wasn’t set to be leader for a long time, I’m just trying to help with this mess.” There was a brittle edge to his smile and Weld noticed he looked fairly tired. The image of what happened to him at the bank, the close up of time frozen bugs invading his still conscious face, it would wear on anyone.

 

“Don’t worry about it. We expected an adjustment period. This was short notice for everyone.” There was a huff from Vista that the girl immediately tried to downplay.

 

“It’s fine. We appreciate you trying to smooth things over.” The time cape’s smile warmed at Flechette’s words and he nodded towards her.

 

“How are things going? You had any time to settle in yet?”

 

Flechette shook her head. “It’s been nonstop since I got here. They don’t even have permanent accommodations ready yet. I’ve got one of the overnight rooms upstairs assi