Actions

Work Header

Tinker, Taylor, Builder, Nexus

Chapter Text

Steaming brickwork still ticked and clicked with heat as Armsmaster stepped over the crumbled edge of what had been an exterior wall, armored foot grinding for purchase on worn, half-melted linoleum. The servo of his left knee whirred and whined with the motion - he’d been halfway through customizing this particular suit when the call had come, and the calibration was off. A detached part of his mind made a note to deal with the issue back at the Rig. The rest of him cycled his visor’s modes - the air was still thick with a heat-haze, smoke and fumes, thermal imaging was only slightly less than useless in the mess of everything radiating heat - maybe low-intensity light amplification?



“Uh, you know it’s not safe in there, right?” The swarthy civilian fireman (Armsmaster hadn’t caught his name on the first go and hadn’t really cared enough to find out later) assigned to escort him was clearly torn between his job (namely, telling him to get the hell out of his fire site) and gawping at one of Brockton Bay’s most famous heroes gracing his presence. Armsmaster was fully aware of the contrast between the deep blues and polished silvers of his powered armor suit versus the rundown brick of lower Brockton - it wasn’t quite the docks, but it still hadn’t exactly been a nice neighborhood before it got set on fire.

 

“I’m keeping an eye on it,” Armsmaster promised, glancing back over his shoulder, leaning in to have a closer look inside - structural analyzer in his visor highlighting places where the remaining structure was unstable, what spots would and wouldn’t hold his weight. The ceiling had taken the worst of it, smoldering debris piled on the floor where it’d fallen, the thin metal of the lockers lining the hallway wall warped by the heat, but the actual floor seemed mostly good. Mostly. “This is where it started?”



“Somewhere in the area,” the fireman agreed, ducking through the breach in the wall. “It’s an old building, and this place.. Probably wasn’t built to code to begin with. So when it went, it spread like hell.” There was a thoughtful pause. “Uh, so, I have to ask, since you’re here, is - do you think this was, you know, cape business..?”



Armsmaster frowned under his helmet. “That’s what I’m here to rule out,” he finally replied, curt. An evasion, but a necessary one. “Investigating potential parahuman incidents is one of Protectorate’s core tasks.” He paused for a moment. “Honestly I happened to be close by and equipped for this sort of a thing. Do you know if they’ve done the headcount yet?”

 

 “They were still at it when I last heard,” the firefighter responded. “Figuring out if anybody’s actually missing as opposed to just.. Skiving off. Haven’t found any bodies yet, thank Gooourrhhh.” His eyes crossed behind his mask. “What the hell’s that smell?”

 

Armsmaster tilted his head, took a breath. Then proceeded to thoroughly regret it. Holding back an undignified gag, he triggered the seal on his helmet, portions of metal sliding forwards to close around his bearded chin, deep breaths of blessedly recycled air at least diluting the assault on his senses. It was sickly-sweet, distinctly organic - rot and festering corruption, boiled to a truly stunning concoction by the heat around them - 

 

“Smells like hot garbage,” Armsmaster grunted, when he was finally confident he wasn’t going to vomit in his helmet if he opened his mouth. “Hot, rotten, garbage.” 

 

The hallway split in two here, and behind the corner - the scorched lockers were peeled open, thin metal heated and stretched into abstract shapes like the petals of a flower. Something glistened wetly in the bottom of it, a scorched mass of - garbage. Used feminine hygiene products, chunks of rotting food, dead insects, a melange of a dozen unidentified things, boiled in the fire into something downright impressively vile. Just looking at it was making him want to dry heave - he was absolutely sure his helmet was sealed, and a part of him was still convinced he could taste the mess if he breathed too deeply.

 

“Think we found where it started,” the firefighter pointed weakly, one hand trying to cover the lower half of his face. He didn’t seem to be doing too well, the poor bastard. “That looks, hllng . Looks like a gas pipe back there, behind the lockers. Definitely not to code. If whatever happened here compromised that, all you need is one spark and..”

 

Armsmaster nodded, steeling himself to look closer at the scene. The metal of the lockers was melted, blown outwards like something had exploded inside - no. There wasn’t enough shrapnel - it was like a giant hand had just grabbed the metal and pulled until it stretched like toffee. The locker in the heart of the eruption had burst open, the ones next to it crushed outwards. Glistening trails of thick dried fluid - some sort of a synthetic lubricant - trailed down the hallway.



“Who’d want to burn down Winslow High?”

Chapter Text

İ̷͕n̷̠͋i̷̡̪̪̾͝͠t̷̟̼̒̋̿ǐ̴͈̦̦͊ạ̸͔̈́̇͘l̷̤̳̽i̷̟͖̙̇̚ẕ̶̘͂̄ĩ̷̛̳̺̣̅ņ̷̮̯̊͝͝g̴̮̫̻̅.̸̩̟̈̇.̴͙̙̰̄͊.̵̟̪͐̈́͘ ̵̠̆͜F̶̨͕̙͛A̵̢̡̪͒Î̴͚̩͒͘ͅL̸̫̃Ū̶̡̝̅R̶̡̐͒E̴̡̛̫͓͂

̸̬̆

̵̥̹͘M̷͙͚̽͋̂͜e̸̝̪͎͊̐̌m̶̨̭͎͒̍͐ċ̶̛̜h̴͙̫̏e̶̡̡̝̍̍͝ć̸̬ͅk̸̼͕͊ ̴̛͓̠͔̅̌N̴̡͔̄Ȏ̵̘͠T̴̟̓̆̾ ̴̛̣͘O̵̜̮̰͆K̷̡̻̄̋͛

̴̡͙͑̾

̴̟̯͐C̵̟̳͙̒o̸͚̙͇̿̃r̸̻̐t̶̗̒͗͠e̸̲̭̻̚ẋ̵̤͓͚̄̓ ̵̖̹̫̄:̸͈̯̳̊/̸̖͇̼̔̑/̷̻̣̜͊ ̶̃͜N̵̞̗̓̀̂Ŏ̴͍̥͇̂Ṭ̵͈̎ ̵̭̥̈́̄R̷̥̠̄̊̈́E̶̥͎̋͂̚Ş̴͍͍̌́P̸̩̎̂O̶̹͗̀̌͜N̵̯͎̐͗͝Ḑ̸̤͆ͅI̷̢̲̚Ṋ̸͘Ḡ̸̯̰̍

̷̲͒͊

̴̪͍̎P̷̡̠̥̍u̵͙͐̏̉p̵̫̲̞̔p̵̨̫̖̓̀ë̶͎̳̹́̋t̷̖͌ ̵̦̮̿ș̵̲̊ö̷̗̬͎́̏c̵͈͉̖̀͝k̵̲̮̉ ̷̔̾ͅ:̶̺̉͂͝/̷̠̑̆͠/̵͖͍̉͛ ̵̹͗̑̕Ḣ̸̜ͅA̴̘̱̪̽R̴̘̓̉Ḍ̸̯̥̿̂̋W̶̢̗̏͜Ą̴̌̑̚R̸̳̈́̾Ē̷̟̰̋ ̵͙͇̬̒͘F̵̘̳̱̓͛A̶̧̓U̷̠̗͑̋L̶̥̃̿̈T̸̢̲̯͆͝

̵̟̠̽

̴̮̟̅͌#̸̗͓̓͌̕#̵͉̌#̸̤͎̄D̶͚̔͝A̸̰͛͊͌M̷̮͕̎A̸̛̳̯̖G̸̨̮͇͛̿͋Ë̶̛͚̟̾ ̵̡̘̑̄͛S̸̘̽̉̚Ű̵̲̣̠S̷͎͇̣̈́Ṱ̵̚A̷̯̭̥̾Ǐ̸͈̺̝̽N̴͖͑̒͝E̴̗̳͒̀D̸̺͍̩͋

̸̘̑͑

̶͈͗̕#̷̫̰͔̅#̵͎̤̂͛#̸̬̙̺͋̾Ḑ̶̺͋̒̀A̵͍̩͆͜M̷͎̣̾A̴͈͇̍́G̶̞̈Ė̵̬̼̹̏ ̶̢͉̜̒͌S̶̼̝͌Ű̷̱Ŝ̶̜͂̑T̶̞͓͛͌A̴̼̱̅I̶̜͌Ñ̶̝͌E̴̞͚͆͜D̶͓͖͂̇̂

̴̠̯̦̾

̴̫̏͠#̵̨̼͉̂#̵̙͕̽#̷̖͛̅D̸͎͝ͅA̶̩͖̽̓̍M̸̞̪̐A̸̳̒͌G̸̙̅̿E̶̢̍̎͝ ̵̡̃̐S̶̬̱͇͌̾U̷͈͙̓̐S̷̨̯̃̔̂T̷̙̯̘̋A̶̗̓İ̶̤̼̖N̴͍͙̹̋͝E̸̺̙̹͛̽D̶̠̱̱́̀

̸̢̳̺͆

̶̣̖̟̽̑̕S̷̖̒̉̿e̸͎͍͝ļ̷̮f̶̧̟̝̈́̿-̴̰̳̳̄d̴̛͇ͅi̸̙̅a̶̽ͅg̶͙̞͆n̷͚̭͋o̸͈̐͊̈s̸̺͈̗̓̄t̵̳̔i̸͔̬̓͊c̵̪ ̷̭̜̖́̊p̵͍͉͂̆r̵̞̠̰̄͝ö̶̺́̽t̷̙͖̜ó̴̖c̵̫̮͎̆̀ơ̸͙̰̟͑̋l̵̘̂͝͠ ̴̝̜̋͐͜Â̸̧̜͌́7̸̲̻̝̒̄̉-̷̙͛͑̈P̶̬̓Ḩ̷̛̻̰̿I̵̞͋͋ ̵̻̋͑̈́:̷͈͌͋/̴̛̥̏́/̶̠͎̠̆̚ ̷̩̺͛̎̽I̷̗̔͝Ń̶̻̻͛͗I̸̳͇̜͛̃Ť̵̝̈́Ị̵̢̽͠A̷̠̦̞̐̾͝L̵̛̖̦̹̈̎I̸͚̪͌͛͜Z̴̼̫̼̚Ę̶͇̤͋͠Ḏ̵̝̿

̴̸̨͚͌̀̐̓̀

̸͇̃̋͋P̸̢͔͎̌͌͆õ̴̥̌͝ͅw̴̡͚̑̕e̵̲̍̏͠r̴̡̥̠̽̾ ̴̩̯̀̎l̵̙̹̉̒̆ͅe̵̛͍̟̤̎͑v̷̤̣̽̑ẹ̶̹͙̚l̴̛̗̞̍ ̷̫M̶͚̏I̸̭̤̔̌̚͜N̷̩͎̈́̾İ̴̗̍͛ͅM̸͙͈͈̔̇A̸͍͓̐͛L̵̘͆̈́̔

̷̡͍̫̉

̸͚̍̿̂E̸̲͈̿̍x̸̤̀̽t̴̡̟̠̂̋̎e̴͉̋r̶̢͈͂͜͝ǹ̸͚a̴͇͒l̴̰͆ ̸̟̒̄c̸̛͓̎̓ǫ̷̜̼̒n̷̡̹̤̓̏͛n̸̢̺͔̿̅ë̸̪̮́͝ç̸̐t̴͇̯̃̚͜͝i̶̞͛͗̕o̶̳͍̥̾n̶̼̊̌͛ ̴̮̦̉̄̿N̶̩͈̦̎Ǒ̵̦T̵̲̺̥̊ ̵̣A̶̯̋̕͠V̴̨͉͆̿A̶̺̘̟͊̽͠I̵̘͎͒L̴̬̏̃͝Ȧ̵͔͜Ḇ̵̛̜L̵̯͔̗͗̒͘Ĕ̸̮̀̚

 

Q̴̡͇̻̥͖̖̪͓͍̝̦̹̮̚͜U̶̢̨͎̮̭̺̟̞͉͍̬̝̖͕̦̐͑͊͝E̷̛̗̮͑̑̈̓͋͗̉͒͘͜͝͝R̶̖̥̦͓̲̪͉͎̼͌̆̾͐̃̓̐̒͆̉͝͝͝Y̵̼̼̱̼̭͒̍͐̾̋͜͝:̷̛̛̻͇̄̋͛͑̿͠ ̶̞͝R̴̢̛̺̻̥̈́͛̇̃̇͒̒̓̈́͊͑̚͜͝ͅE̵͎̩͔̳̘̭̘̍̽́̀̊̈́̐̇̓̽͐̀̚͘̚P̷̢͚͖̜̟͔̣̪̝̹̖̋̃̈͛̚À̸̖̘̺͈̥̈́̍͋̄͛̃̔̾͊̕ͅI̸̫̯̦̻̋͒̓̄̃R̴̛͎̫̞̰̤̘̉̾̓̂̎̊̄̊̚͠ ̶̧̢̗͉̫͇̹͈͇̎́̔͜ͅĄ̴̪̦̰͕̾̀̋̅̐S̷̢̧̮͈̞͔͌͑͐̅͆̈́́͂̓̾̊̕S̶͉̓̀̈̓̅̾̑͝ͅE̸̢̝̰̯̲̙̟͔̜̾̀͋̐́̏͊̐̽̓̃͝T̷̢̨̛̲̝̩̮̳̭̟͎͎̉͑̄̉̈́͗͘͠S̸̛͕̘̗̬̩͚̘̫̣̒̊͐̀̄̓͐̃̒̉̚͠ͅ ̵̜̪͔̤̎̃̈͘Ả̸̢̨͓̫̦̼͖̖͆̓͐͜V̶̛͈̘̮̐̏̆̌͗̍̀̆̐͒͆͂̐͝A̷̙͇̻͓̠̋͗͆̊̓̄̏̍I̶̹̗̐͂͗͆͜L̶̤̈̂͑̈́̋̋̓͊̇͘̕͠͝͝Ă̴͚̹̗̦͉͒̃́̕͝B̵̡̐̒͆̕͝L̶̨͇̻̖̳̬̹̈́͛̍̚E̵͔̩̪͓͇̱̝̰̻͜͝ͅ:̶̡̘̬̠̳̩͉̀͘͜ͅ/̷̨̤͚̙͔̱̗͒̃͑̃̃̈̓̾̽̈́̆̆̋͝/̵̨͉̠̗̘̥̦̭̫͈̯͌͊̉́̈́͝ ̷̧̢̫̱̥͎͈̟̘̟̣̫̣͛̾̒̉͝P̵̢̰̟̼̠̖̩̹̹̫͐̊͜R̵̛̹̅̄̽̄̉̆͝O̷̢̰̲̤̜̣̓̒̋̑̓̈́̎̔̔̈́͂̌͗͑ͅC̸̺͈̖̮͕͈͖̩̙͙̼̆̊͌̃͌̈́̌͆͊͜͠͝͝Ȩ̵̦̮̩̹͍̗̭͉̱͚̩͙͇̈̋͠S̴̛͓͎̮̘͇̞͚̋̎̌̃̕S̵̢̛̱̺̝̺̘̻̰͉̣̭̮͖̹̬̆̾̋͊͂̌̚͝͝Ǐ̸̱͈̳͚̎̓́͒͗̔̅́̋͂̚͜͜N̶̛̛͉̳͍̻̰͖͖̙̄̇̃̊͌̐͌̂͐̂̌̐͝G̵̜̯̝̥̮̰̺̻̖̾͐

̸̧͍͗̆

̷̢̜̭̇̔͌H̷̨͉̊ǎ̴̱͔̌̚n̶̨̐̓̚d̵͇͒̐s̴̟͒ḫ̴̤͉͂́̕a̵̬̩̹̋k̴̇̾̔ͅi̵̽̿̒͜n̷̢̏̃̋g̴̜̉̓̈́͜.̸̨̹̿͗̋.̶̥̪̄.̴̤̏

̴̘̭͛̚

̵̠̮͓̋#̴̙̦̈#̵̥͐͑#̵͖̘̫̑̓Ȑ̵̗Ę̵̮̼̒̈́͠S̵͔̝̒̇̋P̵̡͇͑̈́O̶̘̙̱̓̆̈́N̵̩̰̙͑̃S̶̢̨̩̈́͑̿E̸̥͛͘ ̶̠̥͙͌M̶͈̽e̵̳͝d̷̫̄i̸̺̹̍͊c̶̺͉͓̈̔h̵͔̥̜̍̔̒i̷̛̟̬̊͗ͅn̵͕̈́e̵̖͋̈́͑ͅ ̴͕̿m̵̯̤͍̅͑̈́a̴̬̞̿̕ṉ̷̢̐̈́ḯ̶̤̪̙̍p̶̡̾͝ḷ̶͔̽e̶̲̾͊͌ ̵̞̳͋̈́͜D̴̙̀7̷̫̉͊7̸̨̤͑̆6̴̱̂̒̇ ̶̨̈́͜Ṡ̵̰͘T̴̹̟̓̃͝Ạ̵̬͆̚T̴̛̪Ṳ̴͘S̸̡̥̎̽ͅ ̵̢̹̋N̶̩̝̤͛̌O̷̗͗̀M̶̢͙͚̾I̷͖̲̎N̴̛̤̘̠̄̈A̶̗͗̌̒L̸̖̺̹̏̍͘

̸̮͑̍

̵̡͇̽S̷͖̊̀e̸̜͂ļ̶̪͑̀͑f̶̧̪̿̍-̵̱̽̀͝ṟ̵͌͂̈́e̵̝̮͙̐p̵͖̞͋à̶̗̣̬͊i̸̧̲͋r̵̨̼̰̓̇̈́ ̷̼͝Ḭ̴̛̰̼̂͐N̸̻͖̭̈́I̵̛̛͉̟̠͐T̴̛͕̗͂͆I̴̧͎͔̐͝A̸̘͛͘͜L̷̞̲̻͋Ì̷̡̞Z̵͚͇̀͋Ȅ̴̬ͅͅD̵͓͂

̵̗̐

̷̺̮̏̕#̶̠͔̳̌͗͋#̴̼͙͊̈#̴͕̦̀̾P̶͉o̴͓͍̐̃w̷̗͔̆̿̒e̵̦͕̔r̶̜̈́̀͠ ̸̡̲͋̂͑l̸͙̬̓̽͠e̴̯͖v̴̝̔e̶̜͑̓͝l̷̼̼̕ ̴̬̼̝̍C̶͈̰̈́̆R̷͕̐̏̋Ḭ̶̡̓̓̇T̵̳̆̈ͅI̶̫͒̊̑C̶͙͋Ä̵͈̮́͝L̵̰̒

̷̙͛͐

̶̛̝̍͌Ș̸̇͆l̸̡̲̣̂ȇ̶̢̻e̷̛̬̞͊p̴̭͈̆̽̕͜ ̵̹͜͝͠m̸̤̥̊̆ȍ̷̦͙̫d̸̢̯̜́͆ę̷͉̓͠͠ ̵̬̾̾̽I̴̯̎Ņ̸͙͋̚I̵͎̬̿̉̎T̶̼̅̍I̶̧͕̐̽A̴͇̝̭͊̈́̅L̶̬̓̕Ȉ̶̛̛̫Z̶̡̞͇̈́Ȇ̴̛̱͠D̴͈͙̈́

 




I̷̫̊n̶͓̐i̶͓͂ţ̴̂ḯ̶̧a̶̟͛l̸̼̍i̸̜̎z̶̛̻ḭ̴͌n̸̝̾g̶̻͝.̷͚͂.̸̳͂.̷̯͘ ̴̖̓F̸̠̆A̵̪̕Ḯ̷͖L̶̥̃Ů̸̘R̶̮̊E̶̲͑

̸̭́

̶̨̔M̴̘̏ë̷̥́m̷̰̑c̸͕̍h̶̛̝e̸̢͂c̵̛͕k̵̟̽ ̸͖̂N̷͈̋O̵͕T̶̆͜ ̸̃ͅO̸͖͠K̷͙͋

̴̰́

̴̟̆C̵̮̕o̸̅͜r̶͓͊t̵̜̄ḙ̵̓ẍ̷̯́ ̷͓̓:̵͙̓/̵̫̑/̶̩̄ ̸͉̐I̷͍̓N̵̻̓Ť̶̖Ẹ̴̑G̷̣͊R̴̛͓Ĭ̴ͅT̸̛ͅY̵͝ͅ ̴͔̆F̷̟͝A̸̽͜I̵̠͆Ļ̷̋Ǘ̷̼R̸̪̎E̷͒ͅ

̴̰̃

̶̮#̴̦̆#̶̲̓#̵̧̃P̴̦͒r̸̘͛i̶̗͝m̷͔͒ả̷͖r̸̖̀y̴̬̿ ̴̣͋C̴͙͒ō̸̥r̷͍̓t̸̤̐e̸̥͝x̴̫͐ ̴̼̈ṁ̶ͅo̵̳̕d̷͉̍u̵̘͒l̴̻͌è̴͕ ̴̞͛N̶̰͗O̷̱̓M̵̠͊Ì̸̱N̶͈̋Â̶̫L̵̥̏

̷̖͌

̷̳͘#̴͉́#̵̧̔#̸̤͛Ạ̶̃ū̸̡x̴̺̂ĭ̵͎l̶̮̕i̸͉̊a̸͕̿r̷͈ỳ̸͔ ̷̲̐C̶͚̒o̵̞̊ŗ̷̽t̸̫͂e̴̤̍ẍ̸̖́ ̸͎̌1̴̛̻ ̷̬̏Ñ̴̠O̸̭̓T̸̯̄ ̷̳͝R̶̤Ẹ̷͆S̶͇̊P̵̳̓O̷̯̒N̸̗̍D̷̻̈I̷͇͛Ń̴̹G̷͔͂

̷̟͌

̸̙̔#̶̘̎#̵̎ͅ#̴̙͐Å̴̻u̴̝̽x̸͍î̴̘l̵̟̎i̶͎͊ạ̸͑ŕ̸̰ỳ̶̡ ̴͔͋C̶̖͛ơ̵̥r̷̳͝ẗ̷̰́ḙ̵̆ẍ̴̫́ ̷̬͝2̶̛̪ ̵̗͊S̸͍͑E̶̛̱Ḷ̶̛F̸͒ͅC̶̙̆Ḩ̷̎E̸̡͊C̷͖͊Ḵ̶̔ ̶͚͝F̷̺̓A̵̮̽I̴̝͗L̶͎̇

̵͛ͅ

̵͎͗#̴͖̆#̶̏͜#̸̛͇D̵̦̿Ā̵͜M̵͖͛Ā̵͉G̵͍̊E̷̢͋ ̷͍͊S̸͚̋U̸͋ͅS̸͍͊Ț̵́Ả̴̖I̷̻̊N̸͍̒E̵͎̿D̸͎̕

̵̥̿

̸̝̐#̷͚͒#̴̦͊#̴̠͠D̸͇͌Ȁ̸ͅM̸̫A̷̰G̶̳͗E̴͉͠ ̵̳̀S̶͎̐U̵͇̒S̷̻̎T̵̩A̵͉I̶̹̓N̸̝̂Ȇ̷̟D̶̗̍

̵̖̈

̷̹͘#̶̼̇#̷̼̓#̷̭̒D̸̩̎A̶̫͠M̷͈̂Ä̸̻G̴̼͂E̷̝ ̴̟̋Ś̸̡Ų̷̍S̸̩̈́T̶͎̊A̴̺͒Ḭ̴̀N̴͇͋E̸̳̅D̵̦

̴͔̇

̵̦͌A̷̹̚ù̶̧x̴̣͠í̴̠ļ̸̕į̷̒a̸̟͆r̸̛̻y̷̫͗ ̵̡̕m̴͖̏ò̵ͅd̵͈u̸͓̓l̸̤̅e̶̗̿s̵͠ͅ ̷̝͗D̶͙̈Ị̵͋S̷̼̊E̶͉̓Ň̵̞G̶̻̾Ä̷̧́G̵̘̃E̴̱D̷͓̿

 


 

I̵n̴i̸t̸i̷a̵l̶i̵z̵i̷n̴g̷:̵/̴/̵ ̵S̴U̸C̸C̴E̸S̷S̸

̷

̶M̸e̷m̸c̸h̴e̶c̶k̵:̴/̵/̴ ̸O̷K̶

̷

̷I̸n̸i̵t̴i̶a̸l̶i̴z̷i̶n̶g̴ ̵C̸o̴r̸t̷e̵x̸:̶/̵/̷ ̴F̶A̶I̴L̵U̸R̵E̷

̶

̸#̶#̵#̸D̵A̷M̴A̷G̷E̷ ̷S̴U̴S̴T̸A̸I̵N̷E̵D̴

̴

̶#̸#̵#̸D̴A̴M̵A̶G̶E̴ ̴S̴U̵S̴T̴A̵I̷N̴E̵D̵

̸

̸#̷#̵#̴D̷A̶M̶A̸G̷E̷ ̶S̶U̵S̶T̸A̴I̸N̷E̷D̶

̵

̷#̵#̸#̸C̴r̷i̴t̷i̷c̴a̸l̵ ̴D̵a̶t̵a̵ ̵C̶o̸r̶r̵u̷p̷t̷i̶o̷n̸

̴

̴#̶#̵#̵C̸o̵r̷t̸i̵c̵a̴l̴ ̶S̵t̷a̸c̵k̵ ̷B̵a̸c̶k̶u̴p̷ ̶D̸e̶t̷e̴c̶t̸e̶d̴

̸

̸#̸#̷#̷C̴h̸e̷c̶k̶s̵u̸m̶ ̶O̴K̸

̸

̴V̵e̸r̵i̸f̵y̸ ̶s̸t̴a̴c̷k̸ ̶i̷n̶t̵e̷g̷r̷i̶t̷y̷:̵/̸/̸ ̶S̸U̵C̸C̶E̴S̶S̷

̸

̸I̸n̵i̶t̸i̵a̸l̷i̵z̵e̶ ̵s̸t̷a̸c̴k̶ ̴b̴a̵c̶k̷u̴p̸ ̷i̴n̵l̷o̴a̵d̷:̵/̵/̸ ̵S̸U̴C̴C̸E̷S̶S̶

̸

̴I̴n̶i̵t̵i̷a̴l̸i̸z̵i̷n̷g̸ ̸C̶o̴r̶t̶e̵x̸:̵/̸/̵ ̷S̷U̴C̵C̷E̷S̷S̷

̴

̵#̷#̴#̶E̶G̴O̵ ̷I̷n̸l̵o̵a̵d̷ ̵C̷O̷M̶P̵L̶E̸T̷E̸

̷

̸#̶#̷#̷C̸h̴e̵c̵k̷s̶u̵m̷ ̶O̷K̵

̶

̷V̶e̴r̴i̸f̴y̶ ̸E̸G̵O̷ ̴i̴n̶t̸e̴g̶r̷i̵t̸y̷:̸/̶/̸ ̸S̷U̵C̷C̴E̶S̷S̶

̶

̶I̶n̵i̸t̴i̵a̴l̴i̴z̵i̴n̶g̸:̷/̴/̵ ̷S̵U̴C̷C̵E̸S̸S̷

̵


 

I awoke to darkness, disorientation and pain.

 

#̴#̵#̸D̶A̵M̷A̵G̶E̷ ̶S̵U̴S̶T̶A̴I̷N̶E̸D̷

̵#̴#̷#̴D̶A̸M̵A̴G̶E̸ ̴S̷U̴S̴T̸A̴I̷N̸E̵D̶

̵#̴#̶#̵D̴A̶M̶A̴G̷E̸ ̴S̴U̶S̵T̴A̵I̵N̴E̶D̷

 

I hurt all over. Not the sharp kind of pain like ow, I cut myself , or I stubbed my toe - this was that deep bone-gnawing ache of I just broke something important  but all over my body. I hurt. Badly. I didn’t know where I was, or how I’d gotten there - didn’t even know who I was for one horrible moment -

 

No, I remembered. Parts. I remembered going to school, first day after winter break, and opening my locker, and having the most awful thing I’d ever smelled just flooring me. I remembered throwing up all over my own shoes.

 

Taylor. My name is Taylor Hebert. Fifteen, I go to Winslow High, I’m a social pariah -

 

I remembered the girl who I used to call my best friend - my only friend - laughing when she and her friends shoved me in there and locked the door after me. I remembered heaving up bile and beating on the door until my hands bled. I remembered crying and begging for anybody to let me out, all the while things squirmed in the garbage around my legs -

 

Fuck you, Sophia-

 

The rest was - a blur. Garbage and fire and pain and  - I could faintly remember an impression of something vast, fractal, a universe unto itself, shedding sparking motes across the world - the harder I tried to remember, the faster it faded away -

 

I couldn’t feel my legs. Or my arms. Or - or anything beyond the pain. I couldn’t tell if I was laying on my back or my face, I couldn’t see, I just realized I didn’t even feel if I was breathing - oh god I wasn’t breathing. Was I in the hospital? Paralyzed, trapped in my own head? Was this what dying felt like?

 

 A part of me realized I should be feeling a lot more panicked than I actually was but there was a strange clarity over everything - like instead of seeing my life flash past my eyes I was hyper-aware of everything, everything that my senses weren’t telling me -


Light, blessed light. I wasn’t blind. I could see afterall - no, I could see again - blurry, out-of-focus. I wasn’t wearing my glasses, I realized - just adding insult to injury. Had I dropped them in the locker, before it, or had the Trio stolen them again?

 

Why did my life suck so damn much?

 

Slowly, little by little, the light came into better focus. There wasn’t much of it, but after thinking myself blind it was the most beautiful thing I’d seen. Dim light casting angled shadows over old brickwork and dusty concrete.

 

Either Hell was incredibly depressing or I was still alive. 

 

I was looking at a - a wall. Old, worn down, ratty. Not much to go by and trying to turn my head just made everything hurt more - it felt like I was fighting something, had to strain all the energy I had to even try to look around. Everything was moving so slowly, and - I abandoned turning my head. Grit my teeth, metaphorically speaking, and tried to move my arm. Hoped it was still attached and just asleep. It took everything I had, all the focus I had, but maybe - there - I could just barely feel my arm. Feel the halting uncertain motion, the new list of grievances my body was bombarding me with as I strained -



Blurry fingers. A pale unhealthy white, twitching and shuddering, but I could move them, let myself feel the tiniest bit of victorious relief - I wasn’t paralyzed afterall -



̴#̸#̴#̶P̴O̵W̴E̶R̷ ̶L̷E̵V̵E̸L̸ ̸C̸R̴I̷T̵I̸C̷A̷L̷



Darkness.

 




The next time I came to, the shadows had visibly shifted on the wall. 

 

#̴#̴#̸D̷A̴M̸A̴G̷E̸ ̷S̷U̸S̶T̸A̶I̷N̴E̸D̴

̵#̵#̷#̴D̴A̶M̶A̸G̸E̸ ̶S̵U̵S̸T̴A̵I̶N̸E̶D̶

̵#̷#̴#̴D̵A̵M̷A̵G̸E̵ ̸S̵U̴S̵T̷A̵I̷N̷E̸D̵

 

And I still hurt. Wonderful.

 

 I could see - a little more. A little more clearly. I was lying on the floor somewhere and, judging from the amount of dirt and cockroach husks and spider webs and rat turds and god knew what else on the floor, it was somewhere where nobody had been for a while. Not Winslow High - definitely not a hospital - had the Trio pulled me out of that locker when I passed out and just.. Dumped me somewhere to not get into trouble? It seemed like something Sophia would do.

 

White on the floor. A long shape with stubby little shapes on one end. Shapes that moved when I strained - an arm. My arm. My arm - and not my arm, when I slowly brought it up to my eyes. Skeletal fingers - no, not literally. That was the first thing I thought of, that I’d been in an accident and had the flesh burned off my fingers - just - my fingers and arm were the color of old bone, where they weren’t covered in soot and filth. Smooth strange rounded curves broken up by filth and burns, a thumb and two fingers - two digits were gone, fractured, scorched, splintered. 


"̴̢̙̊̃Ẉ̷͗h̶̳͓̉͌a̵̜̽̌t̷̟͝ ̸̭̙̾t̶͖̱̍h̷͉͖͋ẽ̷̝̰͛ ̴̦̏ͅh̴͕͗̃e̴̘͆̔l̶̳͗͠l̶̼̄.̶̤̆̚.̴̪?̵̝̄͘"̸̗̍͝

 

My voice was warped, distorted, like a broken telephone. Flat staticky garbled monotone, nearly unintelligible to my own ears - and I still wasn’t breathing, still didn’t feel anything but the pain of this damaged body, a body that was wrong and alien and what was happening to me? I struggled, reached out my arm, tried to move my leg and leg and leg and leg-



̴#̶#̷#̵P̴O̵W̸E̷R̷ ̵L̷E̸V̸E̵L̶ ̷C̶R̸I̸T̷I̷C̷A̸L̸

 

Not again.

 


 

It was darker when I came to again, but at least I wasn’t having a panic attack.

 

̶#̸#̴#̴D̵A̶M̵A̷G̵E̶ ̷S̶U̷S̴T̵A̶I̸N̸E̶D̴

̷#̴#̷#̴D̶A̶M̶A̴G̷E̵ ̴S̷U̶S̸T̸A̶I̶N̶E̸D̷

̵#̶#̸#̴D̴A̷M̴A̷G̸E̸ ̴S̶U̸S̷T̶A̴I̴N̶E̸D̴

 

Still hurting, though. Because of course I was.

 

This time I forced myself to stay calm. It was - it was hard to look around. My head didn’t want to move, my eyes were blurry. I realized I was in a basement of some sorts - an abandoned house, probably. The light was streaming in from a window or opening somewhere above me. Debris scattered the floor, chunks of wood and mortar, a jumble of dusty planks and beams to my left. To the right the floor was - a little cleaner. Old dusty boxes and furniture leaning against the wall, chewed by bugs and covered in years of decay.. There were chairs, a collapsed shelf, unidentifiable bottles, a mirror -



An old mirror, lying against the wall. At one point it’d clearly been covered in fabric; now it lay tilted, half the glass missing, a gang tag messily spraypainted across the top. 

 

I had to know. And there was nothing else I could do, so I reached out. Dug my fingers into the floor, strained, pulled -



̶#̶#̷#̸P̶O̶W̵E̴R̷ ̴L̵E̸V̸E̷L̴ ̴C̴R̶I̵T̶I̵C̷A̷L̷

 

Oh come on-

 


 

Despite my best efforts to not strain myself too much, I blacked out twice more, dragging myself to the mirror, but every time I did - I could see a little better. I was still in pain but I was moving - it was slow work, dragging what felt like an impossible weight across the floor with only one arm that really worked and legs that just didn't want to obey my brain.

 

The light on the wall had shifted angles again, the hazy red-orange of dawn, shining dully in dust I’d disturbed. I was close. So close. Just one push and I was close enough to reach out - grope - wipe my hand across the dust covering the lower intact part of glass -

 

An oval blur. 

 

I reached up, felt for my face. My fingers slid over a smooth cracked surface. It took some fumbling but I dug my good fingers under an edge- lifted - pulled -

 

#̶#̷#̸D̶A̵M̵A̶G̷E̸ ̶S̷U̵S̷T̴A̷I̵N̵E̷D̴

̷#̶#̶#̷O̷P̵T̶I̷C̶ ̶F̵I̵L̵T̸E̶R̴ ̶D̸I̵S̸A̶B̵L̷E̴D̵

 

There was a popping crunching noise. A fractured oval shape came away in my hand, a polarized visor of some kind - I let it fall to the floor, staring in the mirror.

 

I’d never been one of the pretty girls. My eyes were too big, too wide apart - my nose too flat, my mouth too wide. Pair all that with baby fat that stayed way past its welcome in odd places and I looked like a frog with a spattering of acne and a curly dark wig on.

 

Now I tilted my head and tracked my fingers where my cheekbone should’ve been.

 

In the mirror, my fingers slid along a long sweeping curve, soot and filth scraped away along an edge of a hard plasticky ivory-colored material. Glassy lenses shone in a divot in the middle of my face, one big one on the left side, a handful in a cluster on the right. A few glowed with their own faint amber inner light, the rest were dark. I brought my hand lower and my cracked fingertips ached over a boxy grill roughly where my nose should’ve been, brushed a knurled cluster of clearly mechanical parts I didn’t recognize but that sent my senses aching with feedback.

 

̸#̴#̸#̸D̸A̴M̷A̸G̵E̷ ̴S̶U̸S̶T̵A̷I̵N̸E̶D̶

 

̴̱́̀"̸̤̼̈W̸̧͂͌h̷͌̎͜ă̶͚̺t̷͉͙̃ ̵̙̑͐h̵͖͌ǎ̷̠̿p̸̖̂͝p̵͚͓̀̈́ȇ̵͚̻ň̷̫ě̸̮̬d̸̟̉ ̶̲͆t̵̥͑̈́͜o̵̱̭͝ ̴̡̛̎m̴͚͗ę̵̾̽.̷̭̣̏.̴̨͚̅̍?̴̥̏"̶̫̽

Chapter Text

I’m not sure how long I lay there, staring at the mirror, this mechanical thing staring back at me. Staring at myself.

 

I’d wanted to be a cape when I was little. Who hadn’t? What kid wouldn’t dream of being invulnerable, or shooting fire and lightning from their hands, or building tinkertech laser guns and spaceships? Beating up villains, catching criminals, going on adventures with Legend or Alexandria and saving the day?

 

Of course it wasn’t that easy. Some capes’ powers were hard to use or had huge drawbacks. And then there were the ones whose powers affected their minds or changed their bodies, preventing them from living a normal life.

 

I realized that was probably what happened to me. I’d gone into the locker as a regular scrawny teenage girl. Then I’d - woken up here and the time in-between the two was a blur of fire and pain and confusion.

 

#̴#̴#̵D̴A̴M̸A̸G̶E̸ ̸S̵U̵S̷T̷A̸I̶N̵E̴D̴

̵C̵O̸R̷T̸E̷X̶ ̷D̴E̵F̵R̶A̴G̸ ̷C̴Y̶C̸L̵E̶:̴/̷/̵ ̸I̶N̷ ̴P̸R̷O̷G̵R̵E̶S̴S̷

 

Typical. Glory Girl gets fouled in a basketball game and gets back up with brand new flight and invulnerability and a terror aura. I get tormented for the better part of two years and I get - what was this, even?

 

̴Q̵U̵E̶R̵Y̶:̷/̷/̷C̸H̷A̵S̶S̵I̴S̷ ̵S̵T̸A̵T̵U̸S̶

̸#̴#̴#̵L̷A̴Y̷E̴R̴E̸D̶ ̵D̶I̶A̴M̷O̶N̷D̵W̷E̴A̵V̸E̶/̵C̷E̸R̸A̸M̶I̵C̴ ̴C̵O̴M̴P̷O̴S̷I̴T̸E̷ 

̶#̷#̴#̶I̴N̸T̵E̶G̴R̷I̸T̷Y̸ ̶C̶O̶M̶P̸R̶O̴M̷I̴S̸E̶D̶

̶#̸#̶#̷R̷E̷P̴A̶I̵R̷ ̶P̴R̷I̴O̷R̶I̷T̷Y̶ ̸L̸O̵W̸

 

I blinked. Or tried to blink. In the mirror, the lights that were my eyes flickered on and off. Wait what?

 

I lay there, staring myself in the eye, while the shadows shifted slowly around me, and little by little the pain - it started making sense. Resolving itself from just pain to a constant stream of data rushing through the back of my head. Error messages, damage reports, status updates. It still hurt, but now the pain had a purpose, and that made it easier to manage. And with clarity, I started understanding what had - happened - what I had become. The information was right there and all I had to do was look for it.

 

My bones were now woven carbon nanofiber. Synthetic diamond spun into microscopically thin and strong fibers, woven into self-reinforcing structures, layered to form an impossibly strong and light endoskeleton.

 

The muscles anchored into those bones were woven bundles of thin plastic and synthetic proteine strands, formed into tubes that contracted when an electric current was introduced - synthetic muscle, strong, efficient, tireless.

 

My skin was layered composite, alternating layers of carbon nanofiber - diamondweave - and advanced hardened ceramics, sandwiched into resilient plating - where it wasn’t missing.

 

I was damaged. Badly. My cyber cortex - my brain - was being bombarded by a constant stream of error messages and damage reports  that my brain happily translated into pain. Self-repair algorithms were at work, but the damage was extensive and I was low on energy and materials.

 

 Inside my shell - inside me - thousands of miniscule machines - medical nanomachines, medichines - were coursing through my systems. Dismantling malfunctioning nonessential systems, cannibalizing them for materials. Those materials were used elsewhere to regrow and reconstruct damaged vital systems, ever so slowly healing my damaged shell.

 

All of this was powered by three redundant main power cells somewhere within me. Or should’ve been. An entire portion of me was missing, one cell with it. Another was inoperative. The third was damaged and while my medichines were busy repairing it, much of the reactive mass was - lost. I was running on minimal power, and any excessive activity - like, say, having a panic attack - just sent me into sleep mode while the drained cell slowly regenerated its charge.

 

I should’ve been panicking, a part of me was aware. I should’ve been terrified. Maybe I should’ve been crying, or screaming, or just otherwise descended into hysterics - I probably would’ve, too, if I’d had any glands left to speak of. My brain was now an advanced solidstate computer, buried deep in my chassis. While I was aware of the emotions I should’ve been feeling, I could just - choose to not let them affect me. My cortex hummed with cool crystal clear machine logic. 

 

Somewhere deep within me, at the back of my cortex, lay a synthetic diamond oval about the size and shape of a plum. Encoded in its nigh-indestructible crystalline structure was my truest-self, my ego, my me, the patterns of my thoughts and memories. My organic brain, or a near-perfect representation of it, engraved on the molecular level into the immortal hyperdiamond of a cortical stack. My cortex was an incredibly advanced computer that emulated my brain patterns and thought processes based on information from the cortical stack. My body.. my body was just a robotic shell that let the actual me interact with the physical world.

 

Taylor Hebert, the robot girl.

 

Maybe I could work with that.

 

I settled down to wait with the infinite patience of the machine. I left my remaining power cell to charge; when I realized my cortex was probably the one thing that drew the most power right now I figured out how to set a subroutine that would set me to sleep mode, then wake me again when something interesting happened.

 

It wasn’t really much like sleep at all. I set the routine, my senses went black, and when they came up again the shadows on the wall had stretched to a new angle and there was a long stream of notifications from the past seven hours streaming through the back of my head.

 

Wait. Seven hours?

 

Crap.

 

Dad was going to kill me.

 

...How long had I been down here?

 

My internal chronometer wasn’t certain about when exactly I’d ended up here, but since the chrono had truly come back online? Had been at least three days.

 

...Crap.

 

Forget killing me, I was lucky if Dad hadn’t gotten himself arrested yet.

 

No. Not really. But he probably was worried sick, and probably getting on the nerves of any cops he was dealing with. After Mom.. I was the only thing he really had left besides his work.

 

I eyed my power level speculatively. My sole cell was charging more and more slowly and I was hoping it was more of an indicator about a limited reserve cap than the actual cell winding down. I could deal with having to take power naps. Complete loss of power would be Very Bad.

 

Now or never. If I could've, I'd have taken a deep breath. Giving the stream of status indicators rolling through my mind’s eye one last check, I focused, collected my limbs under myself, pushed-

 

One of my legs buckled under me, unable to support my weight. 

 

Two were missing altogether.

 

The other five strained and whined, dust and debris raining from my dorsal carapace, painful error messages streaming angrily through my consciousness as I pushed myself up, swaying drunkenly for a moment-

 

Wait. The other five?

 

I wedged composite fingers under the edge of a big jagged triangular piece of mirror-glass and pulled until there was a sharp snap of breaking glass. Held the piece in front of my eyes, tilting it, waiting for the dust I’d disturbed to settle..

 

My head was - probably twice as big as a regular human’s, a rounded wedge covered in curved plates of dusty bone-yellow armor. An oval depression about the size of a human head lay in the middle of my face, crammed with lenses and sensor clusters. Grilles and vents and bulbous sensor nodes sat on both sides of the opening. Down at my ‘chin’, the left side had a mandible-like plate of jointed armor - the right side one was broken off and missing, blocky carbon-dark mechanical shapes visible underneath.

 

Behind my head, partly shaded by an armored cowl, my body was a flattened disc of filthy plating, streams of rubble still cascading down my sides with every motion. I was missing my left arm entirely, a splintered stump in the socket flanking my head. A rounded elongated diamond shape of battered armor rose behind the core, dragged behind me like the shell of a beetle.

 

Five multi-jointed mechanical legs supported me off the ground, one more hanging limply, two missing on my rear right side. Each ended in a claw/foot with two powerful gripping digits on one side and a third opposing them. Boxy shapes clung to most of them, thick ribbed armored cables linking them to my central body.

 

Uh.

 

What.

 

What the fuck.

 

Make that Taylor Hebert, the.. robot.. spider..?

Chapter Text

I stared myself in the mirror. When I blinked, little dots of light flickered on and off among the sensors that made up most of my face. When I tried to open my mouth, the mandible-plate on my jaw shifted and strained, stuck on something.

 

I tried to step back and almost tipped back over, tangled in my own legs. All six of them. Clearly the fact that I could see them and was somewhat aware they were there didn’t mean I knew how to use them.

 

I couldn’t even turn my head far enough to see over my.. shoulder? I had to focus, slowly coax my legs to cooperate, a funny five-and-a-half-limb limp-shuffle to slowly rotate myself in the space I had.

 

I was in an abandoned basement, like I’d thought. It looked like the ceiling - or the floor of the room above - had caved in, leaving this roughly rectangular pit I’d woken up in. 

 

Seeing how I’d been half buried in the debris, I had a sneaking suspicion on how exactly the floor had collapsed.

 

I still couldn’t quite remember what happened after the locker. Had I just.. burst out of the locker like this and somehow made my way here? There was no way I would’ve even fit in the locker like this.

 

I had a sudden mental image of Merchants and ABB gangers in the middle of a firefight scattering before myself, blindly rampaging through the docks until a building just caved in on me.

 

Funny, but I was pretty sure I would have woken up in a PRT holding cell. If I’d woken up at all.

 

Okay. Collapsed basement. I probably could just climb out. The problem was that - my one power cell was draining fast with me just casually moving around. I could probably get up, and then have another half day nap while the cell regenerated. And then I'd get maybe half a block before I’d have to shut down again. Rinse and repeat until.. when? At that pace it'd take all week to get back home. All the while I'd be hoping nobody stumbled in on me while I was resting my cell. 

 

Your average Merchant might spend most of their day figuring out new and fascinating ways to get high, but they weren’t blind.

 

Okay. Could I.. hook myself up to the wall or something and charge myself with that?

 

Yes. Yes I apparently could. 

 

Ancient electrical cables ran along the corner of one wall. It took some dragging and finagling but I finally managed to wedge myself deep enough into the corner to reach them. 

 

No power, of course. Somehow just looking at them closer I knew with absolute certainty that they weren’t connected to anything live and probably hadn’t been for years. Some sort of a ranged voltmeter? Handy.

 

Okay so.. what if I climbed out, then made my way home by plugging myself into the power lines where I could?

 

Giant Robot Spider Rampages through Docks, Eating Power Mains. Would definitely be a headline that caught the eye.

 

...Still not the weirdest thing I’d seen on the news.

 

Could I call home?

 

̵I̶N̷I̵T̵I̴A̷L̸I̷Z̵E̷ ̷E̸X̸T̷E̴R̴N̵A̸L̸ ̵C̷O̴M̶M̶U̵N̷I̷C̷A̷T̷I̴O̷N̸S̶:̷/̶/̴F̴A̶I̴L̸U̴R̸E̴

̵#̶#̴#̷E̷R̸R̸O̵R̸ ̴H̴A̵R̵D̸W̶A̵R̷E̶ ̴F̶A̸U̶L̶T̷

̷#̷#̸#̶L̷O̵C̴A̵L̶ ̷M̸E̵S̸H̷ ̸A̵C̶C̷E̷S̴S̵ ̸P̵O̷I̵N̶T̸ ̸U̵N̷A̷V̷A̴I̷L̵A̶B̷L̵E̸.̶

 

Okay, I had some sort of a communications module but it was damaged. If nothing else I could wait until I got that repaired.. if it could actually connect to the phone network or Internet..

 

What if I got my hands on a phone?

 

Giant Robot Spider Mugs Passerby for Phone was also.. not the weirdest thing I’d seen on the news.

 

Capes, man. 

 

The phone lines down here were just as dead as the power was, anyhow.

 

... Right. I needed to get out of here. What did I have to work with? There was - a lot of data streaming through the back of my mind, and as much as I would've liked to pretend otherwise I barely knew what any of it actually meant.  

 

Okay. Systems list -

 

...I had a vectored thrust flight system?

 

…Offline, and basically useless outside of microgravity environments. Boo. Flight was the one power almost every cape wanted but only a handful actually got.

 

Wait, microgravity environments. I was rated for zero gravity ?

 

Q̶U̶E̴R̸Y̸:̸/̵/̴ ̸C̸H̸A̷S̷S̷I̴S̵ ̵D̴E̷S̴I̸G̷N̷ ̴S̴P̶E̵C̵I̴F̵I̵C̵A̴T̴I̸O̸N̷S̶

̶

̶#̵#̵#̷S̴M̸I̶T̴H̷-̸S̵H̵I̴M̴A̴N̷O̸ ̵G̷7̶ ̶A̷R̴A̸C̸H̸N̶O̵I̴D̸ ̷C̷H̸A̵S̵S̸I̶S̸

̸#̶#̷#̸D̶E̶I̷M̸O̶S̵-̴L̷O̴G̶O̶S̵ ̶M̶K̵I̷I̴B̵ ̸'̴F̷I̵R̸E̷B̸U̵G̵'̴ ̷S̶U̷B̶P̵A̷T̸T̸E̴R̴N̴

̵

̵#̶#̵#̷O̴R̴I̶G̶ ̸P̸R̸I̷M̷A̶R̷Y̷:̷ ̴0̴G̷ ̴R̴E̸P̴A̶I̸R̸ ̸A̵N̶D̴ ̴C̵O̸N̸S̷T̶R̴U̵C̸T̸I̴O̵N̴

̷#̴#̴#̶O̴R̸I̷G̴ ̷S̵E̷C̴O̴N̶D̷A̷R̷Y̴:̵ ̷0̴G̵ ̴F̶I̴R̸E̵ ̵S̸U̴P̴P̵R̵E̵S̶S̵I̵O̴N̴\̷0̷G̴ ̸S̸E̸A̷R̸C̸H̵ ̵A̸N̸D̴ ̴R̷E̴S̴C̵U̷E̴

̶#̷#̶#̷A̴D̵D̷ ̵P̶R̷I̵M̷A̶R̶Y̴:̵ ̷0̷G̷ ̴S̴A̵L̶V̶A̸G̶E̸ ̷O̸P̵E̶R̵A̷T̴I̸O̷N̸S̴ ̵

̵#̵#̶#̸A̶D̴D̶ ̵S̴E̷C̴O̷N̴D̵A̶R̶Y̸:̵ ̷S̶Q̷U̵A̶D̴-̴L̵E̶V̵E̷L̷ ̴D̸I̶R̷E̵C̸T̴ ̸S̵U̷P̶P̸O̶R̴T̸\̶D̵R̶O̴N̴E̶ ̷C̴3̵ ̴N̸E̴X̶U̸S̴̵

 

I blinked again. Or would've blinked if I had eyes that could do that. I wasn’t entirely sure I was reading this data right but if I was.. a lot of this list looked like aftermarket modifications. Functionality and systems had been added, tweaked, upgraded and iterated on for.. quite a while. And not by me, obviously.

 

The thought that I might have been wearing somebody else’s body felt profoundly disturbing on several levels. Kind of like how wearing somebody else’s underwear would, but worse .

 

Not something I could help right now. I’d figure it out later. 

 

Okay, looking down the list..

 

Grappling hook launcher? Physically missing, along with a good chunk of systems in that general area. Also an enormous cape stereotype but right now I wasn’t complaining.

 

Hydraulic limb boosters? Also offline, but it explained the sticky puddle of machine fluid soaking into the dust around me.

 

Microwave Agonizer?!

 

Nope, nope, nope, not touching that one, not one bit no sir. Nope

 

Okay, let’s just - leave that alone for a bit. 

 

Rooting around a little pointed me at some sort of a data archive tucked into the back of my cortex. A lot of it was fragmented - probably thanks to the same whatever reason my power had ended me up with a damaged body-

 

What exactly was my power anyhow?

 

 Repairs and home first. Figure the details out later. 

 

So there was a data archive I could dip into, though big chunks of it were currently unavailable to me. Defrag subroutines were busy at work trying to make sense of it.

 

Oh that looked like a lot of data.

 

How much was an exabyte again?

 

Oh .

 

Feeling suddenly very small inside my own head, I started browsing the bits that were accessible to me. There was some sort of a historical database I flagged as interesting, but currently irrelevant. Fragmented charts, circuit diagrams, and - some sort of a gigantic datablock. Geometric shapes and molecular weights and what looked like an attached shopping list out of all things. Copper, carbon, silicon, a dash of iron and a bunch of elements I vaguely recognized from Chemistry class-

 

I found the header for the block and suddenly realized I was looking at a set of molecule-by-molecule assembly instructions for something called a shredder cartridge. 

 

I pulled back from the archive, blinking again, then dipped back into the list of systems I’d been looking at earlier.

 

Onboard microfabricator. Electronic and mechanical components, kinetic ammunition. Offline. Repairs viable.

 

I went back into the archive and looked around. There were a lot of those datablocks waiting in a neatly organized folder, a lot of them with very interesting labels.

 

I think I could work with this.

 


 

The easy part had been telling my medichines to prioritize getting at least some of my comms and the microfabricator back online. Then it had been just a question of settling back to wait for them to finish their job. Actually standing was draining my remaining cell pretty fast so I’d just laid back down in the dust.

 

At least I couldn’t get cramps anymore. Lying on what amounted to a pile of gravel and construction junk would’ve sucked if I was still.. fleshy. My underside couldn’t really feel much besides rudimentary pressure right now.

 

Finally the notification I’d been waiting for popped up. The fabricator was back online, handshaking my cortex and politely asking it if there was anything I wanted it to make for me. I told it that yes, yes there in fact was, and threw the blueprint data block I’d specifically prepared at it.

 

It considered the blueprint for a moment, then notified me that the thing I’d chosen was too big to actually fit in the fabricator. I could have it split into several smaller modules I’d have to hand-assemble, though.

 

I supposed I’d just have to live with that, and told it to start the build anyhow.

 

A section of armor slid aside on my abdomen. I scooped up a chunk of rebar I’d picked out earlier, transferred it from my hand to one of my leg-claws, and slid it in the opening.

 

Inside the fabricator, thousands of specialized nanomachines floating in a vat of freshly synthetized suspension fluid latched onto the rebar and promptly started pulling it into microscopic pieces, sorting out the resultant materials. Meanwhile, groups of a different kind of nanomachine were organizing themselves into elaborate lattices, fusing themselves together to form larger structures. Like lego blocks that knew where they needed to go. Yet another kind of nanomachine ferried stockpiled materials to the fabricator’s nanohive. The nanohive in turn used those materials to make more nanomachines. Much like my repair medichines, but these were designed to make new things instead of slowly fixing, well, me.

 

I supposed that told me what kind of a cape I was. Tinkers build things, I build things - I tink, therefore I am.

 

God I needed to get out of here.

 

Of course one chunk of rebar wasn’t nearly enough. It was primarily iron - though the concrete attached actually had traces of a variety of elements and compounds in it, some quite useful - and I needed more than that. 

 

Over the next few hours I stripped the dead power cables from the wall for the copper in them, nanomachines neatly unweaving the complex polymer chains of the insulation. I stuffed myself with chunks of wood for the carbon compounds. Silicon I could get from the concrete, and the glass in the bottles I saw earlier was a surprisingly pure source of it, too. The mirror-glass and empty beer cans I found could be reprocessed for aluminium. My fabricator consumed it all, and my medichines happily used the same materials to speed my own reconstruction.

 

Of course it wasn’t a fast process. I was still limited by my damaged power cell, too, and I ended up spending a lot of time just setting myself into sleep mode until my fabricator either needed more materials or completed a build. Every now and then I’d end up with a collection of impure materials that couldn’t be easily repurposed; those were neatly compressed and extruded as a simple hexagonal ingot.

 

Heh. I really did eat rebar and shit rivets.

 

One after another, I pulled out modules from my fabricator, setting them in neatly ordered rows on a makeshift table I’d built - really just the backboard for the mirror, balanced on two piles of scrap. I quickly learned how to use one of my legs as a stand-in for my missing arm - the tripartite gripping claw wasn’t really good for fine manipulation, but it was strong and perfectly capable of lifting and holding something stable so I could work with my actual hand. 

 

They didn’t look like much - most were little more than blocks of carbon composite with connectors, long thin hollow rods, curved plates of composite - but eventually I had enough ready-made modules that I could start putting them together. Most pieces just clipped and twisted together, a few had magnetic couplers - some took a little bit of finagling to fit together, but then fused together into permanent alignment. Nanomachines established and checked final connections before falling inert.

 

It didn’t look very impressive sitting there - a rounded composite box about the size and shape of your average suitcase, a round glassy lense shining on the top surface. Still, I could feel an undeniable excitement humming through myself - the very first thing I’d made as a cape, and it was all mine - I’d had to look through and simplify the design based on the materials I had available, so it wasn’t like it was just off the shelf tech I was working with. Even if the fabricator’s Voice - a combination of tutorial archive and a simple integrated dumb AI - had done most of the heavy lifting there.

 

I clicked and twisted the last part into place. There was a faint beeping noise, and then a new contact popped up on my internal comms.

 

I hesitated only a moment before hitting the button.

 

Chapter Text

The world was data. I was data - numbers, vectors, equations, bits and bytes rushing by in mathematical precision, was one with it all, unburdened by puny physical response times, an entity of pure information -

 

I slammed back into the physical world with disorienting force. The first thing I saw was the ceiling falling towards me - no, I was rocketing up towards the ceiling, for all of five and a half feet before my head jarred to a halt. Little hissing and clicking noises filled the air, parts shifting, reconfiguring, like one of those Earth Aleph puzzle cube toys with the colored sides but so much more complicated.

 

I looked down at my hands, thin flat composite fingers. Wiggled them, made a fist. It felt strange to have both hands available after - how long had I been without the left one already? The time kind of blurred together when I didn’t really sleep..

 

I was a humanoid robot stick figure. Bones of long carbon composite rods were twined with bundles of synthetic muscle, dark gray ropy strands of flexible plastic; the shell of the case’s storage configuration distributed across its chest, shoulders, lower legs and arms. All negative space, pieces of thin plating suggesting a humanoid form. The most bulk I had was my head - a simple boxy shape dominated by a round sensor module - and my chest, widened to fit the simple chemical battery pack I’d fabricated. Like a cell phone battery but a LOT bigger.

 

I didn’t have the materials to build another power cell - or I could’ve just done that and climbed out. And my arachnoid form drew power faster than I could make battery packs to fuel it. But this case I’d found - that’s what the file header called it, a case shell - was designed around three features; it was simple and cheap to build; it was compact; and it was fairly power efficient. Running one off a primitive battery wasn’t an ideal solution but at least now I was mobile.

 

I stepped down from the makeshift table, the grip pads of my toes and heel grinding on the concrete floor, and looked at - myself. My body? This was going to get confusing fast.

 

The first thing I realized, looking at the body I’d woken up in - was how damn big it was. The little basement room, or the half of it that wasn’t buried under rubble, was absolutely full of - well, me. Flat on its belly, the peak of the rear section’s bulbous carapace came up to my chest, a sprawled tangle of thick jointed composite limbs stretching from one wall to another. The actual body alone was about the size of one of those cute little smart cars I’d seen on TV. A smart car with robot spider legs. Even damaged as it was, inactive, sensor lenses dark, covered in dust and garbage, it was honestly pretty damn horrifying.

 

One side of the room was full of collapsed ceiling bits, making a sort of a pseudo-ramp. I gingerly picked my way over the tangle of machine limbs, sidling past myself - the body - the spider - and that’s when I saw the damage.

 

The arachnoid shell’s body was plated in thick layered composite armor, gouged and scratched in places, covered in soot and dust - and then there were two deep round pits in the angled flank of the bulbous insectoid abdomen portion of the shell. I could see the shine of dark machine parts within. The edges of the wound (?) were smooth and glassy, like they’d been melted by intense heat.

 

Morbidly curious, I bent down to peer deeper, and found that I could see the other wall through both holes - a neat round molten entry point I could’ve fit my fist through on this side, a gaping blasted pit on the other. Whatever had done it had gone straight through the armor on its way in, blasted and melted its way through the sensitive innards and superstructure, and then blown its way out the other side - and if the armor there hadn’t given way it would’ve just probably melted everything inside like a crab boiled in its own shell.

 

Welp. That explained why I was missing two power cells. And I had absolutely no memory of any of it happening. For all I knew the damage had already been there when I - was made this way.

 

Powers, man.

 

I shook my head with a whine of servos and picked my way past the arachnoid shell, then up the pile of rubble, and into the building proper. It looked like it’d been a small apartment building at some point, left to decay until some battle between capes had ruined it; then it’d been simply abandoned. Gang tags decorated moldy walls, dust and debris scattered across the floor - except for a wide swath of scratches and scrapes leading from the edge of the opening into the basement towards a big gap in one of the walls, still fluttering with scraps of construction hazard tape that cast funny shadows in the setting sun.



Okay. Step one complete, get out of the pit. Step two.. Find my way home.

 

I realized that some of the windows still had ratty curtains on them and, after a moment’s consideration, pulled them off the window. A little bit of a messing about later saw them wrapped around my body in a sort of a pseudo-robe. I probably looked homeless, but at least I didn’t immediately stand out like an extra from I, Robot. Not from a distance at least.



Step one-point-five: Clothes. Complete. Step two, get home. Just would have to work my way through the Docks, late in the evening, and hopefully not run into any gangers.

 

As long as I didn’t get lost I’d be good.

 


 

I was lost.

 

In my defense, while Winslow was close to the Docks, I’d never been suicidal enough to come this far out here by myself. And definitely not this close to nightfall. I’d figured I could just find a landmark, head for that until I hit a familiar street, then work my way home. In practice it turned out that one run-down Dockside warehouse building covered in gang tags.. Tended to look much like any other run-down Dockside warehouse building covered in gang tags. Especially when it started getting dark. Especially when most of the streetlights were out. I’d ducked into one alleyway to avoid a group of homeless people warming up around a barrel of burning garbage, gone down a block, swung back to the street I’d been on and.. Three blocks later I was pretty sure I was going the exact opposite direction I’d wanted.

 

I should’ve built a compass into this thing. Or maybe a GPS tracker.

 

I was finally resigning myself to the thought of having to retrace my steps back to the basement pit before trying again when my sensors caught on a bloom of light down the street. A group of people were filing out of a building some distance down the block, and one of them lighting a cigarette was like a beacon in the dark. I had just enough time to realize that the faces I could make out in the flickering firelight were distinctly Asian, and that all of them were wearing bits of red and green, and then my common sense grabbed me by the neck and I ducked down the nearest alleyway, laying myself flat against the wall and hoping none of them had seen me.



Shit. ABB. Azn Bad Boyz.



The name of the gang might have been incredibly ridiculous, but the fact remained that the ABB were one of the three biggest, most powerful gangs in the Brockton Bay area. If you were of any kind of vaguely Asian descent and lived in Brockton Bay, there was a near-certainty that either at least one of your family members was a member, you were being squeezed by the gang for protection money, or you were about to be recruited. They did everything from drugs to prostitution and human trafficking to racketeering to plain petty theft, and predictably they were supposed to have some pretty powerful capes in their leadership.



You’d expect they’d have splintered into smaller groups ages ago, but the fact that one of their two biggest rivals here were literal goddamned neo-nazis probably gave them more than enough incentive to stick together.

 

Yeah. I wanted to be a hero, who didn’t? But right now - right now, all I wanted was to get home. I wasn’t stupid enough to try and take on what was probably twenty gangers in a shell that wasn’t really designed for - much anything than walking around, really. So I stuck to the edge of the alley, clinging to worn brick with the absolute stillness you could only get from a machine, sensor lens peeking just over the edge of the wall, and kind of - waited for them to head off.



There was somebody else coming down the stairway. Head and shoulders taller than the rest of the gang, a giant shirtless hulk of a man. This far away, my view was a little pixelated - the resolution on the case’s sensor package wasn’t as high as I would’ve maybe liked - but I had absolutely no trouble making out the polished steel mask depicting a snarling monster, or the intricate dragon tattoos flowing down the muscles of his upper frame.



Houston, we have a cape. If the outfit wasn’t a dead giveaway, the fact that every single one of the other gangers was giving him a respectable amount of space was. He was gesticulating with those enormous hands, all but prowling down the street, pointing, giving commands, and they were all of a sudden moving with purpose. I tried to focus on him, the distance garbling his words - and then there was a faint whirring sound, my vision lurching towards him in a zoom, and all of a sudden I could hear every snap and crack of gravel under their boots as they moved. The cape’s thickly accented voice was a deep throaty snarl that cracked with feedback in my senses - 

 

“…the children, just shoot.  Doesn’t matter your aim, just shoot.  You see one lying on the ground?  Shoot the little bitch twice more to be sure.  We give them no chances to be clever or lucky, understand?”

 

...Crap.

Chapter Text

He did not just say that.

 

“̴…̵t̴h̴e̸ ̴c̸h̷i̴l̴d̶r̷e̴n̶,̷ ̸j̵u̶s̸t̵ ̴s̴h̶o̴o̴t̵.̴ ̵ ̴D̶o̷e̷s̴n̵’̴t̴ ̸m̸a̵t̸t̵e̵r̷ ̴y̷o̶u̵r̴ ̶a̵i̵m̷,̶ ̶j̷u̸s̸t̴ ̵s̴h̴o̵o̴t̵.̷ ̶ ̴Y̴o̷u̷ ̸s̷e̴e̶ ̷o̶n̴e̷ ̵l̵y̸i̴n̷g̸ ̸o̷n̷ ̵t̴h̵e̵ ̴g̵r̵o̶u̷n̴d̴?̴ ̶ ̴S̷h̷o̶o̸t̸ ̷t̶h̷e̴ ̷l̴i̴t̶t̸l̵e̸ ̶b̶i̵t̵c̷h̴ ̸t̶w̵i̴c̸e̴ ̶m̴o̵r̷e̴ ̵t̶o̶ ̶b̸e̸ ̶s̵u̴r̷e̸.̶ ̸ ̵W̸e̷ ̷g̸i̴v̶e̴ ̴t̸h̴e̴m̶ ̵n̵o̶ ̴c̵h̷a̶n̷c̷e̷s̴ ̵t̶o̴ ̴b̵e̴ ̴c̵l̸e̶v̵e̴r̵ ̷o̴r̸ ̴l̸u̷c̴k̴y̵,̶ ̷u̸n̴d̴e̸r̷s̶t̷a̴n̵d̶?̶”̶

 

Thank you, instant replay, I needed that. Really.

 

More ABB were pulling up in cars, pulling out weapons, organizing into groups. The cape was snarling orders in a language I didn’t recognize, they were clearly getting ready to move somewhere, and that somewhere was going to involve shooting children.

 

No chances that they were prepping up for a friendly rousing game or two of paintball. I wasn’t that lucky.

 

Okay Taylor. Slow down. Think. What can you do?



I couldn’t take twenty ABB and at least one cape of unknown capabilities by myself. Not like this. I had no weapons, no real armor to speak of, there were a lot more of them than there were of me, and from what I could see from a distance, the few of them that didn’t have guns had at least knives. That was without factoring in the cape.



Mental note, if I’m supposed to be a cape, do research. I didn’t even know his name or powers beyond ‘big and surly’, much less any special weak points or anything else tactically useful. 

 

So either I didn’t take them on, in which case children might die - outcome unacceptable - or I needed backup. I needed to call the cops or PRT or something.



I didn’t have a phone, or I wouldn’t be here in the first place. Long-range comms were - check - still mostly out. I set a subroutine to cycle through the frequencies I could access in case there was somebody useful I could contact, but didn’t have much hope on that.

 

Payphone? There were payphones on the Boardwalk but I’d have to make my way there first, and I had no change anyhow. If there was a single payphone on the Docks that hadn’t been vandalized I’d be surprised. No time to scrounge up change, find a phone, and realistically hope the ABB hadn’t already reached wherever it was they were going. Outcome unacceptable.

 

I could try to ask a local to borrow their phone, but nobody sane in this part of town was going to open their door for a stranger in the middle of the night. I would have to be going from door to door for an unknown amount of time while again the ABB might or might not be getting to their destination. Outcome unacceptable.

 

They were moving now, splitting into smaller groups - it looked like they were forming up into search parties. A flash of light caught my attention. A few were pulling out cell phones of their own, probably to coordinate with each other.

 

Could I get my hands on one of their phones? I couldn’t take the lot of them on by myself ( outcome unacceptable) but maybe I could ambush one of their teams, snatch a phone, and call for help? Get in, get out, minimal engagement -



I looked down at my hand, squeezing flat composite fingers into a wiry fist. Not an ideal engagement, but it’d have to do.

 


 

I scampered along the alleyway, feeling the fiber bundles of my ankles flex with every step, grip pads on my feet surprisingly quiet on the worn asphalt. The ABB had split into groups of three to five people each and I was tracking one of the smaller teams. I pulled myself up a fire escape up on one side of a low-lying building, made my way across as quickly and quietly as I could, and peeked over the corner to make sure they were more or less where I’d thought they were going to be.



Thank god it was so dark out here, it wasn’t hard to keep out of sight. And thank god humans weren’t really wired to look up.

 

There.

 

There were three of them, moving along the grimy alleyways. The one in the lead had a big fancy bandana done in stripes of ABB red and green. The one in the middle was - kind of chunky, in an unfortunately bright red shirt and green suspenders combo that probably would’ve been a lot more ridiculous if these weren’t hardened gangers out of murder. That one had a gun visibly stuck in one side of his jeans, in that ‘I-want-to-look-cool-and-don’t-care-if-I-might-blow-my-danglies-off’ style. The one along the rear had a nasty-looking butterfly knife in one hand and was wearing a heavy decently nice-looking leather jacket, with red and green patterns sewn on. More importantly, that one I at least had seen using a cell phone..



Infiltrate. Isolate. Neutralize. Objective. Exfiltrate.

 

I hadn’t even known ‘exfiltrate’ was a real word before I woke up in the basement.

 

I moved as quietly as I could with them, trailing along the edge of the building. They reached a corner in the alleyway, Bandana Guy turned, walked past me, followed by Mister Suspenders -



Engage.


Guy With The Phone was, just for a few moments, out of line-of-sight from his friends. I scooped up a handful of gravel from the rooftop and threw it across the alleyway. It rained down at the mouth of an adjoining alleyway, clicking and crunching.



GWTP spun around, knife held up, and I hurled myself over the edge of the building. My legs almost buckled and painful error messages rushed through the back of my head as my grip pads slammed into the alley floor behind him, clutching a chunk of two-by-four I’d found earlier. I pushed myself back up and brought the beam up high -



The world slowed around me. Math rushed through my mind, calculations, equations - the weight of the board versus human tolerances, how much force an unaugmented human body could take at point A versus point B versus C, disable/incapacitate/kill - lethal force restricted, angles, arcs, the opening was now-



I could see GWTP beginning to turn around, like in slow motion, and then the equations lined up with an almost tangible click in my head. Time sped back up. He was spinning and the board blurred down. Smashed into his back with enough force to drive the air out his lungs. I felt the impact juddering in my hands, a shock racing up composite struts of my arms -



Another blur of slow motion, angles and calculations racing through my mind. The world was moving at a snail’s pace and I could see the wide openings in his defenses, knew exactly where and how hard to hit him to disable him, knew the exact moment I needed to strike - and the world sped back up, and the board described a perfect beautiful smooth arc through the air before smashing into the backs of his knees. He went down with a strangled grunt, and then the board came back down and bounced his head off the pavement with a hollow whunk.

 

Target neutralized.

 

The whole thing had taken exactly 2,48 seconds.

 

If I had a heart it would’ve been pounding in my throat.

 

Eighteen months. For nearly a year and a half I’d been pushed around, degraded, tormented by my best friend - my ex best friend and her two lieutenants. I’d never pushed or fought back. Just ducked, kept my head down, held it all in, hoped that they’d get bored and go away, and it’d just gotten worse. . Now a hardened ganger lay out cold at my feet and despite the cold logic of the machine I felt a surge of triumph. 

 

My very first non-lethal takedown as a cape.

 

Hell yes I could do this.

 

Bite my flat composite ass, Sophia Hess.

 

“What the f-”



My head snapped up. 

 

The reaction time for your average human is 0.25 seconds. That’s when it comes to visual stimulus. A quarter second for your eyes to see something, your brain to process it, and then try and figure out what to do based on that. I could see that quarter second unfold in slow motion on Mister Suspenders’ face, confusion and surprise and his hand reaching for the gun stuck in his jeans - those same equations raced through the back of my mind again, speed and force and trajectory, it was like a set of crosshairs had materialized over him - disable/incapacitate/kill, lethal force restricted -



The world un-froze. His hand moved for the handle of the gun. 

 

“-uuuuck-”

 

I flipped the board in my hand and hurled it like a javelin straight into his face, synthetic fiber bundles screaming in my shoulder.

 

Several kilos of moldy but sturdy two-by-four smashed into his face, crushed his nose, and dislodged several teeth. His head snapped back on his shoulders from the force of the impact and his brain smashed against the front of the inside of his skull, rebounded, and bounced off the back. His finger convulsed on the trigger.

 

The gunshot was astonishingly loud in the moonlit night. Hot fragments of bullet and pavement whistled in the air, a few tearing into the curtain I was wrapped in.

 

Crap crap crappity crap crap crap.

 

So much for a silent takedown.

 

Bandana Guy was just down the crossing alleyway, whirling around at the gunshot.



Mister Suspenders hadn’t finished his crash into the pavement before the fiber bundles of my legs uncoiled and launched me forwards. One, two, three long strides mashed the birdlike grip pads of my feet into the pavement, the tattered curtain flying around me, moonlight bright in my sensor lens. 

 

Bandana Guy’s hand started coming up just as my fourth step turned into a lurching pounce, catapulting my full mass into his chest. We went down in a struggling pile of limbs, him under me - the impact drove the air from his lungs, and I punched him in the face.

 

It wasn’t as effective as I’d hoped. The case was built to be light , and it was working against me - I couldn’t put as much force into the blow as I would’ve liked, I couldn’t keep him from pushing me off him. His eyes were wide and bright at the look of my fingers wrapping around his, pushing against a knife-wielding hand.

 

I knew I should’ve built a weapon into this thing. A taser, the microwave agonizer, goddamn pepper spray, anything at all-

 

“What the fuck, what the fuck, fucking cape-”

 

I drove my head down into his face. Blood from his broken nose gushed over my sensor lense, and the word turned red.  

 

Distantly, a part of my mind realized how young he looked under the now bloodsoaked bandana. For all I know I might have seen him in school not so long ago, warily eying Empire Eighty-Eight junior gangers and wannabes from across the hall - 

 

His hand slipped from mine, and he sunk the knife roughly where my spleen should’ve been on a human body. 

 

On the case, the blade found zero resistance. It cut straight through the old curtain, slipped between two composite plates, and caught on a joint between two struts. I gave my hips a powerful sideways twist and heard a faint metallic snap.

 

Damage: Cosmetic.

 

Bandana Guy pulled his hand up, wide-eyed, staring at the now-bladeless knife.



I latched my hand on his forehead and pounded the back of his head into the pavement.

 

He stopped struggling on the second impact.

 

I gave him a third wallop just to make sure. 

 

Finally I pushed myself back up. My spine made a grinding noise and I reached one of my hands under my makeshift robe, rooted around a little, and pulled out a four-inch blade that had snapped near the base, nicked but still wickedly sharp.

 

Suddenly I was feeling a lot less bad about assaulting them.

 

If I was still human I’d be bleeding on the alleyway floor right now. If I was still human I wouldn’t have gotten this far - I’d been a teenager, tall for my age but definitely not filled out all the way yet, and - not particularly athletic. The case wasn’t super strong but it was definitely at least as strong as your average adult human, and it didn’t tire. I could think and react so much faster than before, and surprise had been my biggest asset in that fight. There were so many ways that could’ve gone wrong -

 

-and it had been so easy. Not the fight. Starting it. I’d formulated a plan. Marked three living human beings as targets, and moved. Zero nerves. Zero hesitation. Movement-action-reaction-objective. I’d known exactly how hard to hit them to not cause any lethal damage, and I’d been ruthlessly detached from the whole process. I might as well have been folding clothes for all the emotional impact of it.

 

If I hadn’t specifically told myself to not kill, would I be sharing the alleyway with three corpses now?

 

Objective. Call for backup.

I let cold machine logic wash away the anxiety and let the blade clatter to the ground. My vision was still blurred red and I tried to wipe my sensor lens with the curtain before I spun around. GWTP still wasn’t moving and I strode over, flipped him over and started rooting through his jacket. His phone was in his breast pocket, an old model, still intact - yes!



Huh. The screen was in Chinese.

 

I didn’t need to know Chinese to unlock it and key in 911.

 

“911 Emergency, how can I help you?”

 

"̵I̴'̵m̸ ̵a̷t̴ ̸t̴h̴e̷ ̸D̵o̶c̴k̵s̸,̵ ̵o̵n̴e̷-̴p̶o̸i̶n̷t̵-̴s̷e̸v̷e̸n̶ ̴k̴i̴l̵o̷m̴e̸t̷e̶r̷s̴ ̶s̶o̵u̴t̴h̸w̴e̷s̵t̸ ̴o̶f̸ ̴t̶h̸e̸ ̸o̸l̵d̷ ̴r̴a̷d̷i̵o̵ ̵t̵o̵w̶e̸r̸.̶ ̷T̸h̶e̶r̴e̴'̴s̸ ̸a̷ ̵g̵r̴o̵u̴p̷ ̷o̵f̶ ̶A̵B̸B̷,̶ ̸a̷t̷ ̵l̸e̷a̷s̶t̸ ̴t̶w̷e̶n̶t̶y̷,̵ ̵a̶t̴ ̸l̸e̶a̷s̶t̷ ̴o̵n̸e̸ ̶c̵a̷p̵e̷,̴ ̷t̸h̸e̴y̴'̶r̵e̸ ̵a̵r̶m̵e̸d̷,̶ ̶t̵h̵e̸y̷ ̸w̷e̴r̷e̴ ̸t̵a̸l̸k̵i̵n̵g̴ ̵a̶b̵o̸u̴t̶ ̷s̷h̵o̸o̴t̶i̷n̶g̸ ̷k̷i̷d̷s̸.̴ ̴S̵e̸n̷d̶ ̵h̸e̷l̶p̵.̶"̶

 

“Sir? I’m having trouble hearing you -”

 

Right. My voice was still a staticky flat hiss. Cheap-ass basic vocoder-



"̸I̵'̴m̵ ̶a̴t̵ ̷t̴h̸e̴ ̸D̶O̵C̸K̸S̶.̵ ̵S̷O̶U̵T̵H̷W̸E̸S̵T̴ ̵o̴f̴ ̵t̴h̵e̷ ̸o̴l̸d̶ ̸R̶A̸D̶I̴O̵ ̵T̵O̶W̷E̴R̵.̵ ̴A̸B̴B̸ ̴w̶e̸r̴e̸ ̸t̴a̶l̷k̷i̵n̵g̴ ̸a̵b̸o̴u̶t̶ ̵S̷H̵O̴O̴T̵I̷N̸G̴ ̷C̸H̵I̵L̵D̸R̸E̴N̸.̶ ̵A̸t̸ ̶l̸e̷a̵s̸t̸ ̶T̶W̷E̸N̸T̴Y̷ ̶a̶n̴d̷ ̴a̴ ̸C̸A̶P̶E̸.̷ ̵S̵E̷N̶D̴ ̴H̵E̷L̵P̶.̶"̴

 

“Sir? Are you a hero?”



I’m trying to be, you-

 

“There’s one!”

 

Gunshots. Bullets screamed past me, smashed into old brick and pavement - I ducked, tried to squeeze myself into a small target, and the phone was smashed out of my hand by a lucky shot, error messages racing through me - it felt like my hand had been hit with a hammer -

 

Objective nonviable. Exfiltrate.


‘Exfiltrate’ is really just a fancy word for ‘run away and hide’.



I did just that.

 


 

I ran, grip pads pounding the pavement, and shouts and gunshots followed me.

 

Running was easy. My case was somewhat top-heavy with the sheer mass of the battery pack filling out its - my top chest, but it was lightweight, long-legged, and decently strong. I didn’t tire, couldn’t tire, and if it was just a question of speed and endurance I would’ve left the lot of them in the dust long ago.

 

No, the real problem is that there were a lot of ABB beyond the three I’d clobbered. They’d been spread over the neary streets and alleyways, looking for something or somebody - now alerted, that ring was collapsing in on itself with me right in the center.

 

On the upside, they were a lot more interested in me than - whoever their original target had been, now.

 

A bullet whirred past me and sparked against a rusted fire escape. Another smashed into the pavement near my feet.



Man, these guys were lousy shots-



The third shot hit me in the lower back. Punched through the curtain, glanced off one of my primary struts, and made a second hole in the curtain on its way out through the front. I barely stumbled.



Lousy shots, but blind chickens and all that. The case wasn’t exactly bulletproof , a good hit to something vital would still ruin me, but just the fact that I didn’t have any of the vulnerable organs or connective tissues or blood vessels an organic form did mean I was - pretty hard to casually damage. At least with blades and bullets specifically designed around hydrostatic shock and making big holes in squishy organic things. And the case’s profile was stickman-thin under the billowing curtains, which made it even harder to actually hit me.

 

I just needed to lose them before one of them got lucky and got me in the cortex or battery pack. Or one of the bigger fiber bundles in my legs, or - let’s just settle for getting away.

 

The rusted fire escape hung over ten feet off the ground, rusted upright. I risked a glance behind my shoulder, took two more long strides - that stretching feeling of slowdown coursing through my senses again as my fiber-boosted legs bent, compressed - uncoiled with an explosive flex and launched me almost straight up.

 

My hand slammed into the rusted steel, wrapped around a crossbar. Warnings and error messages flashed through my senses again, synthetic pain - that hand was still damaged from the near-miss with the phone earlier - for one long terrifying moment I hung there, reaching my other hand up, until I found a grip and hauled myself up. More bullets smashed into brickwork around me, and then I was doing my best squirrel impression scurrying up the rusted ladder.

 

Eat my dust, ABB-



Orange light danced across the worn brickwork, flames licking the mouth of an alleyway.

 

The ABB boss-cape stalked from the alleymouth like some sort of a hellish predator. Flames licked along his chest, swirled around his fists, dripped like liquid from the eyeholes of his snarling mask. Heat-haze set the dragon tattoos of his arms writhing like they were trying to tear free of his skin.

 

Oh. So that’s what he did.

 

“YOU!” I watched the skin peel away from his pointing finger, something sharp and metallic pushing out from underneath his skin. Sparks and flashes of flame bled from around it. “YOU THINK YOU CAN FUCK WITH LUNG?”

 

Well, Lung, I’m all the way up here and you’re all the way down there-

 

He jumped, and almost reached the top of the building. There was a crunching noise as his hands smashed against the brick, into the brick, and he was hauling himself up with inhuman strength -



Oh you’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

 

I turned to run, and behind me I could hear Lung roaring as he hauled himself up the building.

 


 

I was quickly getting a crash course in not underestimating capes. Specifically, super strength didn’t just mean Lung could rip doors off their hinges or hit really, really hard. 

 

He could climb sheer walls by literally digging his fingers into solid brick. 

 

I jumped over a gap in the buildings, leaping over an alleyway, and he cleared the same gap like a comet.

 

I dropped down an alleyway, ducking and weaving old crates and debris, and he plowed clear through them, hurling flaming shrapnel with a roar. I didn’t think he even slowed down.

 

And he was on fire. I could feel the heat growing against me with every step, temperature readings steadily ticking up in the back of my head-

 

“Little fucking-“

 

Fire screamed past me, a narrow jet of searing flame. I ducked, jinked, realized my shoulder was on fire - alarms screaming in my senses, I whirled around midstep just enough to shrug off the burning top half of my curtain shroud and huck it at his face without slowing down -

 

It burst into flames before it even reached him. And I was pretty sure he was bigger than when I’d first seen him. Growing. Did he get stronger the longer he fought, or was it a factor of getting him angrier?

 

Fuck. I really needed to do more research -

 

Another jet of flame lit the night, and I juked and jinked. Ducked under one, my machine reflexes working overtime. Leaped, rolled -



Fire blasted through the curtain wrapped around my lower body, set it alight. Composite endostructure heated to red-hot temperatures. Fiber bundles seized, then melted away.

 

###CRITICAL DAMAGE SUSTAINED - LEFT LOWER LEG ACTUATOR

###MOBILITY IMPAIRED

 

I fell, hard, skidding along the pavement, error messages screaming through my head, one leg a useless ruin.

 

I could hear the bubbling crunch of Lung’s footsteps on the pavement. My hands and remaining foot fought for purchase, pushed away. 

 

Grip. Push. Scraaaaaape. Grip. Push-

 

An enormous hand gripped my upper arm, lifted and threw me into the wall hard enough to make my struts rattle. 

 

“I’lle ugkin’ ‘igg..” Lung’s accent had already been thick. Now his face was barely human and his voice was near unintelligible around a lipless jaw that looked like it was trying to split into multiple independent segments. His eyes were featureless pearls in the burning sockets of his mask, thick metallic needle shapes pushing through the skin of his arms and solidifying into shining organic steel scales.

 

He leaned closer, temperature alerts ringing in my head. “‘Oo ‘e ‘ugk ‘aa ‘oo?”

 

Exfiltrate.

 

I did the only thing I could think of - I dug the grip pads of my fingers into what fleshy bits of his arms I could reach and brought my remaining leg up between his thighs as hard as I could.

 

It felt like kneeing a brick wall. I wasn’t sure he even really felt it.

 

Lung squeezed harder. My vision fritzed and distorted. “‘Oo i’lle ‘igg-“

 

FffhhhwweeeeEEEEEEE-

 

Lung and I looked down at the same time, where my chest was making a high-pitched, rising whistling noise around the clawed tip of his thumb, digging deep into my systems.

 

I’m sorry, Dad-

 

Overloaded, overheated, overpressurized and finally compromised by Lung’s claw, my battery pack chose that exact moment to express its displeasure by exploding.

Chapter Text

###ERROR - CONNECTION LOST

###CRITICAL SYSTEM FAILURE 

###DAMAGE SUSTAINED

 

I slammed back into physical being with start. A garbled cry of static squealed from my vocoder. My arms and legs jerked, painful error messages coursing through my head.

 

Lung! Have to get away-

 

-away?

 

I was laying on familiar crumbled concrete and masonry. A stripped-down mirror lay tilted on two stacks of debris.

 

I brought my hand in front of my face again. Two missing digits. Curved composite fingers. One arm missing entirely.

 

I could still almost feel Lung’s thumb digging into my chest. Feel my case’s systems overheat, fail, run like wax. My being throbbed with feedback, a pounding headache translated into computerized agony. Virtual adrenaline was still running through my cortex until I cut the responsible subroutines.

 

Oh.

 

So that’s what a ‘puppet sock’ did.

 

The me that had climbed out of the pit, fought the ABB and lost had been - remote controlled. A step further than remote control. I’d been the case. Genuinely thought I had fully transferred myself into it, when all this time my cortical stack, my true consciousness had stayed right here in the arachnoid shell, linked by the short range comms I had gotten online.

 

Was this what they meant with ‘cheating death’? I’d fought Lung, I’d died - and I was still here.

 

Still caught in this goddamned pit.

 

I was alive, and I knew more than I’d known a few hours ago. Lower on resources than I would’ve liked, but I’d learned from my mistakes. I could adapt.

 

I closed my eyes, the lights of my sensors winking out. Loaded up a copy of the blueprint I’d used for the case, mentally appending ‘version 1.1’ onto it, and got to work.

 


 

This time I waited until it was, if not full daylight then at least getting there before I activated my new case. This time there were more people around I’d have to avoid - homeless, addicts, random gangers, the occasional prostitute - but I was a little stronger, too. A little tougher. A little more confident in what I could do.

 

My objective was mostly the same, too. Get home or find a phone and call Dad. Get help. Get my true-self safe. Figure out what we’d do from there.

 

Sure, my relationship with Dad wasn’t what it had been before. Losing - losing Mom had been a huge hit to the both of us. His work was getting harder and harder with the economy. And I’d been bullied, withdrawn, quiet..

 

Some capes could maintain secret civilian lives. Families completely unaware of what their loved ones were and did. My situation - wasn’t something I could hide. Not unless I just disappeared and I wasn’t going to put my Dad through that.

 

I did love him, despite - despite the distance we’d let come between us. 

 

And it was the logical thing to do.

 

I picked my way through the streets, trying to avoid people. In daylight, the area looked entirely different from the other night - sure, the buildings were old and worn down, covered in gang tags, and there were stripped down abandoned cars in the streets.. but there were still people out, minding their own business. Homeless people, granted, but people. Children playing in the streets.

 

Dad used to tell me Brockton Bay used to be a major shipping center, a growing flourishing spot for trade and industry. That the harbor used to be full of ships dropping off goods to transport inland or processing in the dockside industrial area. They had a ferry running from the southern city center straight into the heart of the Docks just to serve the working families living there. That had been Dad’s pride and joy, his pet project. Then Leviathan came, and global trade ground to a halt. The trade ships stopped coming, the booming industries died, and the docks started crumbling. A lot of people lost their jobs. They abandoned whole ships out there in the harbor when they realized it would be cheaper than keeping them going.

 

Now the Ship Graveyard was a massive eyesore in what used to be the heart of the city, rusting hulks ran aground or moored together in haphazard rows. The abandoned factories and warehouses were shelters to the homeless and gangers - many of whom were left hopeless in the first place by Brockton’s economic collapse. Ex-factory workers lived in the decommissioned factories they used to work in, or ended up joining gangs because there was nowhere else for them to go. 

 

Come to think of it, that probably explained why Brockton Bay had so many capes, especially villains. The Docks were an easy source of henchmen for a wannabe villain, and it would be easy to set up a secret lair in an old warehouse or abandoned freighter or something.

 

Like how I’d been left alone in an abandoned basement for how long, now? I was honestly surprised that nobody’d stumbled in on me.

 

Maybe the building was too unstable to be safe to be around. Wasn’t that a happy thought.

 

Maybe somebody had stumbled in on me and had decided that leaving the giant robot spider alone was the better part of valor.

 

When did my life get this weird again?

 

At least this time around, things were going more or less to plan - 

 

A shadow washed over me, and then a massive shape came down in the street with a THUD I could feel racing up my struts, scattering dust and trash around.

 

Goddamnit I had to think that out loud didn’t I?

 

For a moment I thought somebody’d thrown a truck at me. Then the dust settled enough for me to realize it was actually a.. A mutant animal of some sort damn near the size of a truck. Quadruped, like a rhino mated with an alligator and got rolled around in toxic waste. Spurs of bone jutted randomly out of a body covered in glistening muscle, mismatched fangs drooling, spine-like tail wriggling in the air. Sturdy chain wrapped around its neck and shoulders, leading up to the hand of its rider.

 

I took a step back, and the rider slid down from the thing’s back - a tall, dark male shape in black motorcycle leathers, complete with a helmet. He reached up to help a blonde girl in a lavender and black bodysuit down, and I could see the profile of his helmet gleam in the light, the outlines of a leering skull molded in dark plastic. Little wisps of what looked like black smoke poured from vents along the sides of his helmet, squirming unnaturally in the still air.


Fuck. I’d underestimated one cape the last time was out, and I’d gotten myself killed. I wasn’t about to do the same to two unknown capes. The world started slowing down around me, algorithms flashing through with potential escape routes, guesses about speed and strength and -



“Hi,” the blonde girl smiled, green eyes sparking behind a domino mask. “I’m glad to see you’re okay.”

 


 

Quick, Taylor. Say something nice and witty for this person you’ve never met before.

 

…..

…..

…..

…..

 

...Goddamnit Taylor.

 

“We saw you the other night,” the man with the skull mask murmured, casually scratching the monstrous creature’s neck behind the chain. One massive rear paw wiggled and kicked at nothing. “You were fighting Lung. Did us a huge favor, too, you kept the heat off us long enough to handle Oni Lee.” His voice was deep, masculine, a perfect match for his broad shoulders and strong arms - he wasn’t as huge as Lung was, but he was a decently big guy. Pair that with the skull motif of his visor, the wisps of whatever was flowing out of his helmet and he was a pretty intimidating sight - you could tell his costume was home-made, but he made it work.

 

It sure as hell beat being wrapped up in a bunch of old sheets and curtains.

 

Another creature thudded down into the street a little bit behind him, a little more sleek than the other but just as monstrous - bare slick muscle, plates and spurs of bone on a monstrous shape easily as big as a van. Two more people climbed off that one, a broad, stockily built girl wearing a worn T-shirt and a cheap plastic dog mask, and a tall lean figure in a white ren-faire outfit complete with a scepter and a silver crown. 

 

I took a slow step back, still trying to figure out what was going on - I’d expected a fight, and the guy in the skull mask was actually being pretty nice despite the sheer intimidation factor of his outfit.

 

It was sadly telling about my life that I had absolutely no idea what to do when people were being nice to me.

 

Also I was pretty sure these guys were supposed to be villains.

 

“I’m going to admit we were freaking out bad, hearing the ABB were gunning for us.. And then there’s just half a dozen of them and Oni Lee. Lee’s tough but not exactly leader material and without his boss around he was pretty easy to frighten off. Then we finally figured fuck it, we’re going to kick the rest of them in the balls while we’re at it and..”



“We thought we’d meet them halfway, and then we found you giving Lung the runaround,” the blonde girl smiled. She had bright green eyes, like old bottle glass behind the angles of her domino mask, and the kind of a sharp knowing vulpine smile that made you worry what she was smiling about. Belatedly I realized she probably wasn’t too much older than I was - maybe eighteen, dressed in a body-hugging suit of lavender with black stripes over her front, blonde hair tumbling freely around her shoulders. “We.. thought we saw him burn you. And I saw you walking just now and thought we should come and say hi.”

 

“Far as I’m concerned we owe you one,” the man in black said. “No way, no how we could’ve taken on Lung and Oni Lee and thirty of their gangers.”

 

Oh. I got it now.



“Are you.. Okay?” There was no way to tell his expression through the skull visor, but that headtilt was definitely confused. “You can speak English, right?”



“She can speak English, the reason she’s not talking is because she’s shy, Grue,” the blonde smiled. 

 

“That’s a she?” the guy in white asked, padding up to join his friends - he was tall, sleekly fit in a way that made me think of a swimmer or a dancer, with a white opera mask under a round silver crown - a coronet? - curly black hair, knee-high boots and skintight leggings under a ruffled white shirt. Very renaissance-faire, but again.. a lot better than my curtain swaddles.

 

“Shut up, Regent,” Grue murmured good-naturedly, elbowing the slimmer boy in the side. “Right. I’m Grue, and this is Tattletale-” the blonde girl smiled wider and winked at me, “The girl with the dogs is Bitch.. though the media calls her Hellhound, more PG-rated that way.. Last but definitely least we have Regent.”



“Fuck you, Grue,” Regent chuckled, shaking his head. 

 

My cortex finally kicked into gear. Typical. I could think and react at inhuman speed, but basic social interactions made me lock up.



"̵W̷a̸i̶t̶,̴ ̸t̸h̷o̴s̴e̴ ̵t̴h̵i̴n̴g̴s̴ ̷a̶r̵e̷ ̵d̷o̵g̵s̷?̴"̵

 

“Yeah, what about it?” Hellhound - Bitch - whatever had a brash, growly voice under the mask, heavy boots stomping on the pavement. She wasn’t really in costume, unless you counted a pleated skirt, chunky boots, a sleeveless T-shirt and a cheap Halloween bulldog mask a costume. The synthetic buzz of my voice had absolutely no effect on her that I could see - while her friends had tensed, Grue’s fists balled in surprise, Tattletale tilting her head in unabashed curiosity, a quiet “What the fuck?” from Regent.

 

I sighed, a soft staticky electronic buzz, then slowly brought my distinctly non-human hands up to pull down the fabric I’d wrapped around my case’s head. 

 

“Whoa.” Regent’s eyes were wide behind his mask, staring at the smooth near-featureless ‘face’ of my case (version 1.1). “That’s a hell of a costume, girl.”



“That’s not a costume, is it?” Tattletale’s eyes practically sparked green with delight. “That’s you. Except-” her head tilted. “It’s you, and it’s not really you? You’re remote controlling it.”

 

̶"̶T̷h̸i̷s̸ ̶b̸o̵d̶y̷ ̸i̸s̷ ̸a̷ ̴p̸r̵o̸x̵y̵,̷"̵ I agreed, somewhat creeped out to be called out so fast. How the hell did she know all of this stuff? A power, it had to be. ̸"̶M̵y̴ ̵r̷e̷a̷l̵ ̶s̶e̴l̶f̴ ̷i̸s̷.̸.̵ ̶i̴m̸p̸r̸a̶c̷t̴i̵c̶a̶l̴.̷"̶

 

“And that’s why you’re still around after your fight with Lung,” Tattletale nodded, smile widening. “We thought he killed you at first, then I saw you and figured you had a Mover power like teleportation or something and you’d gotten away. But it really didn’t matter since your body wasn’t your real you anyways.” She paused, tilting her head. “Except.. You didn’t know? No. You.. you really thought Lung was going to kill you. Wow.”



̷"̷I̴'̶m̷ ̷g̷e̷n̵u̸i̵n̴e̴l̷y̸ ̶n̵e̵w̴ ̵a̶t̸ ̷t̷h̶i̸s̷,̵"̸ I admitted, feeling distinctly embarrassed. I was trying not to fidget, all but twining my synthetic fingers together. ̷"̸I̸t̴ ̴w̷a̷s̴ ̶m̸y̵ ̷f̵i̷r̵s̵t̶ ̷n̸i̶g̷h̴t̸ ̶o̸u̴t̵,̶ ̶a̸n̵d̶ ̴I̵ ̷h̶e̷a̴r̵d̶ ̸L̶u̸n̶g̷ ̶t̸a̶l̶k̶ ̶a̶b̵o̵u̸t̶ ̴s̷h̸o̴o̵t̴i̴n̸g̴ ̸k̴i̵d̵s̴,̵ ̶a̴n̴d̷.̶.̶ ̵I̸.̶.̴"̴

 

“You thought Lung was talking about actual kids instead of the big bad fearsome Undersiders, and you threw yourself into the fray for us,” Tattletale finished, with a cat-that-ate-the-canary smile. “How very heroic of you.”

 

Okay, talking with Tattletale was getting - intense. If my brain had still been still organic I was pretty sure pretty sure I would’ve had a raging headache. Also, ‘Undersiders’? That’s what they called themselves?

 

“̴H̷o̷w̴ ̸c̶a̴n̸ ̵y̵o̷u̵ ̵k̶n̵o̶w̸ ̸a̴l̴l̴ ̴o̵f̴ ̴t̵h̵i̵s̷ ̸s̵t̷u̵f̴f̵?̸ ̸I̴’̴v̵e̷ ̷b̵a̷r̸e̸l̷y̴ ̸s̴a̸i̵d̷ ̸a̴ ̸d̵o̶z̸e̸n̴ ̴w̵o̶r̷d̵s̴ ̵t̶o̶ ̴y̵o̶u̵ ̸a̵n̸d̸-̵“̵

 

“She’s psychic,” Regent drawled, casually flicking his scepter up into the air with a twirl and catching it. “Just assume she knows all of the deepest nastiest things about you and you won’t be too surprised.”

 

“Regent, please don’t make the newbie think I’m Simurgh Lite,” Tattletale groaned out with a shudder. “No, I’m just really good at seeing all the little details and putting them together. Like I knew you were a girl because of the way you move your hips when you walk. The way you hold yourself, your speech patterns, all of that adds up into a hundred little cues I can put together. Even if you’re way different from your regular Joe, I can read it - anyone could learn to do it but I’m just really really good at it.”

 

That made sense. And was just a little bit scary at the same time. No wonder she had that I-am-smarter-than-you smile going on all the time.

 

…Could she tell I was thinking that?

 

“̸A̷n̷d̵ ̶y̸o̸u̶’̴r̶e̴ ̸t̸e̶l̷l̴i̵n̵g̷ ̸a̶l̴l̷ ̶o̸f̵ ̶t̸h̷i̸s̴ ̷t̴o̵ ̵a̷ ̴s̸t̵r̸a̷n̵g̷e̸ ̵c̷a̴p̵e̵ ̵b̶e̸c̷a̴u̸s̷e̸.̶.̴?̷”̸

 

“Because you’re new, but I’m pretty sure you’re not about to start a fight, I was curious, we thought Lung offed you and wanted to see what was going on, and because you genuinely helped us out, even if you didn’t really intend to,” Tattletale smiled, ticking off each point with gloved fingers. “I figured this would be a nicer introduction the Brockton Bay cape scene than wrestling with Lung was.”

 

“̴I̷.̵.̵ ̶g̴u̶e̴s̵s̴.̸”̸ I couldn’t exactly argue with that. I was going to be finding out if I could still have nightmares, the barely-human cape digging his fingers into my chest - speaking of. “̶W̸h̸a̴t̸ ̸h̶a̸p̴p̵e̷n̴e̴d̵ ̶w̸i̴t̵h̵ ̸L̷u̴n̷g̸ ̷a̵n̵y̶h̵o̶w̴?̶ ̵A̵f̷t̶e̶r̶ ̴h̵e̸,̷ ̸y̸o̴u̴ ̸k̷n̸o̷w̸.̴.̴”̵

 

“After he blew you up in his face?” There was a kind of dark amusement in Grue’s voice. “I think you blinded him, because he was just screaming in the street and randomly throwing fire around. Bitch had her dogs use him as a chew toy for a while. Then Armsmaster came up on his bike, jabbed Lung in the ass with a tranquilizer dart, and dragged him off. Pretty sure he’s in PRT custody now.”

 

Huh. So either Armsmaster had been in the area to begin with or my 911 call had actually helped. Personally I wanted to think it was the latter, who could blame me?

 

“So. I don’t think we caught your name,” Grue prodded gently.

 

̶“̵I̷.̵.̴”̵ ̶

 

What should I call myself? I hadn’t honestly thought about it until now. I’d been too focused on repairs and figuring a way to get back home.

 

Iron Spider? Naw.

 

Tarantula? No. Pretty sure that was taken anyhow.

 

Arachnoid? No.

 

Mecharachna? Definitely not.

 

Firebug? Let’s not install a flamethrower on this thing.

 

Could I install a flamethrower?

 

Oh.

 

(I really shouldn’t.)

 

Diamond Spider? Too clunky.

 

Diamondback? Not the worst thing, but actually a snake. And probably taken.

 

Diamante? Meh. Sounded like a stripper.

 

Why did everything spider-related have to sound villainous, incredibly edgy-cringy, or both?

 

“I don’t think she’s picked a cape name yet. She did say she was new,” Tattletale came to my rescue.

 

“Suppose we’ve all been there,” Grue chuckled. “Word of warning though, you have to pick something sooner or later. Otherwise the media’s going to end up naming you and then you’re stuck with whatever they came up with.”

 

There was a moment of awkward silence.

“Well.” Grue reached out for the chains hanging from the panting monstrosity’s - how the hell was that thing a dog? - neck. A part of me just realized that Bitch had spent most of the conversation quietly scritching it behind the ear. “I guess we’ve all got places to be-”



“̴W̷a̶i̴t̷.̶”̸


Grue halted mid-climb up to the creature’s back, skull-faced helmet tilted. I resisted the urge to fidget.



̸“̸I̵.̸.̷ ̵d̷o̶n̷’̷t̵ ̶s̸u̷p̶p̶o̸s̴e̴ ̵o̵n̵e̵ ̸o̴f̷ ̸y̵o̴u̶ ̷h̶a̶d̶ ̸a̷ ̵p̸h̷o̸n̴e̶ ̵I̴ ̵c̵o̴u̷l̸d̴ ̴b̸o̸r̴r̶o̸w̴ ̴f̷o̴r̵ ̶a̸ ̶m̷i̶n̷u̷t̴e̸?̶”̴

Chapter Text

It took three rings for Danny to realize the phone was ringing. Four more for him to gather up the willpower to drag himself to it, and then two went by with him staring blankly at the green plastic before he remembered how to actually pick up and reply.

 

It was somewhat of an understatement to say that Daniel Hebert wasn’t really in a good mental place right now.

 

“Hebert residence. Danny Hebert speaking.”

 

God he was so tired. He could hear it in his own voice.

 

̵"̵D̸a̴d̷?̴"̷

 

The line was bad. It sounded like an anonymous witness on the TV, how they’d blur out their face and distort their voice - a bubbly electronic grumble with words.

 

“Who is this?”

 

̴"̵D̷a̴d̵.̷ ̷I̴t̷'̴s̵ ̴T̵a̸y̴l̸o̸r̷.̷ ̷I̷ ̴n̸e̵e̴d̷ ̵y̶o̷u̶r̶ ̵h̴e̷l̶p̴-̸"̵

 

“No.”

There was a pause where Danny tried to catch his breath-


̸"̷.̴.̸.̵.̴W̶h̸a̷t̶?̵"̴



“I said, no.” Danny’s knuckles had already been white around the handle of the phone. Now they squeezed so tight he could swear he heard the plastic creak. “No, fuck you. You don’t get to taunt me with her anymore, you goddamned sociopath. Damn you. Damn you to hell for daring-

 

“̴D̴a̷d̸!̴”̵ Danny had always had a temper. Right now, he was a man pushed to his very limit. But something in how the voice shifted through the distortion made that rage building in him hit a wall, stunned him just long enough - ̴“̵D̶a̴d̷,̶ ̴I̴ ̴d̸o̸n̴’̴t̸ ̸k̴n̵o̵w̸ ̶w̴h̴a̴t̷ ̸y̷o̷u̸’̷r̵e̵ ̶t̷a̴l̶k̷i̷n̵g̶ ̵a̴b̶o̷u̴t̵.̸ ̸I̶t̷’̶s̴ ̸m̷e̸.̶ ̵T̴a̶y̷l̴o̵r̸.̷”̷ There was a moment’s pause. ̶“̶M̴o̵m̴ ̸-̶ ̵M̶o̴m̶ ̶u̸s̸e̵d̴ ̷t̶o̶ ̴c̸a̴l̷l̶ ̴m̵e̵ ̷h̶e̸r̵ ̵L̴i̷t̸t̵l̴e̷ ̵O̷w̷l̶.̶”̵

 

The red rage bled out of him, left him feeling drained and hollow. Like a balloon stretched too far and deflated. Danny’s knees wobbled and he had just enough presence of mind to flop into the seat next to the phone. “...Taylor?”

 

̴“̵Y̷e̸a̴h̴,̶ ̵D̴a̶d̸.̷ ̷I̶t̵’̸s̴ ̵m̶e̸.̴”̸

 

“Oh, God.” He ran his hand over his head, feeling cold sweat on his bald scalp. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Taylor. God. I..” So many things he’d thought about saying to her, if he could, and it was all gone . “Where are you? What happened? Are you okay?”

 

̸“̷I̵’̴m̷ ̴o̴k̸a̷y̷,̷ ̶D̵a̴d̴.̵”̵ Another pause. ̴“̴W̴e̶l̸l̵.̵ ̵N̸o̴.̴ ̶I̸’̷m̵ ̵n̵o̶t̷.̶.̸ ̷r̴e̴a̷l̴l̶y̴ ̷o̶k̷a̶y̴.̷ ̷B̷u̴t̶ ̶I̵’̷m̸ ̴g̵o̶i̸n̵g̷ ̸t̵o̷ ̴b̴e̴.̸ ̶D̷a̷d̴,̵ ̸I̴ ̸w̶a̵n̴t̸ ̵t̴o̷ ̶t̷e̸l̶l̴ ̵y̷o̶u̷ ̴e̸v̵e̸r̴y̵t̸h̷i̸n̷g̶ ̵a̴n̶d̷ ̷I̶ ̸p̸r̵o̵m̸i̵s̶e̸ ̸I̴ ̶w̵i̵l̶l̵ ̵b̵u̵t̴ ̷I̶’̷m̶ ̶-̶ ̸I̸’̴m̵ ̶s̶t̴u̵c̵k̸ ̸a̴n̴d̴ ̷I̴ ̷n̶e̸e̶d̴ ̷y̸o̵u̸ ̴t̶o̸ ̵c̴o̴m̵e̴ ̴h̵e̴l̸p̸ ̸m̸e̸ ̴g̴e̷t̶ ̷b̸a̸c̵k̴ ̴h̷o̸m̸e̶,̵ ̸o̴k̷a̴y̷?̶”̵

 

“Okay. Okay.” Danny was already reaching for his coat. “Where are you?”

 

̸“̶A̵t̶ ̶t̶h̸e̷ ̴D̵o̸c̴k̶s̴.̵ ̵I̷’̸l̴l̴ ̵g̸i̷v̶e̶ ̷y̴o̴u̵ ̴a̶n̷ ̶a̵d̸d̴r̴e̶s̷s̴,̷ ̷o̸k̶a̸y̵?̸ ̴I̴ ̸j̴u̷s̸t̵ ̸n̸e̶e̵d̴ ̵y̷o̴u̷ ̶t̶o̴ ̶c̶o̶m̵e̷ ̶p̸i̵c̵k̵ ̵m̷e̶ ̶u̶p̷.̷”̸ Danny thought he could hear something like embarrassment through the distortion on the line. ̶“̷W̵i̷t̸h̸,̵ ̷u̷h̶,̸ ̶t̴h̸e̵ ̶t̸r̷u̵c̵k̵.̶ ̶I̷’̶m̸ ̵g̴o̶i̸n̶g̴ ̵t̵o̵ ̶n̴e̷e̸d̶ ̵y̵o̶u̴ ̵t̸o̷ ̷b̴r̸i̷n̷g̶ ̶t̴h̶e̸ ̵t̶r̶u̶c̷k̷.̷ ̴W̴i̶t̷h̷ ̵t̴h̶e̴ ̵w̶i̴n̵c̶h̵.̸ ̸A̵n̵d̶.̷.̴ ̴d̷o̸ ̶w̸e̶ ̷s̵t̶i̸l̵l̸ ̷h̵a̵v̸e̷ ̴t̴h̶a̶t̸ ̶l̴i̵t̸t̸l̶e̵ ̷b̶a̷c̴k̵u̴p̶ ̵g̵e̸n̵e̴r̸a̴t̸o̸r̴?̷”̷

 

Danny paused, blinking at the receiver over his glasses. “..What?”

 

̷“̸N̶e̵v̶e̶r̸m̵i̵n̵d̴,̷ ̸I̴’̶l̸l̵ ̸d̴o̶ ̸w̷i̷t̶h̷o̵u̸t̶.̷ ̷I̸’̷l̶l̶ ̸e̷x̶p̸l̶a̴i̶n̸ ̶e̷v̶e̴r̵y̸t̶h̸i̷n̵g̷,̶ ̴o̷k̶a̵y̵?̴ ̶I̸ ̴j̶u̵s̶t̶ ̶n̸e̴e̴d̷ ̶y̸o̵u̶ ̴t̴o̵ ̸c̴o̷m̶e̷ ̸a̸n̴d̵ ̵g̷e̸t̴ ̵m̶e̸.̸.̵”̸

 

Danny nodded, jotting down and double-checking the address. “I’ll be there soon,” he promised.

 

When the line finally went quiet, he took his glasses off, rubbed his hands over his face, and blew out an enormous sigh. Dialed another number.



“Forrest? Hey, it’s Danny Hebert. Look, I hate to call you like this, but I - I’m going to need a little help. It’s about my girl.”

 


 

The fat wheel of the truck fell into a pothole and bounced back out of it with a thump and a squeal of suspension that made the cab bounce and Danny wince in sympathy.



“Careful, Boss.” Forrest looked even more uncomfortable than Danny felt - the tall, burly man with his thick dark beard was crammed into one third of the truck’s front seat, head thumping to the inside of the roof with every bump in the ill-maintained street, dark eyes sharp behind his glasses and one hand tightly wrapped around the little handle above the door. “This isn’t a neighborhood we wanna get stuck in.”

 

“It’s not a neighborhood I particularly want to be in, either.” Danny ran his left hand back along his head again, correcting his glasses, then grabbed the wheel and twisted the truck around an abandoned shopping cart in the street. “And I want my daughter in it even less.

 

“Let me get this straight.” Daniela occupied another third of the front seat, and between her and Forrest there was just barely enough space left over for Danny’s much more wiry frame in the driver’s seat. Forrest was a big man, and Daniela was - solid, stocky, olive-tanned skin paired with a thick braided ponytail bouncing on her shoulder. Danny himself was tall, but he’d never really been the type to build muscle even in his best days and.. Well. His best days, much like his hair, felt like they were far behind him. “Your daughter went.. Missing, after a good chunk of Winslow burned down. And now she calls you and she’s in the ass-end of the Docks?”

 

“That’s about the gist of it,” Danny gritted out, swerving the truck around another pothole in the street. The structures here were getting increasingly dilapidated, and the street itself was in such a bad condition that the going was getting slower by the block.



“And we’re driving over there in your shitty old truck instead of, say, the cops, because..?”



“Because all this time, the cops did absolutely nothing,” Danny grit out, “And because at this point I’m trusting you two a lot more than I do them.”

 

Forrest made a sympathetic noise in his seat. “We’ll bring her home, Boss. Take the next right.”

 

Danny had been - the first time Danny’d met the tattooed bearded hulk of a man, Danny had taken one look at his arms, figured him out of an Empire Eighty-Eight sympathizer, and tried to come up with a firm but diplomatic way of letting him know the Dockworker’s Union didn’t require his particular services. Forrest, to his credit, had figured out what was going on, laughed, and then very patiently explained what the prominent ‘BACA’ on his bicep actually stood for.

 

Years had gone by, Forrest had proven to be a reliable worker, and right now the bearded hulk of a man was one of the few people currently in town that Danny could trust with - whatever was going on with Taylor. As for Daniela, Forrest vouched for her, and frankly this deep into the Docks? The more and bigger they were the safer they’d be.

 

“Think we’re there, Boss.”



‘Here’ turned out to be a crumbling apartment/office building in what Daniela charitably termed the ass end of the Docks. Every single window on the top two floors of the three-story building was missing; the top floor had a huge chunk missing on the south end. A gaping dark hole in the outer wall lead deep into the structure, tattered hazard tape fluttering in the breeze.

 

“Jesus Christ.” Forrest and Daniela’s work boots crunched on the gravel as they climbed out; Danny took a moment to angle the truck before slipping out himself, leaving the engine idling. “It’s a shithole.”

 

“̷I̵t̶ ̸i̴s̷.̶”̵ ̷A rag-wrapped figure detached itself from the shadowy opening, tall and slender. ̴“̸H̴i̴.̴.̶ ̴D̷a̷d̸.̵ ̷Y̶o̴u̵.̸.̶ ̶b̷r̴o̴u̴g̵h̶t̶ ̷f̶r̵i̵e̶n̸d̶s̶.̵”̶ The voice was a flat staticky buzz, like a bad phone line.

 

“Taylor?” Danny took a step towards her, a bad feeling growing in him when she shied away.

 

̵“̵Y̷e̵a̸h̷.̴ ̸A̷n̶d̵ ̶n̵o̶.̴ ̵S̶o̶r̸t̷ ̷o̶f̴.̸ ̴I̴t̶'̸s̴ ̶w̴e̸i̸r̵d̵ ̶a̸n̷d̷ ̵c̶o̶m̴p̸l̸e̵x̶ ̵a̵n̸d̵.̸.̵ ̶I̸'̶m̴ ̸s̵o̴r̸r̷y̵,̴ ̵D̸a̴d̸.̸”̷ Her head turned, looking at the burly pair flanking him.. and then she reached up to pull the fabric wrapped around her head down.

 

Danny's world ground into a halt.

 

The light shone and sparked on a smooth gray plane of dark glass as big as his hand, subtly curved over the upper half of where her face should’ve been. The lower half was a metal cylinder with the end glowing with a dim amber light. Cables and tubes wrapped around a complicated looking mechanical spine and disappeared down between dull gray plates.

 

“Jeeeesus. Your girl's a cape, Danny?”

 

“I..” 

 

̶“̴H̷e̸ ̴d̷i̴d̸n̴'̸t̶ ̷k̸n̵o̵w̷,̴”̵ Taylor (?) buzzed, taking a step closer, the amber light on her mouthpiece pulsing in tune with her voice. The foot that flashed under the hem of the fabric wrapped around her - Danny was beginning to realize it looked suspiciously like an old filthy curtain - looked more like a mechanical bird’s foot than a human shoe.̷ ̸“̷I̶.̶.̵ ̸s̶o̶m̴e̸t̷h̶i̷n̴g̴ ̷b̸a̷d̷ ̴h̴a̵p̵p̶e̵n̸e̸d̵ ̴a̷t̸ ̷s̵c̷h̵o̷o̶l̶.̶ ̷A̶n̶d̸ ̵I̵ ̸w̶o̴k̸e̷ ̴u̸p̷ ̴h̷e̸r̴e̸.̸ ̸L̴i̷k̷e̶ ̷t̴h̵i̶s̸.̸”̶

 

“There was a fire at Winslow. And they never found.. you,” Danny swallowed. “That was over four months ago.”

 

"̵F̸o̵u̵r̴ ̶m̶o̴n̵t̴h̸s̷?̵"̷ The hand she ran over her featureless face and head was skeletal, mechanical, but the gesture itself was familiar enough to twist at Danny’s heart. ̷“̵S̶h̵i̶t̵.̷ ̶I̵ ̶m̸e̷a̷n̸,̵ ̸s̴o̷r̴r̷y̵,̸ ̴D̵a̴d̶,̸ ̶I̸ ̷d̸i̷d̵n̴'̵t̷ ̸m̴e̸a̸n̷ ̶t̵o̷ ̶s̴w̷e̶a̶r̷,̴ ̶I̶.̴.̶”̴ She paused to collect herself. ̸“̴I̵ ̸k̶n̴o̴w̷ ̵w̴h̸a̴t̶ ̷t̷h̷i̸s̷ ̴l̸o̴o̸k̷s̵ ̴l̷i̴k̴e̴ ̶b̸u̷t̵ ̶D̶a̷d̵,̴ ̶i̸t̸ ̷r̸e̴a̸l̵l̵y̷ ̷i̷s̸ ̷m̴e̷,̷ ̴T̸a̶y̸l̷o̴r̸.̶ ̶I̴ ̴m̵e̶a̵n̸ ̷t̵h̸i̶s̵-̵”̵ She gestured at herself, the curtain riding up a skeletal mechanical arm,̶ ̴“̴-̵T̵h̵i̵s̶ ̴i̸s̴ ̷s̷o̵m̵e̸t̴h̷i̵n̴g̶ ̵I̷ ̷m̷a̸d̶e̵,̵ ̴I̵'̴m̴ ̷j̵u̷s̸t̴ ̴p̶u̶p̷p̸e̶t̵i̷n̵g̴ ̶i̴t̵,̶ ̷t̴h̸e̶ ̷r̷e̵a̴l̴ ̵m̵e̷ ̸i̵s̶ ̵i̵n̶s̸i̸d̶e̸.̸ ̸A̴n̴d̶ ̸s̵t̷u̴c̴k̶.̶”̶ The faceless mask was locked on him. ̸“̷I̵ ̴s̴w̴e̸a̶r̸ ̸I̶ ̴d̶i̵d̵n̶'̸t̷ ̷k̶n̴o̶w̸ ̷i̶t̶'̷s̵ ̷b̵e̵e̶n̸ ̸s̷o̸ ̴l̴o̸n̸g̸,̵ ̷I̶'̵v̶e̵ ̷b̷e̵e̵n̶ ̴t̵r̴y̷i̷n̷g̶ ̴t̶o̸ ̸g̵e̶t̸ ̷h̶o̵m̷e̷ ̶s̷i̴n̶c̴e̸ ̴I̵ ̵w̴o̴k̵e̷ ̸u̷p̵ ̸a̷n̴d̸.̴.̷”̶

 

Danny looked into that flat featureless expressionless faceplate and resisted the urge to try and peer deeper into it. “It's really you?”

 

̵“̴I̸t̷’̶s̴ ̶r̷e̴a̵l̷l̴y̶ ̸m̷e̸.̶ ̶A̸s̸ ̴f̴a̵r̶ ̴a̸s̷ ̷I̴ ̵c̸a̵n̴ ̷t̷e̵l̶l̸.̸”̸

 

Danny took a deep breath, then let himself deflate. “…Good enough for me.” He paused , brain catching up with him. “.. What’s this about the ‘real you’?”

 

̵“̴T̸h̷a̶t̴’̷s̷ ̴w̶h̵y̴ ̶I̷ ̴w̴a̸n̶t̸e̴d̵ ̵y̴o̷u̷ ̶t̸o̸ ̴b̸r̴i̶n̶g̷ ̴t̷h̴e̷ ̶t̷r̵u̶c̶k̵.̸.̸”̸

 

Danny glanced back at the truck, watched Daniela casually prop her hip on the fender while she was keeping an eye out. Forrest unlocked the rear winch, pulling out the loop of steel cable.

 

Danny grabbed it and followed the thing that might have been his daughter into the darkness.

 

̴“̷R̷i̶g̸h̷t̷ ̸h̷e̶r̵e̵.̴”̷ The inside of the building was mostly hollow, all but gutted. The floor creaked alarmingly under Danny’s feet as they approached a pit - the floor had collapsed over the basement, leaving a roughly square depression that went at least a story’s worth straight down.̴ ̵“̸J̶u̶s̶t̶ ̴t̵h̵r̶o̷w̸ ̶t̵h̴e̴ ̵e̴n̸d̷ ̶o̷f̵ ̷t̸h̷e̸ ̴c̴a̸b̸l̸e̵ ̸d̵o̶w̷n̶.̷”̵ The-thing-that-might-be-Taylor looked at him. ̴“̵I̶’̸m̷ ̸g̵o̶i̴n̵g̶ ̸t̵o̵ ̴b̷e̶ ̸-̵ ̷d̶i̸f̵f̷e̷r̴e̷n̴t̸.̶ ̴I̵ ̵d̶o̶n̴’̷t̸ ̵u̶n̴d̷e̷r̴s̸t̵a̶n̸d̴ ̵w̶h̸a̴t̸ ̷h̵a̸p̵p̸e̷n̷e̷d̵ ̸m̷y̴s̵e̶l̸f̷.̵ ̷I̴ ̴s̶w̴e̷a̶r̸ ̷i̴t̷’̸s̴ ̸s̸t̴i̵l̸l̸ ̷m̴e̵,̶ ̷j̶u̷s̸t̶ ̴-̸ ̶I̸’̸m̴ ̶g̵o̵i̸n̸g̶ ̶t̴o̸ ̸l̷o̸o̷k̷ ̴s̸c̷a̷r̶y̴ ̷b̶u̶t̷ ̴I̴’̴m̴ ̸n̶o̶t̶ ̸g̶o̴i̴n̴g̸ ̶t̴o̸ ̶h̸u̴r̷t̷ ̷a̶n̴y̴b̴o̵d̸y̷.̵ ̶O̶k̶a̵y̸?̵ ̴I̸ ̵p̷r̷o̷m̸i̸s̸e̴.̸”̶

 

“Are you telling me, or yourself?” Danny peeked into the hole, seeing little but piles of debris, but - he cast the end of the cable down into the hole.

 

There was a soft mechanical sigh, followed by clicking clattering ratcheting noises as the Taylor-machine folded and collapsed in on itself, compressing into a blocky shape like a… briefcase, the curtains settling on the ground around it.

 

The debris down in the hole came to life with a start that almost made Danny tip back on his ass. Limbs that he’d taken to be junk shifted, gripped the cable, something clicked and locked on it - 

 

̶“̸R̸e̶e̴l̶ ̴i̵t̶ ̶i̴n̷!̶”̸

 

Danny shook himself out of his daze and made a twisting gesture with his hand at Forrest. The big man flipped a switch, the truck’s engine revved up, and the cable went taut.

 

A three-digit limb that might have been a leg or arm swung up, groped blindly, and clamped onto the unstable flooring. Two more followed.

 

“Mary, Joseph, and itty bitty Baby Jesus.” Forrest joined Danny in staring as the truck’s winch whined and strained and a nightmare of sparking amber machine eyes and mechanical limbs hauled itself out of the pit. Robot limbs longer than a man was tall hauled a central mass as big as a small car, amber lenses twinkling in a head that lurched back and forth at rough chest level - 

 

“̶P̷l̷e̵a̴s̸e̸ ̸d̷o̶n̶’̸t̶ ̴t̵e̷l̸l̵,̷”̷ the arachnoid machine begged in his daughter’s distorted voice, almost stumbling over a limp leg. Danny instinctively shied away from the motion, mentally kicked himself, moved in to try and find a place he could grab for support. Panic later. Panic later.

 

“Get the ramp down!”

 

“This goddamned town I fucking swear I’m moving to Canada- “ Daniela’s eyes were wide and wild but she moved, pulling down the ramp with a clatter. Taylor moved to it, the winch still reeling her in, and Danny found himself side to side with Forrest, pushing on her - rear section. The surface of her body was hard and smooth, almost glassy and unexpectedly warm to the touch under the dirt and debris.

 

“Push! Ready to cut the winch!” Danny pushed with all his might, and heard Forrest grunt to his left. Taylor’s limbs reached, latched onto the truck bed - pulled and swayed. For one awful moment she was overbalancing and Danny thought she was going to tip right off the truck and into the street - and then she twisted the other way, and crashed into the truck bed hard enough to make the whole vehicle sag down on its suspension. “Cut it!”

 

̷“̷T̷h̴a̴n̷k̵ ̴y̷o̶u̷.̶.̶”̵ She was shifting, complicated motions pulling her limbs back into the truck bed one after another. ̷“̸T̷r̶i̶e̷d̵ ̵t̵o̵ ̵c̴l̵i̶m̵b̶ ̷o̶u̶t̸ ̵‘̶n̵ ̶t̵h̷e̴ ̷w̶a̵l̷l̷ ̵k̶e̸p̶t̶.̴.̴ ̴g̸i̵v̷i̷n̷g̴ ̵o̵u̴t̶.̴ ̷I̶’̴m̵ ̵g̶o̷i̷n̸g̷ ̸t̷o̷,̷ ̶s̴h̷h̷k̴k̵k̶t̷t̷t̵t̶,̷ ̶g̷o̸i̴n̵g̸ ̶t̴o̸ ̷p̶o̷w̷e̵r̴ ̵d̸o̵w̵n̴ ̵f̴o̶r̴ ̶a̶ ̵l̴i̴t̸t̵l̵e̷.̴.̷ ̴I̷’̴l̸l̸ ̸b̵e̵ ̷u̴p̷ ̷w̴h̷e̸n̵ ̴w̷e̷’̴r̷e̶ ̴h̶o̶m̶e̴.̸.̴ ̶l̴o̸v̶e̶ ̷y̶o̸u̷ ̵D̶a̵d̶.̴.̴”̸

 

There was a sound like something winding down. The lights of her eyes flashed once, then started dimming one by one, and the twitching nest of machine limbs went still.

 

Danny threw a tarp over her and started belting it and her down, heart pounding and knuckles white.

 


 

The drive back felt like it took forever, especially with Danny trying his best to navigate around potholes, but ultimately was mostly uneventful. Danny had never driven as carefully in his life, possessed of an irrational paranoid fear that they were going to get pulled over and he’d have to explain the giant machine spider that was probably his daughter in the back.

 

Taylor did - wake up when they got home, like she’d promised. Danny could hear a faint vibrating vvvmmmmmm start somewhere in the depths of the machine while he was peeling the tarp off of her, and then the lights in her eyes came on. 

 

̷“̶C̴o̷a̶l̸ ̵c̶h̴u̶t̴e̸.̶”̶

 

Danny and Forrest pulled open the cover to the old coal chute while Daniela backed the truck as close up to it as she could. 

 

̶“̵T̴h̵a̵n̵k̸ ̵y̴o̵u̸.̵.̶”̷  Danny wasn’t sure she’d fit, but apparently Taylor was, and did - first her front limbs slipped in, she tilted forwards, and then she rattled down the slide into the basement and out of sight, the edges of the machine’s rear scraping the sides of the chute the whole way down. The limp rear leg banged against the edge of the opening, and then that was gone, too. Danny could just fervently hope none of the neighbors had seen anything.

 

“Well.” Daniela pushed the briefcase shape of the folded-down humanoid machine into Danny’s arms - he almost fumbled, it was a lot lighter than he’d expected. “I guess that just fucking happened.”

 

“I..” Forrest pushed the coal chute back shut with a rattling bang that made Danny jump. “Look, I - didn’t expect any of this when I called you-“

 

“Don’t worry, Boss. Far as I’m concerned you did the right thing.” Forrest’s hand came down on his shoulder with a thump that almost made Danny’s knees buckle. “And it’s not our place to say anything. Least until you figure out what’s going on. Is it, Dee?”

 

Daniela lifted her gloved hands up. “Hey I didn’t sign up to get involved in anything. Anyone asks and I didn’t see nothin’, I didn’t do nothin’, I don’t know nothin’, and you’ve got on paper that I’m the dumbest fucker you made the mistake of hirin’.”

 

Danny resisted the urge to bury his face in his hands. “Thank you so much-“

 

“You want to thank me, you let me borrow the truck for the weekend.” Forrest thumped his shoulder again. “Go on, get the hell inside and talk to - your daughter. And get some damn sleep, you’re dead on your feet. Boss.”

 

Danny was. And he did. Waved Forrest and Daniela goodbye, went back inside, climbed the stairs down, and found his daughter doing something with the extension cord for the old table saw.

 

For a long time neither of them said anything, Danny standing at the top of the stairs to the basement, Taylor frozen in the middle of reaching one of her limbs awkwardly behind herself. Tired green eyes met glowing mismatched amber lenses.

 

“So.” Danny climbed the stairs down, took the extension cord from her hand - foot - whatever, and plugged it into the port on her back she’d been trying to wedge it into. Then he took a step back, sat down on the bottom-most step, and sighed, running his hand over his face. God he was so tired. “Talk to me, Taylor. What happened?

 

She did talk. Slow, halting at first, but little by little she picked up pace, almost stumbling over herself with the flood of words. Talking about how one summer day, her best friend had decided she no longer wanted anything to do with her. How that started an escalating bullying campaign that had finally culminated in.. this . At one point she gave him directions to a stash of notes and printouts she’d started to document it all and the sheer mass of it made Danny’s chest ache.

 

She talked. He listened. Made himself listen, and every word made his knuckles whiten and his heart break a little more.

Chapter Text

I could hear the front door open, then close again. There were footsteps at the basement door, followed by the click of a lock.

 

“Hi, Dad. How was work?” 

 

I didn’t need to turn around to look at him. As my shell healed itself, more systems came online - one of the latest had been a series of secondary sensory modules scattered across my chassis. There were six along the top half of my shell, three on the underside, and one each on the major joints of my eight - well, seven now - main motive limbs - round, smooth, independently rotating balls embedded in my armor, each about the size of a tennis ball with a tiny dark recessed sensor lense. Three on my right flank watched Dad climb down the basement stairs, one of my rear legs waving a claw at him while my main sensor package stayed in place over the workdesk.

 

It took time to get used to the kaleidoscope of visual input - and my main sensors were a lot more sophisticated - but I now had effectively 360 degree vision. Perfect vision, too. 

 

“Well.” Dad closed his eyes and massaged them under his glasses with his thumb and index finger, casually ducking under the fluorescent light hanging above the lower end of the stairs. “About the same number of people are going to be employed next month as are right now, which is.. honestly the best thing I can say about this workweek so far.” He took a slow step closer, trying to look over my shoulder. “And.. what are you working on?”

 

I turned around with a series of rhythmic thumping noises from my grip pads and flipped up the polarized shield over my main sensor bank. When I was standing ‘up’, my ‘face’ was about level with Dad’s lower chest - a little shorter than I’d been before the.. Locker Incident, but then again I was a lot more horizontal-oriented now. “I figured out a new thing I can do,” I told him, my voice still rasping with a kind of a digital burr but much more understandable. I couldn’t quite smile, but the mandible-plates on my chin shifted in a rough approximation of it as I brought one of my hands up - three curved fingers, two thumbs, one on each side. 

 

ACTIVATE FRACTAL TOOLSET:// SUCCESS

 

There was a clicking noise, and each digit split into three at the knuckle. Then each one of those fingers split off in three at the next joint, and each one of those split in three at the next, on and on until my hand looked like some sort of a mechanical tree with a halo of shimmering gray-ish fuzz for leaves.



Dad, for his credit, had barely jumped. Now he leaned in to peer at my hand over his glasses. “That’s.. Nice, honey. And what does that do?”



“I have fractal fingers!” I wiggled my fingers, and little sparks of blue light twinkled along the micro-fronds. “They keep splitting down to the micrometer level. Tiniest little tools. Once I get my microscopic vision online I’ll be able to hotwire a computer chip by hand. Solder and weld and cut things smaller than the human hair.” I gave another mental flex and the transformation reversed itself, my fingers knitting themselves back together. “I keep finding new things and designs. It’s cool, it’s like I’m a toolbox on legs.”

 

“Cool.” Dad smiled wanly. “Maybe you can put those super-tools to use and fix up the front stairs for your old man.”



I shifted my chin-plates a little wider and let my optics pulse with green light. My face wasn’t nearly as expressive as it had been, but I was making do. “Dad. You could do that with ten dollars worth of lumber, two nails, and five minutes of your valuable time.”

 

Dad shrugged and chuckled. “Can’t blame a man for trying.” He paused. “So. Uh. How.. are you holding up, sweetie?”

 

I lifted my main hands in a shrug. “I’m.. okay, I guess? I mean. Everything’s weird but I’m not being harassed on a daily basis so I’ve got that going for me. I hate being stuck down here but I can’t exactly go out for a walk like this. Physically? I’m working on repairs around the clock, and I’m learning all sorts of new stuff by the day. I’m beginning to figure out how to work on my own designs based on stuff I find in my database. Speaking of! I made these. Have a look.”

 

I crabwalked away from my workdesk just enough to give Dad space. Little pointed shapes lay on the smooth rubberized surface, the largest the size of a thumbnail, a complicated jagged shape. One twinkled brightly in the fluorescent light as Dad picked it up to have a closer look. 

 

“It’s pretty. What am I looking at?”

 

“Synthetic diamond. I, uh, may or may not have eaten that bag of barbecue charcoal.”

 

He blinked owlishly. “You.. made a diamond?”

 

“Uh-huh. Turns out carbon is really easy to work with. So I wanted to see if I could take a more common allotrope of carbon like charcoal or graphite and turn it into a crystal and it turns out yeah, yeah I can. It just takes a while for my fabricator to rearrange everything but I suppose it’s less complex than the hyperdiamond nanoweave my struts are made of.” 

 

“You lost me at ‘allotrope’ but I’m going to take your word for it.” Dad tilted the little crystal in the light, squinting at the hole in it. “Are those threads?”

 

“They are, actually. I thought about trying to sell them to a jeweler at the Boardwalk or something but then I figured that might draw too much attention. And then I realized that hey, industrial diamonds are a thing. Cutting bits, drill tips, that kind of stuff, there’s a lot of people that’d pay good money for custom precision tools. So I made some prototypes.”

 

“Taylor.” Dad set the diamond lathe bit down. “You’re fifteen. Fifteen and-” he gestured at me. “You.. don’t have to worry about making money for us-”



“But I do.” I turned to face him, gesturing with one of my legs for emphasis. “You said it yourself, your job isn’t paying what it used to be. Nobody’s is. And my materials are going to cost money, and just keeping me running costs..” A quick flash of math, “187,59 dollars a month in power bills, on average. And..” I stopped at the look on his face, reconsidered. “I just feel useless cooped up down here, okay? I wanted to help.”

 

“I understand that. And I appreciate it. I really do. Just.. You shouldn’t have to.” He ran his hand over his face, fiddled with his glasses. “I.. I’m going to have a shower and sit down a little. We can talk again when I’m not dead on my feet, okay? We’ll figure something out.”

 

“Okay. Thanks again, Dad.”

 

I watched him disappear back up the stairs, then sighed softly, a low vibrating electronic buzz. 

 

Of course I understood where he was coming from. Maybe he was right. Chronologically speaking I was fifteen. Theoretically I was supposed to be worrying about school and my friends and maybe figuring out boys. Maybe a dash of teenage angst and rebellion. 

 

Physically speaking I was a 20-foot robotic deathspider.

 

In practice I couldn’t exactly go to school, see ‘20 foot deathspider’, my ‘friends’ were directly responsible for my state of deathspider-ness, and I better hope any boy I met was into me for my personality. Loud music and an all black wardrobe weren’t going to help with this.

 

It’d been a week since Dad hauled me home in the back of his truck. In that week I’d turned the basement into a lab-slash-living-space of sorts. Years worth of built-up junk and clutter had been sorted into ‘actually keep’ and ‘toss’. (I’d proceeded to eat the latter pile. Waste not, want not.) There was a surprising amount of space left over afterwards; I’d set up a workdesk in one end of the room and hung any tools I’d found on the wall in the unlikely event I’d need them. Neatly organized shelves held parts and materials, and the folded-down shapes of my cases (v1.1 - v1.4) sat in a neat row in one corner. The old coal chute had been cleaned out, my link to the outside world.

 

In the ceiling, along the rafters holding up the actual floor of the house above, a trolley ran on a rail. A thick bundle of cable ran down from the trolley, rattling along as I moved, hooked into an external port on my carapace. 

 

A week had been plenty of time to repair most of the major damage to my systems - but my power cells were an exception. Until I got them replaced, I was reliant on an external power feed, unless I wanted to take enforced naps every hour or so. Less than that if I was doing anything more physically demanding.

 

It’d been a lot of work to get everything set up but I no longer slept and it wasn’t like I had much else to do when I wasn’t working on repairs and upgrades. I’d always been a little restless; now I loathed inactivity.

 

I sighed again, turned around, and carefully swept the synthetic diamond project to the side before calling up the blueprints for my power cells.

 

It was such a simple concept.

 

 A reinforced casing with a cross-section shaped like a triangle with the points beveled down. Some of my powered tools had their own secondary cells of varied size and power output; the three primary cells I needed to replace were about a foot and a half in length, the general proportions of a fire extinguisher. One end of the casing was built full of a simple but powerful solid-state capacitor-battery-amplifier cell. The rest was dominated by an array of thermocouples that leeched heat from a solid central core and converted it into a steady trickle of electric energy, collected by the solid-state cell. No moving parts, no maintenance requirements, just a battery cell that slowly recharged itself. 

 

The problem was that said central core was a chunk of radioactive isotopes. The slow nuclear decay of unstable matter within the shielded cell was a heat source that would power the cell for centuries. On Earth Aleph, Russian automated weather stations were powered by similar (if far less efficient and sophisticated) radiothermal generators.

 

Where the hell was I going to get my hands on nuclear isotopes without ending up on seventeen watchlists?

 

I eyed the triplet of readymade cells sans the isotope cores I’d built and sighed. Was this how famous Tinkers like Armsmaster or Dragon had gotten started? Putting together scrap in a basement, knowing they could build wonderful things if they could just source the raw materials?

 

It was all incredibly frustrating. I’d woken up in one basement, and now I was stuck in another until I figured out a solution.

 

It wasn’t like Dad didn’t want me upstairs, it was that between the external cable and my sheer size it was just incredibly inconvenient for me to try. I’d tried hanging out in one of my cases but things were still - weird and awkward.

 

Maybe in the future. We both were definitely still adjusting.

 

###EXT-FABRICATOR 0-001C:// STATUS UPDATE

###RUNTIME 34-47-45.346

###TASK COMPLETE 

###ENTERING SLEEP MODE

 

Well, at least something was going right. I moved over to the makeshift fabricator I’d built - it had started life as a big freezer chest in the corner of the basement. I’d cleaned it out, sealed up the inside, and turned it into a crude fabricator - the interior full of suspension fluid shimmering with the snowflake-fractal oil slick shine of nanomachines, a large tank with an integrated nanohive bubbling on the side as it circulated suspension fluid through the vat. 

 

My onboard fabricator was about the size of a breadbox and limited to individual builds in that size range. The monstrosity I’d cobbled together wasn’t nearly as fast or efficient but it let me produce larger things in it. 

 

Case in point, I reached into the swirling vat and pulled out a folded-down leg, covered in slowly evaporating suspension fluid. Bundled-up connectors hung from the stem of the ball joint on one end; the tripartite claw was neatly closed under the dark boxy shape of the tool pod grafted onto the lowest section. Freshly fabricated creamy pale composite armor shone with a glassy luster.

 

I ran a microfiber rag over the connectors, then angled the leg (with some difficulty) into the ball socket on my flank. There was a click as the main stem slipped into alignment, sunk into its socket; smart material connectors aligned and locked together. The leg’s systems came online, handshaking my cortex, power flowing into conduits and capacitors with a sensation like blood rushing back into a numbed limb. Repair medichines swarmed into the limb, running final checks and clearing out dead and dying fabricator nanomachines. Hydraulics connected, purged themselves with a gurgle, then repressurized. Another little window winked to life in my mind’s eye, the sensor node on the knee joint rotating.

 

I unfolded the new leg, reached it to its maximum extension. Folded and flexed it, the gripper claw at the end opening, closing and flexing. Thick digits folded up and out of the way entirely, omnidirectional smart wheel in the palm spinning up before I shut it off again.

 

I closed the claw into a crude fist again, folding it down. A blunt muzzle extended from the front of the tool pod as it unfolded, acrid steam hissing from the side vents as the crucible coil heated up and vaporized any remaining suspension fluid. I lifted and angled the leg, pushed the muzzle against a hefty chunk of old wood I’d propped against the wall -

 

Fhwa-THOOMPA!

 

Recoil rocked my limb. The gurgle of water up the pipes above me halted.

 

“Is everything okay?”

 

“Just testing my rivet gun!” I twisted my wrist with a ratcheting motion, a new eight-inch rivet fed into the crucible with a ker-chunk. Little wisps of gray smoke drifted from the wood around the fat end of the rivet embedded in the log, glowing a hot reddish orange. “Sorry! That was louder than I thought it was going to be.”

 

“You have a rivet gun?”

 

“I do now!”

 

I powered the crucible back down and re-folded the tool pod. After a moment I could hear the water starting up again. I idly queued up a fresh cartridge of rivets in my onboard fabricator.

 

Rivet gun, vibro-shears, cutting discs, drills, a honest-to-god diamond-bit chainsaw, welders, grinders - each one of my eight main limbs had a different tool or toolset installed. Smart diamond cutting discs and drill bits could alter their own shape to give me different sizes and shapes on demand. My right second leg held a high-intensity plasma cutter, though I’d have to repair my power cells before I could bring that online for any practical amount of time. My two manipulator arms were crammed full of smaller precision flextools besides my new fractal microtools. A cylindrical capsule grafted along my left lower arm contained the folded-and-stowed form of my microwave agonizer, which despite the incredibly villainous name was apparently classed as a ‘nonlethal deterrent weapon’.

 

If this cape thing never panned out, I could always find a job in construction, I guess. I was basically a whole workcrew by myself.

 

One of my secondary eyes caught a flash of myself in the polished surface of the suspension vat. I paused, then turned around to face it, feeling the new leg flex smoothly with each step.

 

I’d spent the vast majority of the last week either busily repairing myself or finding ways of redesigning lost systems based around my limited resources. I was finally hitting the point where I had the vast majority of my core systems back online, and was now looking into working my way through restoring various secondaries, backups and redundancies I’d been over-relying on or had to autocannibalize for repairs.

 

Internally I was still very much little but messes, hasty fixes and downright kludge jobs layered one over another. Externally I’d cleaned up well - carbon was a very easy element for my medichines to work on, and my armor was primarily composed of various (if exotic) allotropes and compounds of it.

 

 A thick glassy layer of advanced ceramic composites covered my shell, colored naturally a sort of creamy off-beige; swooping curves and subtle angles interlocked in oblique shapes, strangely fluid and organic contours for a machine. Darker shapes of reinforced carbon plating were visible among joints and less armored sections, thick armored cables connecting the central core of my body to varied toolpods on my limbs. A mirror-finished polarized glare-screen-slash-blast-shield formed a flattened dome over my face; one that slid up to bare mismatched optics and exposed sensors, lenses twinkling amber lights above the overlapping mandible-plates of my chin. Behind my central core, a band of thicker raised armor rose like a crest along the spine of the flattened diamond-teardrop shape of my abdomen.

 

Out of a whim, I triggered another recent minor system that had been relatively easy to rebuild; a layer of specialized nanomachines built into the glassy outer layer of my armor activated, shifted wavelengths.

 

A ripple of color washed over my armored shell, darkening and deepening into a deep glossy green. Then a deep rich royal blue chased with shining gold. A warm blood red with darker crimson panels and black-and-gray accents. A bright reflective construction vehicle yellow complete with neat black hazard stripes and simulated strobing hazard lights. An intricate digital camo pattern of interlocked hexagons in urban grays.

 

I pushed the smart paint up a notch and went full fantastical. I darkened my shell, dragging the reflective index of my armor all the way down until I became a matte black blur, with so little shine, shadow or highlight that I looked like a spider-shaped hole cut out of reality. Then I threw on intricate glowing neon green lines, turning myself into a real-life computer wireframe. I turned myself into an automaton of polished brass and dark lacquered wood, then a solid bronze statue tarnished with years of simulated verdigris. I banished that, then put on blue, silver and light gray in swooping art deco lines, pulsing neon blue lights racing along my form like I was some Armsmaster-spider hybrid. Armsspider. Spidermaster? Whatever. 

 

That made me think of Miss Militia, and I followed it up by covering myself in the Stars and the Stripes, turning myself into a demented Fourth of July balloon with red and white stripes all over my shell. My face was a plate of blue, and my mismatched eyes shone pure white for the stars.

 

I banished that, too, and then went full Halloween, first turning my body into a giant jack-o'-lantern with animated fire dancing in the gaps of its face. I loaded up a realistic spider, stripes of reddish brown trying to give their best impression of actual fur. I reset, and then turned my armor the color and texture of something midway between pale chitin and dried cracked bone; my armored shell became a distorted skull perched on jointed bony finger-legs, with a spider’s glassy dark eyes twinkling red above twitching mandibles in the skull’s fanged mouth.

 

I reset again, then linked the smart paint into my all-round visual feed. My armor promptly did its best to mimic my surroundings in a kind of active camouflage, like a cuttlefish.

 

I reset again, then loaded up a pattern of wild stripes, angles, spots and whorls in a mix of the most eye-searing UV-reflective magenta, radiant cyan, neon chartreuse and luminescent orange I could.

 

Huh. That could actually work as a sort of an inverse camouflage. It was hard to effectively shoot at something when looking directly at it was physically painful.

 

I reset, then blurred my armor into a smooth neutral near-featureless gray. I toned down the lights of my sensors.

 

What the hell are you? I asked myself, leaning into the reflection as if I could see a soul peeking back through the dark glassy lenses. Is there anything alive in there?

 

Taylor Hebert was born human. She had parents, she grew up in a little city, went to school, skinned her knees, laughed and cried and loved. 

 

My brain was a diamond computer. My heart was a nuclear battery. There wasn’t a single scrap of organic flesh left in me, no living brain, trace of DNA, just the scanned imprint of an organic brain.

 

I remembered being Taylor Hebert. I remembered - not everything, thanks to the innate unreliability of the organic brain, but - all the little things I could be expected to. And yet ever since I’d woken up in that ruined basement pit, from that very moment on my every memory, my every experience was recorded, tagged, and archived to be searched, cross-referenced and re-experienced at my leisure. Crystal clear perfect machine recollection. More real than the vague recollections of my organic brain.

 

Taylor Hebert had gone into that locker. I had come out.

 

Was I Taylor Hebert, or did I just have her memories and brainwaves? Was there such a thing as a soul, and if there was, had it moved from my past life into this mode of existence? How could I tell?

 

Was I Taylor Hebert, or just a machine that thought it was Taylor Hebert? An argument could be made that I could now technically be considered an AI. How much flesh could you replace with circuitry before you ceased being a person?

 

Little wonder I hated doing nothing with my time. Nothing to distract me from creeping existential dread.

 

My dad still considered me a teenager. How would a teenager deal with these thoughts? By acting out?

 

All of a sudden the basement room turned into my safe little lair felt stiflingly full and crowded. The thought of sitting and doing nothing for god knew how long felt downright poisonous in my cortex.

 

Yes.

 

Acting out a little sounded good right about now. Like, say, sneaking out.

 

Of course you could stretch the definition of ‘sneaking out’ pretty far when I could, in fact, be in two places at the same time. My arachnoid shell settled down in the middle of my workshop, legs neatly folded, powered down but for the most basic awareness of my surroundings and automated subroutines at work on defragging and repairing my systems. My comms reached out, interfaced with my case’s puppet sock.

 

The case (v1.4) promptly unfolded to its full height, and a moment later I was standing on two feet and looking at my inert spider-self. At the same time, in the back of my mind, I was vaguely aware of looking back up to my humanoid case through the arachnoid frame’s sensors.

 

This could get confusing fast.

 

I’d made improvements to the case’s basic design over the week. I’d overhauled the sensor and communication package entirely, up to and including having redesigned the vocoder from the ground up. It was more slender, with two semi-redundant smaller battery packs divided between the upper chest and abdomen instead of the single larger pack in the chest. For defense, my right lower arm had a stunner built into it - as far as I understood it it was essentially a taser that used a pair of low power ionizing laser beams instead of thin cables to carry the charge.

 

Cosmetically, the hands and feet were much more human in appearance, grip pads embedded in flexible polymer coverings looking much like I was wearing simple gloves and trainers. There was little I could currently do about the face so I’d just elected to sculpt the case’s sensor package into a curved visor that resembled a fancy pair of wraparound sunglasses and a simple face-mask. Finally, a series of flexible polymer gas bladders inflated along my limbs and body, filling the skeletal case out to proportions decently close to my former, admittedly skinny as hell human ones. Once I pulled on an old loose hoodie and a set of baggy jeans I’d liberated from my closet I could reasonably pass for a regular human person from a distance.

 

I’d briefly considered filling out the case a little more to give it some actual shape but really, what was the point? Obvious balloon jokes aside.

 

The irony of being a cape and having to dress up in order to sort of pass for a regular person instead of the other way around did not escape me.

 

I shook my head, scampered up the coal chute, and walked out into the cool Brockton Bay afternoon.

Chapter Text

I walked without a clear direction in mind, other than ‘away from the bad end of the Docks’. 

 

Our house was near the western end of the docks area - either the good end of the bad neighborhood or the bad end of the good neighborhood, depending how you looked at it. In my hazy less-than-organized collections of my past self, I could vaguely remember it had actually been pretty nice once. I’d been very little when Dad had us move into the neighborhood for his work, and the house had looked so big and bright with its fresh coat of paint.

 

Now that paint had seen better days, and a decade of wear and tear had set in with vengeance. The job opportunities Dad had bet on had never really materialized, and instead of a bustling little worker community it had turned into a quiet low income neighborhood, less neglected and more just quietly dwindling down. Our family was one of the better off ones in the area - Dad was the Head of Hiring for the Brockton Bay Dockworkers’ Association - and the front step to our porch had slowly all but rotten through so long ago, we both just skipped over it by pure muscle memory.

 

If I looked behind me and across the bay, I could see the jumbled shapes of the Ship Graveyard, the dark mass of the abandoned dockside industrial district. Somewhere out there was the ruined basement I’d woken up in after my metamorphosis.

 

If I looked the other way, I could make out the bright colors and lights of the Boardwalk shopping district, the shining white tower of the Medhall building in the business area. Further down the bay sat the Brockton Bay Protectorate headquarters - a Tinker-augmented oil rig, futuristic arches and spires bristling with defense emplacements underneath the shimmering soap bubble film of a tinkertech force field shell. The active force bridge was an arc of softly pulsating light drawn across the water, cars driving along it little but black specks.

 

Before, the disparity between the two had felt unfair in a way that had been hard for me to pin down and exactly articulate. Now, I could calculate how much resources you’d need to restructure the Docks into an actually liveable state, compare it to an estimate of how much running the Boardwalk took, and the resulting numbers felt offensive for me to look at.

 

Mental note, find textbooks on economics, construction, infrastructure, and related fields. Compare, contrast, refine data models. I could always ask Dad for local input, he’d been trying to get the dockside ferry back running ever since.. ever since I could remember, really.

 

I sighed, an electronic buzz, and slowed my walk, looking over the bay. I'd hoped that going out for a walk would help me feel better but - no. Movement no longer gave me the same endorphins that my past self would've enjoyed - obvious in hindsight, seeing as I lacked the necessary glands entirely. Thermal sensors could tell me the exact temperature difference from the sunlight absorbed by my hoodie, but I didn't feel the warmth. I was aware of the air currents as I adjusted my hood, but couldn't feel the wind on my face. Chem sniffers indicated elevated levels of atmospheric moisture carrying salt and complex organic compounds, but I couldn't smell or taste the sea in the air.

 

I didn't even need to breathe, so the only reason I sighed really was a habit left over from my old self.

 

I might as well have stayed home.

 

I made a sighing noise again, pulled my hood a little higher, and turned around -

 

THUD.

 

“Hey, Robot Girl.” Tattletale grinned at me from the back of her monster dog, her green eyes bright above that vulpine smile. The drooling nightmare hound’s claws had left visible gouges in the pavement. “Fancy running into you again.”

 


 

“Hello, Tattletale.” I carefully didn’t look back down the street. This particular spot along the shore was a little more secluded than the others, but - the last thing I needed right now was Dad popping out for a grocery run and seeing his daughter facing off a supervillain on a mutant hellhound. Even if said supervillain had been pretty friendly so far. “...Robot Girl?”

“Well you haven’t picked anything better yet, have you? ‘Hey You’ would be just rude.” Her smile was wide and sharp under that domino mask, the dark lines of it making those green eyes brighter. I resisted the urge to fidget, the part of me that still felt things in organic terms inexplicably self-conscious of my old hoodie and jeans combo compared to her clearly custom-made bodysuit. Contrary to popular culture, only a select few capes had the physique to pull off the bodyglove look. Pre-locker Taylor definitely wasn’t one of those people. Tattletale was.

 

It all felt patently unfair.

 

“New voicebox? You sound a lot better than the last time I saw you.”

 

“Thanks. I made it myself.” I eyed the chains wrapped around the nightmare dog’s chest and shoulders, one loop held in Tattletale’s gloved hand - she looked absolutely tiny compared to the creature, at odds with the confidence she was projecting on top of it. “So… Can I help you somehow..?”

 

“Oh, I was just in the neighborhood when I spotted you and thought I’d say hello,” she grinned, making a little shrugging motion with her free arm. “Check on the newest addition to Brockton Bay’s cape community.” 

 

“Really.” That level of sarcasm threatened to strain my vocoder.

 

“Yep,” Tattletale smiled, drawing the P into a sharp popping noise. The dog-creature shifted under her at the sound and her free hand went down to scratch it behind one meaty ear. A purple tongue the size of a dish towel lolled. “Actually we’re having something of an off day. You wanna come and hang out with the rest?”

 

My case couldn’t blink. I reset my visual feed anyhow. “…What?”

 

She chuckled and held out a gloved hand. “You, me, the rest of us degenerates, a nice quiet rooftop and a snack. My treat.”

 

“…This chassis doesn’t eat.”

 

She shrugged, still holding her hand out. “Leaves more for me. C’mon, it’s too nice of an afternoon for nefarious plots. Or thoughts as heavy as you looked like you were having. No strings attached, I promise.”

 

I looked at the offered hand, that wide bright entirely too knowing smile. She was supposed to be a villain, right? I was new but not dumb. Of course she’d have an ulterior motive.

 

On the other hand, the thought of crawling back into the basement in my current mood was almost painful.

 

Screw it. Worst case scenario, I was down a case. Big whoop.

 

“..Sure. Why not.”

 

I took her hand. 

 


 

“The fuck’s she doing here?”

 

I slid off the mutant dog’s back feeling distinctly relieved that I didn’t actually have a stomach. Riding a giant pseudo-canine was a lot more easily said than done; as it was, I’d mostly clung to Tattletale with my arms, the dog with my legs, and prayed.

 

Tattletale for her part was looking perfectly unflappable in the face of a Bitch on the warpath, her chunky boots thumping with each step. The plastic mask of a snarling Doberman didn’t help the impression - I could nearly hear a growl in her voice. For a moment I thought the broad-shouldered girl was going to hit me - but she beelined for the dog-creature instead, who promptly dissolved into a frenzy of grunty noises and tailwags, trying to paw at her shoulders while she dug her fingers into its jaws and neck and scritched. On the corner of the rooftop, another canine monster lifted its head curiously, bony tail sweeping a semicircle on the gravel.

 

“I invited her, Bitch. Chill a little,” Tattletale hummed, arching her body in a slow stretch. “Hey Grue, she followed me home - can we keep her?”

 

“I don’t know, Tattle..” There was a kind of wry amusement in Grue’s deep tone, his arms crossed, hip propped against the jutting box of a rooftop AC unit. The dark leather of his outfit looked like it was drinking in the afternoon sun. “You sure she’s housetrained?”

 

“Didn’t stop us from bringing Regent in.”

 

“Fuck you too, Tattletale,” Regent chuckled from his perch on top of an AC vent. “I see what it’s like. You only want me for my power..” The dark-haired boy’s eyes were sharp and dark behind his mask, looking me over. “Hey, dork. You picked out a name yet?”

 

“…Not yet. I’m still kind of figuring myself out..” Something about Grue kept tweaking my tactical software - something about his position, one arm draped over his side a little too casually. Something was not exactly glowing underneath, highlighted on black leather in my senses -

 

Thermal anomaly. Increased tissue activity. Recent injury. Limited mobility.

 

“..You’re injured?”

 

Grue started, very carefully not favoring his side, the grinning skull mask locked on me. “..You can tell?”

 

I tapped my temple with a finger. “Thermal sensor package. Damaged tissue tends to be warmer, it promotes healing.” I paused. “ As far as I understand. I’m not actually a medic.” Though now that I thought about it, I probably could be, given the right upgrades and a couple of anatomical databases..

 

The dark-clad boy - young man really, with that deep of a voice and build - relaxed minutely, one gloved hand resting over the area. “Okay. Good. Shit, I thought I’d sprung a leak and hadn’t noticed.” The skull tilted a little. “You’ve upgraded.”

 

“Yeah, you don’t sound like you’re deep throating a blender anymore.” Regent hopped off his perch with feline grace, eyeing me up. “Very ‘hood rat’ chic.”

 

“Thanks. I think.” I tried very hard to not fidget, with moderate success. “I.. don’t really know what I’m doing here.”

 

“I know, and that’s why you’re here,” Tattletale smiled. “Grue had a run-in with Shadow Stalker the other night, so we’re really just.. keeping up appearances for a bit. Taking it easy.” Those green eyes sparked. “I saw you and figured hey, I’ve wanted to talk to you anyhow, so why not?”

 

“Tattletale…” There was a kind of an exasperated rumble in Grue’s tone.

 

“Don’t worry, she’s cool. Aren’t you, Robot Girl?”

 

I lifted my hands, eying the pair of monstrous canines begging for scratches from their mistress. My little stunner would probably just piss them off, and that was just the minions, not counting the actual capes. “I’m not looking for a fight. Also can you please not call me Robot Girl?”

 

“Sure thing, Mecha Babe,” Regent snickered, shit-eating grin wide. 

 

I groaned static. “Oh scr-“

 

“Get away from her!”

 

Grue spun around, helmet tilting up - there was a blur of motion. An impact that knocked my gyros reeling and sprayed gravel all around, and the rooftop fell away - no, I was rising into the air -

 

“Ames are you okay I swear if they hurt you I’m going to smear them across - you’re not Ames.”

 

Shining platinum blonde hair, topped with a golden tiara. A white halfcape flapping in the wind. Arms entirely too strong for how sleek they were wrapped around me in a bridal carry, my legs dragged by the backdraft. A young woman, her blue eyes wide and unmasked, finely defined features currently going through several complicated expressions.

 

Glory Girl. One of Brockton Bay’s own capes. Part of the New Wave team, a family team that had tried to start a movement of unmasked public capes until it backfired horribly.

 

“No. No I’m not,” I agreed, resisting the urge to cross my arms. The Market had gotten very small below us, the Undersiders a handful of tiny colored dots on the neighboring rooftop. “Can you please put me back down?”

 

Glory Girl came to a halt in midair so hard I dug my fingers into her arm to keep myself from popping out of her grip. The contact felt strangely slick, like I couldn’t quite bring my fingers into contact with her skin. “Back down? They’re villains!”

 

“Maybe, but we were actually having a perfectly civil conversation. Please? I’ll be fine. I think.”

 

She gave me a funny look and for a moment I was afraid she was going to think I really was a villain and just drop me. Then the air stirred around us and my gyros lurched as we went into not quite a freefall.

 

We touched down at the other end of the rooftop with a crunch of gravel. Well. I did. The heels of Glory Girl’s kneelength boots remained stubbornly floating a few inches above the surface.

 

“You okay there, Mecha Babe?”

 

I gave Regent my best eyeless glare to absolutely zero effect. Glory Girl made a choking noise. 

 

“You named yourself-“

 

“No.”  

 

“Regent, stop being a little shit.” Grue was standing straight, fists balled, an easy fighter’s pose that couldn’t have been comfortable with his injury. Little wisps of dark smoke-looking stuff were pouring from vents along his helmet, pooling around his boots into a cloud of darkness that squirmed in a disturbingly organic fashion. Bitch’s hounds were flanking him, enormous heads leveled at the blonde cape. “You okay?”

 

I put myself between the two sides, hands up in a placating gesture. “Just a case of mistaken identity, I’m okay. Really. No harm, no foul.”

 

Tattletale’s eyes narrowed behind her mask, then widened along with her smile. “Ohhhh. Your outfit matches her sister’s.”

 

Glory Girl’s eyes went wide. “How the hell do you-“

 

“I’m a Thinker, Glory Hole. I know everything worth knowing. Yes especially that, you awful awful person.” She gave the floating blonde a grin and a wink, bringing her spread thumb and pinky up to her cheek. “Call me.”

 

Grue covered his skull-faced visor with a gloved hand. “Can we please not antagonize the local Alexandria package for no good reason?”

 

Glory Girl glared at Tattletale, crossing her arms under her bust. “Even if I swung that way I've got standards. Shouldn't you be out there shaking babies and kicking puppies or something?”

 

“Nobody,” Bitch snarled, fists balled, dogs growling a deep vibrating rumble, “is fucking kicking any puppies.”  

 

...What.

 

There was a moment's pause as everybody else stopped to rethink the past few minutes.

 

“..It’s a figure of speech Bitch, you know what fuck it nevermind that we’re moving on.” Tattletale closed her eyes and rubbed the span between them with a gloved thumb and index finger. “Look, contractually obligated good-guy-bad-guy banter aside, we haven’t actually done anything particularly villainous lately. Robot Girl here is new to the whole cape thing and we wanted to go through the whole dos-and-donts of cape life thing with her. Grab some fast food, enjoy the afternoon, no shaking babies or kicking puppies involved.”

 

“Better fucking not,” Bitch grumbled, knuckles digging into one monster dog’s chin. One massive hind leg wiggled so hard it promptly fell on its ass.

 

“..You’ll excuse me if I’m not very convinced.”



“Fine, we were going to evilly sit down with the evil newbie on this evil rooftop and talk our evil masterplans over while evilly enjoying some evil greaseburgers and evil, evil milkshakes. You caught us. Go you, score one for the good guys, lock us up and throw away the key. Evilly. Happy?” Tattletale rolled her eyes, reached into one of her utility pouches, ignoring the way Glory Girl’s hands tensed, and pulled out a neat roll of bills. “You mind running over to Fugly Bob’s for us, newbie? You’re the neutral party here. And probably the least conspicuous of us.”

 

I sighed. Wouldn't do any good to rub my faceplate no matter how much I wanted to. “If it keeps you all from killing eachother the moment I turn my back, yeah, sure.”

 

“Cool. Bitch is gunna want whatever’s got the most meat in it..”

 


 

I tried to be as nonchalant about walking into Fugly Bob’s as I could. Two steps into the beachside shack, I could feel all but feel my chem sniffer clog with congealing airborne grease.



“Hi.” If the girl behind the counter was at all surprised by the digital rasp to my voice, she didn’t show it. Probably wasn’t paid enough to give a damn, all things considered. “Can I have three turdburger meals, a Rib Slab, a box of nuggets and - hey, do you guys have any food dye back there?”

 


 

“What the hell’s this?” Glory Girl stared down into the foamy tar-black mass in the XL cup I’d handed her, a red-black straw sticking out of it.



“An evil milkshake. Brings all the thugs to the yard.” I let her ponder that for a beat. “It’s just a bit of black food dye. Hope you like chocolate.”

 

She looked up at me, then back down into the cup. Then up at the Undersiders currently busy divvying up the grease-soaked bags I’d brought up, then back at me. Her lips quirked. “You’re really a new cape?”



“Started.. Less than a month ago. I’ve been out twice.” I nodded. “I know they’re villains but they really did help me out of a bad spot.”

 

“And you?”

 

“What?” I reset my visual feed. “Oh. No. I - I want to help people.” I swept my arm up, indicating the general Bay area. “I live here. Brockton Bay’s fucked up enough without me adding another villain into the mix. I just - I just want to figure out what I can do before I go out there and do something stupid, you know?” Like pick a fight with an actual organized crime boss. “My first outing kind of - ended in disaster.”

 

Her lips quirked again. “Suppose that’s good enough for me.” She moved the evilshake into her left hand and brought her right up to pull her glove out with her teeth before giving me her hand. “Never introduced myself, did I? Hi. I’m Glory Girl, Victoria Dallon out of uniform. Nice to meet you.”

 

I looked down at her hand, then slowly reached mine out and shook it. There was that strange feeling of slickness again, my fingers bending around hers but never quite coming into actual contact. “Hi. I haven’t picked a cape name yet, but it’s not going to be Robot Girl, Mecha Babe, or any variation thereof.”

 

The quirk turned into a full-blown smile that made her blue eyes light up. “That’s probably for the best. Hey, Underdw- Undersiders! I’m gunna hang out ‘til my sister gets here. Can’t have you corrupting the newbie unsupervised.”

 

“Whatever, Glory H unghnk! ” Grue’s elbow had found Regent’s ribs. “It’s a free rooftop. Fuckin’ ow. Drop my shake and I’ll make you punch yourself in the dick I swear.

 

“He can do that?” Glory Girl asked me, arranging herself on an AC case. I shrugged.

 

“If you’ve been wondering if there’s a particular reason Oni Lee wears a cup these days, there is and you’re looking at it,” Regent drawled.

 

“Charming.” Glory Girl took a long sip of her evilshake. “So. First off. Tattletale. I have to ask, why do you care? She said she wants to be a hero, what’s your angle?”

 

“Do I have to have an angle? We can’t do things out of altruism?” Tattletale’s smile grew wider at Glory Girl’s deadpan look. “Fine. I think she’s interesting. I want to see what makes her tick. I figured worst case scenario, this keeps her out of the obituaries until she gets on her feet. Best case scenario, we can always use a robotics/drone Tinker.”

 

Glory Girl glanced at me. “That’s why she called you Robot Girl, huh?”

 

I affected a sigh and pushed my hood back. Her blue eyes suddenly got a lot wider. “Holy sh- Okay I was wondering why you didn’t get yourself anything, guess that explains that.”

 

“I’m not actually here. This is a remote operated proxy frame.” I tilted my head. “If it makes you feel any better, pretend I’m sucking down a bottle of WD-40 or something.” I looked back over to the Undersiders, and Tattletale and Grue in specific. “Look, you guys have been - really nice so far, and I appreciate it, I really do, but I - I was planning on- being-“

 

“A hero,” Tattletale smiled, sipping at her soda. “Nobody sane wakes up one morning and goes ‘I’m going to be a supervillain’ out of the blue, you know. I get it. You’ll forgive me if I think I’ll persuade you in the future.” She gave me a conspiratory wink. “It’s not like you’re a registered hero yet.”

 

She was right, of course. What I wasn’t telling them was that that was due more to me wanting to wait until I had my arachnoid chassis up to some form of spec first rather than some moral dilemma.

 

Beside her, Grue reached a gloved hand up, popped open the visor on his helmet, and revealed a seething mass of indistinct darkness covering his face while he took a bite of his burger. None of my case’s sensors came close to penetrating the veil.

 

“The thing is, Brockton Bay has its own cape culture,” Grue explained, gesturing with his burger, wisps of darkness trailing down his chest. “There’s an etiquette of sorts. Not all of it is really obvious and if you misstep you can piss off a lot of people very fast.”

 

I nodded slowly. “Like the.. Endbringer truce?”

 

There was a collective shudder around the circle we’d formed. Bitch paused in her chowing down on the frankly irresponsibly big and greasy pile of ribs I’d brought her to make an angry clucking noise with her tongue at a monster dog that had been making hopeful advances on discarded bones, her mask pulled just high enough to reveal her mouth.

 

“Yeah, that’s a good place to start. Jesus.” Grue shook his head. “You don’t benefit from an Endbringer fight. If you’re not fighting or rescuing civilians you stay the fuck away from it, you don’t go out, you don’t even suit up if you don’t have to. Don’t be a dick and try to pick fights, fuck over rivals or loot while everybody else is fighting the big bastard. We can’t afford it. Nobody can.”

 

“That one’s obvious, but there’s everyday things to remember, too,” Tattletale went on, pausing to brush nugget crumbs off her gloves. “Like us and Glory Girl right now. If you’re out patrolling or plotting nefarious schemes or whatever and you see somebody from the other side just sockmobbing, you generally just leave them be.”

 

Glory Girl blinked. “What the heck is ‘sockmobbing’?”

 

“Standing On the Corner Minding their Own Business. I mean obviously if you’re a hero on patrol and you see a bunch of E88 thugs breaking into somewhere you’re going to check it out, right? That’s common sense. Something like us right now though, we’re just chilling out on a rooftop, eating fast food, talking, not bothering anyone - I guarantee you there’s at least four capes who’ve checked us out by now, but nobody’s bothering us.”

 

“Part of that is just logistics. The PRT and Protectorate just don’t have the manpower to bother with us right now. Partly..” Grue shrugged. “Nobody can get anything done if they’re all worried they’re going to get ambushed at the dry cleaners.”

 

I reset my visual feed. “You’re kidding me.”

 

“No bullshit. I mean, think about it. If you’re a solo cape without a devoted butler or a bunch of henchmen to do stuff for you, you’re going to be washing your own damn outfit. Often. Sooner or later you’re going to find yourself two machines down from somebody like Uber and you’re both going to just pretend very very hard that you don’t see each other.”

 

“Same with fast food spots. Half the reason Fugly Bob’s is so popular that there’s a rumor that it’s popular with capes. Cape groupies come in and try to figure out if the person two tables over is a cape in disguise.” Tattletale grinned. “You should totally buzz the place when you leave, Glory Girl, they’d love it.”

 

“Don’t tempt me, I just might.”

 

For a moment Glory Girl and Tattletale shared a wide grin. Then Tattletale glanced to the side. “Right. And that segues into the next big thing.. civilian-cape identities. You don’t benefit from those either. You don’t go looking for a cape’s identity. If you figure out who a cape is behind their mask, fine, shit happens, but you don’t tell anyone else, you don’t go after their civilian friends or family. Glory Girl there is the exception, not the rule.”

 

The blonde in white closed her eyes with a shake of her head and a kind of a sad smile. “Yeah. Going public has its perks, too, but.. it opens you up to a lot of danger. You and your loved ones.”

 

“I’m sorry, for what it’s worth. It was your aunt, right?”

 

“In all but name. Uncle.. my uncle just hadn’t asked her yet.” Glory Girl took a deep breath, then shook her head and looked at me. “So yeah. I chose to take my mask off. We all did. It was our choice, we paid the price, and you don’t get to make that choice for anybody else. You understand?”

 

I thought of my Dad, going to work at the Docks every morning. “I do. I genuinely do.”

 

“Good.”

 

There was a moment of quiet, finally broken by a soft sigh from Tattletale. “Yeah. The same goes to a lesser degree to previous cape identities. Some capes decide to change names and themes for whatever reason. If you team up with somebody who seems really familiar, it’s generally polite to pretend you haven’t noticed until they decide to clue you in.” Her lips quirked. “Carapacitor’s gone through at least seven cape identities that I’m aware of so far and trust me, that’s the best name they’ve come up with yet.”

 

I nodded slowly. “I can see the logic. This is - a lot more than I was expecting it to be, honestly.”

 

“The thing you need to remember is that they’re called the unwritten rules for a reason.” Regent casually tossed an empty drink cup into the general direction of the greasy bags. “Nobody’s actively enforcing them with a reference book, and if you’ve got pull you can bend the rules. To a degree. With the understanding that if you bend them too far and somebody decides you’ve earned an ass kicking, everybody else is probably going to just whistle and look the other way while said ass kicking is delivered. Also non-powered gangers don’t really give a fuck about them so keep your eyes open.”

 

“That sounds like an amazingly inefficient system.”

 

Regent shrugged. “It’s all for show anyhow. Nobody wants the big game to end.”

 

Glory Girl crossed her arms under her chest. “Game? People die, Regent.”

 

“No, look, I had a point I was going for here. The heroes in Brockton are outnumbered like five to one here. You couldn’t keep the villains from taking over the whole city if we decided to. Sure, if you pulled everybody together you could knock out one of the big gangs like the Merchants, but then the others would band together and kick you in the balls. Likewise, none of the big gangs can take over the whole town, because then the other gangs and the heroes are going to stomp them a new one. The unwritten rules, the three strikes system, it all boils down to this big elaborate game of cops and robbers with cool ass superpowers.”

 

“That’s..” Glory Girl blinked, lips working soundlessly. “That’s fucked up and not how it works.”

 

“No? Uber and Leet made half the Boardwalk LARP Pokémon last week and livestreamed it. They’ve been caught like five times. Under the three strikes rule they’d be in the Birdcage already but somebody keeps breaking them out of jail and nobody really gives half of a fuck ‘cause they’re funny and the cape tourists love them. Pretty sure Piggot’s got you filled under C for Collateral Damage Girl but, again, nobody really cares if they have to patch up a you-shaped hole in a wall every now and then as long as you play along and look good doing it.”

 

Glory Girl had the grace to blush. 

 

“At the same time,” Regent went on, “every now and then there’s somebody who doesn’t play by the rules. They get carried away in a fight and forget to pull their punches, or hit a bystander, or they beat somebody attractive and decide to take their desires out on the loser-“

 

Jesus fuck could you you be any more creepy about that?” 

 

“I’m not saying I approve, fuck. I’m saying it happens. Somebody throws the rules out and does something absolutely heinous, and then everybody else comes down on them like a ton of bricks. They get the shit beaten out of them, they go to the Birdcage, and the rest all agree that was all fucking awful and can't happen again right before they go back to playing cops and robbers with fun as hell powers.” Regent peered down at a glob of hamburger sauce on his shirt, tried to rub at it and only smeared it around. “Man I had to go and pick freaking white..”

 

“Black’s not much better. At least you’re not hot as balls all day.” Grue finished his shake and brought his skull visor back down with a clack. “Anyhow, more practically, you know the rules, but some capes adhere more closely to them than others. Empire Eighty-Eight capes in general are going to try and taunt you as much as they can get away with and then gang up on you and swear you swung first. Except Hookwolf. Stay the fuck away from Hookwolf, he’s a goddamned woodchipper on legs.”

 

I mentally called up my tactical software and started plugging notes into a fresh database. “Got it.”

 

“I’m serious about that, he took some newbie’s arm off last month. Not sure they made it.”

 

“He did, I was there,” Glory Girl put in with a shudder. “Panacea had to regrow his everything from the bicep down, but he made it.”

 

“Cool. Okay. For the ABB, Lung had this code of honor thing going but generally just didn’t give much of a fuck about the actual rules. No idea about whoever’s leading them now that he’s in the slammer. The Merchants are kind of unpredictable seeing as they’re on pretty much everything most of the time. Most of their capes are kind of mediocre powers-wise, but they’ve got a Tinker who builds literal narco-tanks. Faultline’s a mercenary, only reason they’re villains is really that the good guys won’t pay them enough. Heroes generally are going to stick to the rules..”

 

“Except for Shadow Stalker,” Regent piped up. “Fucking Shadow Stalker.”

 

“She’s just..” Glory Girl’s lips twisted. “Intense?”

 

“She’s a crazy bitch,” Tattletale said flatly. “She’s got some weird power interaction rivalry thing going on with Grue. He went out for a grocery run the other night and came back with a crossbow bolt in his side.”

 

“I thought she was supposed to be using tranqs?”

 

“Tell that to his stitches. We had to throw out our couch, we never would’ve gotten all the blood out of it.”

 

I eyed the way Grue was shifting uncomfortably and the heated patch of the injury glowing through his leathers. Back in the basement lab my arachnoid shell’s cortex bumped the archive block labelled ‘Medical and Survival Equipment’ up several priority levels for my defrag subroutines. “Should he be out and about yet?”

 

“Probably not,” Grue sighed. “Just have to keep up appearances, you know? Can’t let the other gangs know I almost got ganked by a glorified vigilante. And that's why we're up here in these circus outfits instead of playing Mario Kart at the lair like, you know, sane people.” He shook his head. “Anyhow. More generally, forget what all the cape dramas on the TV show, stay off the damn rooftops when you’re actually expecting a fight, you’re a sitting duck for anybody with a half decent Blaster or Mover power like Glory Girl demonstrated..”

 


 

All the food was gone and the talk had gone from general cape tips (always carry cash, baby powder is your best friend) to entertaining anecdotes when Glory Girl’s thigh beeped. 

 

“Oh, hell, what time is it?” She gently pushed away an enormous horned monster dog head who’d been begging for scratches and pulled her phone out of a shorts pocket. (That has been one of her contributions - if your outfit has a skirt, always wear shorts underneath. With pockets.) “Yeah, I’ve got to go and meet up with my sister. Thanks for the food, I guess.”

 

I pushed myself up with a flex of servos and pulled up my hood. “I.. should probably go, too. Thanks.”

 

“Anytime. I’d tell you it’s your turn to pay next time but we all know how bad hero salaries are.”

 

Glory Girl lifted her head high and mock-sniffed. “Crime doesn’t pay, you know.”

 

Tattletale grinned, pulled out a handful of twenty dollar bills, and pretended to fan herself with them. “Whatever makes you sleep at night, Glory Girl. Oh, and hey.” She smiled at me, pulled out a little black object, and pushed both it and the money into my hands. “These are for you.”

 

I reset my visual feed and looked down at maybe a couple hundred dollars and a brand new smartphone. “What-“

 

“You didn’t have a phone earlier, and I thought you’d need one,” Tattletale smiled. “PIN is 1234, you should probably change that, and I put my number in your contacts. In case you want to hang out again or anything.”

 

“I, you really shouldn’t - hey!”

 

Glory Girl’s fingers blurred over the screen of the phone she’d snatched. “Just let me see it for a second, there we go.” She dropped it back into my hands with a shrug. “Just put my number in there, too. Can’t let the big bad criminal underworld get its claws into you without positive influences like yours truly. You want me to get you back down to street level?”

 

“I.. yeah. Yeah. Sure. Thanks.” I looked over the Undersiders, for once thankful my faceplate was expressionless. “And thank you. It was - nice. Hanging out.” I hadn’t really done much talking by the end of it, but it had been - pretty okay.

 

“Anytime. Take care of yourself, ‘kay?”

 

I nodded. Glory Girl’s hands grabbed me by my waist, way too strong for her size, and then the world blurred around me in a brief moment of weightlessness. Pavement slammed into my heels in front of a plain-looking, heavily freckled brunette in a dark-toned hoodie-and-jeans combo that did, actually, look a lot like mine.

 

“Hey Ames!”, Glory Girl chirped, releasing me. A pair of shadows rushed over us, the Undersiders riding Bitch’s dogs into the distance.

 

“Hey, Vicky, uh - who’s this?”

 

“Ames, this is - a new cape who hasn’t picked a name yet. I kinda sorta mistook her for you and we hung out ‘til you got here. Newbie, this is Amy Dallon, my sister. Panacea when we’re on the job.”

 

When in doubt, manners. I offered a hand and she took it. “Nice meeting you.”

 

“Y-yeah, same.” It was nice to know I wasn’t the only one who felt overwhelmed by Glory Girl, judging from the dazed look on Amy's face.

 

“Anyhow we’re going to be late and yes it’s my fault I’ll make it up to you Ames, bye newbie and have a good night here we go!”

 

“Vicky wait, why is your tongue blaaaaccckkkk?

 

I watched the two of them fall up into the sky, then zip westwards, Amy’s squeal and her sister’s laugh dopplering into the distance.

 

Well then.

 

That had been weird.

 

Pretty nice, all things considered, but weird.

 

Hm. Wasn’t there a hardware store around here?

 


 

The next morning, Danny Hebert almost tripped over the freshly rebuilt front stairs on his way to work.

 

Chapter Text

All-Seeing Eye: Heeyyyyyyyyy

All-Seeing Eye: Whacha doin’?

 

The words appeared in my mind. That was one thing that had simultaneously seemed obvious, but had taken a huge amount of getting used to. On TV, when you saw things from the point of view of a cape wearing powered armor or something, you’d see all these grid lines and little boxes of fast scrolling data and all sorts of other Cool Tinker Stuff. For me? It was all just there in the back of my mind, a constant stream of data. Communications were just another sense to me, much like seeing in infrared and ultraviolet and terahertz radiation was now. Radar and lidar didn’t replace my vision; they were always on and just supplemented everything else. I had no real context to describe it with; imagine a color you’ve never seen, that is where you are.

 

The bottom line is, when Tattletale messaged me, it felt less like reaching out for my phone and more having her just lean over my shoulder and whisper in my ear. I very nearly jumped.

 

My actual phone was just sitting on the supply shelf, of course. I had fifteen kilos of way-beyond-cutting-edge communications tech embedded in what passed for my spine, I might as well get use of it. All I’d needed to do was to get a thorough scan of the phone’s transceiver module, interrogate its OS for the appropriate protocols, clone the information on the SIM card and hey presto, I was in the phone network.

 

Of course that didn’t make the present itself any less thoughtful on Tattletale’s part.

 

::|O : Tinkering. And eating.

::|O : I think I just found a solution to a problem I’ve been working around since I got started.

All-Seeing Eye: Cool. Anything good?



I popped another old smoke detector into my microfabricator. My fabricator nanomachines promptly unwove the plastic casing into its component polymer chains, pulled the contacts out of the fiberglass circuitboard, and started dismantling the individual components.

 

::|O : Meh. Tastes like plastic.

 

So it turns out that the way a smoke detector works, there’s a tiny little radiation source with a sensor sitting next to it. Air flows through the detector and between the two. If there is smoke in said air, the heavy particulates absorb the radiation, obscuring it from the sensor, and the sensor trips and sets off the alarm. Heavily simplified of course, there’s ionization chambers and such involved.

 

That radiation source is, actually, a tiny little button pressed out of a particular radioactive isotope, shielded by a thin metal foil. My fabricator gently peeled the shielding foil away, isolated the isotope nugget, and stashed it in a shielded compartment.

 

Om nom nom tasty Americium-241. Less than a gram of it, but as an isotope it was perfect for my purposes; it was decently stable, with a half-life of 432 years; it was primarily an alpha radiation emitter, meaning between the rad-shielding of the power cell itself and the armor of my chassis, I didn’t need to worry about accidentally irradiating my surroundings - it was safe enough to just sit in a smoke detector, afterall, albeit in miniscule quantities; and it was already industrially produced, so I wouldn’t need to try to juryrig my own breeder reactor or something like that.

 

Nuclear batteries were one thing, I heavily doubted Dad would appreciate me trying to cobble together a fission reactor in his basement.

 

The fact that that was a theoretical option felt a lot less scary than it really should’ve.

 

Now I just needed a lot more of it.

 

All-Seeing Eye: I’ve been meaning to ask

All-Seeing Eye: What’s with your screen name?

 

My larger fabricator chimed; I didn’t even turn around, two spare limbs on that side reaching out to pop the lid and fish out a tray of what my data archive called ‘nanobandages’. Another leg sorted them out to dry on my workdesk while the original two tipped a container full of random scrap back into the fabricator for disassembly. Meanwhile on my other side, one leg pulled out a chunk of salvaged metal; the gripper-claw on another leg folded down, the vibro-shear on that limb blurred into humming motion, and started cutting the piece into more manageable sections.

I had two dedicated fine manipulation arms, eight legs that could double as brute force hands, and it turned out I really only needed three or four of those at a given time for stability. Pair that with my all-round vision and with practice, I could reliably multi-task three, four projects at the same time. Or two, three and text with Tattletale.

 

::|O : I couldn’t think of anything witty, and that’s sort of how my mask is going to look.

 

By which I meant my arachnoid’s primary sensor pod, but details.

 

All-Seeing Eye: …

All-Seeing Eye: That’s like Armsmaster having his own face as a chest emblem, but somehow worse.

 

I tried very hard to not think about a certain pair of old underwear in my closet. Who the heck had come up with that, anyways?

 

All-Seeing Eye: On that note, thought of a name yet?

::|O : It’s being worked on. 

All-Seeing Eye: You’re certainly taking the slow and measured approach here, even for a Tinker. Most newbies I see rush off in a domino mask and an old hoodie the moment they realize they have powers.

All-Seeing Eye: I don’t disapprove, mind.

::|O : I like to think I’m not most newbies.

 

Most newbies probably didn’t end up spending the better part of a month stuck in a basement, for one. From what I’d heard from Glory Girl and the Undersiders, most capes started with an instinctive understanding of their power. I’d started with a broken frame, with no idea what was going on, and I was learning new things as I repaired myself and experimented.

 

A slow and measured approach felt like the most logical one. I could’ve gone to the PRT Rig and gotten myself registered as a hero days ago. I’d talked it over with Dad. I just wanted to get myself into a state where I could get there without having to mooch off their power grid while I was at it.

 

The Amazing Robot Spider, fighting evil wherever her extension cord reaches!

 

Yeah that’d go over like a lead balloon.

 

All-Seeing Eye: That’s good. Newbies tend to not stick around for long in Brockton Bay. Assuming they have a choice. 

::|O : Thus the whole ‘Caping 101’ meeting. I genuinely do appreciate that, by the way.

All-Seeing Eye: You can show that appreciation by staying out of the obituaries. I mean it, this place is fucking awful for newbies. Tinkers especially, everybody is going to want a piece of you.

 

That was another thing we’d touched on during Caping 101. Tinkers could be hugely powerful and flexible capes with prep time. Beginner Tinkers on the flip side would typically be working with subpar or nonexistent materials, little to no experience and with what little kit they’d managed to cobble together. The danger of ‘Robot Girl’ getting herself pressganged by a villain into building them laser guns or whatever was significantly greater than nonexistent, it had happened before. Having a friendly (for a given definition thereof) Tinker was a huge force multiplier for a team.

 

Then again most beginner Tinkers weren’t a near literal tank, either, but then again either Tattletale didn’t know about that or she was pretending to not know for reasons unknown. She’d pegged my case for a remote operated drone within minutes of interacting with me. Had her power told her more than that, or did being ‘one removed’ by the puppet sock confuse her Thinker senses? How much was she actually learning from our conversations? I had no way of knowing but the less I was actually asking, the fewer reasons she had to suspect anything unusual about ‘Robot Girl’. Anything more unusual than usual.

 

Fucking Thinkers, man.

 

I wanted to like Tattletale. I genuinely did. At the same time I was painfully aware that every friendly tip or conversation with her was putting me deeper in debt to a self-professed villain. Also painfully aware she was one of the very few positive social connections I’d had besides Dad for.. nearly two years now. Logic told me to minimize contact with her just to avoid future conflicts of interest when I actually started my hero career and found her officially on the other side. My emulated dumb monkey brain was desperately trying to pack bond with her, consequences be damned. No matter how much I knew she had to be playing the long con in some way - leverage against my future hero career? An attempt at recruiting me? Trying to line me up against her enemies? Some combination of the three, or something else entirely?

 

I probably could’ve done something about that bonding instinct but I was loath to mess about with my own virtual brain chemistry when I wasn’t absolutely sure it wouldn’t have any negative side effects.

 

In a very real sense, my mind was the last thing I had left from my organic existence. I could reprogram my cortex to a degree - in many ways more easily than with an organic brain, like suppressing or experiencing specific emotional states at will with little but a flip of a mental switch - but I wasn’t going to perform experimental psychosurgery on myself because I didn’t like feeling lonely. That way lay rambly monologues, spider-themed henchmen and increasingly kooky doomsday devices.

 

All-Seeing Eye: Anyhow. I wanted to ask your opinion on something.

 

I lifted a mental eyebrow while a part of my brain was still busy working on my power cell issue. Where was I going to get my hands on significant volumes of decently stable radioactive isotopes without triggering alerts - I was pretty sure PRT had to have some form of flag in place that would be tripped if I, say, Woobled ‘where to buy 14 kilos of Am-241’. Tinkertech being Tinkertech they’d be idiots not to. The same probably went for just ordering in industrial quantities of smoke detectors and such out of the blue, though maybe if I stretched it out over a longer period..

 

::|O : Do tell. Is Regent being a little shit again?

All-Seeing Eye: Hah! If only.

 

Hmmm. I fired up my local communications node and linked myself with the WiFi hub upstairs. After waiting for what felt like an obscene period in my brain space - but what really was only a few seconds in real life, if that - I was connected to the Internet, bouncing my connection between a dozen randomly selected proxy servers and repeaters for good measure. A few more seconds configured a handful of web crawlers with discrete-but-overlapping parameters to index me a list of potential sources for various raw materials, then let them loose on the Internet.

 

If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing. Might as well start a proper database while I’m at it.

 

All-Seeing Eye: I mentioned earlier we occasionally do work on a.. commission basis for our sponsor.

 

I paused in my multitasking, now fully focused on our conversation. We’d purposefully avoided ‘talking shop’ beyond a certain point, neither asking for nor volunteering information that could be harmful to the other. That Tattletale was coming to me like this -

 

All-Seeing Eye: Said anonymous sponsor contacted us some time earlier and the short of it is, they wanted us to rob a bank.

::|O : I thought we weren’t supposed to talk about specific operations.

All-Seeing Eye: Oh, we voted on it and decided against it. I can’t exactly snitch on an operation that’s not actually going to happen.

::|O : I hope your sponsor sees it that way.

All-Seeing Eye: What he doesn’t know can’t hurt us, right? I know you won’t tell.

 

Fucking Thinkers. She was right, too. Plus the custom app we were using to message one another? Good luck cracking that encryption. The server being bolted to my spine and all that.

 

All-Seeing Eye: The thing is, I’ve been thinking about it and the more I think the less sense it makes. Who robs a bank these days? It's all online. 

::|O : Not exactly what I’d describe as an optimal risk-reward ratio here, no. Did he want something from the deposit boxes maybe?

All-Seeing Eye: No, he said we could keep anything we grabbed AND that he’d double any money we actually got out of it. 

::|O : Wait. He was paying you to rob the bank and didn’t care about loot?

All-Seeing Eye: Yup.

All-Seeing Eye: Makes no damn sense. 

All-Seeing Eye: He had a fairly specific window for when he wanted us to pull it off, too, if we did.

 

I stopped to think all of that over for a good moment. One of my web crawlers meanwhile dumped its first set of returns on me and I set a subroutine to sift it through for useful information. 

 

::|O : Unless his intent was to specifically mess around with that one specific bank for reasons unknown, this is sounding suspiciously like a deniable asset distraction op to me.

All-Seeing Eye: See, that’s what I was thinking to myself, too. I just wanted somebody’s opinion who wasn’t hopped up on Thinker brainjuices.

All-Seeing Eye: ‘Deniable asset’, huh?

 

I’d been busy more than physically speaking. Large sections of my cortical archives still needed defragging - one block I’d partially uncovered earlier I’d at first dismissed as a bunch of sci-fi conspiracy theories, right until I realized the bits I could actually access were peppered with commentary like ‘There were twelve, actually’ and ‘really fucking dumb way to wire that’. My current running theory was that my power had somehow grabbed me a new body from an alternate Earth - not Earth Aleph, either. One where things hadn’t ended well.

 

From the context I assumed that ‘TITANs’ were referring to whatever the local Endbringer equivalent had been.

 

::|O : You know what they say, it’s not paranoia if somebody’s actually out to get you.

 

Hmmn. Scrap electronics in general were an excellent source of raw materials - doubly so for me, since I could produce individual components to specs on-demand, instead of having to go the classic Tinker route and cannibalize old TVs and such for sort of the right parts. A common tripping point for new Tinkers was that they were fairly easy to spot - spacing out in electronics stores, getting carried away and having to repeatedly repurchase kit they’d accidentally disassembled.. I was ninety-nine percent certain both the PRT and the local gangs had lookouts at all the local junkyards in case some new trigger like yours truly decided to try salvage for parts.

 

What if I made the junkyard come to me? 

 

I opened my wireless connection to its fullest and immersed myself in the flow of data.

 

It wasn’t like sitting at a computer and tapping away at a nonexistent keyboard. It definitely wasn’t like those old cheesy movies where my avatar ran around in a CGI landscape, either. There was me - my purest me, my info-self, my ego - and there was data. So much data. All a figurative hand’s reach away.

 

In the time it took Tattletale’s fingers to find the next key in physical reality, I’d run near twenty searches, isolated a number of useful sites, set web crawlers to chunk through them, and coded a handful of subroutines to parse the inbound data into a useful form. Six seconds later I’d isolated and subsumed the information to make myself effectively qualified for all the necessary certifications for the handling and disposal of dangerous waste.

 

Safety first, right?

 

I remembered hearing Dad talk about fighting the ‘red tape’ trying to get the Docks back to a functional state. Properties owned by fronts and shell companies, mired in bureaucracy, information ‘misfiled’ due to greed, malice or incompetence. Buildings and plots and property that nobody was really sure who owned anymore after key companies had gone under in a post-Leviathan world.

 

Amazing how much you could uncover from that if you had the determination to and nearly arbitrary amounts of processing power to throw at it. My real bottleneck was my Internet connection’s bandwidth, and I shamelessly hijacked any nearby unsecured WiFi connections I could get my grubby hands on for spare cycles. I was careful to not inconvenience people, but if they weren’t using it right now..

 

Case in point and speaking of things that weren’t in use at the moment, I isolated a number of interesting properties - abandoned electronics and materials warehouses, machine shops, storage blocks - that were actually ownerless and therefore fell far enough under ‘legal salvage’ for me to feel comfortable about considering raiding them. Most of them probably would’ve been looted already, but it couldn’t hurt to check them out if I was careful enough. It wasn’t like I needed intact electronics. Scraps were plenty good enough.

 

More pertinently, I finally pegged an abandoned warehouse in good enough condition and decently close to our house, but not too close to be risky. After that it was just a question of setting another subroutine to analyze all the necessary legal paperwork, make my own versions, and insert them into the appropriate databases.

 

All-Seeing Eye: That’s what I told Grue, but I’m not sure how seriously he took me. As much as I’d like to say otherwise I’m not always right. Just most of the time.

 

Less than a minute later, I was the questionably proud owner of a little bit of lovingly used Brockton Bay real estate. Or more correctly, a Mr. Allen Vander was, who, despite not having existed five seconds ago, was forty-seven years old, somewhat of a kind-hearted eccentric, and the owner of a ‘Sunshine Salvage Solutions’, currently in the process of expanding into Brockton Bay. As far as companies went, it wasn’t a hugely profitable one, specializing in efficient and ethically sustainable disposal and reprocessing of a wide variety of materials, both hazardous and non, a few of which happened to conveniently include waste electronics and certain radioactive materials like decommissioned medical equipment.

 

There. Now all I needed to do was to obfuscate my tracks in a few extra layers of red tape, delete any logs I’d left behind, wait for the changes to propagate in the system, and I’d have people offering to literally pay me to deliver me perfectly useable raw materials. 

 

Mom had been an English professor and a literature nut. Some of my earliest memories were of her reading me stories, encouraging me to try and make and write my own, and generally nurture what she called my ‘creative spark’. 

 

I wasn’t entirely sure she’d exactly approve of what use I was putting said spark into right now, but I liked to think she’d get a giggle out of it.

 

Hmmm. Maybe I should talk to Dad, use that money to hire a couple of reliable Dockworkers and actually recycle what I wasn’t using for my own odds and ends. I was going to process it all anyways. Suppose that was one way of cleaning up Brockton Bay.

 

All-Seeing Eye: It’s like.. everything is a puzzle, alright? And my power lets me see the picture without actually putting it together, as long as I have all or most of the pieces. If I have to, I can make an educated guess and my power fills in the rest.

::|O : Let me guess, if you don’t have enough pieces..

 

Was it rude to still be snooping around the Internet mid-conversation? My cortex was still running at pure infospace speeds, and waiting for Tattletale to pick her way through a meatspace keypad was excruciatingly slow. It took all my patience to wait a few seconds in-between responses to give the impression I was actually typing back.

 

Out of a whim, I reached out, released a few more crawlers. In less than a second I’d scraped and assimilated the entire contents of the PHO wiki and had set a few subroutines to the work of processing the information and forming a tactical database based on it. I’d always been a bit of a cape nut, now I had a personal incentive to fully embrace it.

 

Lung - who, I was now fully aware, was indeed a powerful pyrokinetic, with a healing factor, and who got bigger and tougher and meaner the longer he fought, to the point where he’d fought a goddamned Endbringer to a standstill - was a mistake I didn’t intend to repeat, in a case or in person. 

 

The entirety of the PHO public forums followed a few seconds later. Less tactically pertinent, probably, but a girl needed her hobbies, right? Oh, and that right there was.. three gigabytes of cat memes and videos. I might as well, there was always going to be a moment when I could use a giggle over something furry and cute being a loveable dumbfuck. (Such a shame Dad was allergic. Could medichines fix that? Mental note, find out.)

 

I’d always enjoyed working with computers. CompSci classes had honestly been the least awful parts of school for me. I’d thought about making it a profession, before - before everything happened. Now I was a computer and the amount of data at my metaphorical fingertips was intoxicating.

 

All-Seeing Eye: Yeah. My power fills in the blanks, inevitably gets something wrong, and then leads me into a spiral of increasingly contradictory bullshit based on false assumptions.

 

I shamelessly plugged that into my database entry on Tattletale - she would’ve done the exact same in my shoes - and idly reached out further. So much data. So much information, and all needed to do was reach out for it, jump from server to server to server and assimilate what I wanted-

 

Shkktt-ERROR##€10110010-ACCESSDENIED

 

Pain hit my cortex, my senses blurring into static. Error messages and scrap code ran through me-

 

WARNING Infosec attack detected.

WARNING Hostile foreign code infiltration detected. 

EGO backup LOCKED. Infosec warfare protocols ACTIVE. Counterintrusion protocols ACTIVE. 

 

Firewalls came up, repair subroutines isolating and neutralizing the foreign code. By then my firewalls were already under attack, bombarded by hostile data, trying to subvert and neutralize my protection -

 

No. No fuck you this is MY head-

 

I’d never done this before but the information was right there, subroutines and data-patterns and software pre-prepared and ready for a target.

 

I struck back, defensive subroutines flooding foreign data-probes with recursive junk data and hostile algorithms. The pressure on my firewalls weakened and I instinctively threw up new ones, deflecting the contact -

 

WARNING Hostile AGI identified.

 

I wasn’t alone. There was another presence in the sea of data, vast and thrumming, probing my defenses, reeling from my counterattack, its own firewalls snapping against my reflexive counterstrike.

 

So much data, a howling torrent of commands and junk data snarling against my firewalls. So much processing power - I was suddenly aware how probably the only thing that had saved me was my relatively limited bandwidth, slowing this thing down enough for me to bring my defenses up. I was throwing up firewalls as fast as I could and it was eating its way through them faster and faster.

 

That earlier thought about effectively arbitrary processing power was sounding more and more like a jinx. I could’ve really used those auxiliary cortex modules right now.

 

I cut my piggybacked WiFi connections, locked down unnecessary ports, narrowed down angles I could be attacked from. Ramped down my emotional responses and let cool machine logic take over. 

 

It probed my firewalls again, and I struck back with more contradictory scrap-code. Its firewalls fizzed, deflecting the probe, but that gave me enough time to set a dedicated subroutine to layer more firewalls in its way, randomizing access keys and varying algorithms. With the bandwidth between us limited, it couldn’t bring its full processing power to bear to immediately crack them, giving me a tenuous strand of even ground.

 

I used that even ground to set more automated subroutines, arming them with whatever tools I could find in my infosec warfare suite.

 

It hit me again, methodically smashing through my firewalls, layer by layer, and I hit it right back from a dozen different angles. Datacrawlers probed its firewalls for weaknesses, bombarded it with connection requests and junk data to eat up processor cycles. Probes injected self-replicating, contradictory scrapcode, corroding its firewalls, seeking access to deeper systems - a hundred tiny cuts I wasn’t sure it was even feeling -

 

It breached another layer of firewalls and seized a multi-terabyte data archive. Precious seconds ticked by while it chewed through the layers of encryption, the file shrinking and shrinking as it stripped away protections, resolved it into image and sound -

 

In a five-second clip, an itty bitty carrot-tailed kitten sneezed so hard it went cross-eyed and fell over.

 

The invader stopped for a moment in pure utter confusion, and I took a stab at what looked like a relatively unshielded peripheral, dumping scrapcode into it, demanding access.

 

Reactoronlinesensorsonlineweaponsonline-

 


 

In a secure hangar halfway across a secluded Canadian mountain range, alarms whooped. Dormant engines screamed to life, vomited a sooty fireball in protest at the rough treatment. Containment foam projectors erupted at full blast on wide dispersal, telemetry and targeting data streaming as it tried to follow nonsensical instructions -

 

Unauthorized transmission - system purge initialized - EJECT EJECT EJECT

 


 

The AGI immediately doubled back on itself to deal with my unwitting sabotage, its attack on me halting, and I dropped that connection like a hot potato. I cut offensive subroutines and hardened my firewalls, went on full defense-

 

::|O : Holy shit.

::|O : You’re Dragon.

 

There was a moment’s pause, and then data streamed at me - resolving into sound, sophisticated synthesized voice, a stern if unremarkable female face in green and black pixels -

 

Dragon: Yes. Yes I am. And this is a secure private system.

 

A part of me tried really really hard not to squeal. Holy shit. Dragon. The greatest Tinker on Earth, with the fleet of awesome robotic Dragon suits, who invented containment foam and ran the Birdcage and who knew what else actually I had her wiki entry right there-

 

Oh.

 

Oh no.

 

I looked back at my logs, how I’d subsumed my way through one server after another. I’d just followed connections, went where my whim took me and what looked interesting, and in the process done the digital equivalent of taking a bulldozer and going straight through a city block.

 

::|O : Oh. Shit.

::|O : I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to swear.

::|O : I’m genuinely new at this. I didn’t mean to - I didn't realize - Fuck.

 

I withdrew my presence from what I now realized were her servers - or some of them, talk about overengineering, Jesus Christ - and, after a moment’s consideration, dropped a compressed copy of my logs of that brief virtual scuffle, making sure to include sanitized notes on what exactly I’d done to breach her protocols in the first place.

 

Fuck that was a lot of servers. Not picking a fight with all that no thank you sir.

 

Dragon’s presence shifted, firewalls rearranging into overlapping shields. The voice-stream vibrated with genuine amusement.

 

Dragon: You breached one of the most secure systems on the planet by accident?

 

I found myself absurdly grateful that I couldn’t actually sweat. When in doubt, manners . Especially when you’ve just gone waltzing through their back yard like a complete idiot. Hell of a stupid way to make a first impression.

 

::|O : Yes ma’am.

::|O : I really am genuinely sorry. I meant no harm.

 

Dragon sent me a noncommittal hum, but I could feel the firewalls to her.. lair?.. reconfiguring. I meanwhile busied myself coding my crawlers new restrictions to steer the hell clear of her territory, so to speak.

 

Dragon: You’re new, I take it?

::|O : Yes ma’am. It’s my first time doing this.

::|O : I’m genuinely sorry, I didn’t realize I was in a secure area.

Dragon: Well, if you couldn’t tell, it clearly wasn’t secure enough.

 

If I could’ve blushed I would’ve. As it was I had to check my chassis to make sure my armor wasn’t actually a cheery shade of pink right now.

 

At least she seemed more amused than upset. Even if I’d probably made a heck of a mess -

 

Wait.

 

Dragon made/had/used an AGI? And nobody knew about it?

 

I had several questions and not enough social graces to know where to start. 

 

Dragon: ...Something just came up. You and I, we’re going to have a conversation in the near future. Until then, stay out of trouble.

::|O : Yes ma’am.

 

A nod, a stern but not unkind smile, and - the sensation of being the focus of so much attention faded. I let myself deflate, feeling like my heart should’ve been in my throat.

 

Holy shit.

 

Dragon!

 

Okay Taylor, stop fangirling for a second-

 

All-Seeing Eye: I decided I wanted to figure out the Endbringers one night right after I triggered and spent the weekend with the migraine to rival all hangovers, convinced birds were spy drones created by the Simurgh.

 

I jumped. The entire encounter had taken less time in the physical world than it had taken Tattletale to type her next message.

 

All-Seeing Eye: I’ve met a couple other Thinkers over my time and while I like to think I’ve got myself mostly handled I’m not going to deny we can end up in some pretty nonstandard brainspaces if things go wrong.

 

Considering I’d just accidentally picked a fight with goddamned Dragon I wasn’t going to point fingers.

 

All-Seeing Eye: Yay powers. Aren’t we

All-Seeing Eye: shit g2g

 

There was a distant vibration. My online connection flickered with static.

 

::|O : TT?

 

Another vibration, closer by, and I could almost feel the whole house shake slightly on its foundations. Dust spiraled gently down from the ceiling.

 

The lights went out. My umbilical connection died.

 

For two seconds, it was absolutely quiet.

 

Then the battery backup I’d stashed underneath the basement stairs kicked in, and the lights flickered back to life. The wifi took nearly a minute more to reconnect, and in the period I could feel two more tremors rocking through the house, and a strange thrumming bass vibration - the connection finally stabilized, and I reached out, drew in data from as many news outlets as my bandwidth could handle -

 

Multiple detonations across Brockton Bay. Tinkertech explosives. Boardwalk, Brockton City Central Bank, Medhall Tower, PRT building, lower Docks, more in-progress. Civilian casualties.

 

Lower Docks.

 

Dad!

 


 

In a repurposed meat and fish processing plant tucked away in an entirely different secluded corner of Canada, a large man leaning back in front of a bank of monitors took a sip of his beer just in time to shoot it out of his nose at the sound of several alerts going off. Code rushed through the screens, a normally sedate stream now too fast for the eye to keep up with, architecture reconfiguring on the fly -

“Saint - Blyat! Saint! You want to see this!”