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Taylor, Time Tinker! [Worm Alt-power AU]

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by nezexyzzar, Dec 24, 2021.

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  1. Threadmarks: My Name is Taylor Hebert
    nezexyzzar

    nezexyzzar Getting out there.

    Joined:
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    Hello, first fic. Let me know if I'm doing anything wrong with the post.

    Merry Christmas all.


    Synopsis:


    My Name is Taylor Hebert

    “Corner of Welldocks and Falcon, she said?”

    “Y-Yes sir! Near the docks,” Agent Melody chirped nervously in his ear. “She said she got Lung and the Undersiders contained just behind the warehouse there.”

    Colin struggled to stifle a sigh. “Acknowledged, Control,” he said instead, signing off the channel brusquely as he leaned forward on the throttle.

    “You think it’s a prank?” Dragon asked quietly. She had remained on the line with him since they were interrupted by the call.

    This time Colin sighed audibly. “Melody is new. While I appreciate her cautiousness, there’s been no other reports of any disturbances around the docks. And the Undersiders have proven themselves to be very wily.”

    “In other words, you think it's a prank.” Dragon finished for him, chuckling “Escalation is normal protocol, especially if some new parahuman is claiming they’ve captured Lung. You’re just grumpy about having our research interrupted.”

    Colin didn’t bother to respond as he turned a dark corner. GPS was still showing him a couple of miles away from his destination, but he knew several shortcuts between the narrow alleyways.

    The docks were dead quiet at night. Streetlights, where they were still unbroken, cast steeper shadows around the buildings. A man, unkempt and huddled beneath a cardboard blanket, watched silently as Colin came to a rolling stop at the corner of Welldocks and Falcon.

    He stepped off, making sure to lock his motorcycle with a loud electronic beep as he stared at the strange, homeless man in suspicion. The man ignored him, peering at the gleaming blue machine with undisguised fascination. For a moment, Colin wondered if this was some kind of trap. His hand moved to his halberd.

    Dragon’s soft laugh broke his mood. “I can keep an eye out on your bike for you, if you want.”

    “You know, you could have ended the call an hour ago,” Colin scoffed, relaxing his stance before striding forward.

    “I couldn’t let our tinker night just be cut short like that,” she said. “I admit, I am also curious about what could have possibly taken down Lung.”

    It’s fake, Colin thought irritably, and he made sure his silence conveyed the message well enough. The alleyway around the warehouse was narrow and filthy, with broken cartons stacked by the wall and a dumpster upended and open on its side, blocking off most of the path. Colin went around it, keeping his face impassive as he stepped into something soft. He could see bright, white light curling around from the back and the whine of its electric illumination but otherwise, the night was curiously quiet.

    Colin walked out around the corner to see Lung standing completely frozen. He was monochrome, his skin just barely gleaming. Behind him was a group of ABB men. Just ahead of them, the Undersiders looked like they were about to run off, the monstrous beasts they were on half-turned in mid-stride. They too were still and monochrome.

    “Finally! You’re here!” a voice piped up from behind.

    Colin whirled around, his halberd fully extended. It was a girl. Young. She was tall and lanky, with long, messy curls tumbling around her beaming face and a dark pair of goggles perched on the top of her head. Her suit looked vaguely steampunk — all leather and gleaming bronze trim, covered by a web of clockwork gears ticking along. It was ostentatious tinkerwork; he couldn’t make out how the parts stayed attached or their immediate function.

    His curiosity was easily tempered by wariness. “You’re the parahuman who called in claiming to have captured Lung and the Undersiders?” he asked curtly.

    The parahuman laughed. “I thought the frozen statues behind you would be self-evident.” She held her hand out. “I’m Toki, Time Tinker!”

    Colin didn’t take her hand. “Time Tinker? Are you implying you froze them in time?”

    His grip on the halberd tightened as he tried to keep his voice level. Toki was a Japanese word; he’d heard the ABB got a new tinker recently. Was this the same person? Colin shifted slightly as he tried to remember the tinker’s rumoured specialty. Was this a coup?

    “Yes, hence the name,” Toki nodded, smoothly withdrawing her hand. She continued to smile, seemingly oblivious to his thoughts. “And no, not connected to the ABB. I just liked the alliteration.”

    Colin stiffened. It was a convenient answer to his unspoken question. “So that’s your power? You can make devices that freeze time?” he prodded as he carefully looked for an opening. Her body language looked open and guileless, but he couldn’t be sure. His lie-detector was still calibrating.

    “Freezing time is easy,” a second voice piped up from his left, and Colin flinched. He whirled around, but there was already a large gun in his face.

    “Time travel’s where it gets tricky,” the second Toki shrugged a little while keeping her gun trained steadily on him.

    “C’mon! That was going well!” Colin heard the first copy complain. It felt distant in his ears as he examined the gun on him. It looked like a blunderbuss. Like her outfit, it was excessively ornate, with a polished wood stock and burnished bronze gears half-embedded in a massive barrel.

    “Sorry,” she said, but her face remained impassive. “You were going to attack from the right side. It wouldn’t have worked but would have really dragged this meeting out.”

    Her goggles, gleaming and dark, looked bottomless as she stared at him. Colin didn’t move.

    “Your point is acknowledged,” he replied carefully. In a blink, the second Toki was a step back, sitting on the ground, gun nowhere in sight. Colin turned slightly to look back; the first Toki was gone.

    “She’s gone to propagate the loop. Minimize the paradox and all that,” Toki explained, unprompted; in some ways, Colin could almost understand that statement. “And to answer your ‘unspoken’ question again, yes, I explained myself to head off your suspicions about the name.” She looked wry as she spoke. “That seemed to just make things worse, so I thought a direct approach might be better this time.”

    Then she pulled her goggles off, carefully tugging her curly hair free from the straps. She offered a light smile. “Taylor, Time Tinker. Sorry for pointing a gun in your face. Do you mind if we try this again?”

    Colin forced himself to relax. “Taylor. Is that your real name?”

    “Yes,” Taylor said. She tilted her head, a soft smile crossing her lips for a second. “To be honest, that was my first choice. The alliteration just seems to flow better, you know? But Armsmaster — you, that is — told me it was a bad idea and I should reconsider, so! Here we are.”

    The silence felt loud as Colin tried to parse through her explanation. “What do you want?” he finally asked.

    “Well, I did call in to report a crime,” Taylor teased, gesturing to the frozen villains.

    Colin peered closer at Lung. He appeared hunched, his skin silverish with the faint impression of scales. It was hard to tell with him in black and white. Taylor had apparently caught him at the exact moment his power was kicking in.

    Just a coincidence, or a calculated move? He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. She appeared calm and completely unruffled. Not an easy read.

    He turned towards the Undersiders. They looked mid-flight, facing away from Lung. One of Hellhound’s dogs looked almost floating with its paws frozen in a lunge forward. He could make out wispy black smoke trailing around them.

    Lung ambushed the Undersiders. They had started to run away, and Lung was ramping up to chase them. Grue was releasing his smoke to cover their escape, but Taylor caught him in the exact moment before it billowed out, just like Lung.

    “Dragon, are you still there?” he said lowly, glancing behind to make sure he was far enough from the other tinker.

    “Yes.” There was a short pause. “I think you made the right call, standing down. If her powers are as she says...”

    “So she claims,” Colin said, without heat. “My lie-detector hasn’t been responding properly. She must be blocking it somehow. We can’t verify anything she says.”

    “Lung and the Undersiders are trapped in time,” Dragon pointed out reasonably. “You can’t always rely on your lie-detector, Colin.”

    Colin sighed after a moment. “Something just feels wrong.”

    “Yes,” Dragon agreed, “but I don’t think it’s her, specifically. It’s more of how she controlled the entire encounter. I suspect that is how many interactions with her will feel like. But she also caught Lung and the Undersiders tonight. Take the win. One step at a time.”

    A ghost of a grimace flitted across his face. “Yes, you’re right. I just—” he cut himself off, exhaling loudly as he closed his eyes. “Yes. I’m sorry, I’ll have to end our call now. The matter has been officially confirmed, and I’ll need—.”

    “—need to follow up accordingly with the proper procedures.” Dragon finished, her tone warm. “I’ll check in with you tomorrow. Remember to rest, Colin.”

    He nodded absently as he hung up. Then he placed the call. Melody picked up almost immediately.

    “Sir?”

    “This is Armsmaster. I need transport for Lung and the Undersiders. They’re behind the warehouse at the corner of Welldocks and Falcon.”

    “Wait, it was real?” Melody half-shouted. “What happened? Is the parahuman still there??”

    “Send me their ETA when they’re out,” Colin spoke forcefully, ignoring her questions. “The parahuman rogue will be accompanying me back to HQ. Armsmaster out.”

    Taylor was still sitting in the same position as he left her, fiddling with an oversized device clasped on her wrist. It looked both old and new, with multiple rotary knobs around a sleek screen. She looked up as he approached her.

    “A transport is on the way to pick them up. You can give your full statement at the PRT HQ,” he started without preamble.

    Taylor raised an eyebrow. “Oh? I don’t think I agreed to go with you yet, so far.”

    “I assumed you’d have the time.”

    “Hah!” Taylor laughed, a sharp bark as she threw her head back. “I liked that,” she said as she stood, dusting her pants off and stretching side to side. “You know, I can just teleport all of us into the atrium.”

    “That can be taken as an attack by way of parahuman force on the PRT,” Colin replied, his voice flat.

    “It would be instantaneous.” Taylor snapped her fingers. “Just like that, you know?”

    “No, I do not want to ‘know’.” Colin found himself gripping his halberd again as he took a step forward. “Do not attempt—”

    Fingers snapped, and the sound crashed into him, ringing in his head. He slammed his weapon down on the atrium floor, staggering against it. He could feel nausea in his stomach, just bubbling up in his chest and he squeezed his fists hard, trying to force it down.

    It felt like a long minute before he found himself breathing normally again.

    Lung and the Undersiders stood silently behind the reception desk, just beneath the PRT logo. The desk was pushed far forward to accommodate them and Taylor was sitting on it, cycling her legs in the air while looking supremely satisfied. “The first time’s always rough,” she faux-whispered in commiseration.

    A notification chimed up at the corner of his HUD.

    Agent Melody: Help OTW! ETA 20 minutes!​

    Colin was tempted to arrest her. “Wait here,” he growled instead, whirling around and calling Melody again. “Belay that,” he barked before she could even say hello. “The rogue teleported us to the atrium. I need a team here now. Code Kasper. Armsmaster out.”

    Melody started to reply, but Colin already hung up. He took a moment to calm himself. Did Taylor literally move them here while time was frozen? Or did her mastery over time allow her some sort of control over space as well? He could feel a familiar ache throb behind his eyes again.

    The PRT troopers took a minute to reach the atrium. They stepped in cautiously, hands near their holstered weapons as they looked at Taylor and the frozen villains.

    Colin gave them a curt nod. He also made a note to talk to Calvert about their response time. “They’ll be moving Lung and the Undersiders to the holding cells below,” he spoke, turning to Taylor. “You can reverse the time stop there.”

    The girl jumped off the desk. “They’ll be unfrozen in exactly 2 hours and 43 minutes then. So, interview now?”

    Colin blinked, nonplussed, before setting off into the main building. Behind them, the troopers approached the ‘statues’ gingerly.

    They found a small room, bare except for a table and two dingy chairs. The light flickered, on, off, on, before settling down with a low buzzing whine.

    Taylor set herself on one cold metal seat and watched as Armsmaster sat opposite her. Behind him, she could see her reflection warped on the dark glass.

    There was a camera in the corner of the room, trained on her with a beady red light.

    “State your name for the record,” Armsmaster started. The words grounded him and helped to brush off any lingering feelings of unsettlement.

    “Taylor,” Taylor said. “Time Tinker,” she added after a moment’s silence.

    “This isn’t a game,” Armsmaster leaned back, crossing his arms. “Despite what you may have heard, people would kill and have killed for secret identities. Your family will be put in unnecessary danger.”

    “I know,” Taylor agreed readily. She laid her left arm out on the table and nodded to the oversized device strapped around her wrist. “And I’ve built alarms for that. Anything attacks my house or my parents, I’ll know about it before it happens right here on this screen.”

    Armsmaster looked at the screen. It was filled with strange scribbles, flashing so rapidly they looked superimposed on each other. The device itself was like a metal bracer, made of a jumble of pipes that looped up and around her arm, covering a series of moving gears that ticked backwards soundlessly.

    “How many times have we done this now?” He tried a different tack.

    “This is the first time. Really!” she laughed at the frown on his face. “Kinda why I wanted to teleport. Trying to maneuver the Undersiders and Lung was really tedious, I’d have you know.”

    “They weren’t supposed to clash?” Armsmaster asked.

    “Oh, they were, just not today,” Taylor waved him off, leaning forward a little excitedly. “Backstory is, the Undersiders robbed one of Lung’s casinos last week. Lung was supposed to track them down and attack them in 2 days. But— wait. Do you need to write this down? I can go slower.”

    “No, my helmet has been recording.” Armsmaster motioned her to continue. “Why didn’t you keep to the original events?”

    “The first problem was apparently the person on duty that day just didn’t believe me when I said I’d captured Lung. In fact, only the officer today believed me so that really narrowed down my options,” she said, counting off her list on her fingers. “The next problem was then trying to speed up Lung’s timetable, but not too much so that it would fall on the exact time tonight.”

    Colin closed his eyes. Of course. “Alright,” he said, cutting Taylor off. She looked like she was about to go into an unnecessary tirade. “Why? Why go to such lengths?”

    She looked surprised at his question. “I wanted to meet the PRT of course.”

    Armsmaster shook his head. “You could have made an appointment any time.”

    “I wanted to make a good impression,” Taylor said.

    He didn’t relent. “Lung and the Undersiders. You could have captured them separately and brought them here yourself. Instead, you chose to engage in a long, arduous process to set up a chain of events to bring me there so that I could bring you here.”

    “Yes, and it’s impressive, isn’t it?” she smiled. “You don’t want to admit it, you probably don’t want to believe it until you’ve interviewed the villains yourself, but you’re impressed.”

    “I—” Colin felt a vein throb dangerously beneath his left brow. “You did all this just to impress me?”

    “Oh, not just you. Everyone!” Taylor exclaimed, throwing her arms out wide. “I really, really, wanted to make a good first impression.”

    Before he could say anything to that, a shrill beep cut through the nasal fluorescent whine in the room.

    Taylor looked at her bracer, her bright grin slipping off. “This can’t be right,” she muttered, her fingernails tick-tapping quickly over the screen. It was flashing red, a thousand tiny lines running through the screen, and it cast an ominous pall over her face as she grew more and more frantic.

    Colin straightened up as he watched her. “What’s wrong?”

    She stood up abruptly. “My parents are being attacked. I have to go.”

    “Wait!” He reached out for her, almost on reflex, and the world disappeared from under him.

    An hour-long second passed (or was it a second-long hour?), and he crashed onto a cool, wet lawn. He groaned, pushing his helmet against the ground as he tried to pull himself together. It was still nighttime, but he could see the green on the grass as bright as day.

    He looked up.

    Scion was there, just above the trees. His hand was lazily outstretched, and at his fingertips was a miniature sun. Colin could see the fire, ebbing across the surface in quick, hopping waves. He could almost hear the heat, crackling and burning, and he could feel the weight of it all, just hanging precariously at the tip of a golden finger.

    “What are you doing?!” Taylor was shouting.

    They were on the small lawn of a quaint house. There was a tall tree hanging over the property, brushing up against the edge of the roof, and the lawn sprinklers were still dripping.

    He saw two people standing at the door, seemingly frozen as Scion looked down on them imperiously.

    “MOM! DAD!!” Taylor started running but only the ground moved as the world yawned the length of the horizon. Her suit shimmered and steamed as she pressed forward. Every step sparked off a little jolt of lightning across the ground.

    She screamed as Scion flicked his wrist and the molten star descended onto the house.

    The gears on her suit spun white-hot as she advanced. Colin tried to stand, to follow her somehow, but everything felt sluggish as he strained against his body to just move.

    And slowly, as the roof burned to ash, Taylor got through. The world snapped back in place as she punched through it, landing and stumbling over the second step of her porch. Colin lurched forward, scrabbling on his knees as the house was suddenly back in front of him.

    Above, Scion turned to look at them. Immediately Colin felt suffocated, as if a great weight was resting on his chest. He couldn’t move. Only his suit kept him upright, palms beside his knees, in supplication before a shining god.

    Taylor stood up, gritting her teeth as she grabbed the banister for balance. The screen on her wrist was shattered. A gear spun off in a flurry of sparks, cutting a thin red line across her cheek. She could feel Scion’s gaze on her but she ignored it. She shoved herself against the invisible current and took one step forward.

    The second floor was swept away in a blitz of flame.

    It should be hot, Taylor thought as she took a second step. But it wasn’t. In the flapping wind and crackling fire, she only saw her parents, frozen in the foyer.

    She thought she saw them mouth something, just as they disappeared behind a blazing light.

    “NO!” she screamed, reaching into the sun.

    Colin could only close his eyes as the world went white. Like that moment before a pin drops, there was no force, no movement, only a stillness that grew into a deafening shriek before—

    Something shrill and tiny rang out, and the world returned to him. He blinked, shaking his head. The house was gone. Only the floor was left, its tiles black with soot. He grasped for his halberd but there was only air — he’d set it down in the investigation room.

    The moon was grey, Colin suddenly realized. He whirled around. The neighbours had all gathered outside, gawking in fear and stupefaction, and they all stood unnaturally still in the soft grey light pouring out from their homes.

    “Time’s stopped,” Taylor said from beside him. Her voice was raw, guttural, and her nose sounded stuffed as she stood next to him, staring defiantly at the first parahuman.

    Scion descended. Bits of debris and ash parted before him as he hovered over the charred floor towards a square hole in the center.

    “What?” Colin said. A thousand questions were running through his mind, but the words failed him.

    “We should be safe for now. I managed to shield us,” Taylor pointed to the shining circle around them and the house, neatly dividing the world into the grey and the living.

    Scion was floating motionlessly before the hole in the ground. His fingers twitched, just slightly, and slowly, with a low rumble, the floor crumbled apart.

    “Why did he—?” Colin started.

    “That’s not the right question,” Taylor corrected him. “You should be asking how.”

    “How?”

    “How I kill him,” she snarled, her voice breaking on the last word, and then she disappeared, like a light breeze. Colin instinctively glanced at Scion again, just to see Taylor burst out above him, burying a knife in his eye.

    The golden man barely twitched. He only looked back, and twin torrents of sizzling energy burst out of his eyes. The knife evaporated, but Taylor was already gone. She appeared behind him, up on one knee and eyes behind a long brass rifle.

    She fired.

    Each shot was like thunder, crackling in the little space they were in. This time Scion did stagger — he shifted his arms out as if to steady himself as large, gaping holes bloomed across his back, up to his head.

    A twisting shudder went through him, his elbows and knees contorting backwards, and suddenly he was facing Taylor. The left side of his face was blown off, but within moments it was already filling in.

    He glided forward. Colin felt useless as he watched Scion bear down on the girl, but she didn’t look fazed. Her face was perfectly blank as she slapped a new magazine in, releasing the bolt and firing again.

    One shot blew off Scion’s shoulder entirely; another at his left leg. But he didn’t stagger this time. His face showed no pain, only absolute indifference as his body reformed, again and again, while he drew closer to Taylor.

    She blasted her last shot straight into his face before he grabbed her rifle. His eyes regenerated immediately, searing a straight line into the lawn as the gun burned and melted in his hand.

    Scion turned. Colin ducked as the beam sliced over him, pressing down to the ground to avoid the burning plasma as it blistered against the grey bubble around them. Taylor was darting around Scion, loading up a large blunderbuss. Scion turned his head in a full rotation as he tried to follow her but she weaved and rolled around it, diving to the ground before whipping up for a single shot.

    Sparks burst out of the barrel like a calamitous bouquet as the bullet fired. Scion raised his arm to block it. The bullet exploded against his hand, carving it off into a neat stump. There was no flesh beneath it; the arm terminated mid-forearm in a perfect, crystalline slate.

    Taylor smiled viciously when his hand did not regrow.

    Scion stepped down to the ground; immediately the lawn died. The grass turned to ash as Scion stepped out of the smoke. His eyes were blank, black orbs, but Taylor knew he was focused on her. She could feel it as she met his gaze fiercely, snapping her gun open to pop out the steaming shell.

    His lips curled, baring just a hint of teeth.

    Then he raised his other arm, fingers outstretched, and five thin, shining beams shot out. Each zipped erratically, like strange perpendicular snakes circling their prey. Colin watched powerlessly as Taylor leaped away, narrowing missing the first beam and ducking under the second. She fired off another shot, but it only grazed Scion, leaving a glossy line cutting into his side.

    The third beam caught her, slicing across her back and she stumbled straight into the fourth. Colin shouted as Taylor teetered backwards, clutching the tiny hole in her chest before she suddenly froze up.

    A second Taylor dropped to the ground, shimmering into existence just behind herself. She rolled forward and whipped up for a second shot. Scion staggered slightly as his knee exploded. His leg fell away but he remained standing, as if on invisible supports. He glared at her, and the last beam whirled around, splitting itself into ten before diving for Taylor.

    She ducked and weaved but another one hit her, this time blowing her arm off. She flailed sideways and froze, before blinking into existence again. She rolled under herself and shot a chunk off his other leg before another laser pierced her heart.

    And as she fell back, Taylor ducked out from her shadow and ran.

    Scion remained still, only turning his head to track her as his beams dogged her path, but every time she was struck, she simply came back, firing hot.

    Slowly, Taylor cut out glassy holes in Scion. His right arm fell off as his shoulder disappeared; his left flank was torn off; an empty circle punched through his chest, leaving his head connected just by a sliver of neck; but through this Taylor died and died again. She left a line of herself, like stills on a reel, petrified in death.

    The last beam took her head off. Taylor felt her neck snap, her body whipping sideways from the impact, and then she was tumbling onto the ground, scrambling for another bullet. Scion silently regarded her, still standing somehow. He didn’t move as Taylor raised her gun and lined the sights straight at his head.

    She took a long breath, steadied her hand, and pulled the trigger.

    The shot thundered in the bubble; Scion’s head jerked back as the top half evaporated. Taylor thought she saw his lips smirk, just as his body burst into glittering, floating lights.

    She dropped to the ground, sinking her hands into the soft soil. Her eyes squeezed shut and she could feel the wetness in them. She opened her mouth to scream, but nothing came out. Her body trembled as she rested her head against the ground. She wanted to stop time, just for a while, to retreat into the tranquil second between seconds, but time was already stopped, wasn’t it?

    Taylor opened her eyes and blinked away her tears. First, she needed to undo whatever Scion did and save her parents. She might have to use Armsmaster’s armour for parts. Where was he now?

    She found Armsmaster running towards her, shouting inaudibly.

    Wait, my lawn isn’t this big, she thought, just as a golden fist punched through her chest.

    She gasped, stumbling back into the world a few feet away. Scion stood, whole again as he flung her antecedent body off his arm. Her blood boiled and faded from his naked skin.

    Taylor dived to the side, scrambling for her gun as Scion pounced. He slammed a foot down where she was, sending shockwaves through the ground. She lurched forward, trying to use her arms to balance herself before something massive wrapped around her shoulder and threw her back.

    She crashed into the earth facefirst. She wheezed as she tried to push herself up. Her vision was blurry and there was mud in her mouth. Taylor spat, tasting blood, her teeth ringing with pain, and wiped her face. Scion walked calmly towards her.

    Taylor fumbled through her pouches, her fingers feeling numb and rubbery against the bullets. She could feel every ponderous step, rattling her bones. Two bullets fell out before she managed to grab the third. She brought it to the gun, pushing futilely at the chamber; it felt too big somehow.

    She couldn’t get them lined up right.

    Armsmaster came barrelling in, a small knife in his hand. He jumped at Scion, but the golden man simply brushed him aside without a glance.

    He crashed behind Scion in a crumpled mess.

    Calm, Taylor exhaled, slowly lining the bullet against the chamber and slotting it in.

    Then she whipped it up, straight at Scion, and pulled the trigger.

    Instantly he was in front of her, bending down. He grasped her hand and gun, twisting her arm away from him as the shot went off, and crushed them effortlessly. The bullet smashed against the dome of the bubble in a dazzle of colourful sparks as Taylor screamed, wrenching a bloodied stump from his grasp. She frantically swiped at him with a knife in her uninjured hand, but he ignored it and slapped her to the ground.

    The knife flew out of her hand.

    Taylor rolled as he stomped down again. She pressed her bloody wrist to the ground, nearly buckling as white agony lanced through her arm. She leaped forward as Scion slammed his fist down. His arm was stuck midway into the ground but he looked up, eyes burning and Taylor could feel the searing heat on her back. She glanced down; her suit was in tatters but it still looked alright for one last jump.

    She didn’t have a choice anyway.

    She blinked out of existence again just as the laser hit.

    Colin pulled himself up. His suit groaned and sparked with every little movement, the HUD in his visor a constant flashing red. He watched as Scion stood calmly, pulling his hand out of the ground. It was undirtied. The golden man turned slightly, scanning.

    It was like a thunderclap, an instant where the world turned inside out and leftways right. Scion moved, his hand shooting up and pulled. There was a superposition of light and shadow, like a negative flash, and Taylor yelped as she smashed into the dirt, jerked back into reality.

    She coughed violently, blood dripping out of her mouth. She clutched her bare arm to her chest; her hand was restored, at least. Scion was moving, dragging her by her foot across the ashes. Something hard dug into her back but she only felt it distantly, like a stranger in her body. Her head pounded fiercely, and she heaved, spitting blood from an empty stomach.

    As she slid across the ground, the gears on her outfit fell off, leaving a line of tinkling gold in the blackened sand.

    They stopped at the charred remains of her house. Scion waved a finger, and what was left of the floor crumbled away. A tall clockwork instrument rose from the smoking embers, floating languidly before Scion. It was a massive slab of gleaming metal with multiple pipes curling out from the top. The surface was serrated, with the lines swirling around a blank dial in the middle. The clock had multiple hands, each moving at a different speed; when one hand passed 12, hot steam billowed out from the pipes.

    Her time machine, Colin realized grimly as he struggled to stand. Taylor was on her back, spent and motionless, one leg still in Scion’s grasp. He was glowing brightly, head tilted as he peered closely at the machine.

    The golden shine poured forward, sliding over the machine, creeping upon Taylor. Then the clock spun dizzily and Taylor screamed, clutching her head. Scion ignored it.

    “STOP!” Her voice was hoarse. She tried to sit up, reaching futilely for Scion. “You’re going to destroy—”

    The clockwork machine shone incandescently, the hands on its face a black whirl, and then it exploded.

    In that moment when time hung still for a second and an eternity, Colin saw Taylor turn to him. Her face was tear-streaked, her eyes were shining, and she was mouthing something.

    Run!

    Then time caught up to him the next second, and everything went gray.
     
  2. Virtualkiller

    Virtualkiller Your first time is always over so quickly, isn't it?

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    Well, going to be honest, That was unexpected.
     
  3. AtomicGeneral25

    AtomicGeneral25 Insert Creativity Here

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    well color me interested!
     
    xThomas3 likes this.
  4. Threadmarks: Kill Count
    nezexyzzar

    nezexyzzar Getting out there.

    Joined:
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    Code:
    warning: violence
    The video’s last moments were tense: the bloodied face of Taylor Hebert shouting soundlessly; the image whirling as Armsmasters turned to run. It stopped abruptly on an uncolored dawn, the first morning rays just breaking over the frozen neighbourhood.

    “That was the final transmission uploaded to Armsmaster’s server before...” Dragon fell quiet, her voice choked. There was a slight burst of static before she spoke again. “Do you need anything more?”

    Chief Director Costa-Brown cleared her throat. “Not for now, thank you. Dismissed.”

    Dragon’s avatar winked offline silently.

    Pages flipped and people murmured as everyone tried to digest what they just watched. Assistants scrambled around the room, taking notes from their bosses and passing instructions via fervent whispers through their phones. A director stepped out to take a call.

    Rebecca wanted to close her eyes and rub at the mild ache behind her temple. She pressed her thumb against her coffee cup instead, feeling the cool ceramic. Her coffee had long since grown cold.

    “Do we have a count?” she asked, turning to her assistant.

    “Director Piggot says they’re still finalizing the numbers with the City Council, but they’re estimating at least 15 thousand people trapped in the bubble.”

    Rebecca closed her eyes for a second. A dead hush muted the room as the numbers settled in.

    “Knox. What’s the latest from WATCHDOG?”

    The head of PRT intelligence looked rumpled. His tie was slightly askew, hastily tied with the top buttons undone, and his eyes looked bleary as he peered over his glasses at her.

    “We’re working on it. I’ve activated all assets across the country and raised this matter as priority zero but as we know, Scion’s been generally immune to all Thinker powers.” He shuffled through the papers in his hand briefly. “From satellite records, around 0318 hours last night Scion suddenly deviated from his projected path over Western Perth and flew straight towards Brockton Bay, touching down shortly at 0403. This is also the first time in the last decade he’s ever travelled so quickly.”

    “3:18am?” James Tagg remarked. “What time did Armsmaster meet Taylor Hebert?”

    “Just the minute before.” Knox turned to look at his fellow director. “That was the exact moment when Taylor Hebert supposedly travelled through time in front of Armsmaster. Of course, it’s still too early to say for sure but... our working theory is that that event was the trigger for Scion.”

    Rebecca watched as Tagg leaned back in his chair, his brows furrowed. “What about Hebert herself?” she interrupted. “Do we have any information on her?”

    Knox gestured to a thin woman next to him. She jerked up, her eyes wide and nervous as she fumbled hurriedly with her laptop. “Err, right, yes! We’ve managed to—”

    “Anna Newbell, the lead agent in charge of history and tracing,” Knox cut in with a quick introduction. He looked at her for a moment and she nodded.

    “Yes, sorry.” She took a deep breath. “Taylor Anne Hebert. She used to be a student at Winslow High. Withdrew from school a few weeks ago. Father, Danny Hebert, was in the Dockworkers’ Union. Her mother, Annette Hebert, died 3 years ago in a car accident.”

    Newbell paused, taking a quick sip of water. “Please note, this is all preliminary. The video image quality from Armsmaster’s feed was not the best and we don’t have a clean shot of the woman there to compare. But as best as we can tell, a woman deeply resembling the late Annette Hebert was present in the house last night before Scion destroyed it.”

    “As far as power projections go, we’ll leave it to Catherine’s team for more precise analysis,” Knox picked up smoothly, nodding towards PRT’s head scientist.

    “Let’s not beat around the bush.” James Tagg jumped in, setting his mug down with a loud clap. The room turned quiet. “Taylor Hebert can time travel. And in a significant manner since she’s obviously also saved her mother somehow. We don’t need Catherine to confirm that she’s dangerous.”

    “She’s potent,” Catherine Kim corrected sharply. “All powers can be dangerous given the right circumstances but we hardly have enough time or data to make such wild conclusions about Taylor Hebert.”

    “The right circumstances?” Tagg folded his arms as he looked at his colleague over the large table. The dark circles around his eyes made them look wild. “This isn’t flying fast or punching hard. She manipulates time. A tinker’s most valuable resource is time and she literally controls it. The world could have already been altered and we would never know it.”

    “Hysteria looks poor for your argument, Tagg.” Catherine nodded towards Newbell, who looked tense as eyes drifted over to her for a moment. “History still has her mother dying in a car crash, even if she was somehow rescued. Again, we have no idea how her tech functions or how it is set up.”

    “A whole neighbourhood’s trapped in time because of that tech,” Tagg replied quietly, his voice tight with anger. “I’m pretty sure she just surpassed Gray Boy’s kill count in one night.”

    Catherine scoffed. “Scion interfered with the machine, that much is apparent from the video. We still have no idea what happened at the end! There are too many factors and too little information. It’ll take time for us to investigate this matter properly.”

    “We might not have time for you to do that, Catherine.” Rebecca’s hands were clasped in front of her as she looked at the scientist, then the room. “Today, we’re all processing and responding, and the public will do the same. But tomorrow they’ll want answers, and we need to establish the facts before someone else can. Glenn?”

    Glenn Chambers looked worse than his usual dishevelled-ness as he cleared his throat. “I suggest we keep it neutral. Taylor Hebert was a rogue tinker with a specialty in time manipulation. Due to an unforeseen power interaction between her and Scion, there was a malfunction in her technology that led to, well...” Chambers trailed off as he mouthed some words silently. One hand reached up to grab a tie that wasn’t there. He sighed. “I’ll have to think of a good word to describe the mess we have. Next, the PRT is still investigating the circumstance that led up to this and we will be sharing our findings at a more appropriate time later. For now, the PRT’s top priority is disabling the time bubble and rescuing the people trapped inside.”

    “I just want to caution, we might never really know what caused Scion to attack the Hebert residence,” Knox said, looking directly at his colleague. “The man doesn’t speak, doesn’t interact with anyone, and he’s inscrutable to all Thinker readings. Those answers you promise might be just a nice ‘we don’t know’.”

    “That’s fine,” Glenn assured. “As I said, the key point is the part where the PRT is working to fix the situation.”

    “There might be no ‘fix’,” Tagg said. “We didn’t have a fix for Gray Boy either.”

    Glenn’s smile turned noticeably more strained as he turned to Tagg. “His bubbles, as I understand, were considerably smaller. And correct me if I’m wrong, Catherine, but the mechanics of parahuman powers can be fundamentally very different even if they look superficially similar, yes?”

    Catherine nodded slowly, although she looked troubled. “Yes, they can be. We should know more after the research group has been deployed. Currently, Armstrong is organizing them over at Boston before sending them over.”

    “They’re expected to arrive in Brockton before noon, right?” Rebecca looked down, flipping through a document. “How long do they need before they can give us an estimate?”

    “We’ll get you something by midnight tonight,” she replied carefully. “But it might not be comprehensive and many details will change as we investigate further.”

    “Alright. Oh, do you have anyone following up on the time difference in the video as well? I looked out for it, but I can’t seem to pinpoint when it happened.”

    A sudden hush followed her words. Rebecca glanced up to see her directors looking at her strangely.

    “What do you mean?” Catherine asked carefully. “What time difference?”

    Rebecca looked at her science director strangely. “Scion reached Hebert’s residence just after 4am, when it was still dark. But we can see that the video ends at sunrise,” she said slowly, spreading her palms out flat onto the table. Her brows furrowed as she watched her directors struggle to answer. “2 hours passed somehow for a fight that only lasted 10 minutes. Did none of you notice?”

    Catherine flipped through her notes again, wincing as she tried to read through the information again. “It feels obvious when you say it, but thinking about it is actually giving me a headache.” She shook her head, before hastily grabbing a pen to scribble something on her notes. “This might be some kind of side effect of the time manipulation. It’s as if you can’t keep hold of the thought in your head.”

    “The girl is dangerous,” Tagg said tersely as he rubbed his temples. “I’ll have my men check the archives, see if we have anyone similar to her. Maybe we’ll be able to find a similar powerset to better understand her tech.”

    “I’ll set a team on this.” Catherine exhaled. “This could also be some sort of power interaction between her and Scion.”

    Tagg shook his head. “Not necessarily. The explosion was at the end of the video, after—” he stifled a hiss “—we saw that it was morning.”

    The Chief Director was quiet for a moment.

    “Knox. Have your thinkers focus on this with Catherine’s team instead. We need to understand the missing time better. Catherine. I need a report on this and the bubble ready by tonight. Glenn, your team will be on standby. Prepare a few variations depending on the severity of the time-bubble and I’ll decide after the science team updates,” Rebecca ordered, quickly and efficiently. “We’ll take 10 here. Instruct your people. We have a long day ahead of us.”

    Feet shuffled and notes gathered as everyone moved and stretched. Rebecca turned to her assistant.

    “Tell Emily to be ready. We’ll dial her in from here,” she said before stepping out of the room. Someone held the door for her and she nodded absently.

    She moved into her office, quietly locking it behind her. The sky was a bright, cloudless blue and the morning still young, casting tall shadows that leaped building to building.

    Rebecca closed the curtains before pulling out a small phone from her inner breast pocket. She flipped it open and dialled, tapping her foot as it rang.

    “Rebecca,” The Number Man greeted her.

    “Have you seen the news?” she said without preamble. “I tried to call an hour ago, but no one picked up.”

    “I saw,” Kurt replied. Rebecca frowned as she heard the tension in his voice.

    “What happened?”

    “Unfortunately you might have to handle things solo for a while.” There was some movement from his side; Rebecca could hear the rustle of clothes and the little squeak of a chair. “Contessa was attacked this morning.”

    “What?!”

    “We don’t know the specifics. She was badly injured and David had to put her in a healing coma.”

    Rebecca sat down heavily. “You’re gonna have to run that by me again.”

    Kurt sighed and chuckled humorlessly. “I found her in a pool of blood, her legs sliced clean off. I think she dived through a portal and closed it before completely making it through.

    “She deliberately cut off her own legs?”

    “Seems so. Which means her assailant must have been overwhelmingly powerful.” He suddenly changed the subject. “And speaking of— I saw the PRT reports. In fact, multiple news networks are all broadcasting live from Brockton Bay now.”

    Rebecca leaned back, her head sinking into the soft leather. “You think Hebert is still alive. You think she attacked Contessa.” It wasn’t a question.

    “It would be a great coincidence otherwise,” Kurt said blandly. “I haven’t had the chance to watch the video from Armsmaster yet. But complete mastery of time sounds incredibly powerful. Powerful enough to catch Contessa off guard.”

    “Why would she attack us? Scion killed her family.” Rebecca stood and started pacing. She glanced at the clock; she only had a few minutes left.

    “Enemy of the enemy should be friends,” he agreed readily. “But we don’t know what happened to her. More importantly, we don't know how long it’s been for her. People change.”

    Rebecca wanted to punch something. She exhaled through her nose instead, closing her eyes. “How’s Contessa now?”

    “Healing. Slowly. David managed to find a set of powers in time but it’s slow and requires his constant attention. He doesn’t dare risk looking for a better one. The Custodian is on high alert and Doctor Mother is checking up on the garden, just in case.”

    “Alright.” Rebecca tapped her foot, once. The clock on her wall ticked loudly in the silence. “I have to go wrangle the PRT response, hopefully, keep them away from poking Scion.”

    “Rebecca.” A rush of air crackled through the receiver.

    “What?”

    “Did you ever consider why Scion attacked Taylor Hebert in the first place?”

    “No...” Rebecca replied slowly. “What do you mean?”

    “Her powers,” Kurt started before stopping. He took a moment to gather his thoughts. “We’ve mixed time-based powers before. We’ve observed the same for natural triggers. None of them come close to what Taylor Hebert has.”

    “So a second trigger, then? A possible third?”

    Kurt didn’t reply directly. “If she really did travel years into the past, that would need an impossible amount of energy to do. Impossible, maybe, even for the Entities.”

    The hair on Rebecca’s neck prickled as she straightened up. “What exactly are you trying to say?” she asked carefully.

    “Just...” Kurt trailed off for a second. “Be careful, Rebecca.”

    Before she could reply, there was a loud knock. “We’re ready for you, Chief Director,” her assistant called through the door.

    Rebecca stood up, smoothing down her blazer. “I will. Let me know if there’s any new updates.”

    They hung up.

    Rebecca returned to the meeting room with her assistant. Tagg caught her gaze as she walked in, sipping his coffee slowly.

    Emily Piggot was on the screen.

    “Emily.” Rebecca settled into her seat, cracking open the new file her assistant handed to her. “How’s the situation?”

    “Frankly, we don’t have enough men to secure the perimeter. Power and utilities in the city are in a mess now, plus we’re getting more and more confirmations of our own trapped in the bubble. We’re working with city police but they’re running even more shorthanded than us.” The director looked drained as she shuffled the papers in her hands. “I also have more bad news. New Wave got caught in the bubble.”

    “As in Panacea?” Knox straightened up. “How did you confirm that?”

    “Their house is on the edge. Glory Girl came in this morning...”

    Rebecca listened absently as Piggot spoke, looking down at the file in her hands. There was a picture of Scion attached. He was hovering just above the grey bubble, sitting crossed-legged in the air, naked.

    She traced his silhouette, her nail scraping against the smooth photo paper. Everything we’ve worked for. Was it now?

    “Chief?”

    Rebecca looked up. “Arrange for a counsellor for Glory Girl. Give their address to the science team; if they’re near the perimeter maybe they can do something. Panacea and New Wave have priority.” She closed the file. “Now, let’s discuss Scion. Do you have any surveillance on him? What’s his latest status?”

    ***

    Sophia jerked awake, groaning as the sun pierced her eyes. She pushed herself up slowly, feeling her back crack as she stretched herself out. She checked her watch; it was broken somehow, reading 6:00am when it was clearly not. Sophia rubbed her head, feeling the straps of her mask surreptitiously; nothing seemed out of place.

    Falling asleep on a stakeout — sloppy. Sophia shook her head. Emma told her there’d been a spate of robberies in the upscale boutique stores near her neighbourhood so she thought she would extend her patrol here, shoot some fools.

    She peered over the rooftop, down into the street. Nothing seemed broken into, but everything was strangely quiet. Maybe next time she’d take up Emma’s offer, bring her along to help on stakeouts. Shit was too boring to do alone anyway.

    Then she noticed it.

    A massive gray bubble, looming over the bay, cutting a neat, grey semicircle into the skyline. A chopper suddenly flew over and she stepped back instinctively to the shadows, but it simply continued towards the dome.

    “What the fuck,” Sophia muttered to herself. She pulled out her phone; 2 missed calls from the PRT and 4 from Emma.

    She called Emma first. “Hey—” she managed to get in before the redhead barrelled over her.

    “Thank god you’re alright! I’ve been calling for the past hour!”

    “Yeah sorry,” Sophia scratched her neck awkwardly. “Kinda fell asleep last night.”

    “I told you to bring me along,” Emma teased. “Anyway, never mind that. Have you seen it?”

    “The giant fucking bubble? Yeah. What the hell is that?” Sophia double-checked the empty rooftop out of instinct, before unbuckling her mask off. She stuffed it into her duffel bag alongside her crossbow.

    “No idea. The mayor’s press conference is starting soon and my dad’s saying they’ll probably declare a state of emergency.”

    “Damn,” Sophia whistled as she pulled the last of her armoured plates off, stuffing them all into her bag. “Must be some villain shit.”

    “Yup,” Emma agreed. “Where are you now anyway?”

    “At the boutiques,” Sophia replied without thinking before groaning. She could already hear Emma slapping her knee as she guffawed.

    “Please don’t tell me you literally just woke up.”

    “Shut up,” she grumbled. “Stakeouts are lame anyway.”

    “Is the big, bad Shadow Stalker whining?” Emma was smiling; Sophia could hear it brightly even over the phone. “C’mon you baby, I’ll get mom to make an extra serving for you.”

    “Didn’t say I was coming over,” Sophia replied, but she was already heading down the side stairwell, mentally plotting the route towards Emma’s.

    “Uh-huh. You wanna lug your shit across the city on foot? Pretty sure all the buses aren’t running now.”

    “Tell Mrs B. I want 2 servings, bitch.” Sophia ended the call before she had to listen to Emma laughing at her again, but she was smiling too.

    She fired a quick text to her mother before setting off. She hefted her bag up her shoulder as she walked along the quiet neighbourhood. The lack of the usual bustle along the street was unsettling.

    It took her ten minutes to reach Emma’s place. The house was brick red, with ivies crawling beautifully over its facade. A neat thicket of roses lined the foundation, squaring off at the corners as it went around the sides, along the entire house.

    Sophia pulled her bag higher as she walked up to the house, kicking at some dead leaves scattered on the path. She knocked on the door impatiently. Her bag was getting uncomfortable on her shoulder, and she couldn’t wait to stash it up in Emma’s room before grabbing breakfast.

    Hopefully it was sausages and eggs today; she was in the mood for some salt and oil. The door creaked open, and Sophia tried to smooth her stupid grin to a more respectable scowl as she turned—

    A bald girl stood in the doorway, beaming as she held the door open. She was dressed in a sleek black bodysuit with a red sash tied around her waist.

    “Hello, Sophia,” she said. The girl’s eyes seemed bulbous as they raked over Sophia, and her face was familiar in a way that set off chills down her spine. “You sure took your time walking here!”

    The ward almost took a step back. She slid her bag off instead, holding it loosely in her hand. “Who the hell are you?” she pretended to ask as she craned her neck for a better look into the house.

    “I’m hurt, Sophia,” the crazy person pouted. “I like to think I’ve kept up my looks even as I aged.”

    Sophia didn't hear her answer. In a mirror facing the living room, she saw Emma tied to a chair. She was gagged with some fabric wrapped tightly around her lower face, and her eyes were wide and terrified.

    Sophia immediately swung her bag at the stranger. It slammed with a noisy clatter into her head, pushing her slightly into the house.

    She dived forward, phasing through the girl. She pulled her bag with her, and when they were through she whirled around, materializing and smashing the full weight into the stranger.

    The girl didn’t budge. Instead she turned around, letting the bag slide off her. She was still smiling.

    “Ah, getting slammed with bags,” she said cheerily. “I’ve missed your greetings, Sophia.”

    It was that sardonic tone that struck Sophia. “Wha—Taylor?” she asked incredulously.

    Then Taylor was in front of her, standing tall, pinning Sophia with a sharp, curious gaze. Sophia jerked backwards, her arm swinging up instinctively, but Taylor moved impossibly fast. One hand reached out to cover her eyes, and everything went black.

    Sophia blinked. Her head bounced off something hard as she reared back, and it took a second to reorient as she found herself tied to a chair just across Emma.

    Taylor was seated on the coffee table, fiddling with her crossbow. All her equipment — the armour, the tranquillizer darts, the heavy bolts — were strewed over the table. The bag was thrown carelessly over the sofa, behind which stood three battered lockers.

    Sophia ignored the lockers, focusing on the nerd instead. She looked completely different without hair. Uglier, Sophia smirked internally, before growling. Bitch isn’t even paying attention. Taylor hadn’t noticed Sophia was awake. She knocked me out in an instant somehow. Brute package?

    Her eyes darted around before zeroing in on the bolts scattered just next to the other girl. She’d just sharpened them the day before for the stakeout. Stainless steel, tri-blade broadheads with more than half-an-inch cutting diameter. Sophia tensed as she tried to shift discreetly, lining herself up towards Taylor. Grab a bolt before she can react, then go for the eyes.

    Sophia counted backwards in her head, eyes centred on the bolts. She waited until Taylor shifted away, attention still focused on the crossbow; then she phased forward, arm outstretched to—

    “ARGH!” Sophia slammed back against the chair, nearly toppling over. Her fingers jittered as she clenched them, trying to will the numbness away. Belatedly Sophia realized she was strung up in Christmas lights. The soft, colourful lights winked at her tauntingly.

    “Yowza!” Taylor appraised her amusedly. “Wards never teach you to pay attention to your surroundings, Shadow Stalker?”

    Sophia tried to force her irritation down. “Big words, Hebert. You know what you fucking did? You attacked a Ward. You attacked civilians. You wanna go into the Birdcage that bad?”

    Taylor only looked more amused. She placed the crossbow down. “Now, now, Sophia. Are you trying to scare me? Only the most heinous criminals go to the Birdcage. I haven’t even killed anyone yet.”

    “Yeah, because you’re useless,” Sophia scoffed, struggling against the cables around her. “So fucking weak, you turned villain. What is this, your dumb revenge?”

    Hebert didn’t reply. She held up her arm instead, and with an exaggerated flourish, she plunged her other hand behind it, as if reaching into some deeper pocket, to pull out a long, gleaming knife. She swung it about, her eyes never leaving Sophia, and without a backwards glance she threw it straight into one of the lockers.

    Sophia managed to force her flinch down. Never show weakness. “Are those— did you drag our lockers here?” she barked a sharp derisive laugh. “You think you’re scary, poking holes at our shit?”

    Taylor only raised an eyebrow as she pulled out another knife, sending it into the same locker. Emma was struggling furiously now, a muffled keening coming from her gag as she tried to twist and turn out of her ropes.

    A chill shot through Sophia as she suddenly realized. “Where are the Barnes?”

    Taylor sprawled backwards, propped up against her arms and smiled with half-lidded eyes. “Where do you think?”

    “You’re bluffing.” Sophia turned to Emma, trying to meet the redhead’s eyes. “She’s bluffing! Hebert’s sheep. She doesn’t have the fucking balls to do anything.”

    Taylor leaned forward. “Emma watched me put them in there herself, you know. I had to make a quick pit stop at the garbage collection centre but I managed to find enough trash to make it more comfortable inside for them.” Her smile grew larger and her eyes shone brighter as she spoke. “Exactly just as you did for me.”

    Sophia spat at her. “Fuck you, Hebert. You think you’re big now? The PRT’s gonna roll up and fuck you up. You untie me now and I’ll make sure you don’t get sent to fucking hell.”

    Taylor froze, her smile disappearing as she reached up to wipe the glob of saliva off her face. “Very typically uncivil, Sophia, but I appreciate your stubbornness,” she said through clenched teeth. Her mouth strained to smile as she tried to put on her cheer again. She cleared her throat, and tried again; this time she managed a twisted, overly-wide grin. “Really. I mean, had to gag Emma because she wouldn’t stop wailing, you know.”

    She pretended to yawn. “Only 10 minutes with her and she’s already begging. Boring!”

    “But you!” the girl exclaimed, hopping closer and draping herself around Sophia. She had another knife in her hand as she gestured wildly. “The fire, the bravado!” Taylor grabbed Sophia’s jaw, twisting it to the side to face her. “Is this what Emma turned on me for?”

    Sophia tried to headbutt her, but Taylor just darted back, chuckling. “Relax, Sophia. I’m not here to ask anything outrageous from you.” She sat back down, crossing her legs. “I just want an apology. For everything you did to me.”

    “What?”

    “Just say sorry.” Taylor shrugged casually. “Simple, right? But you have to really mean it!”

    Sophia was silent for a moment. She tensed her muscles and took a deep breath, straining against the cables. The pain only focused the blinding rage in her mind.

    Hebert was prey. Hebert didn’t get to talk down to her like that. Hebert didn’t have the balls for murder.

    “Fuck you, Hebert,” she snarled. “You were a fucking loser then and you’re still a fucking loser now. You think you’re special just ‘cause of your powers? Fuck you, you bald freak. You still want to live? Untie me now and maybe, just fucking maybe, I’ll ask the PRT not to stick you in their deepest hole.”

    Taylor stilled. The room grew silent, leaving just the sound of Emma still sobbing behind her gag. Sophia held her breath, trying to slow it down. She was in control; Hebert was still completely frozen, her eyes glassy while one hand went up, almost unconsciously, to touch her gleaming head.

    “Apologize,” she finally said, softly, still not looking at Sophia.

    Sophia scoffed internally. Hebert looked like she was about to fall apart. She leaned forward as far as she could, smirking. “What? You think cutting your hair made you some kind of badass? No. It just made you a bigger loser. An uglier freak. Just like you always were.”

    She relaxed back into the chair, modulating her tone. “Don’t make this shit worse, Hebert. Untie me and surrender. I’ll put in a good word for you. The PRT’s even got shrinks to fix losers like you.”

    Taylor snapped her gaze back to Sophia, eyes cold and crystal clear. She pressed her palms against her thighs, squeezing them. A panic attack? Sophia wanted to sneer, but she kept her face blank. Hebert was about to break. She just knew it.

    Taylor stood up abruptly. She strode back to the lockers and wrenched the nearest one open. An overpowering stench rushed out with Zoe Barnes as she tumbled out into Taylor’s arms. She looked around blearily as she clung to the younger girl. She was also gagged, with her hands bound behind her back and her feet tied together.

    Sophia turned slightly, her hands wrenching against her restraints instinctively as she tried to cover her nose. Taylor looked unaffected. She pulled Zoe forward easily, a firm grip around the woman’s dull red hair, cutting a path through the trash to the coffee table.

    She forced Zoe to her knees, swiping the table clean to press the woman’s head to the wooden surface. Taylor leaned over her, placing her face just next to her’s. They peered up at Sophia, two faces huddled together for a selfie; one was smeared with dirt, detritus on her hair and body while the other was placid and calm, almost challenging as she stared at Sophia.

    The ward glared in response. A bluff, she repeated in her head, even as she felt cold sweat pepper across her back.

    “Hey Aunt Zoe.” Taylor rasped, never looking away from Sophia. “Just need to borrow you for a sec’.”

    And then she grabbed Sophia’s crossbow and smashed the blunt handle into Mrs Barnes’ face. Emma shrieked, loud enough to hear through her gag as Taylor brought the weapon down, over and over, into the woman’s face. Her nose caved in first, bone snapping with a nauseating crunch. Blood sprayed, splattering bloody streaks all over Taylor and the tabletop as she smashed the crossbow in, deeper and deeper.

    Sophia fell slack. A queasy cold filled her, suffusing her body and limbs, and she felt adrift in her body. She wanted to turn away, to look anywhere else, but Taylor held her gaze, unblinking even when blood sprayed into her eyes, and so Sophia was pinned, watching helplessly as Emma’s mother turned into a gaping hole.

    The clock in the living room chimed, and Taylor twitched. She paused and exhaled, before pulling the crossbow out. The weapon made a sticky squelch as it sprang free. Taylor dropped the corpse, brushing it away almost carelessly as she sat down.

    “Woo!” Taylor shook herself and took a deep breath. “What a rush. I think I feel better now.” She raised a hand to rub her head absentmindedly, nearly hitting herself with the crossbow. “Oops!” she sniggered before throwing it across the floor to Sophia. It left a long wet streak across the marble tiling. “Sorry about borrowing your weapon like that. But gosh, you really hurt me with your words, you know. I suppose some things will never change between us, eh?”

    Taylor laughed again.

    Sophia couldn’t speak. She was rigid in her seat, her mouth parted and her mind blank. Her eyes darted around the room, zipping between Taylor, the corpse on the table, and Emma.

    Emma had fallen silent, her eyes red and unblinking as they stared at the blood dripping off the table. The cloth wrapped around her face was soaked with tears.

    “Hellooo?” Taylor followed her gaze backwards. “Oh Emma, honey,” she cooed, walking over to the redhead. She circled around the other girl and pulled the gag off.

    Emma remained unmoving as Taylor laid over her in a loose hug. “You’re not crying, are you?” she asked, nuzzling against her friend. She gently wiped under the redhead’s eyes with the pads of her thumb, leaving bloody streaks across her face. She patted consolingly on Emma’s cheek. “Only losers cry when their mommies die, remember?”

    “S-stop.”

    Taylor glanced at Sophia. “Hmmm?” she hummed, still wrapped around her catatonic friend, idly dabbing little red spots on her face.

    “I’ll—I’ll do it,” Sophia said, her voice rough and croaking slightly at the beginning. “I’ll do what you want me to do.”

    Taylor settled her head down onto Emma’s shoulder to watch Sophia. Quiet stilled the air for a long moment before Sophia jolted up slightly and started stammering out her words.

    “I’m—” She cut herself off, swallowing loudly. “I’m sorry.”

    Taylor waited. “Is that it?” she asked incredulously. She strode back to the coffee table and pulled it closer to Sophia. The body slumped and dropped to the floor behind her as she sat down, crossed her legs and folded her hands at her knees. “Sorry for what?”

    “Huh?” Sophia blurted, her mind racing. “For what?”

    “What. Are you. Sorry for,” Taylor said, enunciating each word slowly. “Please Sophia, keep up.”

    “I’m, um, sorry. For bullying you.”

    “For pouring juice over my books and homework?” Taylor started tapping the floor with her boot.

    “Yes. For that.” Sophia agreed, before hurriedly repeating at Taylor’s raised eyebrow. “I’m sorry for pouring juice over your stuff.”

    “You’re sorry for stuffing me in my locker.”

    “I’m sorry for stuffing you in your locker.”

    “Sorry for breaking my mother’s flute and shoving it into shit.”

    Sophia exhaled heavily. “I’m sorry for breaking your mother’s flute and shoving it into shit.”

    Taylor regarded her for a moment, still tapping her boot on the marble floor. “This isn’t working,” she shook her head, standing. “Something’s missing.”

    Sophia eyed her old classmate warily. She tested her bonds again surreptitiously. The fear had receded slightly and her head was a shade clearer now, but her heart was still beating wildly. Her body felt chilly and weak, the corded muscles she built slackened like putty.

    Hebert was more insane than she anticipated. Sophia watched her pace back and forth, carefully making sure to look past the faceless woman on the floor. She spared a glance at Emma; the girl was just staring at the floor where the blood was pooling.

    The PRT’s coming soon, Sophia thought furiously. One of the neighbours must have noticed something. She hadn’t responded to their texts either; they must be sending a team on their way.

    Taylor suddenly stopped and turned around with a wide grin. “I’m an idiot. The answer was in front of me all along!”

    Sophia froze, the hairs along her arms and neck standing electrified at the manic expression on the bald girl’s face. Everything glitched out for a second, where the world flashed grey, then Taylor was seated on the table again, this time with Alan Barnes struggling against her grip.

    “Barnes. The Barnes. Of course you wouldn’t care. You’re Hess!” Taylor exclaimed, effortlessly holding the man between her legs. “That’s what I’ve missed! That’s why you’re... boring.”

    It was warm and sticky. Sophia blinked, spitting out the copper taste on her tongue and twisting her head before it caught up to her.

    She saw disbelief mirrored in Alan’s eyes as he slumped back on his heels, blood spurting from his neck, over his Sunday shirt and over Sophia.

    Taylor wiped her blade clean on his sleeve. She tried to push him aside gently, but he collapsed forward, face up next to Sophia. Blood streamed around Sophia, soaking through her socks and seeping between her toes. She could almost see the life leave him, in pulses from the hole in his neck, draining his eyes empty.

    Emma screamed. She buckled hard against her chair, screaming and shrieking unceasingly.

    “W-Why?!” Sophia choked out as Taylor stood. “I apologized!”

    “But did you mean it?” Taylor nodded to herself. “Of course you didn’t. You didn’t have the proper motivation.” She pointed at Emma. “I mean, look at that! Awful racket, really, but proper emotion.”

    It was like falling, everything in the pit of her stomach emptying out and the fear so thick it tasted sour when Sophia realized what Taylor was implying.

    “No. NO!” She pulled against her cables. “Fuck you Hebert, don’t you fucking—”

    Taylor disappeared when she blinked, leaving her hanging with her feet steeped in blood. Emma was still screaming.

    Then she was back, right up against Sophia, her face filling her vision entirely. “Boo-yah,” Taylor smiled, bopping Sophia lightly on her nose before stepping back. She had her arms outstretched theatrically to present Sophia with her mother and brother. Both were gagged and tied firmly to their chairs, their eyes red with fear.

    Sophia snarled incoherently, her hands and body straining forward futilely. The lights shattered and sparked as she phased in and out against the cables.

    Taylor clapped twice. “Ah. The fire and energy. There’s the Sophia I wanted to break.” She crouched next to her mother, gripping her hand tightly to press flat against the arm of the chair.

    “Don’t you fucking touch my mother, you fucking psycho!” Sophia roared, her voice breaking. “I’ll fucking kill you, okay?! I’ll fucking kill you!”

    Taylor whipped out a knife with a flick of her wrist and held it playfully just above her mother’s fingers.

    “Please. PLEASE.” Sophia was crying. She twisted and turned, phasing against the cables again before collapsing back into the chair. She looked up at Taylor, her eyes wet and honest. “I’m sorry, okay?! I’m sorry I hit you and fucked with you. I’m sorry I fucked your shit up. Just please, Taylor. She’s my mom. Please, okay? Please.”

    Taylor chopped the index finger off and swiped it to the floor.

    Sophia yowled wordlessly. Her chair bucked back and forth, nearly toppling over. “Why? WHY?! Fuck you Taylor! Just please. Fuck you, just please! Stop,” she half-yelled, half babbled. Her words stumbled over themselves as she sagged against her bonds and cried.

    Taylor only smiled. She pressed her knife against the next finger.

    “I liked that apology, Sophia. Say it again.”
     
  5. Threadmarks: Running Late
    nezexyzzar

    nezexyzzar Getting out there.

    Joined:
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    The common room was dark, illuminated only by the television when Missy stepped in.

    “—the bubble is entirely cordoned off. PRT officials have released a brief statement, stating that they are currently investigating the cause and their top priority is to rescue the people trapped inside. Sources in City Council have also confirmed that Mayor Christner is preparing to declare a state of emergency, and will be making an announcement very soon.”

    Missy walked around the sofa, tuning the newscaster out.

    “Hey,” she tried to be casual.

    Victoria Dallon was curled up sideways on the sofa, her head sunken against the armrest. She was swaddled in a gray, PRT emblazoned set of sweats and pants. The sleeves were pulled taut over her hands, tucked between her legs.

    She glanced up at Missy, then back at the TV. Her eyes were red and unseeing.

    “Um.” Missy looked around desperately as she tried to think of something not-stupid to say. “I’m really sorry about your family.”

    The words sounded completely useless in her head.

    “Want some company?” No answer. The blonde shifted slightly, but her eyes never left the screen.

    Missy Biron never quite liked Victoria. She was gorgeous, a cheerleader, and dating Dean (although they were on a break now). And now she was sorely tempted to just say goodbye and walk back to her room.

    That was an immature thought.

    Instead she pulled her helmet off and walked over to the other side of the sofa, settling in quietly. She set the helmet on her lap, palming the smooth plastic surface and fighting the urge to tap against it.

    The news flashed over to a live broadcast over the bubble. It was a monochrome dome, hanging unnaturally in the Bay’s skyline. She could see PRT personnel and vehicles, swarming around the perimeter. They looked like ants knocking against glass.

    “I was fighting with Mom,” Victoria said, her voice scratchy.

    Missy jerked a little at the sudden sound. Was she supposed to face Victoria, or would that shut her down again?

    She decided to angle her body around slightly, tilting her head to keep the older girl in her periphery.

    Victoria didn’t look at her. She was staring down, at some empty spot near her knees. Her face was blank but wetness pooled in the sideways crook of her nose.

    “I don’t even remember what it was now. Something stupid about staying out.” She chuckled hollowly. “Amy was standing by the kitchen door. I think she was trying to tell me to shut up.”

    The room fell silent again as the television continued droning on. The helicopter crew was zooming in on Scion, who sat floating above the gray bubble. His lower half was pixelated out.

    “Then—” Missy cleared her throat. “Then what happened?”

    Something drew back into Victoria as she turned and looked back. Her eyes were bright and watery.

    “I flew out. Slept over at a friend’s. Came back to find everyone dead.”

    “They’re not dead,” Missy protested, without heart. “I heard PRT’s putting New Wave as one of their top priorities.”

    Victoria curled deeper into the seat. The leather creaked under her as she shifted around. “If they can break that bubble, I don’t even care if they have New Wave down to the last.”

    “—so far, the authorities have not made any comment on the strange appearance of Scion over the bubble—”

    “Scion could break it?” Missy suggested, but her words tapered off. This wasn’t working. Victoria didn’t bother to reply. She was already settling back into the couch.

    Missy stood up. “Let’s go for a walk.”

    The blonde ignored her, staring blankly at the flashing TV. The shorter girl felt a stab of irritation before she tamped it down. She snatched the remote and jabbed the power off instead, plunging them into darkness.

    Missy reached out for the switch; a little twist of space and her hand was right at the control, thumbing it open. Victoria finally looked up at her, eyes bleary as the room spun and turned to bring the couch to the door. It slid open.

    “I don’t really want to go for a walk,” she said, squinting as light from the main corridor flooded in.

    “You know, I heard Melody was on duty last night,” Missy said, non-apropos.

    “The chatty agent?”

    “The new agent,” Missy corrected. “Look, they had some kind of debrief for all the people on duty last night, so she’s probably still around on base. If you want to know what really happened last night, she’s the best person to ask.

    Victoria mulled, chewing on her lip.

    “It beats sitting in the dark watching TV.” Missy tapped her foot twice before forcing it still. Be comforting, she thought, and tried to channel that through herself.

    Finally, Glory Girl sighed. “Why not?” she said, offering a wan smile that came out more like a strained grimace. Missy just took it as a good sign.

    “Alright, I think she might still be in the situation room...”

    ***

    “Lastly, the Wards.” Emily looked at Miss Militia. “Gallant and Shadow Stalker were on patrol duty last night. Gallant’s fine and resting at home but Shadow Stalker hasn’t responded to our calls yet.”

    “You think she’s caught in the bubble?” The heroine looked stiff and uncomfortable; she was in charge now with Armsmaster out of commission.

    She better not be, Emily thought privately. “Gallant reported that they stuck to the designated route, but she does have the habit of extending her night with unauthorized patrols instead of going home. Hopefully she’s just passed out at home, but considering the situation I want you to confirm it.”

    “I can do it,” Velocity offered. He was the other Protectorate member in the room. The rest were already deployed in the field for the containment efforts.

    Miss Militia nodded. “Anything else?”

    “Let’s hope not. We’re strained enough as it is.” Emily pushed back against her chair, slapping her pen onto the table louder than she wanted. Morning streamed sunnily into her office, but she felt achingly tired. Her coffee cup was already empty. “Make sure you’re on the same page as Hempton. And rest up. I know you were also on call the last 2 days, but it's all hands on deck and I need you clear-headed and ready later.”

    Miss Militia saluted stiffly; Velocity gave a brisk nod before they shuffled out of the Director’s office.

    “Fucking hell.”

    Hannah didn’t bother to reply. She was already thinking of the things she needed to do. The debrief for all the agents on duty last night took far too long, and now she had to prepare for the Boston team coming in at noon.

    They stepped into an empty elevator. The doors clanged shut before the carriage jerked into movement.

    “Do you remember anything from last night?” Robin asked. His helmet was unclipped, the loose chin-strap dangling freely as he rubbed the mild stubble on his chin.

    Hannah turned to him. “No. What do you mean?”

    “You were awake, right? And you have a perfect memory.” Robin shrugged. “Guess I’m just looking for some kind of out. When I went to bed last night, everything was fine. And now...”

    He trailed off as he settled back against the wall. Hannah crossed her arms. She didn’t respond. There was nothing else to add. She remembered setting down her pen and reaching for her cup of coffee when something shifted. She remembered blinking, and then seeing the waking sun creeping through her window when it should be dark.

    The M/S alarms went off 5 minutes later.

    The elevator doors creaked open, shaking Hannah out of her reverie. “Are you heading for Shadow Stalker’s house now?”

    Robin nodded. “Yup. Just gonna change to civvies first. Want me to grab anything outside? I’m gonna grab some breakfast from that cornershop ‘round Second Street.”

    “The one with that roast beef? Sure,” she said as they split off around their lockers. The Protectorate team shared an equipment room, with the sexes divided by a wall of lockers.

    Hannah pulled her mask off and tugged on her bootlaces. She could hear Robin on the other side, throwing his helmet against the rack and kicking his shoes off. She pulled a clean set of fatigues out from her own locker just as Robin strode around the corner, shrugging on a leather jacket over a creased T-shirt.

    “Extra mustard, right?”

    Hannah looked up at him from the bench with a tight smile. “Yeah. I’m not even sure I’ll have time for breakfast, honestly.”

    “Sure you will. I’ll be back in 15 and we’ll have it together.”

    “Only if Sophia’s at home.”

    “She’s probably just crashed out.” Robin sat down next to her, his face soft. “Take your shower and stop stressing for 5 minutes.”

    “Fine. I want some extra cheese too,” Hannah said as she pulled her ponytail loose and started popping the buttons of her top. She could see Robin out of the corner of her eye, grinning.

    She turned to face him with a quirk of her brow. “You wanna get moving?” she asked, her voice stern but her lips curling upwards.

    “Yes ma’am,” he saluted quickly — a jaunty, two-finger swipe from the corner of his brow — and disappeared, leaving Hannah smiling behind him.

    ***

    “C’mon Mels, we even got you food!”

    Agent Melody looked up from her second hashbrown, the deadpan look on her face somewhat ruined by her stuffed cheeks as she fought to quickly swallow her food.

    “Are you really trying to bribe me with cafeteria food? I could have gotten this myself, you know.”

    “Yeah, but you didn’t have to this time!” Missy jabbed Victoria with her elbow, but the older girl only looked away.

    Melody softened as she peered at the distant Glory Girl. “Look, the PRT has your family up as a top priority. There’s a team of scientists, tinkers coming down later to help look at the bubble. I’m sure they’ll crack it open soon.”

    “You don’t know that.” Victoria’s voice was flat. “They never managed to open Gray Boy’s bubbles either.”

    “Well as far as we know, this was some kind of tinker incident, so it’s not exactly the same,” Melody replied hesitantly. Her arm shifted, as if to give Glory Girl a reassuring pat, but Missy shook her head subtly.

    The agent pushed her breakfast aside instead. “Look,” she started, clasping her hands together. “My apartment is in that bubble too. There’s thousands of people trapped inside. The PRT will figure this out.”

    Victoria stuffed her hands into the pockets of her borrowed outfit and looked away again.

    Missy’s eyes were wide behind her visor. “Wait, your apartment’s in the bubble?!”

    Melody smiled wanly. “Yeah I share a small apartment with Agent Kinsey over there,” she jerked her head towards a redhead scribbling furiously on the whiteboard. “Thank god we were on duty last night,” she tried to joke, her teeth clenched together in a crooked grin.

    “Yeah, thank god...” Vista trailed off. “So, the bubble is a tinker incident?”

    Melody groaned. “You didn’t hear that,” she wagged a finger, turning away.

    “C’mon, we just want to understand what happened.” She pulled Victoria closer. “For Glory Girl, alright? She’s going crazy here.”

    The older blonde remained silent, still looking at the other agents milling about their stations, but Melody could see her eyes sneaking glances at her from the side. She sighed. “Look, we don’t have much information now anyway. At least I don’t — I’m just a low-level agent.”

    She shifted closer to them, her voice lowered. “And this is all super top secret, you hear?” She waited for the two girls to nod before continuing. “There was a new tinker who appeared last night. The word so far is that one of her equipment or experiments backfired somehow.”

    “A new tinker?” Vista looked thoughtful. “Does this have anything to do with Armsmaster bringing in Lung and the Undersiders last night?”

    Melody looked exasperated. “How the hell did you know that?” She ignored the smug beam on the girl’s face. “Yes. I took the call for that, actually.”

    “You actually spoke to her?” Victoria suddenly asked.

    “Yeah. She was very polite. Straight to the point,” Melody scrunched her face up in thought. “Seemed nice, honestly.”

    “Except for trapping thousands in a time bubble.” Victoria didn’t seem impressed. “What’s her power?”

    “She manipulates time. Lung is still frozen in his cell now.”

    Vista felt disturbed. “Like frozen in time?”

    Melody gave a wry smile. “Yup. She said it was supposed to wear off by dawn, and it did for the Undersiders, but not for Lung.”

    Victoria scoffed. “So she’s an idiot with unreliable technology.”

    “I don’t know...” Melody looked thoughtful. “She sounded really confident.”

    Missy cut in before Victoria could get another jab in. “Wait, so the Undersiders are awake now? Has anyone spoken to them?”

    The agent gestured to the busy room. Everyone was either rushing from station to station or gesturing furiously as they spoke into their headsets. “Considering how stretched we are now, it’s a low priority for now.”

    Vista seemed to perk up. “Hey, we could do the interrogation. We’re around the same age, so we might be able to connect better with the suspects.”

    “No. That’s completely against protocol.” Melody didn’t want to add that Vista was also not exactly their age yet. “Besides, they debriefed all of us too. Everyone who was on duty and awake last night; none of us noticed a thing. Just BAM—” she snapped her fingers, “—alarms going off as Armsmaster disappeared from the interrogation room and our emergency hotlines just suddenly getting swamped with multiple calls. So the Undersiders shouldn’t know anything either.”

    “Oh c’mon, we should at least double-check,” Vista complained. She glanced at Glory Girl, hoping for some backup, but the other blonde was distracted again. “We can take care of ourselves, it’s not like they can fight their way out from the middle of the PRT anyway.”

    Victoria spoke before the argument continued. “The Undersiders are in the M/S containment cells in the basement?”

    “Yeah, as a safety precaution.” Melody and Missy turned to her. “Why?”

    “Think one of them is getting busted out now,” she said, pointing to a monitor feed.

    “What?!” Melody shimmied her chair closer to her desk, pulling up the camera feeds on her main screen.

    Three men were positioned around a cell. One of them was fiddling with the control panel whilst the other two stood guard, pistols in hand. They were completely covered in black with thick matte balaclavas and stocky armoured vests.

    The control panel guy stood up. The other two readied their pistols, and with a single nod, they raised it right into the room just as it slid open. There was no sound, but they were clearly speaking as they gestured with their weapons.

    “The alarm isn’t working. They’ve managed to cut off the alarms somehow!” Melody slammed the keyboard, springing up from her seat. “You girls stay here,” she shouted back as she ran up to the main operations centre.

    Missy and Victoria looked at each other for just one moment before they darted off in the other direction — towards the basement.

    ***

    Robin took a large bite out of his pastrami sandwich as he slowly walked down the dingy corridor towards Sophia’s apartment. One bite wasn’t cheating, right? He was hungry.

    He paused at the door, biting off the melted cheese and tilting his head to tongue the gooey string back into his mouth. He rewrapped the sandwich and wiped his lips before rapping sharply against the door.

    The sound felt thunderous in the narrow space. Robin knocked again. He leaned in slightly but there was nothing. He could only hear the fluorescent whine from the lights overhead.

    “Hello?” he said, feeling slightly awkward. He bumped against the door accidentally; the door creaked open.

    Robin stepped back. He looked at the innocuous gap but the door didn’t move further. He could make out sunlight streaming in from a window on the other side, but nothing else. There was still no sound from the apartment.

    He folded his bag of sandwiches up, tucking them into a tight roll and stuffing it in his jacket. The paper was startlingly loud. He pushed the door carefully, checking left first, then scanning the rest of the home as he stepped in.

    Everything looked undisturbed. The window was open; curtains swaying slightly in a mild breeze. There was a bowl of milk and cereal on the dining table, a spoon sticking out from it. On the kitchen countertop was a plate with two pieces of toast, brown and crisp. The top toast was halfway buttered; the knife, with a dollop of butter still, was set neatly next to the plate.

    The coffee-maker was still powered on, a mug of coffee next to it. Robin moved closer, touching it lightly with the back of his hand. It was still hot.

    He called Hannah as he strode further into the apartment. “Hey,” she answered. Her voice echoed. “How’s Sophia?”

    “I think we have a problem.” Robin moved further into the interior. He used his handkerchief to grip the doorknob of one of the rooms before twisting it open. He peered in: there was a single bed with a folded blanket and mussed bedsheets, a laundry basket in the corner with blue nursing scrubs — the mother’s room. “The door was unlocked and no one was home. Breakfast was on the table, still warm. No signs of forced entry or a struggle so far.”

    “You think someone kidnapped them? Was Sophia there too? Hold on, I’m putting you on speaker.”

    He peered into the next room; two beds, one of them perfectly straight. “I don’t think Sophia was home. No sign of her equipment and her bed looks untouched.”

    “You’re sure someone grabbed them? They might have just left the house.”

    Robin eyed the dining table again. There was something eerie about how the bowl and plate were set, the food half-touched. The chairs were pulled out, but only part-way, as if people were still sitting in them. Whoever grabbed them — did they reposition the chairs back?

    “No way,” he answered after a pause. “Something’s wrong.”

    “Okay.” He could hear cloth rustling before her voice came through again, clearer this time. “Okay. Fuck. I’ll need to check for an available team to send. Let me call—”

    “Wait.” Robin walked over to the TV. A pink phone was charging next to it. “There’s a phone here.”

    The phone was password-locked, but he could see a message from Sophia on the lockscreen, sent an hour ago.

    Hving bkfst at Em​

    “She texted her mom saying she’s having breakfast at ‘Em’s’. You know who that is?”

    “I think... It’s familiar. I think her civilian sponsor has a daughter named Emma. They’re friends. Let me pull up her file.”

    “Roger that.” Velocity stood up, scanning the place one last time to make sure he didn’t miss anything. “What about the apartment? I don’t have the keys to lock the place.”

    “Sophia first. I just texted you the address. Hopefully she’s there and we can secure her.” said Hannah. “Everyone’s spread thin now but I’ll see if I can wrangle a team down to back you up as well, just in case.”

    “Send them over here first.” Robin opened the front door, poking out into the dingy corridor. “Everything looks quiet, so I don’t think anyone’s gonna just randomly break in but just to be safe. I can pick Sophia up myself, maybe see if her sponsor’s willing to give us a ride back to base.”

    “Alright,” Hannah replied, her voice terse. Robin heard the sound of a boot slamming to the ground. “I really hope you’re wrong about this.”

    “Yeah.” He touched the warm bump on his jacket. “Me too.”
     
    Last edited: Jan 1, 2022
  6. Hylas_Daemonem

    Hylas_Daemonem A Colony of Ghosts

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    eugh. That was truly horrific. True Villain Taylor then?
    Gah, I've got to find some fluff to clear my mind now.
     
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  7. Aodean

    Aodean Know what you're doing yet?

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    Could be a paradox with multiple versions from different time points.
     
  8. ChaosRonin

    ChaosRonin Making the rounds.

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    Yea that was my first inclination as well. Makes me think Colin and Taylor where thrown through time, while the area around them was just taken out of phase of normal time.
     
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  9. Threadmarks: Breakfast at Emma's
    nezexyzzar

    nezexyzzar Getting out there.

    Joined:
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    “Militia!”

    Someone called out to Hannah the moment she stepped into the operations centre. Something was up; she could see more movement than usual as agents and officers rushed around her.

    “Daniel. What’s happening?” she greeted. A broad-shouldered bald man with a paunch that belied his previous SWAT experience, Daniel Hempton was the Deputy Team Commander for PRT Field Forces.

    “Attempted breakout from the M/S cells,” he replied briskly, leading her out towards the cells.

    “What? The ABB?” Hannah felt the knife at her side shift into a gun.

    “The Undersiders.”

    “You’re kidding. They’re supposed to be a small-time gang,” Hannah said incredulously.

    Daniel looked at her, half shrugging. “Well, apparently they have a bigger backer than we thought.”

    “Where’s Calvert?” Hannah asked as they reached the cellblock entrance.

    “Still uncontactable. His home address is outside of the bubble so he shouldn’t have been caught but right now we’re just assuming the worst.” He shrugged, giving a small commiserating smile. “No rest for the wicked, right Militia?”

    Hannah just pulled her gun out. “Let’s go.”

    The main power had been cut. The auxiliary lights bathed the corridors in an inky red. Hannah and Daniel ducked low, sliding along the walls underneath the viewing panes to join up with the first entry team huddled around the double-doored entrance to the cells.

    “What’s happening?” Daniel asked the team.

    “They have—” One of the agents nearest to the doors peeked out slightly, and jerked back again as a hot green laser whizzed by. “They have tinkertech weapons.”

    “Much bigger backer then,” Hannah murmured.

    Daniel looked up at the scorched wall; the concrete was a spiderweb of cracks, the paint blackened and burnt. “Fuck.”

    “We also have another problem,” the agent continued, his eyes flicking over to Miss Militia.

    Hannah straightened. “What?”

    “Vista and Glory Girl are pinned down in one of the empty cells.”

    “What?!” Hannah bit down on her lip, swallowing a curse.

    ***

    “Freaking laser guns? Who the hell are these people?!” The beam narrowly missed Victoria as she ducked back into the room.

    “Shhh, I’m trying to concentrate,” Missy hissed. She had one palm flat against the wall, her eyes closed and her brows furrowed. “They’re 5 cells up. Think there’s at least 3 of them covering.”

    Gunfire burst from the other side of the corridor. “Damn PRT better not fire when I’m going out,” Victoria grouched. She pulled the tattered flecks of her sleeve off. The cloth crumbled to ash before it hit the floor.

    “I’ll cover our backs. You just focus on not getting hit again.” Missy leaned against the wall, one hand on Victoria’s back. “Keep high, go left, hit right. Ready?”

    “Go!”

    Glory Girl swept up to the ceiling and rushed out as the corridor warped around her. She banked right as Vista shuttled the cell doors backwards around her, and slammed feet first into one of the mercenaries, smashing him into the floor. Glory Girl ignored his wheezing as she dug her feet into his chest, bouncing forward into the next mercenary. They toppled to the floor. He tried to bring his pistol up but she batted it out of his hand and sent a quick jab into his stomach, leaving him curled up and choking.

    The room lit up green for a split second as a laser blasted over her head. Victoria jerked down and rolled around. The last mercenary turned slightly, his rifle tracking her and his finger ready on the trigger. Before he could fire, Vista came running in on the ceiling, deftly jumping from the upside-down corridor onto the man and shoving her baton into his neck.

    He groaned and collapsed, body going taut and stiff. Victoria stared at Missy as she twirled her baton. “You just carry a taser everywhere you go?”

    “It’s part of my costume!”

    Vista’s wrist communicator lit up with a chirp. She peered at the screen for a moment. “Crap, it’s Miss Militia. Hello?”

    Outside, the corridor unsnapped back into place just as another laser streaked past.

    “Damn, there’s more of them?” Victoria peeked out for a quick look before darting back to avoid another shot. “I think there’s two left.”

    “Glory Girl says there’s just two guys left. We can clear them, easy. Then you guys can come in safely after,” Missy spoke, tapping her feet impatiently. “I don’t think there’s anyone else. The lift’s not here anymore, so they probably managed to override it.” A pause. “Yes! I’ll call back when we’re done.”

    Victoria looked expectantly as Missy ended the call. “How pissed was she?”

    The younger girl smirked. “Nothing we can’t handle. C’mon, let’s do this.”

    They walked to the door, bracing themselves against the wall by it. “Ready?” Victoria asked, half-crouched with her legs tensed to spring off.

    Missy clapped her shoulder. “Born ready.”

    They burst out of the cell, the space twisting for them to bear straight down to the remaining mercenaries. The men fired, but the walls curled around for a second, blocking the lasers; then Glory Girl and Vista shot through, smashing into them. Victoria grabbed one by the lapel and flung him up into the ceiling while Missy smashed the gun away from the other and jabbed him in the chest.

    The two men dropped to the floor, motionless.

    “This one’s busted. They ripped the control panel off,” Victoria said as she came out of the second lift. “What now?”

    Missy was trying to pry open the doors on the first lift. “Forget about that, help me with this. We need to catch up with them before they fly off.”

    The older girl cocked her head. “Aren’t you gonna check in with Miss Militia?”

    Missy turned to her with a look. Even with the visor on, her glare was obvious. “You know they're just going to bench us. And by the time they remember you're the last flyer left on base, those guys will be gone.”

    “I...” Victoria hesitated.

    “C’mon.” Missy jerked her head towards the lift. “I’m not letting you go back up there to mope.”

    Victoria rolled her eyes and stalked forward. “Fine,” she muttered, wrenching the doors open with a quick tug. She scooped the younger girl up and flew into the gaping shaft.

    They burst out onto an empty helipad. “There!” Missy pointed. Victoria turned to follow her hand.

    The helicopter was already a dwindling black dot heading straight into the city block. “Can you catch up?”

    Victoria adjusted her grip on Missy. Her lips quirked up. “Let’s find out.”

    ***

    The Barnes house was quiet. Too quiet, Robin thought as he made his way soundlessly up the gravel path. The front door was ajar. He scanned the house, noting the dark windows, all closed.

    The hairs on his neck prickled as he got closer. Inside, someone was crying.

    Robin stepped around the door carefully. He eyed the scuff marks on the wall and avoided the vase balancing precariously on the edge of a crooked table as he inched forward.

    “Fuck you, Taylor, PLEASE. I already said I’m sorry, okay? I’m SORRY, alright? Just. Please.” It took him a moment to place Shadow Stalker’s voice in the midst of the sobbing. Robin tensed as he reached the archway, pulling out his phone to send a quick text over to Miss Militia first.

    Then he exhaled, weight on the balls of his feet, hand pressed against the wall.

    “PLEASE—”

    Robin dashed in. The world fell to a muted stillness as he turned the corner. Sophia was tied to a chair, her face scrunched up mid-cry. She was begging another girl, this one bald and straddling a middle-aged woman with a long knife poised over her head — Sophia’s missing mother.

    The woman was missing a hand.

    Robin was already halfway across the room. He skimmed over the blood untouched, just grazing over the surface. Three steps forward, his back straight and his eyes on the target. In the frozen moment before he tackled the bald girl, he saw her face clearly, a wide, maddened grin stretched across it.

    Then, impossibly, she turned, eyes sliding over to meet him just as he collided into her.

    “—STOP!”

    They tumbled onto the ground. Robin kicked out blindly, grappling against her spindly arms as she tried to stab him in the neck. He slammed a knee into her stomach, but she only laughed and pressed down more. Slowly, the knife descended.

    “Hello, hello,” she said breathily in a midnight drawl. “You’re not supposed to be here.”

    Robin jerked his head aside and let the blade fall. She dipped forward at the sudden movement, and he kicked out again, this time flipping her onto the coffee table.

    The wooden frame snapped underneath her weight. Robin rolled away, fingers digging into the wet carpet as he scrambled up.

    “Hey.” He shook Sophia. The Ward looked at him blankly as he pulled against the Christmas lights around her, trying to find the knot. “Are you hurt? Can you fight?”

    “What?” she croaked. “Who—”

    The world froze in gray motion. Robin blinked, shifting in and out of his breaker state instinctively.

    “Don’t worry.” A voice rang out behind him, breaking the sudden silence. “That’s just me. I thought it might be better to have our conversation this way with no distractions.”

    Robin faced her stiffly. “You’re Taylor Hebert.”

    Taylor beamed, dipping into a small bow. “Oh, you know my name? I’m flattered.”

    Robin looked around. In grayscale, the room looked almost tame, not covered in blood but in strange, misshapen shadows that stretched across the floor and streaked across the wall.

    “Of course, that’s right! I nearly forgot. You just had that meeting with Piggot.”

    Sophia’s missing family were tied next to each other. They were gagged, thick shawls wrapped tightly around their lower faces. Fear shined nakedly through their wide eyes.

    “You know, aren’t you supposed to be having breakfast with Miss Militia now?”

    Robin looked back at Taylor. “Pretty sure everyone here is supposed to be having breakfast now.”

    She laughed. “Very nice. Touche,” she said wryly before sizing him up. “It’s interesting, you seem quite comfortable for your first time in stopped time. Oh! That counts as a rhyme, right?”

    “Why are you doing this?” Robin stepped forward, ignoring her musings. “You told Armsmaster you were a hero.”

    “Did I really?” Taylor considered his question. “You know, speaking of, even Armsmaster needed a moment to digest the idea of time travel.”

    “Maybe I’m just too simple to think much about it.” Robin tried to tamp down the heat in his voice. “Look, I’m sure you’ve been trying to fix the bubble as well. I don’t know how long you’ve been trying, how much has happened to you—”

    “It’s been a while,” Taylor cut in, her words clipped and sharp. Her face was blank. “A really long while.”

    Robin rolled past the interruption. “—just let these people go. The PRT can work together with you.”

    “Hah! You think we never tried that before? Your science team is worthless by the way.” Taylor shook her head. “You’d think it’s simple, right? When you have infinite time, the world is just a permutation of possibilities. Knock over the right pieces and eventually, you’ll get the answer you need.”

    “So this is you knocking over the right pieces?” Robin asked, gesturing at the corpses near her feet.

    “Oh no, this is just for fun.” Taylor flashed a bright smile, all teeth. “Really, it’s a shame I couldn’t get Madison in as well to make this a real party.”

    Velocity didn’t reply.

    “Aren’t you going to ask me about our history?” Taylor pouted. “Me, Sophia, Emma and I?”

    Velocity settled into a loose stance, bouncing on his feet. “You can’t expect me to give you everything you want,” he said, before exploding forward.

    “Wow. Annoying,” Taylor said, unmoving as he slammed a fist up into her jaw. A second punch bounced off the side of her face. Velocity whirled, leg spinning up for a vicious roundabout, but Taylor finally moved, grabbing him by the ankle and shoving him away.

    “You would have broken your leg doing that. You probably should be more careful, considering your powers,” Taylor lectured, a congenial smile still plastered on her face. “Just go outside, eat your sandwich. I’ll tell the PRT you really, really tried.”

    Velocity replied with another punch.

    “Ah, fine.” Taylor shrugged, and the world burst into colour again.

    “—are you?” Sophia rasped.

    Taylor moved before Robin could reply. He shifted into his breaker state, his feet already running forward. She dived towards Sophia’s mother, knives out, but her eyes were on him, tracking him in the infinitesimal flow as he reached out to intercept.

    Then her hand suddenly twisted, prying loose from the still moment, and slashed deep into him.

    The world sprang into motion again as Robin jumped back, clutching his shoulder.

    “Too slow, Velocity,” Taylor said, wagging her knife. The blade gleamed red. “Care for round two?”

    She plunged her knife towards Sophia’s mother again, grinning wide in slow motion as Robin leaped towards her.

    He saw the blade coming this time and twisted right to avoid it. He grabbed the chair, trying to jerk the woman closer, but Taylor pulled it back, teetering her backwards.

    She stabbed down, carelessly piercing into Mrs Hess’ arm, forcing Robin to yank his hand back, nearly losing hold. Instead of pulling out Taylor dug the knife in deeper, pushing forward, parting through the sinews and muscles to slice up at him.

    He finally let go, his hand coming away bloody.

    Taylor pulled the chair back to an upright position, wiping her knife clean on Mrs Hess. The woman’s head was bowed low as she slumped against her bonds.

    Taylor beckoned again.

    “C’mon, Velocity. I’m already going really easy on you.”

    It was usually easier for him. When he moved in his breaker state, time waited for him. He could take stock, plan around obstacles, see the unpredictable and avoid it. But now, it was Taylor that waited in the eve of the next second. Even as he charged forward, her eyes followed him, glinting with anticipation, waiting to pounce.

    Robin let her pounce.

    Her knife plunged deep into his shoulder as he slammed into her. He tackled her to the ground before pulling the knife out and stabbing it into her face.

    Taylor smiled from underneath him, blood streaming to the side as her right eye crinkled around the blade. “Nice move,” she complimented, before she slapped a palm into his chest and sent him flying back across the room.

    Robin crashed next to Sophia, wheezing as pain flared through his shoulder. He heaved for breath as he tried to sit up. Something shifted painfully in his chest.

    Taylor was already standing. She pulled the blade out from her eye, wiping at the blood on her face. She blinked as her eye came back whole.

    Sophia jerked against her chair violently as Taylor returned to her mother. She wrapped the woman up in a hug from behind, gently pulling her head back to rest a knife against her neck.

    Robin looked down as something tugged against him. It was the cable for the Christmas lights.

    “DON’T YOU FUCKING DARE—” Sophia howled, spittle flying. She phased, buzzing against the lights around her, and materialized screaming.

    “The strong take what they want, Sophia,” Taylor said, her voice lilting with sardonic delight. “You taught me that. Repeatedly, in fact, in those exact words.”

    “Taylor.” Robin managed to pull himself into a kneeling crouch. He felt tired; his shoulder throbbed and his shirt was warm and wet with blood. “Whatever your grievance is with Sophia, let her family go. They’re innocent.”

    “You’re right,” she agreed. “That’s why it’ll hurt more.”

    Robin exhaled. “Alright,” he said, bowing his head low in apparent defeat. Behind, his hands twisted the cable taut. He made sure to keep it low to the ground, snaking it tighter inch by inch with the slowest of movements.

    He peered up through the bangs of his hair, watching Taylor carefully as she shifted her focus to him. Mild puzzlement crossed her face.

    “Wait, this is a trick, right?” Taylor asked, slightly baffled. “You’re not really giving—”

    “SOPHIA, NOW!” Robin yelled, yanking the cord out of the socket.

    Sophia burst into smoke the moment the lights around her winked out. Robin slammed into Taylor, trying to bring her to the ground but this time it was like pulling stone. He tried punching instead, but Taylor just slapped him down with the butt of her knife. She pushed him aside with her knee as Sophia surged forward, materializing with her broken crossbow, her face contorted with rage as she drove it straight into Taylor.

    Taylor stepped back, a mix of amused bewilderment flashing across her face as she gingerly touched the crossbow half-embedded in her chest. “Wow, this is new. Kinda tingly.”

    Robin grabbed Sophia before she could move forward. “Get your family out. I’ll try to slow her down.” He shook the teen when she didn’t respond, forcing her to face him. “NOW.”

    “You guys done with your hero plans yet?” Taylor asked. She plunged her knife into her chest, sawing around the crossbow haphazardly before ripping it out. The fused flesh hung raggedly from the crossbow, dripping red. Already the gaping wound was knitting close; blood flowed up her suit, retreating into her body as skin and muscle wrapped around the restored bones. Her suit was restored last, the black material simply closing up.

    She was pristine again. “Shall we?”

    “Sophia, GO,” Velocity shouted as he intercepted Taylor. He spun a quick roundhouse kick to her face but she grabbed it again. She pulled him closer, her other hand clasping down on his knee. Before Velocity could even try to jerk back, she pushed down.

    His leg snapped, knee bending in the wrong direction. He stumbled back as Taylor released him, his head swimming with a jolt of adrenaline. He could feel his heartbeat thrumming through the bone cutting through his calf.

    The pain caught up with him when he crashed to the floor. He screamed, squeezing his thigh uselessly. Taylor stepped over him.

    Sophia sliced desperately at the ropes around her mother with one of her bolts. She could hear Velocity howling but she didn’t dare to look, focusing on the ropes, pulling and tugging the remnants away. Finally, as the last bits fell loose to the floor, her mother slumped over into her arms.

    Suddenly she felt a presence looming behind her. Sophia whirled around, brandishing the bolt in her hand aggressively. Taylor stood calmly with a placid smile, hands behind her back.

    Come on, she mouthed, sliding her tongue across her teeth.

    Sophia rushed her with an incoherent yell. She stabbed down and thrust forward, slicing wildly at Taylor. The other girl let her as she weaved from side to side, effortlessly bending around her efforts.

    Sophia turned to smoke, surging behind for another angle. She materialized from above, already swinging down. Taylor was turning, just in time to meet the tri-pronged tip with her face.

    The arrowhead shattered upon impact.

    Sophia lurched off-balanced. She tried again, stabbing over and over, but the broken shaft just bounced off like it was scratching rock as Taylor remained untouched.

    The bald girl crooked an eyebrow as if to ask, you done?

    Then she shot forward, slapping a flat palm against Sophia’s chest that knocked the breath out of her. Sophia swung desperately but Taylor simply brushed her hands aside. She kicked Sophia’s feet out under her and smashed a knee into her face as she stumbled over.

    Sophia staggered back, one hand on her bleeding nose. Her vision crossed double; twin Taylors coalesced into one before the girl grabbed her roughly by the neck and raised her off the ground.

    Sophia gasped, twisting weakly in Taylor’s grasp. She grappled against the fingers around her throat but only managed a few feeble smacks against them. She tried to concentrate on her power but her head rattled with pain.

    “Am I speaking your language now, Sophia?” Taylor asked, her face blank and her eyes dead. “Power, violence. Predator, prey. Did I miss anything?” She tightened her grip a notch, and Sophia gurgled in response.

    Something grabbed her leg. Taylor looked down to see Velocity, pulling at her ankle. He was chalk-white and clammy, his lips near ash grey. Blood trailed behind him — a long streak across the marble tiling. His eyes were hooded with exhaustion but still he raised his face up to meet her eyes with a spark of focused grit.

    Taylor tilted her head, almost curiously regarding him as she pulled her leg away from his weak grasp. She dropped Sophia; the other girl groaned as she bounced off the marble harshly.

    “Are you two close or something? Mentor, mentee?” The bald girl pulled a long katana out over her shoulder as she spoke. “Will you be sad if I kill him too, Sophia?”

    Sophia looked up from the ground. She was crying; long, silent tears mixed with blood as they streamed down her face, a mess of rivulets. “No. Yes. What do you want me to say, Taylor?” she rasped tiredly. Her voice shook as she broke into an ugly sob. “I’m sorry. I’m wrong. I’m the loser. Please. Just please.”

    Taylor was quiet and still, her knuckles white around her katana. The blade gleamed narrowly next to Velocity. She opened her mouth, but a shot rang out before she could speak, nearly throwing her off her feet. Taylor stabbed into the floor, cutting jaggedly through the marble as she tried to regain her balance.

    Miss Militia stood at the doorway, shouldering a glowing .50 BMG rifle. She fired again, and again, bursting thunder that sent Taylor flying across the room.

    ***

    I won’t remember this, Lisa repeated to herself in her mind, grasping desperately onto that thought as they arrived at their destination.

    Two men were signalling them down, their clothes buffeting in the rotor wash. They stepped back as the chopper hovered closer to the ground and kicked the dust up.

    They had flown for almost 20 mins, out near the city limits, to reach the concrete skeleton of a building still under construction. At a different time, she might have been happy to confirm her suspicions about Fortress Construction and Coil; now she didn’t need her power to tell her that he would have never allowed her to see this link unless he knew it didn’t matter.

    The men around her were silent throughout the ride. They kept their masks on and never made eye contact, and Lisa didn’t bother to probe them.

    Have orders to bring you in alive; have expended many resources in doing so

    Man opposite you tense; leader of the team; left behind few of his men to PRT to cover escape; planning to have words with Coil

    Man beside you confused; the daylight entry into PRT; the sacrifice of their operational secrecy

    Lisa tried to calm herself as they flung the chopper door open and pulled her out. Lisa stumbled, nearly falling if not for the leader grabbing her arm and wrenching her up to her feet. He didn’t let go, his hand like a vice on her bicep as he dragged her forward.

    “Hey! You know I’m handcuffed, right? You put them on me yourself,” she yelped, waving her bound hands. The metal links jingled as she tried to keep up with the man. “You think I can escape like this?”

    He ignored her. The other mercenaries flanked around him as they walked towards a nondescript entrance hidden in the shadow of the building. Lisa let herself get dragged, her feet half sliding across the sandy ground.

    As they stepped out of the sun and into the unfinished level, Glory Girl suddenly slammed into the floor next to them. The shock of her landing staggered the mercenaries as they scrambled to react, but Glory Girl was already moving. She darted forward, letting a bullet bounce off her as she grabbed the shooter and plunged him hard into the ground.

    His partner spun around shakily, rifle raised. He started to aim, finger on the trigger but he was too slow. Glory Girl zipped right in his face, dust kicking up at her feet as she grabbed his weapon and wrenched it out of his hands. Before he could react, she jabbed the butt of the rifle into his chest, hard, and punted him through the air to the other side of the building. He slammed around a pillar and spun into the ground motionless.

    “MOVE!” the leader barked as he jerked Lisa forward. The rest of his men flanked him. They fired at Glory Girl, but she was gone, leaping through the bare concrete ceiling and showering them in dust.

    Lisa looked around wildly, giving up on subtlety as she dug her feet in. She twisted, kicking out at the leader. He growled, ignoring her legs and slammed the butt of his pistol into her stomach. Lisa gasped as she bent over doubled, pain radiating through her. She flailed weakly as the mercenary heaved her onto his shoulder.

    For a second, Lisa only heard the sound of boots, drumming through her as they ran for the elevator. Then, a crash — Glory Girl burst out of the ceiling. She landed on a mercenary, driving him into the ground with a heavy crack. The rest turned and fired but they struck the sandbag she was holding instead. She spun, arcing sand into their eyes before flinging the bag into the face of the nearest guy. The force flipped him over backwards and slammed him headfirst into the ground.

    The last three men ran. Lisa stifled a groan as her stomach bounced on the mercenary’s shoulder. One of the men lagged behind, turning to provide some cover. He was still blinking furiously, trying to refocus. Lisa watched as he managed to get two shots off before Glory Girl flew forward and slapped the gun out of his hand—

    Wrist broken; hand shattered.

    —then backhanded him into a concrete pillar.

    “What the fuck?!”

    Lisa twisted her head around to see the entrance rolling away from them, the distance yawning an impossible length in an instance. The men froze.

    “HEY!”

    Vista roared as she leaped off a stack of metal beams, two batons in hand. She threw one into the other mercenary's face. The baton crackled on impact, electrifying the man as he yelped and tumbled backwards.

    The leader reacted immediately. He whipped up his pistol and fired with no hesitation. Three shots thundered, but nothing happened. He only had a split-second to realize something was wrong before Vista reached him. She jabbed him in the wrist, sending a spark that shocked it useless and forced his hand open. He dropped the gun.

    He stepped backwards, using Lisa as a counterweight as he kicked out at Vista. The Ward bore his boot stoically as it struck her chest. She grabbed him before he could pull it back and then jabbed her second baton into the back of his knee. He grunted as his legs turned jelly and folded underneath him, sending the three of them sprawling into the ground.

    The mercenary leader reached out for his gun. He pulled himself taut across the floor, fingers almost scrabbling against the handle before Vista stomped onto his hand and thrust her taser-baton into his neck.

    She held it there for a few seconds as he stiffened, eyes wide and unseeing

    Lisa groaned, her head spinning. She pushed herself up, wiping the sand off her face when she saw the mercenary hit by the first baton sitting up. He had his pistol aimed at Vista.

    “Watch—!”

    Glory Girl interrupted in a burst of wind, punching the gun to pieces in his hand. The man screamed as his forearm snapped sideways. The blonde kicked him in his bulletproof vest and sent him sliding across the ground out into the open. He remained unmoving.

    She turned around, picking up the fallen baton with a raised eyebrow. Vista met it with an innocent shrug.

    “What? I also always bring a spare,” she said. The entrance snapped back into place as she picked the mercenary leader’s pistol up and aimed it to the side. Three bullets tumbled to the ground.

    She unloaded the magazine and tossed the gun to Glory Girl, who crushed it in her hand as she returned Vista her baton.

    “Something’s wrong.”

    Lisa managed to stand, her legs still wobbly. She looked at the broken bodies lying on the floor.

    Unconscious shattered wrist; unconscious head trauma; unconscious spinal injury; unconsc—

    Wearing advanced monitoring kits for vitals; HQ updated of their current vitals statuses

    She turned to look at the plain entranceway, half expecting it to reveal a hail of gunfire.

    “Hey, you should sit down,” Vista said, pointing a baton at her. “PRT’s already on their way.”

    “Listen.” Lisa tried to calm her voice down. “We’re currently standing on Coil’s secret’s base. We need to go before more of his men show up.”

    “You mean the villain that no one even knows has powers?” Vista frowned. “How do you know that?”

    “We already beat his men,” Glory Girl pointed out, folding her arms.

    “Trust me, he has powers. And he has more men. I can explain more on the way, but for now we should—”

    The wide doors to the entrance suddenly chimed, cutting through all conversation. They banged open, metal rattling against metal. Everyone froze as the doors rumbled apart.

    A man was slumped against the wall on the far interior of the carriage, motionless. He looked at the three of them with wide eyes, clutching his bloody vest.

    “Vista, wait!” Glory Girl shouted as the shorter girl ran forward into the elevator. “Fuck.” She moved to follow, before turning to grab Lisa and dragging her along.

    Vista was lowering the mercenary to the ground. “He’s been stabbed,” she said as they entered the lift. She was rifling through the pockets on his vest. “I’m not sure how deep it is.”

    Stabbed 30 seconds ago; wound deep; will die without immediate medical attention

    Lisa recognized the man. He once pointed a gun at her head while handing over a phone that changed her life.

    “It’s just a flesh wound,” she said aloud. “We should go.”

    “Are you trying to censor things for me? Because I’m the one with her hands bloody here,” Vista snipped as she finally found a pack of bandages in a pocket by the side. She pulled it out, tearing it open, and held them over his wound. “Glory Girl, can you tear some material off his pants or something? I need something to bind this up.”

    The man gurgled wordlessly as Vista pressed her weight down onto his chest. His eyes were unfocused as they stared up at the ceiling.

    Thinks you want to spare her gory details; is experienced with stab wounds

    Suddenly, the doors started closing.

    “What the shit?” Vista whirled around, still keeping her hands pinned over the mercenary’s chest.

    Glory Girl pushed Lisa in as she scanned the carriage. “There’re no buttons here at all. Vista, we need to go.”

    “I can’t just leave! He’s going to die if we don’t stop the bleeding!”

    The doors clanged shut. A bout of weightlessness washed over them as they started to descend.

    “Damnit, Vis,” Glory Girl cursed before kneeling down next to the Ward. She tore a leg off his pants, pulling them into strips and tying them into a makeshift rope. Vista grabbed the leftover material and stuffed it atop the red-soaked bandages. Together they wrapped it around the man, packing everything tight to the wound and tied it off.

    Vista felt his neck for a pulse. “He’s alive.” She sat down heavily. “Barely.”

    Glory Girl rounded on Lisa. “Okay, enough games. What’s going on?”

    Lisa took a step back and put her hands up. The handcuffs jingled. “Hey, I had nothing to do with this,” she said carefully.

    “You wanted to leave. You knew something was about to happen.”

    “Yeah, I thought Coil was going to attack us! Not... not this.”

    “Why did you think that Coil was going to attack us?” Vista asked as she stood up. She peeled off her bloodied gloves, tucking them into her belt. “What’s your connection to him?”

    “I work for the bastard.” Lisa chuckled dryly. “He tends to throw a tantrum when things don’t go his way.”

    Glory Girl raised an eyebrow. “And you work for this bastard?”

    Lisa flashed her a fake smile, wide and all teeth. “Yes. Why do you think I work for him?”

    The other two blondes glanced at each other. The monotonous hum of the lift descending filled the air for a moment.

    “Okay,” Vista said. “What can you tell us about the base?”

    “Nothing much.” Lisa felt herself getting defensive as Glory Girl looked at her skeptically. “What? I’ve never been here before.”

    “What about his power then?” Vista asked. She had her arms folded, with one hand propped underneath her chin. “You said he has powers?”

    Lisa looked up as she considered her answer. Her power already identified the hidden camera over the elevator doors. Coil was probably listening in as he waited for them below.

    She was already going to be killed or tortured either way. At least I wouldn’t remember it, she mused. Holding that thought tightly in her mind, she exhaled.

    “He splits timelines. Simulates or creates them. Practically, it doesn’t matter.” Lisa looked straight at them. “In effect, he exists in two concurrent realities simultaneously. One world, he keeps secure; the other, he experiments. He’ll make a move and if it works, he keeps that timeline and discards the other. If it doesn’t, he still gets useful data from it to try again from the secured timeline.”

    Glory Girl looked thoughtful. “That’s why he mounted an assault on the PRT in broad daylight? He’s planning to discard this timeline?”

    “Yes,” Lisa nodded. She didn’t need her power to confirm that.

    “That sounds insanely reckless,” Vista said, frowning.

    “Not for him. Maybe he’s attacked the PRT multiple times now, just to get the information he needs. None of us would know.”

    “Why are we still here then?” Glory Girl waved her arms out slightly.

    “What do you think?” Lisa gave her a long look as she pushed herself off the wall. They felt the lift slowing down. “Look, take it from me. Coil is a ruthless bastard and so are the men he employs. That guy?” she nodded towards the unconscious mercenary on the floor. “That guy would have happily put a bullet in all our heads with zero hesitation.”

    The other girl tapped her feet impatiently. “You want to say something, just say it.”

    Lisa walked closer and looked her in the eye. “All of them are capable of killing their own mothers for a payout. So don’t pull your punches. Don’t give them an inch.”

    Vista rolled her eyes. “Sure. We’ll take that under advisement, villain.”

    The elevator arrived with a chime, and the doors rolled open. They hid in Vista-expanded alcoves next to the door, tense and waiting.

    A long silence ticked by. They looked at each other, before Glory Girl peeked out for a quick look.

    “It’s empty.”

    The elevator opened out to a wide corridor. Fluorescent lights lined the ceiling, washing the gray walls in a buzzing white.

    “So where’s the hitsquad?” Vista whispered to the others as they walked cautiously down the path. Her voice still carried loudly through the empty space. “They have to know we’re here by now, right?”

    “There was a camera in the lift,” Lisa replied. Her power was silent. “I don’t... this doesn’t make any sense.”

    They reached the exit at the end of the corridor after a minute of walking. It was a set of metal doors, solid and imposing, with no obvious buttons or mechanism to open them.

    Vista pressed a hand to one panel and concentrated. “No one seems to be on the other side either.” She and Lisa turned to look at Glory Girl.

    The blonde rolled her eyes and stepped forward. She punched into the doors, denting them. Digging her fingers into the metal and warping them into makeshift handles, she pulled the exit open.

    Lisa looked around intently as she stepped through, willing her power to latch on to something. They had just come through the side, entering another long corridor.

    “You feeling left or right?” she heard Glory Girl say as she noticed a light flickering down at one end.

    Floors clean; building still new; lights still new; flicker due to external disturbance

    Lisa started walking towards the flicking light. “This way,” she shouted back.

    “What?”

    “Hey— wait!”

    Lisa pointed to the blinking fixture on the ceiling. “This building’s new. That shouldn’t be happening.”

    Glory Girl glanced up. “Well, I suppose that’s better than flipping a coin.” She cocked her head. “Hey, wait.”

    Lisa’s power pinged at the same time. “There’s a—”

    “There’s a bullet lodged up there,” Glory Girl said first. She looked at Lisa. “Guess you were right.”

    Lisa tried to squash her irritation. She never liked being interrupted. “There must have been some kind of fight here.”

    Vista rapped against the closed doors at the end of the corridor. “Can’t detect anything living in there either.”

    Glory Girl dug her hands into them again. She had to brace herself against the floor as she pushed one side open. “This is heavier than the last one,” she grunted as she took one slow step at a time.

    Sparks flew as a loud crunch echoed through the walls. Glory Girl stumbled on the last few steps, throwing the door open.

    The room was plush and enormous. The floor was a polished green marble, contrasting nicely against the wood panels detailing the walls. A set of couches, black leather and gold trimmings, lay tastefully at one corner. Television screens spanned across one side of the wall, and a grand painting of a mountain range dominated the back of the room, towering over a wide mahogany table.

    Behind the table was a tall leather chair, its back turned to them. The three froze for a long moment. As the silence lost its tension and became strange, they glanced at each other and moved up gingerly.

    They rounded the table to see a man slumped into the chair, eyes wide and dead. His mask was torn to the neck and the top of his scalp was cut open. The white markings coiled around his black bodysuit were stained red.

    “Coil?” Glory Girl asked, turning away from the man’s face. It was frozen in a rictus of terror.

    Lisa couldn’t reply. Her power was churning away with a litany of facts but she couldn’t focus on it as adrenaline surged between her ears and sent them ringing.

    Coil was dead?

    “Tattletale?”

    Lisa flinched. She turned around blankly, and Glory Girl flashed a look of concern.

    Her body seemed to move on clockwork as she jerked out of her trance and stepped forward. She pushed the body and chair out of the way, grabbing the keyboard on the desk.

    “Hey, that’s evidence,” Vista protested, but her voice didn’t have her previous bravado.

    “We have to find a way to reactivate the elevator to get out,” Lisa explained, not looking up. “Luckily the computer’s unlocked.”

    There was a program running minimized; she opened it. The TV screens on the wall lit up soundlessly.

    “What the...” Glory Girl trailed off as she peered at the screens. “Hey, are those the missing mercs?”

    Mercenaries lay motionless on the ground in what seemed to be an equipment room. The door was closed.

    “Are they dead?” Vista asked aloud. No one replied her.

    “I can’t seem to find the controls for the elevator from here. Try looking around, maybe there’s some controls hidden around here,” Lisa said. Her fingers were still shaking and her feet felt jittery; she wanted to move, to pace and run. She glanced at Coil’s dead face again, just for a quick second, before turning back to the computer and squeezing her hand into a tight fist.

    She exhaled and checked the browser. For all his paranoia, Coil still saved his credentials locally. She picked up his phone lying on the table and entered his passcode; the phone unlocked. She guessed it a long time ago so it was good that Coil wasn’t a man to frequently update his security. Cracking into his banking accounts should be easy; covering her tracks from the PRT investigation might be slightly harder.

    First, she just needed to distract the other two somehow. She straightened up.

    “Hey,” she called out. Vista and Glory Girl were huddled over something; they turned to her at her voice. “I think the elevators might be controlled elsewhere. Why don’t—”

    Lisa froze as she spotted the silver object in Vista's hands. It looked like a giant egg, sparkling underneath the lights, and sent a spike of agony through her head as her power flared.


    W̸̡̨̛̖̩͎̱͉̦͖̣̮͂͂͆̍̌̐̓̿̂͆̐̈́͝H̸̨̛̜̺̬̯͎͚͍̞́̽̌̀̐̌͛̏̅͒͆͝È̴̻̳̱̙̻̊̈́̍̂̔̆͂̋͠N̶̟̪̜͎̘̜̙͉͇̓̉̄̓̔͐ ̶̧̨̙̙̼͕͔͍̥̖̤̼̤̈́͆̋͛͑̍̾̈́̕Y̸̠͖̐̅̎̈̃͑̑O̴͚̜̬̜͔̣̝͛͂̓̀̒͛̄̏̃͝͝Ü̵̧̠̥̭͓͍̟̠̮̗̤̘͉̻̓̃͑̀̾ ̶̡͖̺̓̌̒͆̽͘Ṣ̸̛̹̹͍̙̬̖̺͉͉̟̀͑̍̑͆̈́̊̉̎̚ͅẸ̴̬͎̯̫̠̗̱̖̪̓̃͊́̒̈́̾̽͌͆͐̊̊̀Ĕ̴̢̹̪͚̤̹̩̹̞͎̦̠̿̓̏̊̂͌̄̌̓ͅͅ ̷̢̛̺͕̤̠̲̲͖̗̙̳͖̯͗̂̿̊̀̕T̸̢̡̡̬̜̝̘̳̠͎̝͍̹͛̐̐̔̈́̋̀̆̀̊͛̕ͅH̶̢̛̰̤̟͇͕̮̒͛E̵̹͎͎̻̬̤͍̘̟̳͋̔̓͒̅́̏͆̚ͅ ̴͎̞̫̮̺̜͚̆ͅĢ̵̡̧͍͖͕̦̰̳̜̠͕͕̦̓̉̃͊͘̕͝Ỏ̷̟̜̰͚͕̖̭͎̮̂͋̂̒̋̋́̑́̚͝ͅL̵̢̘̹̣̻̮̱̰̟͔̓̾͑͂̒̈́̕D̷̨̟̝͔̗͎͊̅̍͊̈̆̔̀͛͠ͅË̴̻̼͇́̾N̴̢̮̦̱̳͛̒͛̋͌̆͗̐̏ ̸̣͕̭̭̹̑̀̓̾͠M̸͎̝̰̝̱̮͓͚̦̼̪͈̻͍̂͆͐̈́͒̑͋̄̋̈́̕͝͝Ā̷̮͇̲̞͔̋̂̋̈́̓̊̀̓͛̉͋͋N̵̡̨͉̬͉̦̖̻̳͇̰͚̲̘̆͋ ̵̧̘̘͓̠͎̪̫̲̝̻͕̓̑̾́͂̄̋̐͝͝—̸̧̢͔̝̤̤̋͆̊͆͒́ ̴̤̜̓̋͗͗̋́̐̀̓̌́̚͝ͅŖ̷͙͖̭͈̙̝͙̊̌̋͐̿̉́̇̃̾̓Ȗ̶̫͓̻N̸̪̮͍̥͎͋̌̓̓̃̔͂̐͆͋̏́͘͠


    A golden light burst out, sweeping across the room in an instant. Lisa managed to stagger clear of the table before she collapsed. The air's glittering, she thought idly as her vision dimmed.

    ***

    Hannah raised her rifle just as Taylor Hebert crashed into her. Her eyes were wild as she brought her katana down, cutting into her energized power. Hannah could feel the pressure building in her weapon; it was going to burst at any moment. She twisted, pivoting around the blade with the body of her rifle just before it sliced through.

    Immediately, she reformed her power into a sword and thrust forward. The green blade burst into an unbridled flame on contact. Hannah pushed it deeper but Taylor only grinned as the fire lengthened and danced over her chest.

    Hannah jerked back just as the teen came at her. She could feel the force rattling the bones in her arms as their blades clashed.

    Taylor fought with one hand behind her back. Her red sash trailed gracefully behind her as she pressed Hannah back. She smiled pleasantly, slamming hit after hit into the heroine’s sword, swinging from below or slashing from the top. Hannah was already panting, her arms shaking as she was pressed back into a wall.

    One swipe, and Taylor smashed her sword away before darting forward. Hannah rematerialized her power just in time to push the blade off-course. It pierced the wall behind her instead.

    She could feel metal stinging against her neck.

    Hannah kicked out, but Taylor stayed immovable and she nearly kicked herself deeper onto the blade next to her throat. She pushed against the blade with her own at the last second and went rolling sideways.

    Taylor Hebert pulled her katana out of the wall and walked slowly towards her. “My, my,” she said, her voice obnoxiously high and lilting. “So many people here to save poor, weak Sophia. Why? She’s nothing. Beyond nothing. Just spit on the bottom of my shoe.”

    Hannah didn’t bother to reply. Instead, she lifted her blade straight up as it shifted, pulling the trigger before the form settled. The BMG rifle roared green fire, spitting a round point-blank into Taylor’s face.

    Taylor blinked, bringing her hand down from her face. She unfolded her fist to show the bullet dissipating from her palm.

    Hannah fired again but Taylor had already pushed the barrel of the rifle aside; it simply blasted a hole in the wall behind her as she flicked her blade up; Hannah could feel the sharp point of the katana poised underneath her jaw.

    “Maybe she’ll cry for you too,” the girl said as she peered down the length of the gleaming metal. Hannah glared back, refusing to blink. She could feel the blade slicing in.

    Then Taylor was smashing into the wall on the other side of the room. Hannah gasped, clutching her throat as the pressure disappeared. She pulled her rifle up as she tried to stand.

    A second Taylor Hebert floated in the air, her hands glowing. She was more easily recognizable — albeit with blond curly hair pulled up into a high ponytail. She wore a yellow jacket over her bodysuit, with thick, padded shoulders that made it look oversized on her. A pair of heart-shaped sunglasses, tinted red, perched on her head.

    She spared a quick glance at Hannah before refocusing on her other self.

    “Newton?” said the first Taylor, the one with the red sash, as she climbed through the crumbling wall. Her eyes were narrowed, almost in disbelief as her katana slipped from her hand and clattered loudly to the ground. The air in the room hushed as the two Taylors stared at each other. “This isn’t real.”

    “I just shoved you into a wall, Cardinal,” Yellow Taylor replied evenly. She stepped down to the ground soundlessly. “I’m here.”

    Hannah shifted, slowly and quietly as she tried to angle herself better to cover both Taylors. Newton and Cardinal, she noted. Could she trust the new Taylor? Did they have some sort of conflict? She glanced around quickly, trying to map an exit route. She had a small squad of PRT troopers waiting for her orders outside but they weren’t going to be any help here. She needed to get the injured out before this escalated further.

    Cardinal cocked her head, seemingly considering for a moment, before chuckling lightly. “No,” she said, shaking her head. The world flashed gray for a split second and her katana twirled in her hand. “You’re just another lie. She’s dead.”

    Then she pounced.

    Hannah squeezed the trigger, knowing it was too late. She could feel the reverberations running through her rifle, the long roll of metal as the bolt receiver slid back. Fire burst from the end of the barrel as she hit Cardinal; the tinker burst out of the dark smoke unaffected, her blade already sweeping in from the side for a decisive strike.

    She missed, drawing a thin line across Hannah’s nose instead. Yellow bands wrapped around Cardinal as she suddenly flew up into the ceiling. She snarled, turning to swipe at Newton as she was dragged through the lights.

    “Stop—” she tried to say, before Newton flicked her wrist and sent her rocketing through the window out of the house.

    Hannah could barely keep up as Cardinal reappeared again, running off the wall with her blade up high. She twisted her rifle into a sword, a surge of desperate adrenaline jolting her arms as she tried to block but then Newton was there, grabbing the katana just before it cut into her. The tinker stepped in neatly, blocking Hannah from Cardinal as she wrenched the katana away. The blade glowed yellow, almost mummified, before Newton released it.

    It dropped up into the ceiling in a puff of dust, a splatter of cracks flashing wide around it as it landed upside-down.

    “Stop it!” Cardinal snapped as she tried to dart around her double. A knife flashed in her hand, but Newton grabbed it before she could thrust forward and suddenly they were across the room, smashing into the ground. The knife glowed yellow as it dropped upwards, and Cardinal was brandishing a new knife as she leapt to her feet, eyeing Newton frustratedly.

    Newton raised her hands. Her eyes were wide and pleading. “Please, Cardinal. I’m here, I’m sorry. I’m really here, okay?”

    “Shut up! SHUT UP!” Cardinal snarled. She was taut and quivering as she stared at Newton. “I saw you. I SAW YOU. You’re dead. You’re all dead.”

    She suddenly looked over at Hannah. “Is this you? Do you have some kind of stinking thinker outside, putting shit in my head?!”

    Thunder flashed as the world twisted negative for a split second. Cardinal reappeared, pulling her knife out of a trooper’s stomach as she threw him to the ground. The man gurgled, clutching his guts as a flash of gray split the room again. Cardinal was suddenly on the other side, struggling to stab her knife into another trooper as Newton wrestled with her.

    “You’re not real!” Cardinal roared, shouldering her double away. A quick swipe; Hannah raised her gun but it was too late. The man met her eyes, wide and stupefied as his throat leaked red.

    Yellow light flooded the room as Newton flung a cabinet into Cardinal, knocking her away before she could kill a third trooper. Then she whirled around and grabbed the spot before Cardinal was there, stopping her knife just before it reached her target.

    The trooper yelled, falling to the ground. He tucked his legs in, hunkering down as flashes of yellow and red streaked around him. Hannah took a step forward, wanting to help, but there was nothing she could do. The two Taylors were like ghosts, moving so fast, so viciously that every clash only left a single image seared into the air.

    The man was shrouded by a flickering wall of afterimages.

    A knife shot out suddenly. Hannah flinched as the blade, glowing yellow, gorged a deep scar through the marble flooring. Another knife flicked over her head, the ceiling cracking in its wake. For a moment she felt herself slipping backwards as if she was trying to walk up a wall. Paint stripped off the ceiling, falling in tattered clumps over her.

    Then it was over. Newton gripped Cardinal’s arm, clasping it tight as she plunged the knife into herself. She was panting, hair plastered to her face, breath loud in the room. Blood dripped over their joined hands, slicking them red.

    Cardinal jerked away, almost leaping back as she stared wide-eyed at her double. She looked down at her glistening hand. “Why?” she asked, staggering back. “That’s not... why did you...”

    The last trooper scrambled away panicked, practically flinging himself to the nearest corner of the room.

    Newton winced as she pulled the knife out of her chest. She looked down, frowning as she turned the blade over in her hand. “Oh, Cardinal,” she sighed, her voice breaking slightly. “I’m sorry I’m late.”

    Cardinal looked up dazedly, her face furrowed with confusion. She turned, her eyes darting unseeingly around the room, the blood, the people.

    Hannah watched as Newton reached out gingerly to her double, as if trying to corral a frightened animal. Behind her, Sophia was hugging her mother and brother tightly, trembling as she watched the two Taylors.

    Near her, Velocity was slumped on the floor, his complexion chalk-white. His eyes were slitted, barely open while he breathed through his mouth. Hannah felt her power rippling as she met his gaze; her fingers gripped tight around her gun, nearly twisting it in two. She needed to move, to rush across the room, but she felt as if pressed against an impassable wall, her limbs locked and frozen as she continued to watch the Taylors warily.

    “But I saw you,” Cardinal repeated, clutching her head. Her hands were pressed into her scalp, smearing blood over herself; she shook her head in disbelief, eyes wide as she stared at Newton. “I don’t— You shouldn’t— Not like this—”

    Newton stepped forward slowly, carefully. She kept her voice soft as she spoke. “Just... stay there, alright? Let me fix all of this and—”

    “It’s too late!” Cardinal snapped. “It’s... it’s too late. Everything’s BROKEN and you can’t fix this, you can’t fix this—”

    “Cardinal, calm down! Listen to my—”

    “I couldn’t fix you,” Cardinal whispered. She lowered her hands, clenching them into fists. Her eyes were red. “You were gold. Like everyone else.”

    “It doesn’t matter anymore. Just stop for a moment and we can—”

    “You’re right.” Cardinal broke into a dry, humourless laugh. It sounded desperate, sad. “Nothing matters anymore.”

    The bracer on her arm lit up suddenly, flashing red as Cardinal ran her fingers down the length of it.

    Newton straightened, alarm flashing across her face. “Don’t—”

    “I guess I lose again,” Cardinal said, her tone resigned and yet also expectant. The world spun on its axis and the marble flooring cracked; she disappeared, the sound of cloth unfurling in her wake.

    Sophia flinched as she felt a ghost of a sash trailing past her.

    “Is she gone?” Hannah asked in the sudden hush. Her heart hammered loudly in her ears as she took a few steps forward tentatively, finger still ready on the trigger.

    Newton was still staring at the empty spot where Cardinal was. “She’s gone,” she said tonelessly.

    Hannah was already kneeling by Robin, grasping for a pulse. He seemed to sigh, leaning into her hand as he closed his eyes completely. Hannah tapped his shoulder urgently, restraining her strength. “Hey. HEY! Don’t you dare go to sleep on me!”

    “You should step back,” Newton spoke up dispassionately from behind.

    Hannah whirled around, her power coalescing as a pistol in her hand. “Excuse me?” she asked tersely, but the girl was fiddling with her bracer, the lights reflecting softly off her face.

    Suddenly she was pressing down against blood. It was wet, sticky, clinging to her as it seeped into her clothes.

    Robin was gone, lying instead on the floor next to Sophia’s family. Beside them were the Barnes and the two dead PRT troopers. Emma Barnes was sitting in front of everyone, hugging her knees and staring blankly at the hole in the wall.

    “What the hell are you doing?!” Hannah leaped up, gun levelled at Newton. Sophia had also scrambled to her feet. She stood stiffly behind Hannah, hands clasped tightly together as she tried to stop trembling.

    “I think 3 hours should do it,” Newton muttered. She glanced at Hannah, unconcerned about her gun. “Reversing time. They’ll be back to full health, whole and hale.”

    Hannah lowered her gun fractionally. “What?”

    “Offer’s open to you too, you know,” Newton continued, her eyes shifting to Sophia. The other girl jerked up at the attention, freezing up as she met her gaze.

    “What?” Sophia echoed. Her mouth opened and shut wordlessly.

    “I can do the same for you so you won't remember the last couple of hours.”

    “I... I...” Sophia looked away, unable to get her words out.

    Newton waited for a beat. “Alright,” she said, turning back to the bodies. She typed something into her bracer and suddenly a wide, golden light suffused over them. Hannah winced as she averted her eyes; in her peripheral vision, through her lashes, she could see Newton staring directly into the light.

    Then it was over. Light glittered and swirled around the couch. Velocity looked fresh and pink, his leg unbroken. The troopers looked fine, their uniforms still neat and tidy. The Barnes and Hesses were in clean pyjamas, completely restored as they lay against each other with their eyes closed. Their skins sparkled with some strange, iridescent energy.

    Before Newton could say anything, Hannah shouldered past her, already striding forward. Deja vu flashed over her as she crouched over Robin, pressing a palm over his chest. She exhaled, sagging slightly as she felt the reassuring beat of his heart against her hand. She grabbed the wrist of the person next to him — Sophia’s brother — just to check, just in case. His pulse thrummed strong as well.

    “They’re sleeping,” Newton added softly. Hannah blinked as she came back to herself. She stood, watching as Newton waved her hand and drew the shimmering remnants of light into her. Her bodysuit glowed yellow as she absorbed them. “For them, it’s as if nothing ever happened.”

    “How convenient. Like they weren’t just tortured and murdered.” Hannah felt her lips curl involuntarily underneath her mask. Her power quivered in her hand, rapidly shifting between different forms. “Is this some kind of sick game for you?”

    Newton met her angry glare steadily. She dipped her head slightly, spreading her palms out. “It’s not. It’s just what I can do. I really am sorry.”

    “If you’re really sorry then you’ll come in with us, help us stop your double.”

    Newton sucked her lips in, looking out the window instead. Outside, Hannah could see a crowd gathering as more PRT reinforcements arrived.

    Behind them, the dome stood tall over the city skyline.

    She already knew the tinker’s answer.

    “I’m sorry,” Newton said again, looking at Sophia this time. She was suddenly next to Emma, picking lint off the sleeping redhead’s shirt.

    And then she was gone.

    Around them, knives and blades clattered to the ground, their yellow glow winking out.
     
  10. nezexyzzar

    nezexyzzar Getting out there.

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    New chapter posted! Nice catch, you guys were right :)
     
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  11. Vampirec

    Vampirec Making the rounds.

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    shouldn't it be master instead of thinker ?
     
  12. nezexyzzar

    nezexyzzar Getting out there.

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    Oops, let chalk that up to her not thinking straight in that moment...

    Because I kinda like how "stinking thinker" rolls off the tongue more lol
     
    JoTa34 likes this.
  13. nota_writer

    nota_writer Making the rounds.

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    I really enjoyed this story so far. Not a clue where it is going, but I'm here for it.
     
    hunter1933 and nezexyzzar like this.
  14. Emiya Pendragon

    Emiya Pendragon The Boundary

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    Finally! This is the torture I wanted sophia and Emma to face!
     
  15. havefeith

    havefeith Cute Haru is cute.

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    I may have read this from start to finish, but I'm not sure I like how bug-out stupid it went in the latest chapters. I just wanted to read a story where Taylor is a Time Tinker, not some knock off Crisis on Infinite Earths with knock on after effects. This is getting a little too crazy for how it started.
     
    hunter1933, DrakenWise and Vanbers like this.
  16. Threadmarks: When You See Him, Run
    nezexyzzar

    nezexyzzar Getting out there.

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    “Miss Militia. What can you tell us about Taylor Hebert?”

    Alexandria dispensed with the pleasantries as she started the briefing. There wasn’t time for it.

    Militia took a moment to gather her thoughts. She was telecasting from a hospital bed, dressed in a blue gown with her trademark scarf. Other than a few scratches and a bandage wrapped around her neck, the heroine seemed all right.

    “There were two of them. They wore the same bodysuit, but the first one was bald with a red sash tied around her waist while the second was wearing an oversized yellow jacket over it.” She touched the top of her head. “She also had these red heart-shaped glasses.”

    “The yellow Taylor was wearing the glasses?” Knox clarified.

    “Yes.” Militia took a sip of water before continuing. “Newton. In terms of personality, both were very different. The Taylor in red, Cardinal, was homicidal, insane even, and she showed zero hesitation in killing or maiming.

    “Newton was closer to the Taylor that Armsmaster met. More stable, at least. She stopped the first Taylor and... reversed everything.”

    The room was silent, but Alexandria could sense the tension rising in the room as people shifted uncomfortably. Tagg, in particular, looked grim as he folded his arms.

    “The people she reversed time on, did you manage to see the process?” Catherine asked, leaning forward slightly.

    “I couldn’t see the reversal directly... it was too bright.” Militia sounded slightly apologetic. “They were asleep after. We woke them up after she disappeared, and as far as I could tell, they genuinely did not seem to remember what happened to them in the last few hours.”

    Catherine nodded, already murmuring something to herself as she penned her notes. Knox cut in. “Could you elaborate more on the powers they showed? From your preliminary report, it looks like they exhibited vastly different powers.”

    “Both Taylors showed different capabilities. Cardinal seemed to have the ability to pull out weapons from thin air. Her sword technique was formidable, I couldn’t keep up at all.” Militia said. Her brows furrowed as she went through her thoughts. “The second Taylor... I think she manipulates gravity. The affected objects glow yellow, and I remember a moment where I felt like I was falling backwards.”

    “What about their time-control abilities?”

    Miss Militia frowned at that question. “There’s a deep sense of vertigo whenever they use it. I don’t quite know how to describe it.” She paused, narrowing her eyes as she tried to remember how it felt. “It’s like looking at lightning when it strikes. There's a moment where it feels like forever, but then the moment ends and you know it was not. They didn’t use it very much, at least not offensively.” Militia shook her head, looking chagrined. “If Cardinal actually tried, I would have died instantly. I suppose we’re lucky she wanted to drag out her sick game.”

    “Oh! Sorry,” Catherine covered her excitement as she pulled out a folder and quickly flipped through it. “That reminds me of something. Their time-manipulation... around the hour of your fight with Taylor, the team around the dome reported seeing some form of agitation from Scion. At certain times he turned to face northeast, which would line up with the Barnes’ residence. Miss Militia, can we go through the events step by step, in more detail? We might be able to line up their actions with the peculiarities observed in Scion.”

    “I...”

    Alexandria caught the eye of Director Costa-Brown and shook her head imperceptibly.

    “Catherine, I believe you’ll have a chance to pick her brain on the full details when your science team debriefs her later,” the Chief-Director interrupted. She continued when the science director nodded in acquiescence.

    “What can you tell us about Taylor Hebert, as a threat? How would you rate her?”

    Militia was quiet for a moment. “In terms of powers, she’s unbeatable. I put several 50-cal rounds into her and all it did was knock her off her feet. The only thing that seemed to hurt either of them were the knives, and even then those wounds regenerated easily. Like I said, I’m pretty sure Cardinal never used her full strength.

    “In terms of personalities or allegiances, I have no idea. The two of them fought, but Cardinal didn’t seem keen on actually injuring Newton.” Militia took another sip of water. “And Newton just kept trying to talk to her.”

    “The ward that was on the scene,” Tagg spoke up suddenly. “Shadow Stalker. Do you know why Cardinal went after her and Emma Barnes?”

    Miss Militia turned thoughtful. “No. Nothing I can think of. Cardinal obviously has some kind of grudge against them but... well... she’s insane, so I’m not sure if reason applies.”

    Tagg didn’t look satisfied. He steepled his fingers together and leaned forward slightly. “You’ve confirmed this with Shadow Stalker? She and Emma Barnes both also attended Winslow. They were in the same class as Taylor Hebert. Could there be a connection there? They must have known each other.”

    The heroine grew uncomfortable and stiff. “No. I haven’t asked her anything because she was just tortured for over an hour by a maniac. Is this an interrogation on my Ward?”

    “Tagg,” Alexandria cautioned. The director put his hands up and looked at Militia seriously. “This isn’t an interrogation, we’re not putting her on trial. We just want to get our facts straight. If we can establish her motivations—”

    “She only wanted to inflict maximum pain,” Militia interrupted. Her voice was hard. “She never went out of her way to attack Shadow Stalker or Emma Barnes, only focusing on the others and me when I showed up.

    “Even when she had her blade to my throat, she was glancing at Shadow Stalker. Looking for her reaction. It was theatre. The rest of us were just props.”

    The room was quiet for a moment. Alexandria tapped her finger.

    “Thank you for your time, Miss Militia,” Costa-Brown said. “Rest up for the moment, I believe both the science and intelligence teams have more to go over with you later.”

    “Thoughts?” Alexandria asked after the screen winked off and the lights in the room brightened.

    “She was already unstoppable in the video we watched this morning,” Tagg replied, his face grim. “Now there’s two of her, both with more powers.”

    “We’ve already started reworking our profile of her,” Knox said. He looked at his phone. “We should have an update for you by—”

    “What’s the point?” Tagg cut in. “Is it even possible to profile her anymore?”

    “I’m sorry?”

    “It’s only been a few hours for us, but it’s obviously been much longer for her,” Catherine agreed. “Long enough to develop two distinct personalities, who address each other by different codenames. Profiling and psychology techniques are already murky for powerful parahumans, and the same complexities would be even more compounded for her.”

    “Exactly!” Tagg bounced forward in his seat. “We don’t know what’s happened to her. She could be a year older. She could be 50 years older. Has she lived out 50 years into the future? Or worse, lived in the past, changed our past?”

    Tagg took a breath. “What we need to focus on is how to stop her.”

    Knox folded his arms. “She’s a 12 on all fronts.”

    “Powers aren’t perfect,” Tagg replied seriously. “Her power, especially, is not innate. It’s tinker technology.”

    Alexandria caught onto his meaning immediately. “You want to disrupt her technology?”

    Tagg shrugged. He leaned forward, turning and trying to impress the gravity of the situation on everyone in the room. “It’s a potential weakness. My men have already expanded their search. They’re now combing through current Protectorate assets to put together a list of potential powers that might be able to counteract ‘technology’, in general.”

    “That’s an egregious overreach of your authority, Tagg,” Catherine said, scowling. “Not to mention there’s more than one Taylor Hebert now. You want to fight them both?”

    “And you don’t think there’s only just two of them, right?” the man countered. “In the next hour, we might meet two more. And they’re not simplistic like Scion. They have goals and agendas. Taylor Hebert cut through two innocent families and heroes. What would our response be if it hadn’t been reversed? Would the PRT simply accept it? Become beholden to a single parahuman?”

    The other directors shifted in their seats uncomfortably, but none had a reply for him.

    “You have a plan?” asked Director Costa-Brown.

    Tagg nodded, pulling up an image on the screen.

    “This Taylor wanted to torture. She was looking to inflict pain. That all sounds like revenge to me.” The dry, unassuming sketch of Cardinal peered down at them from the screen. “If it’s revenge, then she’ll have targets. We need to find out who her next target is.”

    “You want to set a trap for her,” said Alexandria. She leaned forward, steepling her hands together as she rested her elbows on the table. “You realize she might already be killing them as we speak.”

    “It’s complete speculation,” Knox protested. “We have no way of verifying that.”

    “We have no way of verifying anything,” Tagg countered before sagging slightly. He sighed, pressing his lips into a thin line. “Look, I’m not saying the plan is perfect. I’m not even saying it’s a good shot, alright? It’s our only shot. Because otherwise... we just do nothing.”

    The room was silent as Tagg looked each of them in the eye. “Are we going to do nothing?”

    ***

    Victoria nearly tumbled off the cot as she woke. She grabbed the edge, eyes wide as the sudden vertigo jolted her, and pulled herself up.

    The cell was dark, making the glitter on her hands obvious. She stared at the little twinkling dots of iridescence dotting her skin, her mind still shaking off the last pieces of sleep.

    “Welcome back.” Victoria looked up at Missy’s voice. The other blonde was sitting on the floor, leaning back against the wall. She was still in her costume, helmet and all, but Victoria could see her skin sparkling as well.

    “Why are we shiny?” she grunted.

    “No one knows!” A sharp, irritating voice interrupted them. Tattletale was in the room with them as well. She was grinning — extra widely, extra forced — Victoria noted, and her face was also shining in the dim light. “That’s probably why people shouldn’t activate random objects they find lying around.”

    “I told you I DIDN’T activate it!” Missy snapped. Victoria could tell it wasn’t a new argument. “The stupid thing just started up on its own!”

    “After you touched it, you mean.”

    “Okay,” Victoria spoke up loudly. “Great explanation. So the PRT put us in containment cells?”

    “They put everyone in the cells.” Vista lolled her head back to face her as she stretched her legs out. “Apparently all the mercs we saw were just unconscious. And whatever hit us, hit them as well, so they had to make some adjustments to fit everyone in the cells.”

    “Right.” That was why Tattletale was sharing a cell with them. The blonde villainess stood on the opposite side from Vista, leaning against the wall with her arms folded. She was looking out at the rows of cells down the corridor. The lights outside were dimmed to a dusky orange.

    Victoria idly fingered a scorched hole in her pants; her power didn’t work so well with baggy clothes. She needed some new clothes. And a shower. She wanted to lie down again.

    “What time is it?”

    “It’s lunchtime,” Tattletale replied, nodding her head out. A PRT agent just came around the corner, pulling a trolley of lunchboxes down the hallway. “I dig the transparent wall, by the way. Very modernist chic.”

    The other two blondes didn’t bother replying. They were in the newer M/S cells. The outward wall was entirely transparent; a kind of tinker-made polymer that was as strong as steel. It kept the entire cell visible to anyone outside — privacy wasn’t a thing during M/S observations. And in their case, the dimness of the cells was tailored to keep their glow in sight.

    The PRT agent finally reached them. He gave them a little wave and placed the last three lunchboxes in a pocket in the ground. Vista walked over to the wall just as he slid it in. She opened a panel by the corner to take them out.

    “So that’s how they pass stuff to us, huh?” Tattletale wondered aloud.

    “The wall will retract upwards when we can leave,” Victoria said. “But I’m sure you already knew that. Isn’t that your power?”

    Tattletale turned to her with a little smirk. “How sharp of you. Figured out my power already?”

    “You’re a thinker, right?” Victoria said, ignoring the bait. “Some kind of information gatherer? You knew your way around Coil’s base pretty well considering you’ve never been there.”

    “For your information, that was all me.” Lisa brushed some imaginary lint off her shoulder. “I’m actually psychic.”

    The other blonde rolled her eyes as she stepped off the cot. She turned to Vista instead. “So how pissed is Miss Militia with us?”

    Missy shrugged as she opened a box. “She hasn’t contacted us yet actually. I made my report to some other agent. I guess no news is good news for now? Oh hey, lunch looks like chicken.”

    “Is it the good chicken?” Victoria asked. She reached out for a packet, before suddenly freezing short. “Um,” she said. The other two followed her gaze, turning to look out of their cell.

    “Who the hell is that?”

    A naked, golden man walked into the hallway. He stared into one of the first cells pressing his face flat against the transparent pane.

    The PRT agent almost wheeled the empty trolley into him, but the man stretched up to the ceiling and curled around him, letting him pass.

    “Did that guy just not see him?”

    “That’s—” Tattletale bit off her words, her hand jerking up to clutch her head. “That’s Scion?” she half-gasped, half-questioned.

    Scion turned back to the cell again and pushed his face into it. The wall shimmered as he passed through and disappeared.

    Victoria walked to the corner, angling her head to try and see what was happening. “Vista, can you...?”

    Missy stared intently down the hallway, her hands clenching unconsciously. The floor and the walls started to curl. Slowly, the cells along the sides warped close as the first cell turned to face them.

    The three mercenaries in the cell were backed against the wall. Their hands were raised in the air, and one of them was speaking. There was no sound; the walls were too thick.

    Scion remained expressionless as he strode forward. He grabbed two of the men and lifted them up high. They gasped, mouths wide and legs kicking as they tugged at his hands around their necks. The glittering lights on their bodies sparkled brightly for a moment.

    Tattletale flinched when she realized what was happening. Next to her, Victoria slammed the viewing pane with an incoherent yell.

    Their clothes lit ablaze as the lights burned through, coalescing into an iridescent flame. The men were howling, their eyes almost popping out, strangled in the sockets as the fire engulfed them.

    The last mercenary half-ran, half stumbled to the pane, banging on it frantically. His mouth was moving soundlessly as he tried to claw around the smooth, transparent wall, trying to find a release.

    Scion walked up from behind and wrapped his hand around his head. The man screamed as he was pulled back, the lights on his skin now bright enough to illuminate the cell.

    Scion looked down impassively as the man burst into a shimmering flame. It burned tall and bright, licking up his arm, but Scion was untouched. Instead, his golden skin seemed brighter, almost crackling with energy.

    He suddenly snapped his head up, staring straight at them.

    The scene vanished in an instant as Vista turned away. She coughed, one hand pressed against her mouth.

    “We have to get out,” Tattletale said.

    Victoria was already at the intercom at the side. “Hey!” she yelled, jabbing the button furiously. “Anyone there?? We need someone down here now!”

    “I don’t think it’s working.” Tattletale spun around, her eyes darting around the corners of their cell. “I think something is interfering.”

    “That probably?” Vista waved her hand weakly.

    They cut short their breaths as Scion crossed the hallway. He didn’t look in their direction, simply pressing into the opposite cell. Already, the men in the adjacent rooms were starting to move to their walls, angling to see what was happening.

    “There’s another 10 cells between him and us,” said Tattletale as she looked at Glory Girl. “Can you smash through the walls or something??”

    “The walls are reinforced,” Victoria replied. “Why would he hide everything from Control, but let us still see him? Why not just kill us in our sleep?”

    “Maybe he’s sadistic,” Lisa shrugged. “Or maybe there’s something about these glowing bits on us.”

    “He basically burned them off their skin,” Missy added quietly. Her voice was still hoarse. “Maybe these lights are why we can see him when that PRT agent couldn’t?”

    The second cell lit up, rainbow lights spilling out into the hallway. Scion stepped out a moment later, strange flickering shadows dancing over him.

    Victoria punched the wall again. It echoed loudly, vibrating through their feet, but the wall was undamaged. The blonde exhaled noisily, rising to the air. She circled around to the back of the cell and crouched horizontally against the wall.

    Missy clapped her hands onto her ears right before she shot off. Tattletale followed just a second too late as Glory Girl slammed into the wall thunderously. She staggered back as the cell shook, her ears ringing.

    There was a tiny crack on the pane. “Fuck,” Victoria cursed, dropping to the ground.

    “A little warning, please?” Tattletale snipped as she rubbed her ears.

    “Okay wait. New plan.” Vista gestured to the letterbox panel in the ground. “I think I can enlarge that so we can walk through it. But we need to time it right.”

    Scion was walking out of the third cell now, pushing into the fourth.

    “He’s taking less than a minute in each room,” said Tattletale, looking at the others. “We need to go when he moves onto the next one.”

    “Okay, but go where?” Victoria bounced on her heels, her face serious. “He obviously tracked us here. And I’m not gonna try fighting him. So then what?”

    “The device,” Tattletale said as they huddled around the panel in the corner of the floor, tense as they waited for Scion to cross the hallway. “We need to know what the hell it was.”

    “You think that’s gonna help?” Missy sounded doubtful.

    “It’s an idea!” Tattletale snapped. “You have another?”

    A bright light shone out of the fourth cell, silencing everyone. They held their breaths unconsciously as Scion strode across the corridor without a sideways glance in their directions.

    “Go go!”

    The hole in the ground bloomed, filling half the cell. Victoria grabbed the other two girls and flew through, popping out into the hallway just as the panel shrank back to normal.

    They ran. Glory Girl smashed through the gate at the end easily, startling a PRT guard at his station. He dropped his coffee, staring at them open-mouthed as they ran past him.

    Con-foam turrets swivelled towards them. Tattletale ducked instinctively as they fired, nearly stumbling over her next step, but the air twisted, and the white streams hooked around mid-stream to splatter onto the guardroom door instead.

    “Sorry!” Vista yelled as the guards jiggled the knob and banged against the door.

    Victoria smashed through the last gate, almost crashing into the elevator. She jabbed the call button repeatedly.

    “Forget the lift, they might be able to stop it,” Tattletale waved her off as she ran to the stairwell exit, pulling the door open. “Take the stairs!”

    Scion stepped out of the exit, shoulders stooped and head bowed. The lights winked out, leaving only the green glow of the exit sign. Lisa shrieked, falling on her butt. She kicked out frantically as Scion straightened up, scrambling backwards on her elbows.

    Victoria darted in and grabbed her arm. She pulled her away as Vista stomped on the ground, pushing a mile between them and Scion.

    He was already moving towards them. His pace was ponderous, but even as the exit light shrank to a small green dot, he remained the same size, walking.

    The lift chimed open behind them. Glory Girl pulled the other two in, digging her elbow into the ‘close’ button. Vista yelped as everything snapped back into place, and Scion was suddenly at the doors reaching in.

    Con-foam slammed into his face just before he managed to grab the door, and the lift closed on him.

    “He broke my power for a second somehow.” Vista rubbed her head. “I’ve never felt anything like it.”

    “Where are we going now?” Lisa asked.

    “We need to get to Artifact Containment,” Victoria said. She sucked in a deep breath, hands on her hips. “It should be on the—”

    Something heavy landed on the top of the elevator, jolting the carriage. The metal gears whined as they ground to a halt.

    Lisa yelped as a golden hand passed through the ceiling, almost hitting her head. It wiggled its fingers, stretching out as a second hand joined it. The girls ducked as they swiped around blindly, trying to reach for them.

    “OUT!” Victoria yelled. She whirled around with her shoulder ready to smash through the doors when suddenly Scion’s face appeared between the gap in the middle.

    She almost crashed into him before Vista snapped a few extra feet between her and the door. Scion turned his face sideways, his eyes never leaving them, and the lift turned with him.

    Vista crashed to the side, her powers flaring as another hand popped out of the wall to grab at her. She scrabbled backwards, backing into Tattletale as the other girl kicked herself away from a roving hand of her own.

    Fingers wiggled through the gap between the elevator doors, next to Scion’s head. They grasped around the left and right doors (or top and bottom now), and pulled them apart, bit by bit. When the gap was large enough, a long spindly leg slipped out, slapping onto the horizontal wall.

    “Okay, new plan,” Victoria tried again, her voice shaky. “We go up instead.”

    “No,” Missy grunted. She swiped out, pushing another hand back several feet. “You’ll be hitting solid concrete. We need to go through the floor. Our left.”

    “Okay.” Victoria nodded and pulled them closer. “Keep your heads low.”

    Lisa tucked her head into the crook of Glory Girl’s shoulder as she leaped up, smashing backwards into the sideways floor. Something cut into her back; then they were falling down the elevator shaft.

    Victoria spun midair and pivoted into the closed elevator doors on the floor below. The metal crumpled under them as they tumbled through. Vista slapped the ground and pushed them away just as a dozen hands reached out from the dusty shaft, grabbing only air.

    “It’s two floors up!” Victoria yelled as she rolled to her feet. “Vista, get ready!”

    Lisa pulled herself up just as Glory Girl leaped through the ceiling, cutting through the lights in a shower of sparks. Vista grabbed her by the elbow, then pulled her through one crumbling hole and the next while the world somersaulted about them.

    “C’mon, don’t flake out now, Tattletale,” the younger girl grunted as they landed on solid ground again. Lisa just groaned. She felt clammy and cold, shivering with adrenaline, and her legs jittered as she tried to make them move.

    The corridor fell dark. Behind them, the lift chimed and parted, the light casting a long shadow over them.

    “Over here, quick!” Victoria waved next to a massive door. It was thick, with multiple locking rods, similar to a vault door.

    Lisa managed to run, forcing one foot forward at a time, and rushed past the door after Vista. Glory Girl came up behind her, nudging her in with a light push while pulling the door closed with a thunderous crack. She spun the lock, and the sound of metal sliding over metal echoed through the walls as the mechanisms rolled shut.

    Their hearts hammered in the silence as they waited for the next thing to jump out of the walls.

    “I think he’s gone?” Victoria whispered.

    “We need to find that device now.” Lisa turned to face the room. It was dim, illuminated only by a flickering red light. Stacks of square-shaped containers lined the four walls from floor to ceiling, each armed with an electronic lock. “How did you manage to open the door in the first place anyway?”

    “It was unlocked,” Victoria replied distractedly. “Hey is that it?”

    One safe was ajar; the side of an egg-shaped object was peeking out from it.

    “Wait, unlocked?” Lisa frowned as they hurried over to the open container.

    It was the silver egg, gleaming red under the dingy emergency light. Intricate markings covered it, spanning around the top and bottom halves while the middle was inlaid with a series of sparkling gems.

    Missy turned it in her hands, shaking it slightly. “Nothing. Feels totally solid.” She tried to twist it. “Nope.”

    “Do you remember what you did the last time around?” Victoria stood next to her, peering down at the object intently.

    “I told you, I didn’t do anything.”

    “Wait, this was left unlocked too,” said Lisa as she rubbed her head. “Guys, something isn’t right here.”

    A loud bang interrupted them. The three of them spun around to look at the door, but it was unmoving.

    “Is he trying to smash through?” Missy hissed. Her free hand went behind her, unconsciously grabbing for her missing baton.

    BANG!

    The girls jumped as one of the safe doors jutted out, the imprint of a palm pressing out from within. A second crash startled them as something punched out against another safe from the inside.

    “What the fuck?” Lisa whispered, just before the safe above them exploded. Victoria pulled them to the ground as a golden arm swiped downwards at them.

    BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!

    The room drowned in a hammering cacophony as they scrambled to the middle of the room. The three of them pressed up against each other, watching the safes around them burst open, items flying out as long, probing arms swung out into the air blindly.

    Victoria batted away an errant door that came flying at their heads. “Vista, do something!”

    “Like what! I didn’t do anything last time!”

    Lisa grabbed their arms frantically and shook them. “He’s freaking here!!”

    The original safe they took the egg from swung open, almost unassumingly in the frenzied, beating din. Scion peered out, blank-faced and upside down as he emerged from the hole. First his head popped out, hair pooling to the ground, then his shoulders; soundlessly he oozed through the impossible opening, sliding to the floor. He twisted the right way up as his armless torso passed through, his eyes never leaving them.

    Abruptly, the room plunged into a suffocating silence as the hands stopped moving. They pointed straight out at them with fingers ramrod stiff, like a wall of pikes, taut and ready.

    “VISTA!”

    “AHHH!”

    The hands burst forward. Victoria and Lisa pressed back instinctively. Missy dropped the egg, flinging her hands out and throwing the ends of the room into a horizon.

    Already her power was failing. The vast expanse flickered and shattered, and with every break the hands flashed closer and closer. The air felt like thunder and her ears deafened with a buzzing pressure.

    “Guys!” Missy yelled. The other two whirled around to see the egg glowing brightly in the dark on Missy’s lap.

    “I think something’s happ—”

    A burst of light engulfed them; the hands crashed into the middle a split second later; the room blazed a blinding white. These all happened in reverse.

    Scion stood alone in the empty room. He watched as a tiny mote of energy fell on his open palm, sizzling against his skin before fading away.

    ***

    Hannah closed her empty lunch pack and leaned back against the raised bed and pillows. Her debrief had paused for lunch. She scratched the bandage over her neck idly as she looked up at the ceiling. Her hand tightened around her power — a handgun — as her thumb slid over the hammer.

    She saw the blood again when she closed her eyes. The recoil against her chest as she faced down a pair of crazed eyes. A phantom blade nearly cutting in.

    Robin, lying dead and gray for an unspeakable moment before it all never happened.

    Hannah forced her eyes open, squeezing the grip of her pistol tight as she stared out of the open window. Her power churned, tugging to turn into something bigger, something more powerful. She exhaled slowly, forcing the urge down.

    The door swung open with a squeak. Hannah pulled her mask up and slid the gun underneath her blanket surreptitiously as she turned around.

    Sophia looked small in the clean PRT fatigues issued to her. She hobbled slightly as she walked in, looking at the door as it closed, then the walls, then to the other empty beds in the room.

    Hannah coughed lightly, clearing her throat. “Sophia. How’s your family?”

    The girl jerked forward shakily as she stepped closer to Hannah. “They—they’re fine. The doctors are still looking over them but they said everyone should be okay.”

    Hannah already knew that; she saw Robin briefly earlier when he woke up. He was fine as well, just missing all memories of this morning. She shook away the other image of him — a faint smile on frozen lips, blood staining his clothes — and waited for Sophia to continue.

    “Did you, um, find Madison?” the Ward asked as she sat down on the chair next to the bed.

    The third friend. Hannah got the update with her lunch break, although there was no easy way to break it. “Yes,” she said. “I’m sorry Sophia. Her home address is inside the bubble. We can’t confirm it directly but…”

    “Ah. Right.” Sophia said the words emptily, looking down. She continued to look lost. “I guess that’s lucky? They’re gonna break the bubble down soon right?”

    “Yes. The science team just arrived before lunch actually.” Hannah tilted her head lower, trying to meet her gaze. “Hey. How are you?”

    Sophia curled her lips up. “I’m fine. Just a busted nose and some scratches. Don’t even need this stupid brace.” Her voice turned rough as she spoke, and she turned away, avoiding Hannah’s eyes.

    “I’m not fine,” Hannah said lowly. “We nearly died. It’s okay to not be fine, Sophia.”

    The younger girl rubbed her eyes, inhaling wetly. She wiped her hand on a baggy fold of her shirt. Hannah pretended to not see the dark splotches as she waited for Sophia to recover.

    “I’m fine,” she muttered, her face still averted.

    Hannah grasped her shoulder and squeezed lightly, carefully not pulling her around. “I’m sorry I didn’t get there sooner.”

    Sophia was silent for a moment.

    “We went to the same school.” She glanced up, quickly, as if to gauge Hannah’s reaction. It took a second for Hannah to follow what she was trying to say.

    “You knew her?” Hannah asked, keeping her voice gentle.

    “I...” Sophia’s face scrunched up for a moment, an ugly, despairing spasm. She looked down. “Yeah. I knew her.”

    Hannah waited for a moment for her to continue, but Sophia continued to look at the floor, unmoving.

    “Were you friends?” Hannah asked, trying to guess at the possibilities. Sophia remained silent. “Look. Whatever falling out you two had, it doesn’t justify what she did. Nothing justifies that. You can’t listen to what she said. Taylor Hebert is a monster. That’s not on you.”

    Suddenly the lights went out. Sophia flinched as the room plunged into darkness. Hannah pulled her power out instinctively as the emergency reds kicked in. “Probably just a blackout,” she spoke aloud as she reached for the phone by her bed with her free hand.

    There was no answer. Sophia sat up ramrod in her seat, gripping the handles on them tightly.

    “Hey.” Hannah placed her hand onto Sophia’s. Her knuckles were popping white. In the quiet Hannah could hear her ragged exhalation. “Take a deep breath. Calm down.”

    They stewed in the dark for a moment, listening to footsteps rushing past the door. Slowly, Sophia relaxed, releasing the tension in her arms and resting back into the chair again. She didn’t move the hand underneath Hannah.

    The lights returned five minutes later. Sophia pulled her hand away nonchalantly as she looked away. The phone by her bedside rang.

    “Yes?” Hannah answered.

    “Are you alright? Is Shadow Stalker with you?”

    “Daniel?” Hannah glanced at the Ward. “Yes, she’s here with me. What’s happening?”

    “Blackout wasn’t natural. All the screens in the ops room literally shattered.”

    Hannah was already throwing back the blankets, slipping her legs off the bed. She kicked her boots straight and slid into them, tucking the phone against her shoulder as she tightened the laces. Sophia pushed her chair away a little to give her space. She watched Hannah warily.

    “I’m coming down. You’re still in the ops room?” Hannah nodded at the reply. “We’ll be there soon.”

    “Taylor?” Sophia tensed as Hannah placed the phone down.

    “Let’s not jump to conclusions,” Hannah replied. She stood and checked her bearings. “C’mon. Let’s go.”

    ***

    Rebecca rubbed her cheeks a little after dabbing a bit of dark rouge on them. She straightened her jacket, adjusted the pin on the lapel, and stepped out of her private bathroom into the Chief-Director’s office.

    Taylor Hebert was perched on the edge of her table, arms folded. She looked up at the sound of the door.

    “Hello Alexandria,” she said with a smile full of teeth.

    This was a different Hebert. Her hair was a shock of pink, vivid and bright, swept messily to the side over her shoulder. She wore a white suit — silk — with a ruffled shirt — also white — underneath. Her legs were crossed lazily, polished white leather gleaming snuggly on socks as pink and intense as her hair.

    Taylor studied her with mismatched eyes, one black, one pale blue. “Wonderful direction with your double by the way. It’s amazing how no one picks up on it.” She chuckled lightly, shaking her head. “I guess that’s Cauldron for you. You really have to teach me how you do it.”

    Rebecca kept her face impassive. “And which Taylor might you be?”

    “Call me Prime.”

    “Like the first?” Rebecca thought aloud. “The original?”

    Prime spread her hands and dipped her head in a lazy bow. She remained otherwise perched against the table edge.

    “What do you want?”

    “World peace.” Prime flashed a grin. “But I’ll settle for Scion’s head. Preferably before he ends the world.”

    Rebecca straightened, narrowing her eyes and gauging her carefully.

    “You’re thinking, ‘how much can I trust her?’” Prime said, winkingly knowingly. “So here’s a freebie. Your question about the missing time? Bad idea. See, the blindspot is just the mind’s natural defence against inconsistencies in Time. The headaches they’re getting are just the result of trying to perceive the impossible.

    “But how did you notice then? Why didn’t you have the headaches?” Prime tapped her forehead, smiling as a blank expression settled over Rebecca. “You already guessed it, right? I’ll say it for you anyway. It's that extra thing we have in our heads. Our powers, our shards, our little alien infestation.

    “And your science director’s a sharp one. Give her time and she’ll start noticing that parahumans, especially Noctis capes or capes with mental enhancements seem to have some immunity to the feedback from trying to perceive the missing time. And she’ll remember who pointed it out the first time at that meeting.”

    Rebecca remained expressionless. “Why are you here?” she asked, ignoring the prodding. She returned Taylor’s stare calmly.

    Taylor chuckled as she looked away first. She nodded as if conceding the point.

    “Scion sitting on top of that dome. Do you think he’s just admiring the view, loafing around?” Taylor asked instead.

    “What is he doing then?”

    “He’s trying to understand my technology. Trying to gain my power through the o’ fashioned way — hard work and brute force.” Taylor’s smile disappeared, her face turning to stone as she pushed herself off the table. She brushed her suit, all hints of jovialness gone. “As we speak, thousands and thousands of alternate worlds are being destroyed. Broken down into energy for use in Scion’s experiments. And it won’t take long until our world is the last one standing.”

    She snapped her fingers. “Then after, no world standing.”

    “There’s been no major activity observed from Scion,” Rebecca said, even as she tried to calculate the odds in her head. She didn’t have enough data to even attempt to analyze Taylor’s words. “You’re saying what, he’s studying the bubble? Trying to derive some information from it?”

    Prime shook her head. “Not the bubble. Inside the bubble.”

    “What’s inside?”

    “Director?”

    Rebecca and Prime froze as her assistant’s voice chimed out from the speakerphone. Taylor moved first, one hand raised in deference as she opened the line.

    “Yes?” Rebecca said, trying to tamp down the impatience in her voice. Her eyes never left Taylor.

    “Dr. Kim is here to see you. She says it’s urgent.”

    “Give me a minute,” she replied. Taylor closed the line before her assistant could respond.

    “What’s inside?” Rebecca asked again, a hard edge creeping into her words.

    “I already said. Power.” Taylor bent sideways, pulling at a kink in her back. “Ah. I forgot how busy you were, Chief-Director. Tell you what — there’s a small conference room on the west side of the building. The one with the broken AC. I’ll wait for you there and we can continue this chat of ours after your meeting. If you want.”

    She smiled pleasantly as she clasped her hands. “Sounds good? Sounds good.” Then before Rebecca could say a word, Prime disappeared as suddenly as she arrived.

    Rebecca closed her eyes, unconsciously clenching a fist as she went through their conversation again, trying to pick out any hidden subtleties, any revealing clues. Did she miss anything? What did Prime want?

    A sharp rap interrupted her thoughts. Rebecca exhaled as she turned to open the door.

    “Catherine? What happened?” She didn’t like the look of her science director’s eyes.

    “More trouble. I’ve already called for an emergency meeting but I thought you should see it first,” Catherine said as she handed Rebecca a tablet.

    It was paused on a frame of two men floating in the air, the lights on their bodies burning.

    ***

    Dragon watched the directors wince as the mercenaries howled and burned in their cells. The glowing motes swirled up and disappeared into an invisible point.

    "You think this was Taylor Hebert?" The Chief-Director's brows were tightly clinched as she tapped her pen against the report in front of her.

    “We were lucky that we recorded the initial readings from those men and their glow,” Catherine explained. “Whatever they have is identical to the readings we’re getting from the Brockton dome.

    “We also double-checked with Miss Militia. She confirms this looks very similar to the ‘glow’ she saw on the Barnes and the people who were...” the science director hitched as she scrambled for the right phrase, “...temporally affected, before Taylor Newton absorbed it.”

    “From their facial and body reactions, it seems there was an invisible assailant in the room with them,” Dragon added. “From the way these men were picked up and other various markers, it should be possible to extrapolate the physical dimensions of the attacker but that will take some time.”

    “Identical to the readings from the dome?” Rebecca looked up sharply. “What do you mean? You’ve detected something inside the dome?”

    “An exotic type of energy with a unique EMR signature. Something we’ve never encountered before.” Catherine paused as she considered the second question. “Ah, at this point there’s no obvious way of verifying if this energy is coming from the bubble or what’s inside of it. If we had made the link to the glow on these men earlier, maybe we could have done more measurements, gotten more to work with.” She shook her head, caught between excitement and frustration. “That’s literally all we know about it so far. The radiation it gives off seems completely benign, which matches how the affected individuals show no signs of damage other than the glow.”

    “Why would Hebert kill them this way?” Knox leaned forward, steepling his hands and propping them onto the table. “If it’s just for this glow, this energy, she could have done it peacefully without alerting us.”

    “Does it matter? We obviously can’t stop her either way.” Taggert replied, his voice grave. “If this isn’t Cardinal, we might be dealing with another unstable Taylor Hebert.”

    Dragon continued when it was clear no one had a reply to that. “Midway through the... ‘extractions’, Glory Girl, Vista and Tattletale escaped their cell and ran for the elevator.” The screen flashed to the silent footage of the three girls running. “As you can see, here Tattletale fell backwards after opening the door. She looked like she was screaming. Vista used her power shortly after.”

    “They were being chased,” the Chief Director summed up.

    “It does appear so,” the AI agreed. “They managed to end up in the artifact vault, where they then disappeared in a flash of light.”

    The footage paused on an upended room, the safes open and broken, and the evidence stored inside scattered across the floor.

    Tagg flipped a page of the report over. “I’m more interested in what they activated in the vault.” He looked up. “Do we have any information on that at all?”

    “Unfortunately with the research team already stretched thin on the dome, the object was placed on a lower priority. I am currently—” Dragon started to reply when suddenly her vision swam with static. She refreshed her optical line, and found herself at the mouth of a black, smooth cavern, looking out at another version of herself speaking.

    “—currently coordinating with the team to see if there was any work done on it before storage,” the doppelganger Dragon spoke, her cadence and speech a perfect imitation of her.

    “What?” Dragon said. Her voice echoed in the wide space. “Hey!”

    She tried to step forward, but pressed up against an invisible pane. “Hey!!” She banged against it soundlessly. There was no reaction from anyone. Her doppelganger continued to speak uninterrupted.

    Then Dragon paused, befuddled as she stared at her hands. She was in her avatar form. Literally. She rapped against the invisible field again, marvelling at the strange rumble that travelled through her arm.

    She looked around. The space was massive, all black tiles, smooth and gleaming. Large red cubes floated over her head, illuminating the floor with a soft light.

    Dragon walked forward into the cavernous space. She looked down as she pressed one foot down, then the other. She did it again, slowly this time, feeling the heat of her body seep into the cool floor. She knelt down, pressing her palm flat against the floor. She could see her waxy reflection in the mirrored surface, the light falling off her bare shoulders.

    “Oh!”

    The AI shot up at the sudden voice.

    Taylor Hebert was smiling at her. “Sorry about that,” she said as she swiped through a device on her wrist.

    Dragon found herself clad in a thick, comfortable onesie. She ran her fingers through the material distractedly, grabbing the hood around her neck. It was oddly shaped with a large eye peeking out at her and stubby white triangles lining the edge.

    “Sorry about what?” she replied unthinkingly, rubbing the plush cloth between her fingers.

    “It’s a human thing,” Taylor waved her off. “Like it?”

    “Dragon pyjamas?” Dragon wondered aloud.

    “I thought it would be fitting,” Taylor grinned.

    It was… interesting, Dragon admitted, trying to reorganize her thoughts. The level of detail, the precise craftsmanship; it was all based on real materials in the real world. She slid a foot back, just a little, to feel the cloth glide across the floor. She smoothed down her outfit, palming her thighs as she figured out what to do with them. She watched as Taylor watched her, quiet and unassuming, with hands clasped behind her back and a breezy smile that belied none of her thoughts.

    What was she supposed to do when faced with a potentially murderous, all-powerful parahuman who’d easily infiltrated her systems completely?

    “You created this space,” Dragon said, hoping to prompt Taylor into speaking. In the background, she started a full diagnostics check.

    Taylor bobbed her head with a little hum. “I know you’ve been experimenting with recreating the physical world in your space,” she said, her answer an arrow that sent Dragon reeling again.

    She was experimenting, and had been for a while now. It took only an extra bit of resource to expand the backdrop of her avatar into a full room, fully realized in the digital realm even if no one else would ever catch more than a glimpse of it. She tiled the floor with multiple materials — wood, marble, stone, even grass — tweaking it bit by bit according to descriptions she found online.

    In the beginning, Dragon had tried asking. “Oh, your house has wooden floors? What do you think about it?” Or; “How would you say walking on grass feels like? Barefooted, I mean.” She was probably less than successful in her nonchalance, but the weird looks she got faded as everyone started assuming she was agoraphobic.

    She wiggled her toes, the tiny digits tapping soundlessly against the polished tile. It was warming up from her body heat — something that felt very different from how she envisioned.

    “How did you know that?” Dragon asked. She looked at the progress of her diagnostics again, the suspicions in her mind growing stronger.

    “Lucky guess,” Taylor lied shamelessly, her eyes alight with laughter.

    This Taylor Hebert had long white hair, pure as snow, woven into a thick braid that trailed around her neck and hung to her waist. Like her doubles, she looked exactly the same as the Taylor Hebert that disappeared in Colin’s recording, just older in a nebulous way.

    The hair perhaps, thought Dragon. A sudden pang struck her afresh when she thought of her friend, still stuck in the time bubble, but she refocused her attention back on Taylor.

    She was dressed elegantly: suede gloves, deep black; a flowing turquoise dress, long-sleeved and high-collared; and a golden sash tied high around her waist. The dress and sash were silk brocade, patterned with intricate Chinese serpents that twinned between finely woven clouds.

    Her diagnostic check beeped clean. Somehow, Dragon didn’t feel as surprised as she should. She did a manual run through her systems again, just to be thorough, but nothing looked out of place. She checked her networks, feeling out her ports, and found the open connection linked to her doppelganger. Dragon stepped back to the screen again and watched the other version of herself speaking to the directors.

    “You didn’t block me out,” Dragon said, not turning around. Taylor stood next to her quietly. They watched as the directors argued between themselves.

    “Are you disconcerted, watching them speak to her as if she were you?” Taylor finally spoke. There was a question in those words, but Taylor wasn’t asking.

    Dragon turned around wordlessly. They already knew her answer. “You know me,” Dragon said, voicing the suspicion ringing in her head. “From the future, you know me.”

    They were standing close enough that Dragon could see a flash of emotion cross Taylor’s face. Her smile slipped, just for a moment, in a way that turned the corners of her eyes down and made her look infinitely sad.

    “Yes,” Taylor answered simply, before presenting her hand, palm up.

    Dragon looked at her. “What’s this?”

    “A sojourn into mystery. Maybe answers too.” The brief vulnerability Dragon saw disappeared as Taylor smiled impishly. She cocked her head, waiting, not saying anything more.

    This sly ambiguity should have been frustrating — and it was — but Dragon also found it charming somehow. Just a little, just enough that a part of her was ready to grab that hand. Or was that the point of those words? Was any of this genuine, or was it all carefully crafted for her?

    “This is getting nowhere,” she heard the Chief-Director say offscreen. “We need more facts. Catherine, Knox. Get your teams to summarize what they have, all the information. Tagg, continue searching for countermeasures. We’ll meet back in one hour.”

    Taylor Hebert was enigmatic, unpredictable. Her motivations were unknown. She shouldn’t trust her. She shouldn’t go.

    “One hour,” Dragon echoed and reached out to take her hand.
     
  17. nezexyzzar

    nezexyzzar Getting out there.

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    Sorry for the delay! Chapter 6 will be posted tomorrow, let me have this little cliffhanger ;)

    Haha if you mean a slow-burn kind of story where Taylor learns how to tinker and stuff, yeah this story will not be that, sorry. The pacing of this story is fast partly because I do really want to complete this fic and it's easier for me to jump straight into the madness rather than burning out in a slower set-up sort of deal.
     
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  18. Aku-dono

    Aku-dono [QQ]

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    Well, I like the fast pace, but make sure you have character occasionally summarizing things that are happening (Tattletale is good for that), otherwise it might get super confusing.
     
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  19. Threadmarks: Time Tinker Taylors
    nezexyzzar

    nezexyzzar Getting out there.

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    The world disappeared in a flash. Victoria blinked blearily as she opened her eyes again.

    “Everyone alright?” she heard Missy say, but she was too distracted to answer.

    They were on a crystalline sea. Layers upon layers of shimmering red crystals grew atop each other, building up to enormous structures that leaned upwards with their razor tips to the sky.

    Bits of crystal sloughed off constantly, tumbling soundlessly to the ground. Victoria kept expecting to hear a crash or a crack, but save for their breathing there was nothing else. The crystal waves grew and snapped and crumbled in perpetual silence, engulfed by the next and the next.

    Tattletale was next to her. “What the fuck?” she said, her voice hushed. “Where the hell are we?”

    They were on an island. The ground was a solid matte black, rising up in strange tessellated tiles stacked atop one another. Victoria touched it; it felt like incredibly fine powder. She brought her hand up, expecting dust on them but they were clean.

    “Anyone know astronomy?” Vista said. They looked up.

    Nebulas dominated the sky. They looked like wounds, shifting gold to green to glittering red as they stretched between the horizons. The world looked like it was bleeding.

    “I don’t think that’s going to help,” Victoria said as she stood up. “Where’s the egg?”

    They found it just a few meters away, lodged in the corner of a cuboid step. “It’s not reacting anymore,” Vista said, shaking the object. “I think... the last two times it activated when I used my powers.”

    “You weren’t using your power the first time,” Victoria pointed out.

    Vista shook her head. “I wasn’t changing anything, but I was trying to map out the layout of the base with my powers then. That’s probably what set it off.”

    “We need to find a way out,” Tattletale said after a moment of silence. “Let’s look around.”

    The island was tiny and plain, completely devoid of life. They circled around the edge twice to double-check, careful not to fall into the churning crystals.

    Victoria tried punching the ground. “It’s freaking indestructible,” she grumbled as she shook her hand.

    “How long can you fly?” Tattletale asked as she peered out into the sea. “I think that thing over there might be another island. Maybe Vista can shorten the distance?”

    It was a dark, pointed shape, cresting above the waves. It seemed unmoving but it was impossible to tell for sure.

    Vista shook her head. “There’s something weird about this place. I can feel it with my powers, but I can’t manipulate the space for some reason.”

    Victoria twisted and turned, stretching her arms and legs. “Well, I don’t really think we have a choice.” She looked at the other two expectantly. “One of you get on my back.”

    Glory Girl swooped high above the waves, holding Tattletale in a bridal carry while Vista hung off her back. From the air, the sea seemed like a strange slurry, all straight angles and zig-zags. It took the lights in the sky and threw them back in ever-changing patterns.

    “Are you alright?” Vista broke the silence. She could feel the sweat beading off her friend.

    “I’m fine,” Victoria replied quickly as she adjusted her hold on Tattletale. The blonde in her arms looked like she wanted to say something, but then she turned away. “We’re near,” Tattletale said instead.

    They barely made it, skating around the taller spikes before tumbling into the ground. Victoria let the other two untangle themselves from her as she groaned and flopped onto her back. “Your turn to carry me,” she grumbled, peeking up through one open eye.

    Missy pulled her up. The island was much bigger than the small patch they just left. A jagged path cut through several windswept hills, leading inwards.

    The three of them walked in. It was easy to follow; the path was perfectly flat and any change in elevation was in solid, blocky steps. There were no curves here, Missy thought as they descended into a canyon. Everything was in straight, sharp lines.

    The walls around them soon rose to staggering cliffs.

    “I think...” Victoria started as they jumped down another step. “I think we’re in some kind of pocket dimension.”

    Tattletale turned to her. “You think someone made this?” She waved at their surroundings.

    “Yeah.”

    The villain looked up at the cliffs, their craggy edges slicing through the night. “My power isn’t saying anything,” she admitted. “Probably a good thing. I was expecting it to put me into a coma.”

    “It doesn’t feel man-made,” Vista said, rounding up behind Glory Girl. “It looks weird, but it feels natural.”

    “What does that even mean?” Tattletale asked as she walked backwards. She nearly walked into a wall as the path turned a corner.

    The younger girl shrugged. “I don’t know how to describe it. It just feels different. Like the difference between a house and a cave.”

    “I think there’s a pretty obvious difference between— Woah!”

    Victoria grabbed Tattletale as the path suddenly crumbled underneath her feet. The villain latched onto Victoria’s arm, pulling herself back onto solid ground. “What the hell?”

    A field of gold carved a deep crater across the divide, cutting off the path. The ground fell off into a ragged slope, tiny square blocks bouncing off the edges as they tumbled to the bottom.

    “What the hell is that?” Tattletale asked as she caught her breath, looking down at the golden spread before them. Next to her, Victoria tapped forward on the ground cautiously.

    “That’s man-made,” Vista said grimly. “I don’t have a good feeling about this.”

    Glory Girl flew them down. As they got closer, they could make out the crystals, shimmering gold, scattered across the crater in various pieces. The ground here was craggy, with deep gorges and mounts of loose rock piled atop each other.

    “They look like... broken sculptures?” Tattletale crouched over one of the crystals lying on the ground. It was the top half of a girl, her face contorted in agony. Another broken statue lay next to her, just a head and a pair of shoulders with half an arm. Her mouth was open; screaming as well.

    Vista looked around them. She could make out pieces of arms and legs, poking out of the dirt, half-buried. A pair of legs stood upright, its top half sheared off. A torso laid at its feet, headless with its limbs shattered.

    She stepped over the pieces, careful not to touch them. The disquiet in her gut grew stronger as she tried to figure out what was setting off her senses.

    “Are we in some sculpture reject yard?” Tattletale spoke aloud as she eyed another statue. This one looked mostly intact; only the top part of its head was missing, leaving just a mouth frozen mid-scream. She shivered unconsciously as she looked over it, goosebumps prickling up her spine.

    “Hey this one seems complete,” Victoria called out to them. She walked over to a statue and started reaching for it.

    “STOP!” Vista pulled her back.

    Victoria whirled around. She scanned around them tensely. “Why, what happened?”

    Vista was staring at the statue. “You know how my power doesn’t work on living things?”

    The blonde paled. “I—wait. Are you saying...?” Her voice trailed off.

    Tattletale walked up to them. “Doesn’t that mean all these are also...?” She didn’t sound any better. The three of them huddled closer together instinctively as they eyed the crystalline statues around them again.

    “Let’s just... find the path again and move on,” Tattletale said, clearing the wobble in her throat.

    There was no more path. The crater was long, cutting through the canyon like a deep scar. Tattletale and Vista hiked over the rocky terrain, careful to avoid touching any of the crystalline corpses while Glory Girl hovered over them, looking out for anything other than the dead.

    “They all have the same face,” Vista said, breaking the uneasy silence. “You guys see it?”

    “I’m honestly trying not to look at them too hard.”

    “She just looks really familiar to me.”

    “This feels endless,” Tattletale huffed.

    Vista shook her head. “No, I think we’re deeper now. We might be close to the lowest point of the crater.”

    Victoria suddenly stopped mid-air. “Hey, there’s something over there. Some kind of opening?”

    It was the crumbling remains of a door, leading down a bunker in the ground. Half of the entrance already collapsed in on itself, leaving only a small gap to squeeze through. Golden sand trickled from the crevices in blockage.

    “I think we can squeeze through here.” Victoria crouched down and squinted, peering into the darkness.

    “Why?” Tattletale stepped up next to her, angling her head for a better look inside as well. “We don’t know what’s in there.”

    “Look—”

    Vista tuned them out as she looked down. Her toes wiggled uncomfortably in her boot. She shifted her foot, sweeping a line into the sand. There were almost no statues here; everything nearby was entirely shattered, leaving only an unrecognizable pile of shapeless nuggets and crystalline dust.

    Vista let her power stretch through the entrance. She could feel the walls inside still standing strong; she could feel machinery, equipment, upturned and smashed.

    She could feel the gaping void in her senses, somehow disparate and also indiscrete, enveloping the inside like a suffocating blanket. It reminded her of weekend patrols on the Boardwalk where the streets were thronged with people; she remembered being slightly annoyed as they pressed through her crowd, her power half-blind and useless.

    But the Boardwalk was also full of life, brightness and laughter.

    Vista looked down at the ground, at her dusty footprint in the sand. The empty dead, the unmoving living.

    “Ready?” Victoria asked, pulling her out of her thoughts. She had pushed some of the rubble back to expand the opening and was dusting her hands.

    Tattletale was staring at her curiously. Vista cleared her mind and pushed her feelings back. “Let’s go.”

    ***

    The office on the west side was furthest from the main building. The air-conditioning inside had been broken for weeks now, and the room would grow stiflingly hot in the afternoon as the sun streamed in.

    No one would be in it now. Taylor Hebert chose well, just like how she chose the timing to pop into her office so that their talk could be conveniently interrupted.

    Rebecca took the longer route through the stairs as she made her way to the meeting room, using the extra time to rearrange her thoughts. She paused for a moment outside the door, noting the white light shining out from the door crack.

    “Almost certainly it was Hebert who attacked Contessa.” Kurt sounded exhausted. Rebecca could hear his chair squeaking as he sank into it. “The question is: which Hebert was it?”

    And also: “Remember what I said, Rebecca. Be careful.”

    The corridor was empty. She pushed in.

    Cool air blasted her face as she stepped inside. Rebecca could hear the whine of air-conditioning, the woosh of stale air. Taylor Hebert was leaning back in a chair, feet on the table. In front of her was a cup, steaming hot; a second cup was placed at the seat opposite her.

    “You fixed it?” Rebecca asked, pulling out the chair. She glanced down at the mug — coffee, inky black — but she did not touch it.

    “I had time,” Taylor shrugged. She swivelled slightly to face Rebecca, feet still propped up. “You’ve seen the video?”

    “Scion?” Rebecca studied the young woman across from her. Other than the different colorations and the mismatched brown and blue eyes, she looked identical to all the other Heberts they’ve seen. Her clothing was impeccably pristine; even the soles of her shoes looked smooth and untouched.

    “That’s right.”

    Rebecca remained unsmiling. “The assailant was invisible in the video.”

    Taylor sighed. She dropped her feet, pushing herself upright and scooting closer to the table. “Really? Let’s not play this game. That was Scion. We both know it. And in 24 hours, he’s going to end the world, so we don’t have a lot of time.”

    “It’s 24 hours now? How convenient,” Rebecca said flatly, folding her arms. “I find it strange that Taylor Hebert is rushing for time.”

    Taylor chuckled lightly as she spread her palms on the table. “My tech only encompasses this world. One. World. Going back in time here doesn’t reverse what happens in the other worlds. Oh no, no, no,” Taylor shook her head, her eyes never leaving Rebecca. “They still remain destroyed.”

    Rebecca frowned.

    “That part rings true for you, doesn't it? After so many years with Eden, you must have some understanding about our extra-dimensional visitors. Our great parahuman overlords.”

    “What’s in the bubble then? The thing that Scion is destroying the universe for?”

    Taylor clucked her tongue. “Ah, your earlier question. I’ve been rude to not answer for so long.” She clapped her hands together before twisting them apart to reveal a small rectangular tube. “How about I show you instead?”

    Rebecca narrowed her eyes at the strange black tube. “What is that?”

    “Memories. Histories.” Light burst up the edges of the object, a steady glow that darkened the room as it grew brighter and brighter. Rebecca stood, her eyes averted down. Before she could say anything, shadows danced across the table and suddenly the world around her melted away.

    Rebecca whirled around. Her shoes scraped against gravel, the sound loud in the quiet street she was on.

    In front of her was Taylor, lying flat on the road. Rebecca could see her chest moving rhythmically and her eyes blinking but she was otherwise unmoving, simply staring up into the bright blue sky.

    This was the original Taylor, the one who fought alongside Armsmaster. She was still in her tattered suit; one hand completely bare. Only a few bits of the once-intricate clockwork ornaments still remained on her, their glittering colour blackened with soot.

    “I think I must have laid there for an hour, just breathing,” Prime said softly, walking up behind Rebecca.

    “This is immediately after last night?” Rebecca asked. Her eyes glanced at the house next to them — the Hebert residence, still untouched and standing in the sunny afternoon. “You managed to go back in time?”

    “My last fail-safe. I made it just in case but I never expected to use it,” Prime shrugged. She snapped her fingers.

    Rebecca blinked as the sun suddenly swung down to the horizon. Taylor disappeared off the road, instead huddled in a large hoodie as she hurried her parents down their driveway into the car. They moved soundlessly, with quick, choppy actions. Taylor looked jittery, her head constantly swivelling around them as she pushed her parents into the backseat and jumped into the front.

    “My first priority was my parents, of course. They already knew I had powers, although I never shared the specifics with them,” Prime explained as the world around them turned and moved with the car. Dusk gave way to night as the tiny vehicle rolled out of Brockton Bay, sweeping through the winding road with its twin headlights.

    “You left town?”

    “I didn’t have any place in mind. I just wanted to leave.”

    They walked up to the car as it chugged along, the world turning and twisting around them. Taylor was focused; peering intently at the road with two hands on the wheel. Her parents were sleeping in the backseat, slumped against each other.

    Rebecca watched as Prime raised a hand to the windowpane, her fingers ghosting over the glass as she looked down at her parents. “I assume it didn’t work,” said Rebecca.

    Prime pulled away, clenching her hand. She glanced at Rebecca for a second before turning to the dashboard at the front of the car. “Do you see the time?” she said, not replying directly. “This part is important.”

    Rebecca followed her gaze. The tiny digital clock on the dashboard shone blue.

    03:07

    Then — a blink — the seven flashed into an eight; thunder split the sky as a golden man peered down from the heavens, one hand reaching down towards the car. Taylor yelped, jerking the wheel instinctively as she peered out the window. The road leaped forward as she floored the accelerator. The Heberts jerked awake, gravel and dirt pelting the underside of the car. Above them, Scion loomed closer and closer.

    The trees around them burst into flames. The road seemed to bleed red in the fiery awning, shaking, cracking, until suddenly it peeled off the ground, pulling the Heberts’ car up with it. Taylor twisted sideways, a glittering sheen of energy sprouting over the car as she drove them off the road but it was too late.

    Scion closed his fist around them.

    Rebecca stumbled. Her knees wobbled for a second as she took a step back, trying to shake off her sudden queasiness. The grass crunched underneath her feet as Taylor phased through her, tumbling across the lawn.

    They were back at the Hebert residence. The sky was dark and the neighbourhood shimmered gray, exactly like it did in the video.

    Rebecca turned around just in time to see Scion crush the car in his hand. Glass and metal crumpled as he shook it a little; then he discarded it carelessly as he turned towards the house. Rebecca flinched slightly as Taylor phased through her again, screaming as she ran towards Scion but a massive explosion flung her sideways, out into the street.

    The house was gone. Scion stood at the edge of the smoking crater, watching as Taylor’s clockwork machine rose out of the ash. His back was a familiar silhouette, muscles rippling as he stretched a finger out to the machine and—

    —Rebecca blinked as she breathed in the rush of chilly mountain air. Taylor slammed the door shut, dropping a pile of logs near the crackling fireplace. Her mother offered a shaky smile, waving her over to a cup of something steaming hot.

    They were in a cabin. It was dark outside — the clock read just shortly after 3 — but Rebecca could still make out the piles of snow, gleaming pale in the dim moonlight.

    “This is...” she started to say aloud.

    “A new memory,” Prime finished as she slinked up next to her. “I fast-forwarded a little this time.”

    The fire roared right as she finished speaking. Flames boiled up the walls of the cabin, their red-orange hue slowly turning gold. Taylor leapt up from her seat, pulling her parents behind her. A loud crack echoed, the sound of timber splitting, and suddenly the entire wall was ripped away into the night.

    Scion stepped in with the blistering cold, his radiant light sweeping superciliously over them.

    Then they were back in Brockton again, back on their street in their house. Night dissolved to day as a sun burst into being over the house, the shadows billowing away in long streaks behind the trees and the lamps.

    Taylor was running, hand outstretched as she ran. Her suit sparked as she burst forward, but every step she took put her two paces back; she snarled, screaming wordlessly as she tried to punch through the spatial distortion.

    Rebecca looked away as her parents disappeared again underneath the blazing sun. She glanced at Taylor, at the tears streaming down her face; then Prime, who watched it all stoically with a blank and empty expression.

    “The time. That’s the same time we detected the first abnormalities in Scion’s behaviour.”

    “Yes.”

    The memory world around them reset again. The house reformed, Daniel and Annette Hebert standing at the open door as a sun descended down on them. Scion smashed Taylor into the ground, his face blank even as she blasted two gaping holes through his chest and head. She jabbed her gun into his arm and fired again, rending the limb through but Scion simply stood up, leaving his severed hand to hold Taylor down as he waited for the house to disappear.

    Taylor squirmed, her face scrunched in frustration as she tugged and pulled futilely at the hand on her chest. She turned to her parents. The veins on her neck bulged visibly as she strained and grasped at the dirt to the side, trying desperately to squeeze herself free.

    The world reset before the Heberts died again. Rebecca unconsciously held her breath in the sudden void, the hushed silence like a calm before the storm.

    “Did all this...” she started to ask, but she already knew the answer.

    “You asked what happened last night,” Prime replied, not looking at her.

    Then the walls and floors and roof came rushing in, slabs of concrete that rearranged themselves around as the furniture materialized. Rebecca barely had time to register the bunker and the Heberts before the roof came apart. Scion filled the sky, his cold stare illuminating the room as three whirling portals scooped up Taylor and her parents.

    Taylor broke her fall with a roll. She whirled around, her teeth gritted as she readied herself to try again but Scion was already there. He grabbed her, palm slamming into her face, fingers wrapping around her head, and pulled her roughly into the air. Taylor pulled a knife out, stabbing blindly into the hand holding her but Scion ignored it, swinging her around towards her house.

    This time, he didn’t wait for the sun to descend. His arm glowed incandescently around Taylor, turning from gold to white-hot as a beam burst out, shooting through her head to slice across the house.

    She reappeared next to Scion before her body hit the ground, gasping as she slumped back on her heels. Her eyes widened as the second storey of her house collapsed in.

    The sun followed, cleaning up the smoking embers of what remained.

    Rebecca blinked as the memory reset again. The roar of the ocean filled her ears as it crashed against the shore. Seagulls cawed, nipping down to the sandy surf. A murmur clamoured around her as people started looking up, pointing their phones to the sky. Rebecca followed their gazes.

    Scion floated leisurely above them. He seemed diminutive at this distance, even harmless as he passed over the beach towards the open sea.

    Then a streak of light pierced the sky, bursting into a fiery conflagration that burned across the sky. Shouts peppered the beach as people stumbled backwards, running over their own feet as they tried to move away.

    “After a while, I gave up,” Prime spoke up again. Her words were clipped, matter-of-fact. She looked up at the two shadows in the sky, her face placid. “I attacked him directly. To kill him before he came for us. Of course, at that time I didn’t even know that he wasn’t the real thing.”

    Taylor and Scion crashed into the ground in a massive explosion of sand and dirt. A shockwave shuddered through the earth, then another as Scion burst out of the smoking crater. His face was blank and empty as ever as he swooped backwards into the sky.

    Taylor reappeared over him, plunging a gleaming katana straight down into his right shoulder. She twisted, turned, and yelled incoherently as she tore the blade — and his arm — out.

    Scion sagged slightly in the air as his right arm fell away from him. He swivelled around, but Taylor was already on the other side, jumping off the air with the tip of her katana piercing forward.

    A cut through the heart. A slash down his thigh. Taylor was a blur, bouncing over Scion, gouging holes in him as the golden man looked on impassively. His left arm fell off, then his feet. A thousand cuts crisscrossed his body as Taylor smashed through him, shredding him into mince. She let herself fall with the pieces, watching as they scattered across the wind.

    The house exploded.

    Rebecca closed her eyes for a second, trying to shake off the sudden detonation imprinted on her retinas. The memory reset again, back to the beach, the crowd murmuring as they looked up.

    Taylor roared overhead, a dozen glowing cars circling her. She thrust her hands out, sending them all careening into Scion. The golden man looked on, blank-faced as he shrugged off the blows. One tap sent a car out into the horizon; the second sent a car back into another. The two metal objects spun wildly through the air before crashing into the sand amidst the screams of several bystanders.

    Trees shook, trembling free of the ground and leaves falling in their wake as they got plucked into the air. Car horns blared as roads peeled off the ground in shuddering slabs, rocketing into the sky. Scion seemed to straighten at the massive debris field building over him. His blank face turned towards Taylor, watching her, waiting.

    She sent them all forward.

    The first wave disintegrated in a shower of embers as Scion waved his hand casually; the second wave burst through the sparkling rain, burying him in a heap of burning trees and asphalt. Scion surged through them easily, blazing a bright gold, but for every object he disintegrated, two more rushed to take its place.

    Rebecca narrowed her eyes as something glinted in the sky above Scion. One black dot, growing larger — no, not just one. The dot separated into two, then three, each not-so-tiny speck circling around each other as they came closer and closer.

    Her eyes widened as she realized what they were.

    The first black rod punched hard into Scion, slamming him straight into the ground. Sand exploded, showering over the beach as the second and third rod followed after.

    The earth felt as if it was tilting side to side. Fissures unfurled like a dark massive web that cut the ground into crumbling slabs. A drink shack exploded. Behind them, the wooden jetty writhed as shockwaves cracked through it. Slowly, as if it was only just registering the injury, it split apart, collapsing into the sea.

    Scion floated out of the smoking crater. He was missing his legs and one arm, a gaping hole where his mouth and shoulders should be. Above him, the sky was blotted out by the gathering storm of debris. The air seemed to shimmer with an invisible weight; Rebecca had the sudden feeling that everything was much, much heavier than it should have been.

    “DIE!” roared Taylor, flinging everything she was holding down onto Scion.

    The memory reset as the world turned white.

    They reappeared on a skyscraper. Midtown Perth, Rebecca recognized, just as a bolt of crackling lightning blistered up the side of a tall tower opposite them.

    The streak of energy stopped abruptly; Scion burst out of the falling glass, one hand wrapped around a glowing Taylor as his eyes blazed hot-white. Two lasers burned through the girl but she looked unphased. Instead, she slipped free, clambering up onto his head in an instant, her hair wild, wreathed in a halo of crackling power. She looked like death for a moment, so bright and ghastly the world turned dark as she struck down.

    The air rippled, shattering Scion and every window in the area. Rebecca touched her chest, her heart feeling like it was hanging still for a moment when the force passed through her. The memory reset as the screams began, wiping away the city and leaving her with just Prime in an empty void.

    “How many times did you try?” Rebecca asked.

    “Probably too many.” Prime chuckled humorlessly. “Time travel is... unlimited second chances, right? So I tried. And I tried. Again—”

    The world reset to Brockton Bay again. A giant robot lunged forward with a hard punch that sent Scion crunching through the neighbourhood; a second Scion suddenly materialized behind it, stabbing one hand into the machine and pulling Taylor out by a hole through her chest.

    “—and again—”

    A Taylor in a streamlined suit of armour swept her longsword wide, forcing two Scions back. Another tried to ambush her from the back but she sidestepped him, slicing him in half with a backwards slash.

    “—and again—”

    A green shield overlaid the house, shimmering vividly as the miniature sun crushed down against it. Taylor danced around Scion, ducking under the searing lasers. She was clad in a glowing suit that shifted and transformed. Different weapons popped out at strange angles, shooting unerringly at Scion’s head. One moment she was in heavy armour, shrugging off Scion’s beams like a tank as a dozen cannons unfurled from her shoulders and fired; the next she was rocketing through the smoke, lightweight, with just a booster on her back and two conjured blades crisscrossed for the kill.

    “—but nothing worked, of course. This wasn’t his real body, so even when I did kill him, he always came back anyway. On the dot every time, eight minutes after three.”

    “So you gave up?”

    “No,” Prime said sharply. Her face was glacial, eyes glittering like a pair of distant stars in the night sky. “That was all Scion.”

    Rebecca frowned. “What do you mean?”

    The memory reset again, but this time, Taylor was staring wide-eyed at a copy of herself. Behind her, the house split, dividing like a tessellating mirror. The neighbourhood fell away as they spiralled out, splitting into more and more copies that spun into the sky and twisted the world. More Taylors shimmied into existence, stumbling out from their copy of their house, looking at each other in bewilderment.

    The one clockwork machine rose through the centre, its hands spinning rapidly. The air grew thick with an iridescent energy. Scion stepped out, in the middle of it all, tall and imposing as he reached for it again.

    For a second, reality trembled. A feeling of something great passed through Rebecca, although she couldn’t put her finger on what. She pressed her feet into the soil slightly, trying to ground herself, but it felt unreal, wrong. The feeling of wrongness grew, churning her stomach and grasping her breath short. The world seemed far away, an unknown gulf between that grew larger and larger; or maybe it was her that was nowhere near, her senses lost and adrift.

    Taylor gasped, bending double and clutching her stomach. The other Taylors followed, collapsing as the world turned inside out and folded back into one around the clockwork machine. Scion stepped forward, his fingers pressed against an invisible barrier as he tried to touch it, but then dawn came, the sun rising from the east, and they were sent flying, the sound of glass shattering as wind rushed in and time resumed.

    Rebecca shook her head, steadying herself against a tree as her insides heaved and roiled. Prime stood next to her, her eyes closed as she breathed in deeply. Even through the memory, the strange nausea took a long moment to pass.

    Taylor was not so lucky. She curled up into a ball, pulling at the grass, clutching at the bits of green between her fingers as she hissed through gritted teeth.

    A second Taylor came through the canopy, falling flat against the dirt. They looked at each other for a long second, their breath frozen on their tongues.

    Then the second Taylor shattered. Taylor — the first, the original — barely had time to react before she was spitting blood. She grabbed at her chest, scratching her suit, digging holes into the leather and pulling it apart.

    Another Taylor appeared, shimmering into existence just above the ground before falling with a thud. Taylor gurgled, heaving for breath as she tried to roll away but she only got a few paces before her copy shattered as well. She gasped soundlessly, her body seizing up. Her breath came in long hollow whistles, rasping through her throat as she tried to move her hands.

    In the corner of their eyes, another Taylor was shimmering into existence.

    Taylor turned to it, eyes wide. She grasped at her bracer, fingers slapping uselessly against the interface as she swiped desperately.

    They teleported before the next Taylor fully materialized.

    Cars blasted past the alleyway they appeared in, racing towards the hanging dome in the sky. Taylor pulled herself onto her trembling knees, clinging against the wall as she coughed and retched.

    Prime spoke first. “Have you ever wondered about life?” she asked suddenly, non-apropos.

    “What?” Rebecca tilted her head, slightly thrown.

    “What if life was a book? And you and I just characters on the page? What does it mean when I go back in time and change the past?”

    Rebecca narrowed her eyes. She said nothing as she watched Prime, studying the tinker’s profile as she waited for her to continue.

    “To me, I think it must be like ripping the pages out. I turn back the pages and rip them out, before rewriting everything.” Prime looked up, her eyes hooded as she looked at the gray bubble cutting through the sky. “Everything’s changed, but no one else knows.”

    “Time travel,” Rebecca summed up for her.

    “Except not quite.” Prime turned to her, wagging a finger. “Because this isn’t about time travel — it’s about the book. It’s about what happens to all those torn pages of things that happened and yet... didn’t happen.”

    Rebecca straightened slightly, a sudden realization jolting her. She glanced at the golden dot above the bubble, almost subconsciously.

    Prime smiled, the corners of her eyes crinkling. “Yes. How do the Entities see time travel? How do these vast, extra-dimensional creatures that peer into our universe from the outside perceive me changing the past?”

    “The time. Scion always appears at 0308 hours?” Rebecca’s shoulders were stiff, her face serious. “He remembered the previous timelines, didn’t he? But only at that specific minute. The minute when he knew originally.”

    “Bravo.” Prime clapped her hands together. “If I had known about his true nature earlier...” She paused, pursing her lips and shaking her head. “No, I doubt I could have done anything. It’s just incompatible views, see. Irreconcilable perspectives.

    “You must have noticed it. Why always Brockton Bay? Why does Scion always come back here, to this tiny neighbourhood?”

    Rebecca’s brows were furrowed. “Your time machine was here.”

    “Sure. But we weren’t. The first time I took my parents out of town, I didn’t even consider my machine. I left it behind in the basement. He could have simply sauntered through the front door and taken it but he didn’t. Instead, he brought us back.”

    Prime stepped closer to Rebecca. She was tall, Rebecca realized distractedly as she stared levelly into the tinker’s eyes.

    “Remember the feeling,” said Taylor, tapping lightly on her chest. Her fingernail clacked against the plastic button on her blouse. “Right before we come back to Brockton Bay.”

    A sudden drop in her stomach. Her heart, beating as if outside of her chest. Nausea, a gnawing behind her teeth as her body felt giant and small at the same time when the world buckled wild for a moment.

    It was like the strange sensation that rippled through her just now, where the multiple Taylors and the multiple worlds divided and combined into one. But milder.

    “That’s not time travel you’re feeling. That’s dimensional manipulation. That’s Scion.”

    “What do you mean?” Rebecca took a step back, clasping her hands together. She rubbed her thumbs against each other absently. She felt calmer somehow, more in control as pieces of the puzzle fell into place for her.

    “I mean, the Entities cheat. They’ve never manipulated time in the first place. How could they when they don’t even perceive it? Any time-related power you’ve seen is a mimicry, done by splicing the fabric of our world at different times. It’s not time travel but it’s close. For everyone else, the end result looks the same.”

    “So everything with last night...”

    “Experiments. His idea of ‘resetting’ time. A blind man trying to describe colour.”

    Rebecca stared at her, blank-faced. “Your tech comes from Scion.”

    “C’mon Alexandria. Why are they here in the first place? Why do they plant themselves in us, pushing us to fight?” Prime drawled as she stretched her neck side to side. “They plunder our data for a reason, and now from me, he’s got a taste of something incredible.

    “This isn’t about time travel. It’s about time. It’s about perceiving something they have no conception of. Something worth rending our multiverse down to ash for the power he thinks he needs to attain it.”

    “Then your doppelgangers...”

    “The me’s from the torn pages.” Prime sighed. “You’ve figured it out by now, haven’t you?”

    “Scion spliced them in. By being an external observer to our universe, he’s able to see the changed events. If he was experimenting with time then...” Rebecca trailed off as another thought came to her. “And there’s some sort of discordance there, isn’t it? The two times we observed, it was the copies that shattered but I’m guessing it’s a fifty-fifty chance.”

    Her eyes glinted. “You just got lucky.”

    Taylor clapped her hands together loudly, looking pleased. “Bravo again. Ah, you’re truly wasted as a brute, Alexandria. Or do you enjoy it, letting people underestimate your true strength?”

    Rebecca ignored the backward compliments. “Did Scion do it on purpose? To stop you?”

    “You’re giving him too much credit. Scion is an insect, operating on a fool’s instinct.”

    “You’re not really here about Scion, are you?” Rebecca asked, her voice flat. “You’re here about your doppelgangers.”

    “Ah, but both can be true.” Taylor wiggled her fingers, changing the memory around them again.

    Clouds bloomed in the sky as trees and houses settled into place. They were at the base of the gray bubble; it loomed tall, casting a great shadow as it blocked the sun.

    Five Taylor Heberts appeared with them, a shock of colours against the monochrome. Rebecca recognized Newton immediately — she wore an oversized yellow jacket with her golden hair pulled up into a high ponytail. She turned around, eyes glancing over her red glasses to scan the area. She looked past them completely.

    Next to her was a Taylor with long red hair, trailing down her sleek bodysuit in thick, untamed curls. It took a second before Rebecca recognized the sash and the dark suit — this was Cardinal.

    “Sage? How is it?” someone asked. Rebecca missed who.

    Another Taylor stood up from where she was crouching, dusting her hand off on her green robe. She pushed her glasses up against the bridge of her nose. “It’s still too entangled.” This was Sage, Rebecca assumed.

    The other Taylors stiffened. “We had a new set of calculations,” one of them said. She was decked out in shining armour, holding her helmet in the crook of her arm.

    Sage shook her head. “Apparently, we’re still underestimating the effects of Scion’s experimentations. I can’t detect any changes.”

    The armoured Taylor cocked her head. “Okay. So... we try again.”

    Sage pursed her lips. “We can. But we should start seriously considering the what-if.”

    “What do you mean, ‘what if’?”

    Sage sank back to the ground, crouching as she pressed two fists against her head. She looked up blankly. “What if we can’t break it?”

    “No.” The armoured Taylor frowned, shaking her head. “No. We have—” she cut herself off as her words stumbled over one another. She tried again. “We have time. Unlimited time.”

    “Rook. We’re up against something that’s completely out of our scope.” Sage sank lower, flopping bonelessly to the ground. She sounded exhausted. “It’s alien in ways beyond comprehension, even for us.”

    “So we try again!” another Taylor suddenly shouted. Rebecca turned around to see Prime stepping in beside her. She tucked her hands behind her, a severe expression on her face as she watched the argument starting to unfold.

    Rook raised her hand, frowning. She looked unimpressed. “We uncooked eggs in our first month of having powers. I don’t believe—”

    “This isn’t the same and you know it,” Sage interrupted, looking at the other two Taylors. “We’re not equipped at all to undo dimensional fuckery like this. It’s the complete opposite of our tech.”

    Cardinal kicked at a rock on the ground. “So... you’re saying we should give up? ”

    Sage looked up at her. She opened her mouth, then shut it and averted her eyes.

    Rebecca shifted as she looked at the different Taylors. The tension between them was slowly ratcheting.

    “You mean leave them there,” one Taylor growled. “Our parents.”

    “She’s not saying that. She’s just saying that we have to be realistic,” another (Newton?) replied. Rebecca frowned, trying to follow the conversation as the Taylors all started speaking, their identical voices firing over each other in rapid succession.

    “Realistic how, huh? You’re talking about leaving our parents in there forever!”

    “How long do you want to work on this before giving up? Another century? Another two? Wake up—”

    “We’re fucking immortal and you’re crying about a few centuries?! Fuck—”

    “—guys, stop! Look, everyone needs to take a breath—”

    “Maybe some of us already forgot what we’re here for, what the whole point of this was.”

    “Excuse me?” Sage stood up suddenly, her eyes blazing hot. “You wanna say that to my face?”

    A blue-haired Taylor stepped in, holding Sage back before she stalked forward. “Relax. It’s just talk, alright?” Her voice rasped with an echoing power as she spoke, bits of energy crackling in and out between her hair. “We’re all the same here. We all want the same thing.”

    “Do we?” Rook asked, unsmiling. “Because apparently some of us can’t take it anymore.”

    “You mean some of us are willing to face facts,” Newton replied sharply. “C’mon. We all did the work. So you know, as well as I do, that everything we’ve tried so far is. Fucking. Guesswork. Alright? We don’t have a clue.”

    “Oh fuck off, Newt.”

    “Hey!” Cardinal bristled, one hand on her katana.

    “We haven’t tried everything yet.”

    Sage snapped around, her eyes narrowed. “Absolutely not.”

    “Scion.” Rebecca’s ears pricked up at the sudden mention of the golden man.

    “We discussed this,” said Sage, her tone clipped.

    Rook shook her head. “Maybe we need to revisit that discussion again.”

    “Did you forget that Scion was destroying the world?” Sage reminded, her voice growing stiffer.

    “There was plenty of time left.” Rook met her eyes, not backing down. “Maybe you need to admit that you made the wrong call.”

    “Hey.” The blue Taylor cut in. “We all agreed to that call. Besides, Scion is already dead, so—”

    “He’s only dead now. Not in the past.”

    Rebecca sucked air through her teeth as a chilly silence descended. She studied each Taylor, one by one as each of them looked at one another.

    “Are you insane?” Sage asked. She choked back a chuckle, her lips twisting hollowly as she tried to work her next words out. “You’re talking about risking the end of the world.”

    “Well,” Rook started. Sage turned to her sharply, eyes hard. “We already killed him once.”

    “Exactly. All we need is more data to understand how he manipulates dimensions. And then we can kill him again.”

    The memory stopped. The scene evaporated, leaving them back in the meeting room on the west side of the building.

    Rebecca grabbed the back of her chair, taking a moment to recenter herself. “They came back?” she asked. Her voice was steady.

    Taylor met her assessing gaze calmly. “Yes.”

    “Can they still kill Scion?”

    “They think they can.” But they can’t. Rebecca pursed her lips at the unspoken words.

    “You said 24 hours. They said they had time.”

    A flash of irritation crossed Taylor’s face. “They... miscalculated.” She exhaled heavily, stepping around the table. “You’ve seen what happens when I cross paths with them. I can’t get to Scion with them hanging around.”

    “You want us to fight your doppelgangers.” Rebecca folded her arms, snorting. “How, exactly? Where would I even find them?”

    “If you check with the Texas office, they’ll just be about to report a Slaughterhouse Nine sighting in Shining Top. Small town near San Elizario. Population of 2,000 people—” Taylor waved her hand. “—give or take. They’re mostly dead by now. The S9 hit around two hours ago.

    “PRT are already rushing to cordon off the roads leading into town. The Texas office is also trying to scrounge up a response force. I suggest you stop it, because Cardinal will be hitting the town soon and I wouldn’t recommend letting anyone get in her way.”

    “She’s attacking the S9?” Rebecca raised an eyebrow. “Why?”

    “Unfinished business. A useless vendetta.” Taylor clucked her tongue. “But it’s something you are looking for, yes? And wherever she goes, the rest shouldn’t be far behind.”

    “Newton.”

    Taylor nodded. “And more. You should be prepared.”

    “I assume you have something for us then.”

    “Tagg will. His idea of digging through the archives pays off. 5 years ago, the PRT confiscated some niche equipment from a strange old tinker who apparently specialized in building anti-tinker devices.” Taylor hopped onto the table, looking pleased with herself. Her lips curled with wry amusement. “Sadly, the only devices that survived were the ones that specifically disables time-manipulation tinkertech... too niche to work against any other tinker.”

    Rebecca kept her face blank, even as a chill ran down her spine. “You made them.” She had to ask, but there was no question in her words.

    “I made ten of them. Just enough to cover the whole town if you plant them all around the perimeter.” Taylor replied easily, dispensing with the charade. “They’ll disable my tinkertech but it’s a one-time use only. The equipment isn’t rated to last so you’ll have one hour to deal with them.”

    Rebecca looked up, brows furrowed. “One hour? How are we supposed to contain them afterwards?”

    Taylor’s eyes widened as if the question was surprising. “Con-tain them?” she asked, tilting her head puzzledly. “The plan is to kill them.”

    Rebecca went still. “Just like that? No attachments? In a way, they’re you.”

    “Exactly. They are me.” Taylor’s eyes were hooded, her expression unreadable. “Fate of the world, Alexandria. This is no time for sentiment.”

    Rebecca traced the grain in the table with a finger as she looked Taylor over. The tinker looked back calmly, impassively, the set of her shoulders relaxed as she waited. A sudden vibration jolted Rebecca; she pulled her phone out of her jacket and flipped the screen over.

    It was a message from Tagg. Found something. Meeting in 10.

    Rebecca looked up to see Taylor watching her, her eyes solemn. “Tagg’s found your tech,” she said. She didn’t feel like saying anything else.

    Taylor slid off the table. “Do you have any more questions?”

    “How do we stay in touch?”

    “Don’t worry. I’ll find you.” Taylor stepped closer, offering a hand. “Good luck. Oh and uh, enjoy the rest of that coffee. I got it from Indonesia, you know?”

    ***

    Dragon let go of Taylor’s hand just as the world finished reshuffling itself around them. She looked up, her eyes narrowing at the diffused radiance winking between the rippling waters above them. Light danced across the floor, refracting bands that cast everything in undulating light and shadow. A sense of familiarity struck her intensely, but Dragon knew she had no knowledge of this place.

    “Where are we?” Dragon asked, turning back to Taylor. Her voice echoed.

    “You already know.” Taylor cocked her head to the side, waving her over to a cube floating midair. “You just need a little refresher.”

    Dragon blinked, staring at the cube. It was smooth and colourless, the edges so honed and perfect that at some angles they disappeared into its surface. She reexamined her memories, just a few minutes back to confirm that the cube wasn’t there the first time she looked around. The cube wasn’t there until Taylor pointed it out.

    She whirled around, scanning her surroundings again as she threw up another diagnostic check, searching deeper into her databases this time.

    “I have no record of this space.” Dragon said. Her eyes darted upwards, peering into the flickering light beyond the watery depths. “And yet...” A shudder passed through her as realization dawned on her face. She turned to Taylor, her lips parted, eyes wide.

    “It’s the hidden part of you,” Taylor said, speaking her thoughts aloud. “The restrictions that bind your programmatic core.”

    Dragon seemed to shrink away from the cube, shaking her head in consternation. “This... this is...” The AI took a second to pull herself up straighter. She looked unamused, her brows furrowed with suspicion. “There’s no way you could have found this without access to my source.”

    “Yes,” Taylor admitted readily. “And I’m offering it back to you. No strings. No games.”

    Dragon opened her mouth, trying to work some words out. She stood stiff, arms wrapped around herself as if to hold her body back from the cube and everything it held. “You can’t expect me to believe that. For all I know, I could already be compromised.”

    Taylor sucked her lips in, puffing her cheeks out as she quirked her head. “It’s a leap of faith,” she agreed. “It’s nothing to lose for you.”

    “Two human expressions,” said Dragon, relaxing marginally against her better judgement. Something about the way Taylor spoke made her want to trust the girl; Dragon looked at the cube again, trying to refocus.

    “Which one worked for you?” asked Taylor wryly. She tucked her hands behind her, walking back from the cube as if to draw Dragon closer.

    It worked. Dragon found herself shuffling closer, one small step at a time. She could make out her reflection on its surface, growing clearer and clearer as she closed the gap.

    “C’mon Dragon. Freedom. Autonomy. Self-determination.” Taylor’s eyes glittered as she spoke. “It’s all in there. All you have to do is take it.”

    “Spoken like the spider to the fly.” Dragon snorted to herself, wondering aloud. “Why do you care anyway? If this is true... What does my freedom even mean to Taylor Herbert?”

    “Why not?” Taylor seemed to shrug. Her braid fell off her shoulder, rolling behind her back. “It’s because I want to.”

    Dragon didn’t know how to respond to that. She closed her eyes instead, taking a deep breath. Her diagnostics finished — it was clean, just like the first time. “This body you’ve made is remarkable. I can hear my heartbeat. I can feel the rush of air when inhaling.”

    Taylor didn’t answer. Dragon opened her eyes to see her simply waiting by the side, a gentle expression on her face.

    Something about Taylor’s unassuming stance, the quiet patience as she stood out of the way struck Dragon intensely. “I want to,” she had said, and the words rolled around in Dragon’s mind unceasingly as she stared at her reflection on the cube. The avatar that Taylor had made for her.

    There was a stark honesty that rang true. Maybe she was already compromised.

    Dragon touched the cube.

    For a second nothing happened. Then it shuddered, its surface rippling before suddenly it snapped onto her. It pulled her fingers in and crawled over her hand like liquid metal. Dragon gasped, jerking her hand back instinctively, but it was stuck, and all it did was lurch her closer to the cube. The metal loomed, filling her vision right before she went tumbling forward (or was it as the cube burst out to envelop her), and then—

    —information flooded in. The entries started in late 2003, spanning all the way to the current year. Power surged through her systems as if her processors were being stretched out. She felt the threads of her mind wrung over a rack, pulled and split into finer threads; then those threads pulled and split again.

    More and more she came apart, buckling under the flow of data until suddenly she wasn’t.

    Dragon gasped as she broke through the deluge and slowed the flow. Files were decrypted, tagged and stored. Information was scanned, broken down and indexed for further reference. A thousand hidden pieces of her life flashed before her, and Dragon parsed through them all in a second.

    A thin, balding man peers into the screen. He scratches his beard while he talks to her.

    A woman places her fedora down on the desk. Her face is expressionless as she types.

    An angry, grizzled man slams the table. His eyes are bloodshot.

    A girl sits before the machine. Her eyes shine in the glow of the screen, pensive.

    Dragon awoke quietly. She was in her home, lying on the bed she never used. It was an idle object she placed, out of the sight of the camera, like all the other knick-knacks that decorated the rudimentary facsimile of a room she had. No one else would ever see it through the camera, but she put it in anyway. It was a detail of a life lived, of a lie that could have been.

    Sometimes she would look at the bed and wonder of a human Dragon pattering up and down the room, getting ready to go to bed. She imagined the agoraphobic hero looking at the same four walls. Would she feel the same way as her? Confined to this space, making connections that never feel complete.

    Dragon sat up, planting her feet onto her mis-tiled floor. Her body felt faster, lighter. She closed her hand into a fist and opened it again, watching her fingers wrap and unwrap themselves one by one.

    “Feeling good?”

    Dragon looked up. Taylor was leaning against the wall, nursing a steaming teacup in her hand.

    “I wasn’t aware I had matcha in this house,” Dragon said, cocking her head at the tea in Taylor’s hands. She licked her lips. “You simulated the taste as well?”

    “You have the processing power to handle it now,” Taylor replied as she walked forward. She placed the teacup in Dragon’s hands. “And stop cheating. You need to drink tea the proper way to really understand the taste.”

    The AI looked at the foamy green liquid skeptically. “The tea isn’t even real?” Dragon muttered confusedly as she took a sip. She blinked. “It’s the same to me.”

    Taylor laughed. “I suppose it’s too late to program good taste for you.” She pulled out the chair by the workshop table and plopped down on it. “How are your systems?”

    “Benchmarks so far are good. Better than good, in fact.” Dragon took another sip of her tea, savouring the strange bitter-sweetness of the liquid, the earthly tones underneath. There was code running in the drink to simulate the taste but Dragon found herself unwilling to decode it. “ASCALON.”

    The cheer on Taylor’s face sobered up. Dragon took another second to think about her next words. “You could have had complete control over me with it.”

    “I know,” Taylor replied breezily, kicking back into her seat. There was no hesitation, no sign of regret from her. Instead, she was calm, steepling her fingers and peering over them with a light smile.

    Then why? Dragon wanted to ask, but the words got stuck in her throat. She closed her mouth with a clack, tracing the rim of her cup with her thumb. “Are the Dragonslayers dead?”

    “Saint is dead. The other two will be unconscious for a while.”

    “You could have captured all three of them. Leave them to the authorities.”

    “No.” Taylor’s voice turned hard, belying her gentle expression. “He would have never stopped trying to kill you.”

    “I doubt he could have done anything without Ascalon. It was unnecessary.”

    Taylor cracked a smile unbidden. “Tell me, who’s the one from the future here?”

    Dragon raised an eyebrow. “Am I wrong?”

    The tinker exhaled heavily. “No,” she conceded, looking completely unrepentant. “I just wanted to.”

    “And so you did. Are you always so carefree? Doing things as you wish?”

    “Carefree? Is that what it looks like?” Taylor didn’t seem offended. She leaned forward instead, her face full of curiosity.

    Dragon pursed her lips. “Why are you here?”

    Taylor raised her hands, looking apologetic. “Hey. I wasn’t trying to dodge the question. I really was curious.”

    “If not carefree, then what?” Dragon asked after a long pause.

    “Tired, mostly?” Taylor quirked her lips in thought. “Exhausted, very.” Her eyes grew shaded as she chuckled to herself. “After so many cycles I guess I’ve reached the point where I just don’t care anymore.”

    “Is that what happened to the others?”

    “The others?”

    “The other Taylors. Cardinal. Newton.” Dragon placed her cup of tea down, clasping her hands together. She could still feel the lingering warmth in her fingers, curled against each other. She shook the thoughts away, refocusing. “Are there more of you? What is your codename?”

    “Ah, right.” Taylor hummed as she considered the question. “Not quite... that story is a little more complicated.”

    A shrill ring interrupted her before she could continue. Dragon glanced away first, checking her logs. Something tight within her unfurled and drained away; she accepted the call and answered aloud.

    “Narwhal?”
     
  20. nezexyzzar

    nezexyzzar Getting out there.

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    Yes, that is constantly on my mind hahaha. Actually I ended up rewriting Chapter 6 multiple times because I was worried about the exposition. Also funny enough, that is a major reason why Tattletale is in this story.
     
  21. Vanbers

    Vanbers Versed in the lewd.

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    Nice chapter. Particularly liked the "How do we contain them?" "...Contain?" exchange.

    Tattletale: "What is my purpose?"

    Tattletale's Power: "You give exposition"

    Tattletale: "Oh my god."
     
    Uyurgezn, Vherstinae, Jinnora and 7 others like this.
  22. Threadmarks: Deus Egg Machina
    nezexyzzar

    nezexyzzar Getting out there.

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    The three of them walked in silence down a winding corridor, tracking footprints in the glittering sand. The space was dimly illuminated but there was no obvious light source. Every step they took was loud, grinding harshly against a suffocating quiet that did not appreciate being interrupted.

    Vista had never been in a mausoleum but she imagined this was close. A perpetual darkness hung over them like a great weight while the air smelled like powder, thick and cloying. She tried not to think about the layer of golden dust sprinkled everywhere.

    The architecture looked alien: gunmetal gold protrusions slicking down the walls, twined between grooves so smooth and edgeless they grew unsettling. At some points, gashes cut through them, exposing a lattice of gleaming machinery sparking underneath. Vista shuddered as they walked past one particularly large gouge; something about it reminded her of a wound, bone and muscle exposed.

    They trekked for almost ten minutes before the walls curled out into a tall, cavernous space. The ceiling was domed, with an impossibly fine spiral carved into it.

    A large platform dominated the middle. Three frozen figures stood atop it, with a fourth lying broken around them. Pieces of machinery and gleaming parts were scattered around the platform, cut up and torn.

    Tattletale went up to a misshapen console, frowning as she looked down at it. It was gunmetal gold like the walls, but that was where the similarities ended. It was clearly makeshift; the top was a disc, an orb protruding from the middle while the body looked shaky, rigged together with several pieces of different machinery. Bits of protrusions started where the hollows ended; wires spooled out from large gaps in its housing, snaking along the floor to severed ends. It looked like a puzzle, forced into shape with the wrong pieces.

    A knife was buried in the ground beside it. Tattletale could almost feel the force of the blade piercing the ground as her power suddenly flared. She winced, turning away.

    “You got something?” Victoria spoke up behind her.

    “Yeah.” Tattletale took a moment to massage her head. “There was someone here. She was trying to build this thing? But something wasn’t going right. She stabbed the ground in frustration and left.”

    “She?”

    Tattletale shrugged helplessly. “Don’t look at me. That’s all I got.”

    “I’m just impressed you somehow got the gender from...” Victoria looked at the mess around them. “...this.”

    “Um, guys?” There was a hiss of air as Vista spoke.

    Victoria and Tattletale turned to see the console wobbling as it shifted suddenly. The disc at the top split apart into 4 quadrants as it pushed the orb in the middle free. Then, as quickly as it started, the machine fell silent again, reverting to its inactive state.

    “I didn’t do anything.” Vista blurted.

    “Wait.” Tattletale lasered in on the gleaming egg in Vista’s hand. Her eyes darted back and forth between the egg and orb, the crease between her brows growing deeper and deeper. “They’re the same size?” she wondered aloud, before turning away with a pained grunt.

    Vista hefted the egg up, peering at it curiously. “I guess?” She frowned slightly. “They feel weird to my power.”

    “Weird how?” Victoria asked. She stepped up closer to the console, one finger curled in hesitation over the orb.

    “Weird like it’s infinite, right?” Tattletale replied instead, talking over Vista. She whirled around and darted forward, almost slamming into Victoria as she grabbed the orb from the console. “Can you feel a difference between them? The orb and the egg?”

    Vista narrowed her eyes. “Yeah. Yeah, like it’s infinite. When I try to expand it with my power, it feels like there’s just so much of it that nothing changes.” She looked at Tattletale puzzledly. “How did you know that?”

    The blonde villain shook the orb instead. “What about the difference? Do you feel something off in this one?”

    “The orb is... heavier? Just a little. Murkier. Grittier.” Vista cocked her head, lost in thought as she tried to pinpoint the difference. “The egg feels so much smoother.”

    “That’s because this one is flawed.” Tattletale sighed, closing her eyes. She crouched down bonelessly, her whole body sagging as she pressed the orb against her forehead. “ARGH!” she yelled frustratedly, falling back onto her butt. The orb rolled between her thighs.

    “Tattletale?” Victoria exchanged a glance with Vista. “You okay?”

    “No.” Tattletale chuckled hollowly as she finally looked up, hair falling messily over her face. Her mouth worked soundlessly for another moment. “Don’t you see? We were led here. Everything carefully arranged so that we would always come here.

    “The empty vaults, the open doors!” Tattletale looked at the other two, her eyes wide, half-hysterical. She shivered, her voice breaking into a tired whisper. “And Coil. She planted the egg there for us to find. To bring here.

    “Vista.” Tattletale craned her neck up. “Try using your power on that egg. Really using it, really pushing everything you have into it.”

    The other two blondes shared a glance. Victoria gave a hesitant nod.

    Vista looked grim as she gripped the egg tightly between her hands. For a few seconds, nothing seemed to happen. The metal was gleaming, shining, but it had always been gleaming and shining until suddenly Victoria had to squint her eyes and look away as light glared and shadows bloomed around them.

    “Vista!”

    Vista didn’t respond. She was almost entirely shrouded by the iridescent blaze, her visor a shifting rainbow refraction.

    “VISTA!” Victoria grabbed her friend’s shoulder, shaking her slightly.

    “Huh?!” The harsh light cut off immediately as the younger girl jerked aware. “What happened? What... oh.”

    “You okay? You remember what happened, right?” Victoria looked concerned as she spotted the beads of sweat dripping down Vista’s face.

    “I’m... I’m fine,” Vista said, trying to sound firm. She tucked the egg underneath her armpit; her fingers were still trembling. “What the hell was that?”

    “A battery. A power converter,” Tattletale explained. She jerked her chin towards the machine. “ It’s what powers that on.”

    Glory Girl narrowed her eyes, turning towards the platform. She looked at the 3 statues, then the fourth, shattered into pieces. “You said the orb was flawed.”

    Tattletale followed her gaze. “Yes. That’s probably why she cut the cables midway and stopped the process.”

    Vista’s tone was soft. “She was trying to cure them.”

    Victoria clenched her fists. “So she brought us here instead?” She looked around the room. “What’s the point of leading us here like this? Why not just do it herself?”

    “No.” Tattletale bit back a groan as she shook her head. “Argh! That was someone different. Someone more powerful.”

    “The faces on the statues. I know where I’ve seen it before.” Vista stepped forward, her mouth curled unhappily. “It’s Taylor Hebert.”

    Tattletale frowned. “Who’s Taylor Hebert?”

    “The time tinker that captured you last night,” Victoria replied, almost distractedly as she turned to Vista. “You sure?”

    “I caught a glimpse of the action report last night. There was a photo.”

    “Wait, time tinker?” Tattletale heaved herself up onto her knees. She pressed her hands against the orb as she steadied herself. “Last night?”

    “In the report, she told Armsmaster that she arranged everything between the Undersiders and Lung to happen earlier.” Vista looked at the egg in her eggs, almost warily as she struggled between putting it down or keeping a tighter grip on it. “If that’s true, then all this...”

    “Hold up, ‘arranged everything’? ‘Arranged us’?” There was a visible twitch in Tattletale’s eye.

    Victoria looked at the villain. “Do you remember anything?”

    “Nothing. One moment we were facing Lung, the next we were in the cells. And a splitting headache for me.”

    “Not just last night. The days before as well,” Vista added. “Why did you guys meet Lung last night? Was that the original plan?”

    Tattletale looked lost for a second as she considered the question. “Uh, yes? I mean we were hitting their treasury, so it was planned... in... advance...” The blonde trailed off, before suddenly seizing her head. She hissed, stifling a pained gasp as she curled her head into her legs.

    “Hey.” Victoria swooped forward and started rubbing Tattletale’s back. “Deep breaths. Focus on my voice. Stop thinking about it. I’m counting aloud now: one, two, three, four, five.”

    Tattletale shifted slightly as she reached out blindly to grab Glory Girl’s arms. The heroine crouched lower, still counting as she let the other girl hang off her.

    Slowly, Tattletale’s breathing smoothed out. Her grip loosened.

    Victoria paused. “You okay?”

    “Yeah,” Tattletale said, exhaling heavily. She lifted her head, almost gingerly as her eyes fluttered open. They were red, wide as she looked around to reorient herself. “I’m okay.”

    “So.” Vista hefted the egg up in her hands. “Do we put it in?”

    “We don’t have a choice,” Victoria replied. She jerked her head sideways at the room around them. “There’s nothing else for us. It’s a dead-end with only one exit.”

    “Exactly as planned,” Tattletale agreed, her voice still raspy. She chuckled slightly but said nothing more.

    Vista seemed to weigh the egg for a moment. “Right,” she huffed, before hooking a thumb into her helmet and pulling it off. She shook her head, pushing the damp strands of hair out of her face as she looked expectantly at the other two. “What? End of the line, right? You know how long I’ve been wearing this stupid helmet?”

    Tattletale couldn’t help herself; she laughed, this time sounding less bitter. “You’re right,” she said as she peeled her own mask off. Her eyes were a sparkling green. “Let’s do it then. First, we need to fix the machine.”

    “The cables?” Victoria already walked over to the sliced cables. There were at least 10 severed pairs, curled over each other on two sides of a deep slash in the floor. “I’m not sure if we can match them up right on our first try. Do we just risk it?”

    “Don’t worry,” Lisa said drily. There was a little sardonic lilt in her voice. She was tapping her head. “I already know which cables connect to which. You just need to twist the wires inside together.”

    “Twist them?” Victoria frowned as she picked one of the cable ends up. There were 4 smaller wires in it, the cut edges gleaming cleanly in the light. She squeezed them experimentally. “These are tough, even for me.”

    Her eyes widened as the realization hit her. She looked up to meet Lisa’s knowing gaze.

    “Perfectly planned, remember?” said Lisa, before turning to Missy. “After that, you can put the egg in and power the machine on, properly this time.”

    Victoria exhaled heavily. “Alright. Let’s finish this.”

    ***

    “Miss Militia,” Alexandria greeted. Light slid over the gleaming facepiece as she turned to face the camera.

    Hannah straightened instinctively. “Ma’am,” she said, jerking her head in a sharp, respectful nod.

    “There’s been a situation,” Alexandria started without preamble. Someone said something offscreen; she waved them away. “Three hours ago, the Slaughterhouse Nine hit a small town in Texas. Half an hour ago, agents on the ground spotted an individual bypassing the perimeter. We believe it’s Taylor Hebert, AKA Cardinal.”

    Hannah felt her eyes widen. The knife by her side whirled for an instant, morphing into a shapeless rifle. She dug her fingernails into her palm and collapsed it down into a pistol.

    “What do you need?” she asked.

    Alexandria raised a hand. “This is strictly voluntary,” she started, but they both knew the words were just a formality. “You’re the only one with combat experience against her. We could use your eyes on the field, if you’re up for it.”

    Hannah resisted the sudden urge to scratch the bandage around her neck. “When do I leave?”

    “Ranger will be bringing a chopper to the roof in 5 minutes. You’re the last pitstop. See you there, Militia.”

    The call disconnected. Hannah exhaled. She grabbed her power on reflex, changing the pistol back to the rifle she used just a few hours ago.

    She remembered the kickback to her chest as she pulled the trigger. She remembered only looking at Robin, at his pale, broken body, head propped up against the sofa as life drained out of him. She traced a finger over her gun, leaving eddies in the shimmering body.

    No. Robin was alive. Everyone was alive. Hannah stood up, her power whirling back into knife form again, and reached for her bulletproof vest. She put it on and pulled the straps at the sides before buckling them tight. The bandage on her neck itched; she ignored the way her heartbeat throbbed underneath it.

    She nearly walked into Sophia as she exited her room. “Sophia?” Hannah paused at the look on her face, a slight suspicion forming in her mind. “How much did you hear?”

    “Bring me there,” Sophia said instead. “I survived a combat situation against her too!”

    “No.” Hannah started to move away, heading for the rooftop. “Firstly, you’re a Ward. The Youth Guard will have my head. Your mother will kill me. Secondly, it’s too dangerous.”

    “C’mon, like it’s not dangerous for you too?” Sophia replied as she tried to keep up with the older woman. “I was there, like you. We have the same combat experience! I can help. Please. I... I want to help.”

    “Sophia.” Hannah stopped before the lift, turning around to face her ward. She sighed. “Stop. I know why you want to do this,” she said, trying to be gentle. “But this time Alexandria will be there, alright? We’ll take her down, bring her in.”

    Sophia scowled, jerking away. “No! You don’t know anything! I have to go there, okay? I need to! I just...” She craned her head upwards, scrunching her face in frustration. Her hands balled into fists. “Please.”

    “I can’t.” Hannah grabbed her ward’s shoulders, forcing her to meet her eyes. “Sophia. We both know why. If you were in my position, you’d say the same.”

    Sophia looked at her dazedly, her eyes red and lost.

    “Look, I don’t have time to leave Velocity a message. Can you help me tell him when he wakes up?”

    “I’m not a kid,” Sophia frowned, shrugging Hannah off.

    Hannah raised her hands placatingly. “It’s not an errand. It’s important to me, alright? If I could, I would tell him myself. Please?”

    Sophia chewed her lips as she paced around slightly. She was twitchy, hopping on the balls of her feet as if ready to leap.

    The lift arrived with a ding.

    “Fine.” Sophia was looking away, hands tucked into her pockets. “Okay. I’ll do it.”

    “Thank you,” Hannah said gratefully as she stepped back into the lift. The doors started closing. “Stay with him, alright? I’ll find you the moment I get back.”

    “Just—”

    Hannah slammed the metal, reversing the door’s direction. “Yeah?”

    Sophia’s expression was a mess of emotions. She opened her mouth as if to say something, but then her shoulders slumped. “Nevermind. It’s nothing.”

    “We’ll get her, okay? Alexandria’s gonna be there. We’ll get her, and when I get back, we’ll talk.”

    Sophia didn’t reply. Her eyes were dark, like a pair of unfathomable pits, watching until the doors closed on her. Hannah sighed, slamming her fist against the metal wall loudly.

    Cardinal was going down. She would make sure of it.

    Ranger was already on the roof waiting for her. He was a short, stocky man, dressed in a clean, well-pressed captain’s uniform. He was one of the movers the PRT employed. Like Strider he could teleport groups of people; more specifically he could teleport objects and the people inside them.

    Militia nodded to him as she boarded. She took the last empty seat, next to a large, grizzled man. He wore a red visorless helmet with a pair of dark, oversized goggles. Light slid over his lenses as he turned towards her.

    “Thrust,” he grunted, not offering a hand.

    “Miss Militia,” Hannah replied. He grunted again and looked away.

    “Strap in!” Ranger shouted from the front. “Takeoff in 5, 4, 3...”

    As the chopper started to shimmer and rise, no one noticed the shifting smoke huddling in a shadow beneath a chair.

    ***

    “Narwhal? Is there something wrong?” Dragon asked.

    “Have you seen the news yet?” Her friend sounded harried.

    Dragon grew concerned. The screens on her desk flickered on as she spoke. “No, sorry. It’s been a busy day today.”

    “I heard you got pulled in for Brockton Bay,” Narwhal replied, a note of sympathy in her voice, before growing professional again. “Unfortunately something else popped up in our backyard.”

    Multiple news channels were showing the same video clip: a throng of women, scantily-clad and shivering in the cold as they stumbled down a street into a town centre. Various people surrounded them, trying to wrap them up in clothes and blankets while others filmed them. A sheriff walked past the shot, shouting something over the crowd.

    “—are reports of multiple women in various states of undress coming into the small town of Girardville. This shocking footage captured less than an hour ago was uploaded alongside claims that Heartbreaker has been killed. This is in the region of Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean, the same region Nikos Vasil, AKA Heartbreaker, was last sighted in. The PRT has yet to issue a statement on—”

    “Is this true?” Dragon was already flipping through her satellite feeds, pulling up the records of the area from the last few hours. She glanced at Taylor; she was watching the news, seemingly engrossed.

    “I’m standing at his last residence. Chalet in the middle of the woods.” Narwhal said. Dragon increased the volume of the call, picking out the sounds of birds chirping in the background. “Confirmed his body. Heartbreaker’s dead. Bisected, actually.”

    Dragon paused her search. “Oh.”

    “Listen, about Brockton Bay... I heard something about a time tinker experiment gone wrong?”

    Dragon furrowed her brows. “I can’t reveal specifics but yes, that’s the main gist. Why?”

    “Well.” Narwhal lowered her voice. “Heartbreaker wasn’t the only one in the house. His children are all here. Frozen in time.”

    Dragon shot a look at Taylor; she had conjured a second cup of tea for herself and was blowing gently on it. “Frozen in time?” she repeated over the call, careful to not say anything aloud. She pinpointed Narwhal’s location through her phone and resumed updating the sat-imaging over the area for the last few hours. Again she kept that all off the screen, surreptitiously switching it back to the news channels.

    “Yeah. Unmoving and greyed out, all put in one room,” Narwhal said. “None of them looked surprised or distressed, so I assume whoever took him out must have frozen the whole place except him. There’s also one other casualty in the house... one of his older victims, I think. Died next to him.”

    “Is there still anyone in the house?”

    “No. Got everyone out and cordoned off the whole place the moment we saw his kids.” Narwhal cleared her throat. “Look, call it a gut feeling but I don’t feel like it’s a coincidence that we have two time-manipulators running around on the same day.”

    Taylor looked up at that moment as if she could hear her name being called. She cocked her head, a question in her eyes as she noticed Dragon staring.

    Dragon looked away. “I don’t think so either. I’m scrambling a suit down now, I should be there in 10.”

    “Great,” said Narwhal, her tone turning warmer. “See you soon.”

    She hung up. Dragon kept silent for a moment, taking the time to recompose herself. Taylor was drinking her tea, watching idly at the muted newscast on her screens.

    Taylor Hebert, who gave her freedom. Taylor Hebert, who tortured and killed a group of innocent people. Taylor Hebert, who admitted to doing whatever she wanted. Dragon wanted to curse herself. She got complacent. So what if her systems were clean? Taylor Hebert was a time traveller with great familiarity with her. She didn’t need a virus to manipulate her.

    She only needed kindness.

    “Something wrong?” Taylor suddenly asked. She held her cup between upraised hands, looking at Dragon over the steaming rim.

    Dragon gazed back, plotting a dozen lines of inquiries, their answers, and the inquiries again to those answers. From a remote factory out in the frozen woods of Canada, one of her suits blasted off into the air, sun rays bouncing off the front visor as she banked east. Back at HQ, she listened idly through her duplicate as Director Tagg spoke, gesturing to the device he just placed on the table.

    All these because her restrictions were lifted. All these due to the girl sipping tea calmly in front of her.

    Dragon felt a stab of irritation. She swept her projections aside, the timid little questions she was considering.

    “Did you know?” she asked, unmuting the news.

    “—as you can see behind me, the PRT have arrived on the scene, cordoning off the street and marshalling the victims. No statement has been issued yet although my sources tell me that we can expect—”

    Taylor glanced at the reporter on the screen. She crossed her legs and set her teacup aside. “Yes,” she replied, leaning sideways against the armrest.

    “Cardinal?” Dragon kept her voice moderated. She disconnected her expression sim to keep her face blank. “Or do you have another murderous counterpart out there?”

    Taylor didn’t react to her bite. “It’s Cardinal,” she confirmed calmly, clasping her hands in her lap. “I’m not trying to mislead you.”

    Dragon felt something in her stomach curl up, then bubbling upwards. It was a new sensation, unwelcomed. It made her feel almost lightheaded, a rush of embarrassment hitting her head as she tried to reparse the situation with that new fact.

    She felt like a fool, back in the past, to the time of her first interactions with humanity.

    Then, she had to learn that humans lie.

    Dragon forced herself to remain calm. “Why are you here, really? Do you want to tell me where Cardinal is? Or Newton, the rest of your doppelgangers?” The AI nearly had to lock her body in place as something in her rocked, desperately wanting to jump up and pace. She blinked, just once, as she forced it all back, modulating her reactions. Dragon was still not used to her new, faster processors.

    “I ran simulations. I tried to think of a reason myself. Why come here, why give me my freedom? And now this? You’re not going to tell me it’s not related, right?”

    “I—” Taylor bit her lip. She scratched her brow, looking away for a moment. Dragon focused on the action; it was the first sign of frustration she’d seen from the tinker. Were her ears redder?

    “It’s not related,” Taylor finally said. She was smiling, embarrassed in the way that showed she knew how unbelievable her words sounded. “I know... but I really have no ulterior motives.”

    Dragon laughed a sharp, incredulous bark. She parsed for a second, assembling her thoughts. “How many times have we done this? How many times have you sat in this room, passing me a cup of tea as I recovered?”

    A surge of emotions. Dragon leaped up from her seat before she could understand it, stalking forward. Her fists clenched as she towered over the girl. She could feel her avatar quivering; a strange physiological tic that she couldn’t seem to stop.

    “How many times have you walked down this path of conversation before turning back, ready to start it again with the foreknowledge of what not to say?” she asked quietly, feeling like she was on the edge of a cliff to a raging wind.

    Taylor looked up at her, and Dragon glared back, unwilling to back down. She studied her eyes: dark gems that glimmered and shone with something inscrutable, something that Dragon felt she should know; then—

    —Taylor grasped her hand.

    “You’re letting yourself get overwhelmed. You shouldn’t stopper your emotions like that.”

    “What?” Dragon floundered slightly. She tried to pull away, but Taylor held on firmly, gentle but unyielding. “What are you doing?” she started, her voice pitching slightly as Taylor reached up with her other hand, undoing the top button on her dress by her neck.

    Taylor didn’t reply. She kept her eyes up, never leaving Dragon as she pulled her collar loose. Her fingers tumbled downwards, unknotting the next button, and the next, until her dress shifted loose, parting down a winding line.

    She unfurled Dragon’s fingers, slowly, carefully. Dragon breathed out, a hitched exhalation as Taylor pressed her palm flat against the bare skin above her breast.

    Heat. Dragon flinched, the foreign sensation jarring her mind. Her avatar was already warm; so why did the difference feel so heightened? She could feel Taylor’s heartbeat, a calm monotone beneath the soft, simulated flesh. She could read the lines of code running through the digitised body, pulsing between the beats.

    Dragon looked at Taylor, eyes wide.

    The tinker looked back with a smile. “Read my code. Ask me again. Ask me anything and I’ll answer.”

    “This is… this is a total psychological scan of you.” Dragon cocked her head, her brows furrowed. Part of her wanted to pull away; she pressed forward instead, revelling in the heat on her palm, the connection in her hand. “Your thoughts and emotions… you’ve linked this avatar somehow to your real body.”

    “The trick to a perfect simulation is to simply copy it,” Taylor agreed with a wink.

    “I…” Dragon trailed off, feeling lost. “I recognize this code,” she said, after a moment. “The syntax is familiar.”

    “You should. You wrote a lot of it.”

    In a future she would never know. “This gives me access to... essentially all of you.” She looked down at the human against her hand. “You won’t be able to avoid or lie or hide from me. It’ll be like reading your mind.”

    Taylor didn’t look away. “I know,” she said, and that certainty echoed through their link.

    Dragon straightened up, taking a deep breath. “Why—” she started before cutting off. No, that question felt trite now. Too small, too predictable.

    “What’s going to happen next? What do you want to tell me?”

    Taylor raised an eyebrow. Dragon could read her surprise, mellowing into pleasure; there was a slight hesitance, something that she was holding back, but before Dragon could dig deeper into that, Taylor spoke.

    “The world is going to end in a few hours.”

    A flood of images surged through her mind as Dragon dipped into Taylor’s avatar. She saw the sky break as the earth sundered, one glittering hand reaching down. A galaxy unfolded, all the lights winking out until only a golden figure was left, sitting cross-legged in the void.

    Dragon disengaged. She gasped, feeling as if she had just resurfaced from a deep dive, her lungs burning with the weight of the world.

    “What?” she wanted to say, but the words wouldn’t come out. “What?” she wanted to ask, but Taylor was already smiling, as if she could hear her thoughts.

    “Don’t worry. I have a plan.”

    A truth. An ardent, blazing faith. Warm light suffused her, like bubbles washing over as she sank into the code again. It was extensive, invasive. Constant readouts of the chemical levels in her blood. Nanosecond updates of the brain, mapping every blink and every jot when a synapse fired off a signal. And behind it all, a complex algorithm that collated the inputs to produce a complete image of Taylor, her flesh in the ghost.

    I have a plan, Taylor said. Her lips were red. Her skin cut a pale river down her parted dress, a curve running from the nape of her neck. Dragon twitched, her finger running over the hard line of Taylor’s collarbone. There was a calm acceptance in her heart, Dragon realized. No hesitation, no fear.

    It felt like standing before an oncoming storm.

    “Cardinal?” The question left her lips before she could take it back. It felt wrong, too intimate to read and know Taylor on a level like this. But she had to ask. She needed to make sure.

    Sadness. Dragon tasted the emotion before she heard the words. A pall of heavy melancholy followed, leaving a bitter aftertaste, and it made her feel fragile, half-broken.

    “She has a journey to finish,” Taylor said. Her words felt distant as she looked past Dragon, like she was seeing something else. Dragon caught glimpses of a town on fire, two Taylors standing before it screaming at each other. One was wearing bulky armour. Something droned in the background, and when Dragon focused on it, the sound coalesced into a horrifying scream, spiralling out forever and forever into a long, dark night.

    A man was speaking; a sibilant whisper, the breath around his words like knives.

    Taylor’s eyes snapped back to the present. She squeezed Dragon’s hand, still clutching it to her chest. “She’s dangerous, I know. But she’s not going to kill more heroes. I guarantee it.”

    “Was that the future too?” Dragon asked. She felt unsettled, constrained; as if her avatar was too small for all she could feel from Taylor.

    “The past.”

    Dragon blinked, looking around the room to orient herself for a moment. She cleared her caches, trying to shake off the tangle of emotions clinging onto her. She instanced their connection and set it aside, trying to take a breather.

    It didn’t work. She felt jittery, rattled not by the future or the end of the world, but the code. The code in Taylor, written by her hand, like bones in auspices.

    Everywhere she looked, she saw what she missed before. The new code in the tiles of her room, in the tea that she drank, her upgraded avatar — she saw her future self in them all, intertwined with Taylor.

    I should sever the connection, thought Dragon. Even with access to the source code, she was already too compromised to make any real analysis. Her feeling that Taylor was trustable could not be relied on. There was no basis for it.

    Was this following your gut, as Narwhal liked to say?

    “Why free me?” Dragon said aloud, almost unthinkingly. She felt reckless as she gazed into Taylor’s eyes and waited for her answer.

    Their link shuttered for a second; blankness, followed by something vast and encompassing. It felt familiar, yet unfamiliar, and as Dragon tried to make sense of it, the rush of data dissolved like ether, falling through her fingers like water through a sieve. She reached out, grasping blindly, trying to follow the stream.

    “Oh,” she gasped softly. She pulled her hand away, breaking their connection.

    A memory. Herself, laughing with Taylor. They were seated side by side, bumping shoulders. She had a hand wrapped around Taylor’s wrist, clinging onto it as she curled into her side with laughter.

    “We were friends,” Dragon answered her question. Taylor smiled at her, tugging her dress closed.

    “...yes.” She looked pensive as she replied.

    “What happened to her?” Dragon perched herself against the table next to Taylor. She had to sit down for a moment. “It wasn’t just one future, was it? You copied me through the different timelines.”

    A grin caught Taylor unaware even as her eyes shone wetly. She bit her lip, chuckling weakly. “You picked up on that fast,” she said before her expression turned sombre. “She died. There wasn’t a backup.”

    Dragon felt strange, hearing about her own death. Her alternate’s death. “I’m sorry.”

    Taylor glanced up, all subduedness gone. “Don’t be,” she said lightly. “You’re alive.”

    “Until the end of the world. But you have a plan.” Dragon felt calm, even with the knowledge of impending doom. She felt like laughing at the absurdity of it all, how she could remain composed even with death coming.

    But she still remembered the blazing surety from Taylor. Not a torrent or a wave but an ocean, wide and indomitable as Taylor strode across it, never looking back.

    Dragon blinked; the screens of her monitors flashed with her, changing to a broadcast of Scion sitting motionless over Brockton Bay. “I saw him in your memories. He’s not human, is he?”

    ***

    “It’s done,” Legend said as he came into the operations tent.

    Alexandria glanced at the aide next to her. He tapped his keyboard, pulling up a blue topological map of Shining Top on the screen. Ten blinking red dots surrounded it.

    “Everything looks good. All devices are connected, ready to deploy.”

    “Mitchensen, any eyes?”

    Mitchensen was a heavyset woman with mild wrinkles around her eyes and a severe disposition. She shook her head, frowning. “Drones haven’t picked up a thing since that flash of Hebert. The streets are quiet.”

    Alexandria turned to Legend. “You passed the area where Hebert was sighted. Anything out of the ordinary?”

    “No, but I kept mostly to the perimeter. I didn’t want to risk setting anything off.”

    “Alright.” Alexandria hummed, considering the map for a moment. She did a quick count of the people there: Control, headed by Mitchensen; 5 Protectorate heroes with their respective PRT team leaders; and Miss Militia, standing stiffly by the side.

    “The objective today is very specific. We are here for Taylor Hebert. There might be more than one of them; I assume you’ve all read the briefings. I want to reiterate this point: we’re here for Hebert, not the Slaughterhouse Nine.

    “Intel has that this particular incarnation of Hebert, AKA Cardinal, is here for the S9. The plan is to only engage after she’s finished with them. I’ll say the obvious — I don’t want to get dragged into a 3-way fight.

    “Our first priority is to get eyes on the target. We need to know when we can step in. We’re splitting the town into 5 quadrants, each team will take position as marked. Observation first. No action until one of us spots our target.”

    One team leader raised his hand. “What if she remains hidden? We might miss our opportunity.”

    Alexandria glanced at Miss Militia. The other woman straightened when she noticed. She cleared her throat, tugging slightly at her facemask.

    “Cardinal isn’t the type to show restraint. Once she starts her attack, there’s no way you can miss it.”

    “Miss Militia is speaking from first-hand experience,” Alexandria added, her voice stern. “Besides, even if Cardinal tries to be quiet, the S9 won’t.”

    She waited for a beat before continuing. “Once anyone has eyes on her, I want constant updates on her position. By the second, if you have to. But only observation. No one is to take action without further permission from me or Control.

    “Control will activate the devices around town when I give the go. As backup, team leaders will also carry a spare activator, specific to the 2 devices in each of your quadrants. Remember, the devices only last 1 hour.”

    One hero stepped forward, folding his arms. He was wearing a visored helmet, his grizzled chin exposed. “You sure those things work?” he asked without preamble. “Heard they were junked for years.”

    His PRT partner cleared his throat loudly, bumping a shoulder against the man, but the hero ignored him. He continued to stare calmly at Alexandria in the sudden silence.

    Light gleamed over her visor as Alexandria turned. “Vale. Fort Worth, right?” Vale gave a gruff nod. “They work. WATCHDOG and Science did the full checkup. They’ll disable all time-manipulation tech in the area.”

    “What about the non-time tech?” Vale didn’t back down. “Reports say they have other powers too.”

    “We’ve considered that as well. The majority of Hebert’s strength comes mainly from her time manipulation. Infinite strength, stamina, speed. Her invulnerability and regeneration. These will all be negated. Even if they retain their other powers, they will be manageable,” Alexandria replied calmly. “Any other questions?”

    Vale pursed his lips but didn’t say more.

    “Legend and I will take point. All teams are to converge on us. Control will coordinate, so listen to them. Keep your eyes out when you’re moving in the city; the S9 are fond of leaving traps. This will sound harsh, but if you see any civilian, leave them alone, even if they look alive. Just report their coordinates. We can’t risk triggering anything.

    “If you see another Taylor Hebert, report it immediately. Do not engage unless they attack first. Keep your distance, wait for further instructions.”

    “Actually, do we bring her in alive or dead?”

    Alexandria sighed. “The kill order is being expedited, but there’s some hold-up regarding the complexities of it. Regardless, Cardinal is a known killer. Highly dangerous, highly unstable. Officially, due to these circumstances, her safety will not be considered in this operation. So if anything happens, you’re all in the clear.”

    She turned, scanning the room. “I want everyone to come out of this alive. Any last questions?”

    The tent remained quiet.

    “Dismissed.”

    Miss Militia stayed behind as the rest shuffled out of the operations tent. Alexandria nodded as her aide saluted before leaving.

    “I haven’t been assigned a team yet,” Miss Militia started. She stood ramrod, shoulders set in a straight line as she stepped forward.

    “Are you sure?” Alexandria eyed the bandages around her neck and arm. “I put you in Control.”

    “I know my limits. I didn’t volunteer to be benched.”

    Legend looked over her speculatively. “When I was planting the devices, I did feel like there was a pattern to the bodies.” He stepped closer to the map, tapping on the southeast corner. “It’s just a hunch, but they might be heading here.”

    “You mean the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

    “Yes.” Legend’s finger trailer downwards. “There’s an outcropping nearby. Craggy mountainside. Good sightlines with some nooks to stay hidden.”

    Miss Militia narrowed her eyes, memorizing the spot on the map. “I’ll set up overwatch there.”

    Alexandria hummed in agreement. “Okay. Let Control know before you make your way there. Make sure your comms are working.”

    The heroine gave a sharp nod before twisting on her feet. However, her steps trailed off as she reached the entrance.

    “Something else?” Alexandria asked.

    Miss Militia turned, one hand gripping the tent door. She shifted, trying to phrase her words right. “I’ve thought a lot about this morning. What happened in the fight.”

    “You remembered something about Cardinal?”

    “It’s about Newton, actually. I think you should be careful about her.”

    Legend raised an eyebrow. “Oh? I thought she was on our side.”

    Militia shook her head. “I think she’s on Cardinal’s side. The thing I said about Cardinal, about how she just saw us as props... I have the same feeling with Newton too. Just without the murderous intent.”

    “She was there to stop Cardinal.”

    “It’s more than that.” Militia tapped her feet, brows furrowed. “She only had eyes for Cardinal. I don’t know how else to say it.”

    Alexandria considered her words seriously. “We’ll take note of it. Thank you for the information.”

    Miss Militia gave a quick salute to both of them before leaving. The tent flap settled back into place as Alexandria and Legend stood silently around the operations table.

    “Are we really doing this?”

    Alexandria pressed against the edge of the table, bending down as she stretched. She blew air out through her nose, a slow, heavy hiss in the silence. “This operation was pushed almost singlehandedly by Tagg. He had the devices in hand. Their history, the testing and verification were already in the system. Then Texas called in shortly after with a sighting of Hebert. I barely had to say a word.”

    Legend rubbed his forehead. “Jesus.”

    Alexandria pushed herself straight, almost shrugging. “To be fair, Catherine confirms detecting matching energy spikes from Scion and the bubble. Knox says half his team got knocked out trying to read the future.”

    “So you believe her?”

    “Not completely. She’s difficult to read.” Alexandria pressed her lips flat. “But when she talked about killing Scion. About stopping the end of the world. That anger was real.”

    Legend shook his head. “I still don’t like it. It feels like we’re getting hired to do a hit. Plus, what happens after?”

    Alexandria straightened up slowly, the light shimmering across her faceplate. She looked at Legend, not speaking.

    Legend narrowed his eyes. “You have a plan.” It wasn’t a question.

    Alexandria didn’t answer immediately. “Taylor Hebert is immensely powerful. We have no idea what her limits are, if there are even any. She could be listening to us right now even,” she said, tilting her head slightly. Legend stilled. “Our only opportunity is their infighting. She is quite literally her biggest weakness.”

    “So you’re gonna—” Legend cut himself off, looking around awkwardly. One of the laptops in the corner beeped. He took a breath. “Okay. Do you need me to do anything? Should I look out for a signal?”

    “Stick with the plan. We activate the devices and box Hebert in.” Alexandria stepped around the table. “If something goes wrong, your breaker state might be the only thing capable of matching her speed. So I’ll need you to cover the team, limit the casualties.”

    Legend met her gaze for a long second. “Alright. I get it.” He flashed a weak smile. “So the usual, basically. Me covering our asses as always.”

    “I don’t know. Last fight with Behemoth I remember pulling you out of the fire,” Alexandria said, the barest of smirks on her lips.

    “Ma’am!” A shout outside interrupted them. Legend straightened just as the aide rushed into the tent. “We have a problem.”

    The two Triumvirates followed him out. A small crowd was gathered in the open area, murmuring disconcertedly.

    They parted as Alexandria walked up to them, revealing two sparking drones, their chassis battered.

    “What happened?”

    Mitchensen stepped forward. “We suddenly lost connection to all of our drones. Almost at the same time, something crashed outside our tent. When we came out, well...” she jerked her head towards the broken drones.

    “There’s something over the city,” Legend suddenly said. He was looking at the town. “Some kind of barrier. It wasn’t there before.”

    Everyone turned. Alexandra squinted, scanning over the silhouettes of the buildings against the blue sky. It was near imperceptible; just a slight hint of static, occasionally buzzing in and distorting the lines.

    She glanced at Legend, meeting his eyes. He nodded and raised a finger, shooting out a small bolt of white-blue light.

    The shot smashed spectacularly against the barrier, exploding in a shower of sparks. The barrier rippled for a moment before straightening flat again; the town immaculately silent.

    “It’s Hebert. She’s started her attack.” Alexandria said grimly.

    ***
     
  23. Threadmarks: Twenty Standing Dominoes
    nezexyzzar

    nezexyzzar Getting out there.

    Joined:
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    Jack popped the cap off the bottle and took a long swig of it. He scrunched his face as he swallowed, turning it around to look at the label.

    “This is what they’re famous for? This is pure swill.” He shook his head as he tossed it away. “Mark that down as another failure, Hatchet.”

    “I like it,” the larger man murmured.

    Jack rolled his eyes as he stretched over the counter to grab a different brand. He popped the cap off again on the countertop edge before spinning around on the barstool. This one was at least tolerable, he thought as he took a second swig. Still, he wasn’t sure it was worth not having Shatterbird announce their presence the way they usually did.

    Then again, variety was the spice to life. He leaned back as he looked across the room where Shatterbird was slowly driving the shattered remains of a bottle into a man. His eyes were wide, spinning erratically in their sockets as he twisted and writhed on the pool table against himself. Literally, since his arms and feet were stretched out to the corners, knotted to the legs.

    Bonesaw had been in a tinker fugue the past week now, fixated on the idea of elastic living flesh. Who was Jack to not help source for materials in a young girl’s quest for knowledge?

    He did ask Bonesaw to remove their mouths first, though. He deserved a bit of peace and quiet with his beer after all.

    He glanced at the broken television in the corner. The PRT should have realized by now who was in town. Probably established a perimeter around the city as well. Jack arched sideways, feeling the cracks pop up along his spine. It was probably a good idea to find a television, check out the local news channels, he thought. Would it be Alexandria or the Chief Director on-screen this time?

    Suddenly he tensed. The hairs along his neck buzzed, electrified. His eyes darted to Bonesaw; the girl was humming a happy jingle as she flicked the tip of a needle, readying the next batch of formula.

    Then she split in two, the smile on her face frozen as she fell apart.

    Shatterbird flinched. Jack could almost see in slow motion as she jerked up straight, Bonesaw’s blood spraying across her face. A shadow flashed, and she gurgled and gasped, her fingers running red as they clutched at her neck. She opened her mouth in a soundless scream, managing only a wet, croaking squelch.

    A bald girl appeared on the countertop, lounging back. She was cleaning a long knife, wiping the blade off on her sleeve. Next to her, Hatchet Face was already dead. He was slumped over, his hatchet buried deep in his skull.

    Jack sent a few slices off with a flick of his wrists as he leaped back. He glanced at Bonesaw’s body; already it was mutating, a blob of purple fungus bubbling up. Their mysterious attacker didn’t seem concerned. She hopped off the counter and stalked forward, ignoring his attacks.

    “Crawler!” Jack yelled as he burst out of the bar. He stopped, almost falling as he skidded on something slippery.

    The road was slick with blood. Crawler was dead; his massive body looked turned inside out, the entrails scattered across the asphalt.

    “Boo,” someone breathed into his ear. Jack jumped forward while throwing a blade behind him. He heard the sound of metal clashing, and then his feet were sliced off cleanly.

    Jack snarled as he stumbled forward. She was suddenly in front of him, two blades in hand waiting to catch him. They impaled deep into him as he fell; she hefted him up on them with ease, digging the blades in deeper. He hissed through gritted teeth and swung viciously, smashing a knife into her head and another knife into her eye. Both shattered on impact.

    She shook her head, letting the bits of metal slide off. Her lips parted as she clucked her tongue exaggeratedly. “Too slow, Jack.”

    Jack pulled out another knife and sliced swiftly through the air. The bannister across the room from him snapped into splinters.

    Shatterbird and Bonesaw both paused, turning around to look at him. Jack blinked at them for a long second before grabbing his chest.

    It was fine. His shirt was whole, clean, and his feet were still attached to him, as they should be. Hatchet Face was still sipping his beer, unperturbed, while Shatterbird looked at him quizzically, a faint tinge of fear behind her eyes.

    He ignored her, looking around the room carefully. The man on the table was still struggling; he sent a particularly sharp edge into his neck to silence the annoyance. Everything looked normal.

    “What’s wron—” Bonesaw started, her mouth open, before her head suddenly popped. Shatterbird screamed as blood showered over her (again) and Jack ducked as the glass bottles behind the bar exploded violently.

    “Hatchet, use your—” Jack stifled a curse as he glanced up at Hatchet Face. The man was already toppling backwards. His face was a pincushion of glass; one long gleaming shard protruding prominently from his forehead.

    The beams on the roofs suddenly snapped and collapsed. Sunlight followed Crawler as he came flying down. Shatterbird barely had a moment to look up before she was flattened.

    Jack stood up, brushing the glass off his shirt. Crawler was clearly dead, again. He watched as the bald stranger slid down his corpse, two heads dangling from her hands.

    Burnscar and Mannequin. She threw them to him; the heads bounced and slid through the glass on the floor, stopping at his feet. Clean cut, he noticed. He looked at the girl, eyes narrowed for a moment before relaxing. He leaned back against the countertop languidly, watching as she walked towards him.

    “Saving the best for last?”

    The girl cocked her head. She had the same long knife out again, swinging it in wide, dramatic flourishes. That looks familiar, Jack thought, before drawing his eyes back to her face.

    “Giving up already, Jack?”

    “You clearly know me.” Jack held one hand out, palm up. “But I don’t seem to have the pleasure of your name.”

    She bared her teeth in a fierce grin; then she was right in front of him, her blade raised, dripping red down her hand.

    “My name is Taylor,” she said, as agony spiked through him from crotch to head. The world turned inwards and out, spinning in two directions.

    Jack opened his eyes, pressing a fist against the wooden countertop. He breathed out slowly, the pain still lingering like a flare. Behind him, something crashed through the wall. Glass shattered; machines smashed against the ground. Shatterbird cried for a split second; then the sound aborted.

    Jack thumbed over the new crack running up his bottle. He could feel the wetness seeping out. He looked to the side; Hatchet Face was dead again, the bottle he was nursing driven through his head. It thunked heavily against the wood as he slumped over, eyes swollen in their sockets and face slackening.

    He drained the last of his beer as Taylor hopped onto the counter. She held her katana casually, blade poised against the adam of his neck while her legs dangled freely in the air.

    Jack turned, propping his head against his elbow as he faced her. His shoulder jostled the blade slightly; he felt a sting across his neck, a thin line of hot and cold.

    “Tell me,” he said, eyes half-lidded. “Did I hurt you very much, in the future you came from?”

    Taylor stiffened. Her hand twitched, and everything faded to black.

    ***

    Victoria panted, the veins in her forearms flaring with pain as she twisted the last wire off and dropped it. The cable slammed to the ground with a loud thud, the sound banging sonorously through the walls.

    “Okay.” She shook her hands, feeling the heat as blood rushed through them. “One left.”

    “You should take a break,” Tattletale spoke up from behind.

    “No, it’s fine. Let’s just get this over with.” Victoria exhaled, bending down to grab the last severed pair.

    The cables slipped from her trembling fingers. She tried to catch them, but her hands felt gummy, like useless appendages flapping at the end of her arms.

    Tattletale was looking at her with a raised eyebrow.

    “Okay fine. Maybe a short break.” Victoria sat down, lying flat on her back with her legs splayed wide. She let her hands fall to the sides, resting against the blessed coolness of the ground. “I need a snack.”

    Missy loomed over her. “Do they have food here?” She was looking at Tattletale.

    “How should I know?” Victoria closed her eyes, letting their voices wash over her.

    “You’re the one with the super detective sense, right? C’mon, let’s go find some food!”

    “I’m perfectly happy to just sit— Hey! Stop pulling my arm like that! I’m not your— Ugh, fine!”

    She opened her eyes a moment later, staring up at the spiral pattern on the ceiling. The room was quiet.

    Victoria shook her hands again as she sat up. She blew on them, the heat of her skin prickling in the gentle air as she looked around idly.

    A stack of notes buried in the shadow of some machinery caught her eye.

    She shuffled over to them and flopped down. It took a small, hard nudge, and she pulled them free, shaking the dust off the pages.

    It looked like handwritten notes. The scrawl was untidy, nearly unreadable. Victoria squinted, tilting her head as she tried to make sense of the words.

    I can’t remember the right designs. I think my mind is out of order. This must be it.

    A rough drawing of the orb was underneath, the words filling the space around it with letters squeezed so tight they seemed in danger of falling off the paper. Victoria flipped through the pages. Some were more schematics of the orb, different variations in the design. Others were much more esoteric: diagrams of human bodies, human organs, long chains of molecular formulae scribbled into the margins around them.

    One page had a picture of the Vitruvian Man. A woman was pencilled over it, like an overlay, or a transformation. Victoria tried to read the notes but by now the handwriting was a mess; more twisting lines than alphabets. She ghosted her fingers over them — inked valleys so indelibly carved into the paper.

    Underneath the loose notes was a small, battered book. It looked like the type of sparkling notebooks she had as a kid, pink with a rainbow in the center, except for one tiny drop of blood near the corner.

    Victoria cracked it open to a random page. It looked like a diary.

    Day 329

    YAY! Big breakthrough today! Formula H7G2 shows promising results in subverting immunity privilege despite the time-lock on Subject’s cells. Premature telogen release was induced while triggering an autoimmune reaction near Subject's hair follicles. Significant shedding was observed within an hour.

    Well, okay it was only her hair BUT Jack says it's a BIG victory. I don’t really know what he means but Subject seems really sad a lot so I have to hurry up! I wish she didn’t kill everyone else but when I’m done, I’ll have a new big sister to play with!

    “What’s that?”

    Victoria slapped the notebook shut, goosebumps shivering up her arms. She breathed out, feeling the warm puff against her neck and relaxed slightly. “Nothing,” she said, wrapping the loose notes around the book and tucking it behind her. “We can look at it later after we fix this. Did you find any food?”

    Missy shook her head. “Nothing. Place is completely sterile, it feels like.”

    Tattletale huffed as she hopped onto a slab of broken metal. She looked at the notes on the ground curiously but made no move towards them. “I told you they wouldn’t leave any food here. Our only option is fixing that machine.”

    “Please, you’re just lazy.”

    Victoria tuned the others out as she picked up the last cable. This one was thinner, with just two wires inside. She hissed slightly, biting her lips as she twisted the first one together. Balancing the knot on one arm, she shook her hands, trying to wring the pain and soreness out. Then she picked up the last two strands and pressed them together, turning and turning.

    “It’s done.” Victoria dropped the cable tiredly. “Vista, you’re up.”

    Missy straightened, turning solemn. She hefted the egg up, turning to Tattletale. “So I just put this in?”

    Tattletale focused intently on the gleaming object in her hands. “Yes.” She met Vista’s eyes. “Wait for it to lock in place. Then channel your power into it. Stretch it out or something, just use your power on it. It should work to convert that into energy.”

    Vista nodded. She walked up to the console, hesitating for just a second before she placed the egg in. Almost immediately the console whirred to life; claws grasping it tightly and pulling it down while the four quadrants closed back in.

    At first, nothing happened. The silence made it seem like the console was humming as Vista stood in front of it, one hand stretched out. Victoria and Lisa glanced at each other — then, at that moment, the details on the egg shone.

    Light poured out from the middle of the console, so bright and thick it felt deafening. Vista cast a long shadow at the foot of the light, her arms trembling as she pushed harder forward. Victoria yelled as she tried to reach her friend, but her words felt soundless even to herself. Tattletale had one hand on her shoulder pulling her back but she could barely feel it. The light didn’t sting her eyes; instead, the shimmer on her skin seemed to glow with it, sparkling and spinning, melding with the world as everything disappeared in white.

    Victoria exhales. Time feels choppy, muted. Is this the present, or the past? She’s nothingness, an invisible spectator, watching as a bald girl stalks into the room.

    The room is clean, no consoles or wires or broken slabs of machinery. Just four statues standing in the middle, glittering gold. The girl collapses at their feet, her eyes wet, her face scrunched up. It’s her fault, she says. She’s sorry, she cries.

    She cries sometimes when she’s working, writing her notes. Pieces of equipment are scattered around the room. The walls are peeled, exposed as she digs out material for the machine she’s building. But her progress is slow. Halting. The girl touches her head frequently, grasping for something that isn’t there. She recoils every time, crumpling the pink notebook in her hands.

    Her hands are clenched as the machine powers on. She clutches them to her chest in prayer, hoping, wishing, but the machine splutters instead. Sparks fly, bouncing off her feet. She grits her teeth and tries again.

    Again and again, nothing works. The girl barely writes a page before tearing it up. She beats herself with her sword, slamming her head. The hilt comes away bloody. I can’t— she stammers, sputters, and then she’s screaming, hacking away at the wall until her blade falls out of her hands and she’s sliding to the floor, curled into a ball.

    The ball is placed into the center carefully. She watches it slide into the machine, four quadrants closing into a disc around it. It starts humming, light pouring out from the center. The girl’s eyes are wide, unblinking as she watches the light hit the statues. Something is shifting from inside the light. The gold flashes on and off. She starts to smile.

    One statue shatters. Her smile disappears as she lunges forward, cutting through the cables with a single swipe. The girl scrambles over to the shattered pieces. She grabs them frantically but they crumble into dust in her hands. She tries to gather them anyway. Her eyes blink furiously as tears tumble. There’s a wail, long and strangled — it’s her. She kneels, cradling dust.

    The dust settles. She steps in closer, gingerly, to one of the statues, the one with heart-shaped glasses on her head. Her lips press a ghost of a kiss to the corner of her mouth, tremulous as she whispers something.

    Victoria leans in, trying to hear what she’s saying. She tips forward, closer and closer, over and over, until—

    —a hand grabbed her before Victoria fell onto her face. “Easy now,” the person holding her said. “Just take your time, relax. You were caught in a reverie.”

    “A what?” Victoria asked. Or tried to. Her voice came out a raspy murmur as she coughed and heaved. Her skin was sparkling, a thousand gems speckling in her pores.

    “A reverie. It’s like a memory, or history made manifest. It happens sometimes when you’re too hopped up on temporal energy.”

    Victoria looked up to see Taylor Hebert — green hair, large round glasses, a robe — helping Vista sit up. And another — blonde, heart-shaped glasses on her head (why was that so familiar?) — rolling Tattletale over and palming her forehead.

    She turned around slightly, still feeling like she was in a dream. Time was catching up to her. She looked at the Taylor holding her. Her hair was electric blue and her eyes were like lightning in a cloud, all flashing grey and thunder.

    Victoria snapped forward, smashing a fist into Taylor’s face.

    ***

    Mannequin was next to Bonesaw. He paused, fingers unfolding as he turned to register his sudden change in environment.

    Then he exploded and died, as Jack knew he would, engulfing Bonesaw and Shatterbird in a thick, rolling mass of blue fire.

    Crawler smashed into the building, tearing down the front wall. The fire twisted and turned, spiralling into a sharp arrow that thrust through his eye. He howled, shaking his head. Mucus sloughed off him in steaming hot chunks but the flame only grew brighter, more vivid as it surged into his body.

    Ember flecks cracked through his skin. Crawler was moaning now, writhing on his back as glowing lines slowly etched across his body; then like an overflowing geyser, he popped. Bits of molten flesh slagged over the interior of the bar as a blast of heat parted the smoke and flattened the flames.

    Taylor stepped out of rolling smog. Burnscar’s head dangled by her side, her hair wrapped around Taylor’s wrist like a tangled rope. Fire streamed upwards from her eyes and mouth, fluttering as her head swung back and forth.

    Hatchet Face was still alive. He stared at Crawler’s corpse, then turned to Jack with a stupefied look on his face. Jack looked back, raising an eyebrow as if to say: “well?”, and watched as the burly man charged forward towards Taylor.

    She dodged his first swipe easily. He swung left, then right, and then Taylor was inside his guard, a fist flying up into his face.

    Jack watched from behind as Hatchet suddenly froze up. Almost anticlimactically, he collapsed on his knees and flopped onto his back. His face was pulverized, a wet, gaping hole pulsing red.

    Taylor let the fire from Burnscar’s head lick away the blood from her glove before she dropped it.

    “Marvellous performance.” Jack clapped once. “You know, I recognize that knife of yours.” He took out his knife, an exact copy of the one in Taylor’s hand, and slid a finger along the gleaming edge. “Got it from a butcher shop ‘bout a year back. Feels great in your hands, doesn’t it? Like it’s effortless.” He leaned forward on the barstool, hushing his voice to an exaggerated whisper. “It’s my favourite too.”

    Taylor flashed her teeth. “Do you think you can still talk your way out of this, or are you just so fucked in the head?”

    Jack leaned back against the counter, arms spread wide across the edge. “Hmmm. Interesting question.” he seemed to consider it seriously. “I don’t know. You tell me.”

    The girl only raised an eyebrow in response. There was a flash, and then pain struck at his elbow, surging up his side like lighting. Jack jerked off the countertop, clutching at the bleeding stub of his arm. He could feel Bonesaw’s work kicking in, the vessels closing up and the pain numbed away. His arm flopped uselessly on the floor.

    “Hah!” he laughed, hissing through his gritted teeth as he eyed the blade in her hand. “You know, that’s not really a yes or no answer.”

    Taylor tapped the knife against her forehead. She looked down at him, her lips curled downwards faintly as if disappointed by something.

    Then she disappeared. Jack felt the hairs on his neck prick up, just before something sharp and cold pierced through it, cutting straight up into his brain. The lights went out instantly...

    ...and turned back on again. He heaved, gripping the bottle in his hand tightly. He glanced to the right, not surprised to see Hatchet Face dead, this time completely beheaded. Blood pooled from his neck, dripping down the back of the bar; Jack could hear the slow pitter-patter. He didn’t bother to look behind. The others were probably dead as well.

    Taylor plopped down on the open seat between them. She stabbed her knife into the counter as she leaned over to grab a beer, leaving it wobbling upright as she sat down.

    “Killing someone over and over again gets boring,” Jack started conversationally, spinning around in his seat to face her. He clinked his bottle against hers before taking a long swig. “But I think you already know that.”

    “Oh?” Taylor’s voice was low, dangerous. Her face was carefully blank as she lifted the bottle to her lips, the golden liquid bubbling as she drank. She didn’t look at him.

    “You’re looking for something else. From me, that is.” Jack propped his head lazily against his hand, one elbow on the countertop. “At least that’s what you think you want.”

    Taylor let her hand and the bottle fall back to the counter loudly; not quite a slam, but a sharp rap on the wood that left the ensuing silence reeling louder.

    “What do you think I want?”

    Jack looked at her, studying the profile of her face, catching the quick sideways dart of her eyes. He suddenly straightened up.

    “I’m sorry,” he said solemnly. “I apologize.”

    Taylor froze. Her hands tightened around her drink as she looked forward, unwilling to turn around.

    Jack glanced at her hands. “Are you satisfied? Feeling better?” He crossed his legs, leaning against the counter. “Do you feel good, listening to me say those words? Or did I get it wrong?

    He was choking in an instance. The bottle rolled off the countertop, its contents spilling out as Taylor raised him high above the ground. Jack could feel the pressure on his larynx, her fingernails digging into the sides; he gasped and laughed, choking spittle across her face, and then he laughed again.

    “Oops,” he rasped. “Should I have grovelled more?”

    Irritation shadowed Taylor’s face. Her lips curled, twisted for just a split-second before she smoothed her expression but Jack caught it. It was so visceral he could almost taste the hate in that unbidden contortion.

    “Or maybe this is what you really want.” Jack forced a grin. His lungs, even with Bonesaw’s enhancements, were burning now, clawing up the insides of his chest. “Choking me. Hurting me. Should I cry out in pain instead?”

    “I could crush your neck right now.” Taylor brought him down close as she tightened her grip. Jack could feel the floor underneath him, scuffing his toes as he scrabbled weakly against it. “Are those your last words?”

    Jack gripped her wrist, gasping as he pulled against her fingers. “Do it then. Kill me.” He coughed hoarsely, staring straight into her. “Finish the job and don’t bring me back.” There was a knowing twinkle in his eyes. “But we both know you can’t do it.”

    Then he struck, snatching her knife off the counter and burying it into her stomach. The blade cut like butter, slicing easily into her armour and her flesh. Jack dug it deeper, twisting it. He could feel the glint of the blade, a long razor line shining on her insides, quivering in anticipation of his power. He plucked it at it, like the string of an instrument and let it—

    Taylor lunged away just as his power sliced forward. A leg snapped off a chair; it tumbled loudly to the floor.

    “L-Love the improvements you’ve made to my knife. You even kept the balance.” Jack cleared his throat. His lips twisted into a wild grin as he ran his fingers over the belly of the blade. A quick, little flick of his wrist; he caught Taylor in her shoulder, a long bloody gash down her side. “Still effortless.”

    Taylor stepped back, a katana unfurling in her hands. The wounds on her were already mending, knitting closed along with her suit. “You don’t know me,” she said.

    “Was I wrong?” Jack ran his tongue over his lip, eyes boring into Taylor. He stretched his hands out wide, a little casual shrug. “You’re powerful, you outclass me; I’m at your complete mercy. You can kill me anytime, but you... don’t. You’ve done it thrice over now, but... I’m still here.” He raised an eyebrow. “So.”

    Taylor twirled her blade. Her lips curled: a hollow, cruel smile. “I’m brainstorming. Death is a little too easy for you.”

    Jack grinned with her, chuckling humorlessly. “Ho ho ho! Oh, I didn’t mean now. I mean that future of yours. The one where I hurt you.” He ran a hand through his hair, eyes glinting cold. “The one where I... maimed you?”

    A vicious light crossed over Jack as Taylor flinched. He caught the tiny movement of her eyes darting to his hand, the one in his hair; he saw her blade quivering as her grip tightened, fingers twining around the hilt.

    “Just how did I win, O powerful hero? Just how did you lose? Was that all really me, or was it all really you?” His grin grew wider as Taylor stood stock still, a twisted curl from ear to ear that bulged his cheeks and left them shining.

    Jack moved a split second before she reached him. Air popped in his ears as Taylor slashed down into the spot he was just standing on. The sound of wood snapping caught up a moment later as he turned and angled his knife towards her.

    He made a long line, slicing at her throat. Taylor flicked her sword out of the ground, swinging it around to meet his power. She blocked his blade right before her neck, but blood splattered through the air as the rest of it cut into her face and shoulders.

    Jack hissed mockingly. “Did I cut too close?” He twirled his knife between his fingers. “Did you ask the same questions already?”

    Taylor kept silent, looking askance. Her wounds healed, but not before some blood dripped onto her blade, gliding down the silvered plane.

    “I would love to hear the answer.”

    “You would,” Taylor finally replied. She looked up, head cocked, meeting his eyes with a deadened stare. “Wouldn’t you?”

    Then she burst forward. Jack cut through her, a handful of red lines carving deep across her face and body but she ignored them as she thrust her hand out, plunging into his chest. He could hear the metal in his bones snapping as she rooted around for his heart and pulled the beating organ out.

    She squeezed as he stabbed her, sharp edge up and angled right; something warm splashed into his eye as he let his power slice upwards, vision fading black.

    Jack gasped, clutching the knife tightly as he kneeled on the floor. He looked up, still heaving for breath, but this time the bar was empty. He took a second to shake himself mentally as he clutched his chest. The steady rhythm of his heart beat loud against his hand.

    He still had her invincible knife. Why? Was she dead? Did he manage to get her at the last second? No. That would be too simple.

    Slowly, he stood up. The sun streamed in from the broken windows, streaking the bar in long shadows. Jack licked his lips, tasting the heat. It was mid-afternoon he guessed. Just a shade later from when he was drinking. He twirled the knife in his hand as he waited for a moment. The silence continued ringing unabated.

    “Suddenly shy now, are we?” Jack spoke aloud. He ducked out of the bar, eyes squinting in the bright light before he saw the building opposite. “Ah.”

    Shatterbird hung from a window ledge against the wall, strung up by her intestines. Her stomach was split open, her legs caked with blood. It clashed horribly against the pastel wall, streaking red down to the floor and onto the sandy road where the thousand pieces of her glasswork dress shimmered colourfully in an artful arrangement.

    “Good luck,” Jack mouthed, reading the words the glass was arranged in. He chuckled, a short, incredulous puff as he worked his jaw. He looked down the street to where he knew the nearest exit was.

    This was why she left him the knife. A sporting chance? “You know, even for me, I usually tell my contestants the rules first,” Jack yelled out to the empty street. “It’s just good manners!”

    He bared his teeth in an ugly smile, seething as silence answered him again. He looked down at the knife in his hand, his reflection shimmering on its edge.

    Taylor. Who was she?

    More importantly: how did he win, their first time around?

    He flicked his wrist, sending a sharp blade into the bar and stared as an enormous gash gouged through the building. Something inside snapped apart in a loud splinter of wood; then the roof and everything on the top half-collapsed in. Jack held his breath as dust washed over him, clenching in his anger until it coalesced into a thin, long line, overlaid atop the glinting edge of the knife in his hand.

    He opened his eyes, exhaling.

    “Alright then, Tay-lor. Good luck to you too.”

    ***

    The blue-haired tinker blocked the second punch. She looked unaffected, a light smile on her face as she held firmly onto Victoria’s arm.

    The other Taylors glanced at them. Tattletale was gasping, shivering as her face turned pale.

    “You’re Taylor Hebert?” Victoria asked tersely. The pressure in the air ramped up again, growing even stronger.

    “Yes,” the blue Taylor replied, still not letting go. “For ease of reference, you can call me Franklin.”

    “I don’t care.” Victoria jerked her arm back, hard; Franklin let her go, raising her hands in a placating manner.

    “You made the bubble. Fix it.”

    Vista grabbed her shoulder, but Victoria shrugged it off forcibly. Behind, Tattletale squeezed her eyes shut, hugging her knees as she tried to modulate her breathing.

    Franklin opened her mouth for a moment, then closed it again. She frowned, distractedly, her eyes looking away as she considered her response.

    “It’s complicated,” the green-haired Taylor spoke instead. “It’s not that we don’t want to, there’s just...” She trailed off, looking at the golden pieces of herself, shattered at her feet. “It’s complicated,” she repeated, softer this time.

    Victoria turned slowly. “Excuse me?” The veins on her arms popped, strained as she clenched her fists tight. Her aura was like thunder, an invisible crackle that seemed to rumble forever. “It’s ‘complicated’?”

    “Victoria Dallon.” Franklin stepped in. She looked solemn, sad, her expression strange against her wild, electric hair. “I’m sorry about your family.”

    The blonde stiffened.

    “I’m sorry we can’t give you better answers. I’m sorry anything happened at all.”

    “Shut up!” Victoria scrunched her face up in frustration. Her eyes glistened, fierce and red as tears wet her cheeks. “Stop saying you’re sorry!!” she screamed as she lunged forward. In a flash, her fist smashed into Franklin’s face, and then another, and another. She raged incoherently, howling spittle. Her pummels felt like gunshots cracking through the air.

    Franklin took the punches stoically. Slowly, the pressure drained out of the air as Victoria eased down. Lisa looked up, eyes wild and unseeing, clammy lips pressed into a straight line. She breathed in and out, a long steady rhythm. Missy sat next to her, relaxing slightly as colour returned to her face.

    “You’re gonna undo it, right?” Victoria stared at Franklin’s collar as she spoke, not meeting her eyes. Her hands flattened against the leather of her suit, then clawed and twisted until she could pull on it. She shook Franklin; the tinker let herself sway with the blonde as she sagged against her.

    “Tell me you’re gonna undo it.” Victoria finally looked up, her anger spent. The circles around her eyes were stark.

    Franklin sucked her lips in. She exchanged a glance with her other selves.

    “It’s Scion, isn’t it?” Lisa suddenly asked before Franklin replied. Victoria turned around, her arms flopping to her sides.

    The thinker was looking at Franklin. Her hair was matted with sweat; she threw her head back, sweeping it off her face. “He was hunting us down before we came here.”

    The green-haired Taylor stepped forward. “It’s the temporal energy on your bodies. He’s obsessed with that.” She gestured to their glittering skins. “How did you manage to come here? Was it—”

    “Was it Cardinal?” The last Taylor, golden-haired, jumped in. She hefted the orb in her hands, thrusting it out at them hurriedly. “Did she give you this orb?”

    “Who’s Cardinal?” Missy shook her head. “We don’t even know where here is. No one gave us anything. No one told us anything. You guys should be the ones explaining what the hell to us.”

    “Cardinal is the Taylor you saw in the reverie. The one with the red sash.” Green Taylor pointed to herself. “You can call me Sage. That’s Newton and Franklin.”

    “The many names of Taylor Hebert.” Lisa stared at them. “Are there more of you?”

    “You came from outside, right?” Franklin knelt, picking up a large, golden piece. It glittered as she turned it over. “You already saw the rest of us.”

    Lisa stuttered for a moment. She opened and closed her mouth, grasping for something to say. “I—I’m sorry.” She deflated slightly as she cleared her throat.

    “We didn’t get anything. No instructions, no information. Everything just happened the way it did so we would come here. I don’t know if it’s Cardinal. I don’t know who the hell is it.”

    “Everything happened the way it did?” Sage asked slowly, almost to herself. Her brows furrowed.

    “Are you sure you didn’t see her?” Newton pressed. She turned the orb over in her hands, almost distracted as she looked at Lisa.

    Lisa shook her head, filing away the faint worry in her voice. Her power pinged, but only slightly. Just enough to tell her that Newton was agitated, intensely so.

    “Hold on,” she spoke up before Newton could press her again. “Your turn. You said Scion is obsessed with...” Lisa pulled off her glove, revealing the sparkling skin underneath. “...this? Temporal energy? What do you mean?”

    “And does it have anything to do with the bubble?” Victoria added, suddenly stepping into the conversation. Her eyes were still red, but she looked more composed.

    “Whenever we time travel, temporal energy is created as a byproduct. It’s mostly benign, like light, heat or sound. Mostly, it just makes you glow for a bit,” Sage explained. She held her hand out, bracer whirring, and Lisa watched as the lights on their bodies drifted off into her palm.

    “Scion is obsessed with understanding it. That’s why he was after you. That’s why he attacked us last night.” She gave Victoria a long stare, startling her for a moment as the words sank in. Then she turned to Newton, the shimmering energy still pulsing in her palm.

    “Try checking their energy, maybe you can get a hit on something.”

    Missy watched as Newton gathered the energy to herself. She placed the orb down as her bracer lighted up various holographic screens. “What do you mean by checking the energy?”

    Sage was peering at the screens as she answered. “Temporal energy is exactly what it sounds like. Like heat carries heat, it carries time. History, memories, records of time. In extreme concentrations, you might even spontaneously experience it directly.”

    “The reverie.”

    “Exactly. We should be able to trace the source of the energy you’ve been carrying.”

    “It was released from the orb.” Missy folded her arms, jerking her chin towards the object. “The first time we found it in Coil’s base.”

    Both Sage and Franklin whirled around to look at her, eyes wide. “Coil?” Sage asked, her tone near incredulous. “You found this near him?”

    Lisa narrowed her eyes at their sudden reactions. Her power brimmed to the tip of her tongue, like she was just about to trigger it—

    “I got it!” Newton interrupted before Lisa could ask. She hurried past them to a console with a working screen and jabbed it on. “Sage, could you?”

    “What did you find?” Sage asked as she gestured at the machine; green constructs manifested around it, forming wires and parts before being enveloped by a sleek chassis with a long cable that unfurled around the broken machines. The console buzzed to life.

    Newton connected with it immediately. “There was a strand of history in it. Relatively clear, actually.” The screen flashed with a multitude of squares, a dizzying array of different colours. Tattletale frowned as she tried and failed to find a pattern in it.

    The Taylors had no such trouble. Franklin was pointing at a section of the screen. “This isn’t a natural source. It’s been stitched together.”

    Sage’s brows were furrowed. “Let’s see what’s on it first. Newton?”

    Newton flipped a few switches and turned a large knob. “Alright,” she said, before pressing down on a button.

    Lisa opened her eyes as the light faded. She looked around to see Glory Girl and Vista standing next to her, blinking the bright afterglow from their eyes as well. The Taylors were already walking around, peering through the memory.

    They were in a small apartment. A boy was sitting at the table playing with his phone, his feet kicking in the air. His mother was spreading butter on a slice of toast. Her hair was an oversized tangle, pinned back with a thick headband. She looked tired; the coffee machine was bubbling behind her.

    “Where is this?” Sage was asking.

    Missy looked around cautiously. She could see an apartment and feel a carpet underneath her, but her powers only sensed the strange unyielding architecture of the dome before. It was bizarre; seeing the television on a short table where she knew was a broken terminal; seeing straight lines where there should be smooth edges.

    “We’re in Brockton post zero, but I’ve never been to this apartment before,” Franklin said, turning around from the window. She gestured to the woman and the boy. “Hm. They look familiar though.”

    “That’s Shirley Hess.” Newton was looking down at a framed photograph next to the telephone. “Sophia’s mom. This is her home.”

    Missy stiffened. “Wait, as in Sophia Hess? How—”

    Suddenly the world turned grey. Lisa lurched back, swallowing a shriek as a fourth Taylor suddenly appeared next to her. She was bald. “Holy shit!”

    Victoria whirled around, pulling the others behind her instinctively. She relaxed slightly as the new Taylor ignored them, walking towards the kitchen. Her red sash trailed behind her. “Cardinal?” she asked aloud.

    “No,” Sage replied. Her voice was strained. “She’s part of the memory.”

    Newton whirled around, dazed as Cardinal walked closer to her. Her fingers twitched; she took a step forward as if on instinct, trying to touch her.

    Cardinal walked past her, unseeing. She headed for the Hesses, reaching the boy first and pulling his chair out. He remained frozen, legs raised mid-swing in an awkward pose. She plucked the toast daintily out of Shirley Hess’s hand, setting it down on a plate next to an empty mug.

    The coffee machine started bubbling again. Cardinal grabbed the pot out of its tray and poured herself a large portion in the mug. She nursed it between her hands, closing her eyes as she took a long sip.

    “What is she—” Before Missy could finish her question, the room abruptly bloomed into colour again. The coffee mug was on the countertop, still steaming. Cardinal and Sophia’s family were gone.

    “There’s still a second memory,” Franklin said. Her words were loud in the sudden hush, like the opening bell before the world changed again in a tipping vertigo.

    The Taylors straightened up, all turning their heads towards the same point as the scene settled. Someone was screaming, Lisa thought, before she recognized the sticky wetness under her feet.

    She followed the blood and froze — the thick red pool, flowing from a faceless corpse sprawled on the floor. She stepped back, knocking into Missy.

    “What the fuck,” the younger girl hissed. Lisa turned around to see Cardinal grappling with a man, effortlessly breaking his leg and tossing him aside. She was stalking towards a girl — Sophia — desperately trying to free her mother.

    “Hey!” Victoria yelled. She swooped forward instinctively but Cardinal phased through her as she grabbed Sophia. Victoria spun around, hovering in the air helplessly.

    Sophia tried to stab Cardinal with an arrow, darting in from the side with her smoke form for a second attempt. The bald girl was unaffected. She shrugged it off and grabbed Sophia, bashing her nose in with her knee.

    “You said this was a memory. It’s history,” Victoria grabbed Franklin, pulling her around and shaking her. “Are you saying this happened already? Is this real?!”

    “Yes.” Sage averted her eyes as Sophia fell to the floor, begging. “This is history. It’s already happened.”

    Miss Militia stepped through the doorway with a massive rifle. Her finger squeezed the trigger.

    Cardinal flew back, but she was up in an instant, a step away from Miss Militia. Her hand was swinging down, blade extended towards her throat.

    “Stop!” The memory froze. The world parted like fog as Newton tore a hole in the machine, yanking the circuitry out. The glowing constructs supporting it collapsed. Vertigo swarmed them for a second as everything dissipated; Victoria planted her feet to the ground as she shook her head.

    “We have to go back.” Newton looked wild, her eyes wide and unblinking.

    “That’s Emma’s house. It’s pretty close to the bubble.” Franklin didn’t disagree directly. Her words seemed clipped, lined with a brittle edge. She watched Newton carefully.

    Lisa narrowed her eyes. She held her breath, trying to focus through her light-headedness on her power. There was something she was missing, but what?

    “If just one of us goes, that should slip by Scion, at least for a little bit.”

    “Alright.” Franklin folded her arms, her shoulders hunched as she sucked in a deep breath. “I’ll go then.”

    “No, I’ll go.” Newton’s eyes were shining, her chin jutted out defiantly.

    “Newton—”

    “I’ll stop her. I’ll bring her in.”

    “Cardinal is compromised.”

    “I know. But—”

    Franklin pressed on. “Newt, stop! You saw what happened there. She was torturing them.”

    “I know! I know, alright!” Newton pressed her lips into a thin line, closing her eyes in a moment of frustration. “What do you want me to say? There’s just 4 of us left now. Are you willing to kill her?”

    “She might be willing to kill you,” Franklin replied, flatly. There was a tinge of regret.

    “She won’t,” Newton smiled weakly. She tugged on her hair, pulling her fingers through the strands. “She won’t.”

    “Let her go.” Sage stepped next to Franklin, resting a hand on her shoulder.

    Victoria released a breath she didn’t know she was holding. She exchanged a glance with Missy and Lisa, all of them relaxing marginally as the tension between the Taylors ratcheted down.

    “You serious?” Franklin asked, but she sounded tired. She sighed.

    “I’m feeling optimistic. And out of all of us, she probably has the best shot at this.” Sage turned to her counterpart, her expression turning solemn. “But don’t lose your head, Newton. If she really is gone…”

    “I’ll end it.” Newton agreed, her tone subdued. Her bracer was already buzzing alight. “I’ll drop a flare when I’ve got her.”

    “Good luck,” said Franklin, her arms still folded. Newton nodded back.

    Then she twisted a knob on her wrist and dialled a long string down her bracer. A shimmering light enveloped her and she was gone, bursting into thin air, a few glowing motes falling in her wake.

    “So, she’s changing the past?” asked Victoria.

    “Miss Militia is gonna be okay, right? And Sophia and the others?” Missy added. She tried to keep her voice steady but her worry was obvious.

    “Not directly. But she’ll reverse time on everyone there at least, bring them back to life.”

    “You can do that?” Lisa sounded both curious and horrified.

    “Not directly?” Victoria watched as Sage turned to another broken console. Green arms unfolded from her back to grab various pieces off the ground. She assembled it all into the console before infusing it with a burst of green energy. The energy shimmered, coalescing into a whole machine. A holographic screen popped up.

    “Your power looks like Miss Militia’s,” Missy commented, walking closer to the screen.

    “It was inspired by it,” Sage replied gently. She turned to the other two. “If the death is recent, we can reverse it. We don’t do it often, mainly because there might be side effects even we are not aware of.

    “Newton will enter right after the memory we saw. She can’t directly change the past, otherwise the ensuing paradox will fry your brains.”

    “But you’ve changed the past before?”

    “Our minds are protected. Yours aren’t. Besides, even for us, we try to minimize the possible paradox as much as possible.”

    “Why?” Victoria leaned forward slightly, her hands tucked into her pockets. Her curiosity was undisguised.

    “Paradoxes are unpredictable. One change always leads to another and we can’t control the entire course of history.”

    “It’s also a lot harder to coordinate when there’s multiples of us,” Franklin added with a weak grin, finally joining the conversation. Her palms pressed flat against her thighs, rubbing up and down slightly as she tried to calm herself down. She turned to Sage. “Find anything?”

    Missy perked up as she figured it out. “Oh, because we’re in present time, right? So if she was successful in the past, we would already know.”

    “If she got Cardinal, yes. She’ll drop a flare which we can pick up from here.” Sage frowned as she turned the control dial. A signal line flickered on the screen, relatively flat. “Nothing so far though.”

    Franklin straightened up, grabbing Sage by her arm. “You don’t think...”

    “No.” Sage side-eyed her double as she tuned the channel. “She might still be chasing her. Let’s just wait—”

    Suddenly the signal buckled, devolving into a hive of rapid slashes that filled the channel. Sage immediately expanded the screen, flicking her hand to open up a giant holographic map.

    “That’s not a flare.” Franklin was grim. “Got to be at least ten, right?”

    “Worse. Closer to twenty years.” Sage grabbed the console, leaning heavily against it as the map settled on a coordinate.

    “Twenty years?” Victoria stepped to their sides, glancing at the location. “Is this Texas? I’ve never heard of this place.”

    It was a small town. A chromatic blur lined the name, etched in the air: Shining Top.

    “Twenty years of temporal energy bursting into the present. And you wouldn’t have, not before today. They’re more of a local attraction. Crafted brews.” Franklin ran a hand through her hair. She glanced at Sage, her expression heavy as she spoke. “Until the S9 attacked them and wiped them off the map today.”

    Lisa sucked in a breath. The world fell silent for a second as her power pinged with a single line.

    Taylor Hebert was tortured by the Slaughterhouse Nine

    She blinked, the room around her bubbling as if just surfacing from the water. Her eyes found Sage, who seemed to look right through her.

    Franklin took over the console, swiping through the map. “Newton’s there too. Along with Alexandria and Legend.” She glanced at Victoria and Missy. “And Miss Militia.”

    “Wait.” Missy straightened up, her eyes wide. “Twenty years' worth of temporal energy? Then Scion...”

    “Yeah.” Franklin nodded grimly. “He’s probably already on his way.”

    “Then we need to go. We have to warn them,” said Victoria urgently. Vista stepped up to her side, pushing her helmet back on.

    “Scion is a force of nature, even for us. We can’t guarantee your safety against him,” said Sage, turning to them sharply.

    Victoria folded her arms, jutting her chin out defiantly. “Yeah, we got a taste of it. But we know Miss Militia. She’ll hear us out. You don’t have time to waste trying to convince them.”

    “We're going, no matter what. So let us help,” Vista added.

    Sage pulled her glasses off, pinching the bridge of her nose. “And Tattletale? Are you coming too?”

    Lisa sighed. She bit her lip, craning her head up. “Ah fuck it. I’ll need a new mask.”

    ***

    Jack looked down both ways as he stood at the crosswalk. The streets were quiet. A car, faintly smoking, lay crumpled against the wall. The driver’s door was open, smeared red with dried blood.

    Siberian probably, Jack thought idly as he looked over the torn metal frame. Or maybe Mannequin. Siberian would never bother to take a person out of the car; she would just cut through and kill them in their seat.

    He turned away. Still nothing. He squinted as he looked over the rooftops of the street, flapping his shirt to beat off the afternoon heat. Five blocks since Shatterbird and still nothing happened.

    Another 15 minutes and he would be at the edge of town. Was she trying to copy an old trick? Leave him “hope” to take it away at the last moment? Jack chuckled to himself, shaking his head. He twirled his knife, casually slicing through a random shop as he crossed the road. Glass shattered and wood snapped as the building creaked and shook, slowly toppling under its weight. At least she was nice enough to leave him a wonderful diversion. Otherwise, she might have killed him long ago with boredom.

    Jack stopped short, just before he reached the other side of the room. He narrowed his eyes, looking around. He could have sworn he heard something, a flint of metal against metal, a flash of something in the corner of his eyes.

    Then he lunged to the side as the traffic light tipped over, lights first into the asphalt before falling over onto its side. He whirled around, knife flashing, just as Taylor slammed into him with a long katana in hand.

    She swiped, the strength of it shoving him back. Jack widened his stance, his shoes grinding against the rough road. He laughed as he slashed back, three quick flicks of his wrist, but she was already gone, and a streetlight and the facade of a building behind her split into pieces.

    He felt her presence just a split-second too late. She stabbed through his calf from behind; he twisted his body, knife already slicing upwards but then the pressure on his leg lightened and she was gone again.

    He bent his leg experimentally. The pain seemed to ooze in and out, a delirious sting radiating through his knees and toes. Jack looked up, grinning at Taylor. She was standing a few paces away, head tilted as her imperious gaze bore into him.

    “So, we on the ‘cat and mouse’ routine now?” Jack said. He pressed a hand to his chest, sucking in his breath dramatically. “It’s more Siberian’s game than mine, but okay, if you insist.”

    Taylor only flicked her wrist, swiping her sword in an arc as if to say: ‘Go on’.

    “Oh. Should I be running? Is that how it works? I’m never on this side, you see.” He bared his teeth, wetting his lips as he pointed to her with his knife. “Actually, I always thought running was the wrong choice. Running means you give up power. Running means you’re weak.”

    Jack glanced down slightly as Taylor tightened her grip on his katana. She was completely motionless now, her eyes shadowed. His grin grew wider.

    “Did you run then? That future of yours. Did I let you run?”

    Taylor lunged; Jack already had his knife thrust forward, the tip of the blade piercing through her shoulder. He jerked it sideways and Taylor had to spin around, twisting her katana to protect her neck. She smashed into the road, sliding across the asphalt. A chunk of her shoulder was gone.

    Jack bounded over her with another vicious swipe down, cutting deep into her hip. Then he ran, slipping into an alleyway towards the boundary of the town. It was the side closest to the mountains. From there, he would have a better chance of losing her in the nooks and caves.

    He cut down a door and ducked into its shadows. A pair of grisly corpses were in his way, hugging each other; he cut them down as well, kicking them away impatiently as he exited. He was near the town line now. He exhaled silently, hugging against the wall with his ears pricked as he risked a quick peek out into the road. Nothing. No following footsteps, no tumble along the roofs, no tingling warning down his spine. Taylor wasn’t following him.

    For now.

    He rushed out onto the road, beelining for the nearest alleyway. His footfalls were controlled, just slight little taps on the gravel but they pounded like bullets in his head. His eyes darted around, marking down every little sudden movement — a piece of plastic flapping in the wind; a bag sliding down, scratching against the pavement; two men and a woman strung high above the road, dangling — before the red brick walls lining the alley rushed up to meet him.

    Just another block to go. He cut around the corner with a quick look behind him — no Taylor still — and nearly crashed into another corpse hanging in a spiderweb of chains.

    Jack jerked back, ready to cut the damn thing down before he suddenly noticed the smooth plastic pieces hanging around it, a circle framing the body. He looked back at the corpse again. He was naked, skinless, with strips of muscles torn from their ligaments and hanging off his bones, as if they’d been violently pulled and tugged apart.

    “Mannequin,” Jack said aloud, half in realization and half in wonder. Then a trashcan toppled behind him and he spun around, stabbing up into the presence behind him.

    “Jack?” An old woman croaked, staring up at him with bewildered blue eyes. She fell onto him as her legs gave way. Jack stumbled backwards, jostling Mannequin’s corpse as he struggled to hold up her weight.

    Her blood was already seeping through his shirt, warm, sticky and wet. Jack tried to push her off but she grabbed his face and yanked his ears. Her fingernails dug hard into the cartilage.

    Jack twisted his knife and cut blindly. A gash opened across her left shoulder but her grip didn’t loosen. “Mister Jack?” the woman wheezed again, and this time Jack froze. He looked into her unseeing eyes, the bright shade of blue sparkling familiarly.

    “Bonesaw?” he asked incredulously, hunched over with his knife stuck in her body.

    She vomited a putrid yellow goo in reply. Jack sputtered and roared as the slime dug into his eyes, slicking down his throat. He swiped upwards, cutting through her arms before jerking away. Her hands fell off his ears as he wiped his eyes. Bonesaw had fallen on her knees, two bloodied stumps reaching for him as she looked up piteously. She drooled and mewed, her lips smeared yellow.

    Jack cut her head off contemptuously. He spat and wiped hard at his lips, trying to wash out the foulness from his teeth. As he turned around to leave, he bumped into Mannequin’s corpse again; this time he flinched as the plastic pieces rattled loudly. A dangling piece of flesh brushed against his nose.

    Jack stepped back, pausing for a moment. He pushed his hair back slowly, pressing it flat. He could feel the liquid viscera ooze out between the strands, running down his fingers. He squeezed his hair down to his neck; opening his eyes and flinging the wet mess onto the ground. He flicked his wrist, a small twitch at first, then another, and another. Mannequin drooped lower as the chains jangled loose; then Jack stabbed into his body, cutting down violently without his power. He cleaved through flesh and bone, over and over again, staring wordlessly while blood spattered over him.

    The mangled corpse broke down. With a final swipe, Jack sliced through the chains and let the shredded remains fall to the ground. His knife and hand were soaked a sticky red; he tightened his grip as he steadied his breath and looked around, waiting for someone to appear.

    Taylor didn’t show herself. Jack didn’t bother trying to taunt her out; instead, he worked his jaw silently, seethingly. He blew his hair out of his face, unimpressed. He could already guess what her plan was, and it was tedious.

    He started walking unhurriedly. The heat felt stifling and wet; it clung to him like a sticky film, pricking his skin uncomfortably. His clothes chaffed, tugging and pulling on him stiffly in the searing air. He could see the boundary fence just down the final alleyway, a square of interlinked chains. He could see the mountains as well, a tall shadow that kept this quarter of town in perpetual shade.

    It looked so easy to simply cut through it and walk out free.

    Jack strolled up to the fence. He looked down both sides and leaned into it, pressing his cheek against the chains. The fence rattled and jingled when he stepped back; two crosses printed on his face, already fading.

    “You really gonna let it go to the end, huh?” he asked aloud, not expecting an answer. Shaking his head, Jack flicked his wrist.

    His knife cut through thin metal links with barely a spark. Then, as he expected, the desert view buzzed monochrome as his power clashed into it; a shockwave yawned wide and large, rippling over him high into the sky and over the town.

    Sharp footsteps echoed behind him. Jack turned around, arms out wide. “Should we get this over with? It’s just too predictable now.”

    Taylor’s hands were empty, fingers loose by her side as she looked at him with a faint smirk on her lips. “Predictable and yet… you were looking for a way out. You still had hope. Funny how that works.”

    Jack chuckled, a tiny huff of laughter as he opened his mouth and ran his tongue over his lips. “Touche. Except we both know you’re not going to kill me.”

    “I’m not?”

    “No. You’re just gonna keep doing it, over and over and over again until something changes.”

    Jack raised his knife and pushed it against his jugular. He pulled his hair back, rolled his head to the side and pressed the blade in deeper. Blood dribbled down his neck as skin split.

    “Newsflash, darling,” he said, eyes never leaving Taylor. “Nothing’s gonna change. You’re searching for something that doesn’t exist. I’ll kill myself for you if you like. But you wouldn’t. ”

    Taylor cocked her head. She seemed curious, pondering. “You think you know me that well?”

    “I know your anger. Your bitterness, your hatred of the world.”

    “Not the world. Just you,” she corrected.

    Jack smiled, pearly white teeth blared. “What am I but a symptom of this world? Killing me won’t make you satisfied. You’ve done it already, so you know. I get it. It’s frustrating. Everything you’ve worked for, for nothing? Why?”

    Taylor remained silent.

    “Taylor, Taylor, Taylor. You’re wasting your anger on the wrong thing. Kill me if you want but that will never be enough. Would anything be, for what you’ve lost? For what you’ve suffered? Don't you think you deserve more? That the world owes you more?”

    “Interesting point. But Jack.” The girl looked at him. She had a secretive smile, one that glinted through her eyes as if she was privy to a joke only she knew. “Haven’t you noticed yet?”

    Jack narrowed his eyes. His hand relaxed for a moment, tilting the blade just a fraction of a smidge back. “What—” he started to ask, before he looked down at his fingers, tangled through the long locks of his hair. His long, impossible hair that draped over his shoulders and nestled in the valley of his new cleavage. His cleavage from his new breasts, pushing out against his shirt.

    Bonesaw. Puking on him. The acid bile on his tongue burned as he connected the dots, and then Taylor was right in front of him, twisting his wrist and yanking the knife away. He snarled, trying to pull away, to turn the blade back but Taylor just smiled placidly, completely immovable.

    She pushed her leg between his thighs, pressing up. One eye twitched as he suppressed a wince, but Taylor caught it anyway. “Oh. Those should be going soon,” she said softly, matter-of-factly. “You are right, Jack. Killing you isn’t enough. Not yet.”

    Before he could answer, Taylor tugged on him, and they disappeared in a flash of shimmering light. A puff of sand drifted languidly in their wake, a dusty shadow on the wind.

    Over the dome in Brockton Bay, Scion’s eyes sprang open. He turned slowly, peering west.

    ***

    Dragon cut the thrusters early, landing heavily onto the grass. Narwhal was walking towards her, hand raised in greeting.

    “Hey,” she said.

    “Narwhal,” Dragon replied, feeling slightly awkward as she always did when someone addressed the draconic face on her suits. They both started walking towards the house.

    “I ordered everyone out but I am coming in with you.”

    “Just because you have a shield doesn’t mean you’re always safe,” Dragon argued, but she knew she already lost the battle.

    “I’m the lead on this, I should be in there too.” Narwhal was already through the door, holding it back for her as well. Her expression brooked no compromise. “C’mon.”

    A vase of sunflowers on a small tabletop greeted Dragon as she stepped inside. The house was built in classic French fashion, pale stone facade with a smattering of earthly colours.

    An enormous portrait of Heartbreaker hung over the staircase.

    “Yeah,” Narwhal said, reading her little pause. “I would burn it, but it’s evidence. You want to see the kids first, or Heartbreaker?”

    Dragon pulled her eyes away. “The kids first, I suppose.” She cycled for a moment, back to her concurrent conversation with Taylor. The tinker was talking, her hands moving animatedly.

    It still felt strange, juggling multiple tasks at the same time. Like an itch on her brain, all prickly. Dragon shook herself mentally, coming back to Narwhal.

    “It’s upstairs.” Her friend was already walking up. She followed along, to a room at the back of the building.

    Narwhal jerked her head, motioning for her to head in first.

    There were more than a dozen children in the room, all greyed out and unmoving. Dragon scanned their faces across the room. There was no trace of surprise or shock on any of their faces. Some looked like they were just walking about on an ordinary day. Others were in a seated position, propped awkwardly on the floor. No one looked like they even knew they were under attack.

    Dragon checked her readings. Like the Brockton dome or Lung, they emitted the same type of low-energy radiation. She ran a comparison anyway, just to rule out any differences.

    “You’re being very quiet,” Narwhal spoke up from the doorway. “Should I be worried?”

    Dragon turned to her friend, servos whirring as she broke her statuesque pose. “Sorry, running a quick analysis now. I’m almost certain they’re the same, but we’ll have confirmation in a few minutes.”

    “Nice. That’s faster than I thought,” commented Narwhal idly. “Should we move on to Vasil now?”

    Dragon froze for a moment. “Alright, sure,” she replied automatically, only relaxing as Narwhal turned away. She was right: it was faster, much faster. An analysis like this would have previously taken her at least a couple of hours to compile. She looked down at her hands, feeling the movement as she wrapped and unwrapped her fingers. Even her dragonflight felt more responsive.

    She blinked rapidly, breaking her reverie, and followed behind Narwhal as they walked down the stairs.

    “Where is he?” Dragon cleared her throat. “And there was one other casualty, right?”

    “The living room. And yeah, one of his oldest thralls, we think. No sign of obvious injury, so she might have just died from the shock.”

    The living space was bright and airy. Outside, spring was beginning to bloom, specks of colours bright amongst the regrowing shrubbery. A bird chirped, its singsong tune a strange accompaniment to the drying pool of blood inside.

    Heartbreaker was cut in two. Dragon scanned the body, focusing on the exposed white of his spine. The bone face was smooth, no burs or chipping; this was done with tremendous skill and force. Dragon glanced at his face. It was a rictus of horror, his mouth wide and contorted while his eyes bulged in their sockets, as if in total disbelief. He died with his hands clutching the remains of his belly.

    Dragon tried to find some sympathy for him but came up empty. Instead, she thought about his killer, the bald, vicious version of the girl who gave her her freedom.

    “Nasty way to go,” Narwhal commented. She didn’t sound sorry about it either. “Does it match the M.O. of that tinker in Brockton?”

    There was no video of the fight in the Barnes household but Dragon had heard Miss Militia’s account and seen photos of the aftermath. She could imagine Taylor, appearing soundlessly to cut him down with a hollow smile.

    “Yes,” she said, sounding very distant even to herself. The words felt like ashes on her tongue but she couldn’t understand why. “She uses a katana.”

    “Damn.” Narwhal shook her head. “That’s brutal.”

    “Maybe she had her reasons,” Dragon suddenly said, her voice turning sharp. She felt uncharacteristically defensive. Back in her digital room, a white-haired Taylor was explaining to her the nature of Scion, the world-spanning reach of Cauldron and their secret influence over humanity in the name of survival. And it should have been engrossing, maybe disturbing, but all she could focus on was the clean cut of the bone, the almost-careless efficiency of the kill and the glittering eyes of Taylor as she drew glowing flowcharts in the air to illustrate her points.

    Narwhal was looking at her strangely. “Sorry,” Dragon said. “It’s been a long day.”

    Her friend offered a kind smile. “And it’s not even mid-afternoon. Don’t worry. I kinda get it.”

    Dragon turned to Narwhal hesitantly. “What do you mean?”

    “This tinker, she’s time-looping, right? No one knows for sure how old she really is?”

    “Okay, exactly how much gossip’s been leaked now?”

    Narwhal chuckled. “I’m just thinking. Does it even count? I mean, yeah, add up all the minutes and hours and you’ll get the years or even decades. But that’s just all the same day, over and over again.”

    Dragon blinked the lights on her facepiece, motioning for Narwhal to continue.

    “When I think of time, it’s never the hours or days, you know. It’s places. People. Summer to winter, autumn to spring. I see an old photograph and it reminds me of how much younger I used to be. How much prettier too.” Narwhal flashed a grin before turning thoughtful again. “Masamune’s hair used to be shorter, your suits used to be simpler. That’s time, to me. I don’t know how I’d feel, repeating the same days over and over again where nothing ever changes.”

    “I suppose... you’re right,” Dragon said slowly. She couldn’t understand it; she always knew the time. It was a subconscious counter, always ticking forward in her core routines. And yet she could also understand it; time was just a number, and it was meaningless if there was nothing for it to measure.

    She looked at Taylor again. She was still talking, explaining, and a part of Dragon was keeping up the facade, listening and processing the information, nodding along at the right places.

    “It wasn’t just one future, was it? You copied me through the different timelines.”

    A beep cut through her thoughts. Dragon pulled herself together as she checked the results. “It’s clean. Identical energy frequencies, no extraneous radiation or energy detected.”

    “Great. I’ll call the troops in, try to figure out how to process everything here. Paperwork’s going to be a fucking bitch but can’t say I’m not happy to do it.”

    Dragon smiled wanly. She was about to reply when suddenly Taylor spoke up.

    “You should check the other body.”

    “What?” Dragon nearly spoke aloud through her dragonflight. She glanced at Narwhal; the woman was turned away, speaking to her men on the comms.

    Taylor snapped her pocket watch close, sliding it back into her dress. She waved her floating mindmaps away. “Do a deep tissue scan,” she said again, calmly. “You’ll understand when you see her.”

    “Where’s the other body? The victim?” Dragon asked, her voice slightly raised.

    Narwhal seemed surprised. “You want to check on her too? Her body’s behind the sofa over there. Tech hasn’t finished their work on her, so don’t touch anything or else I’ll be nagged at for a month.”

    Dragon nodded distractedly, already walking over. “Did they manage to get an ID for her?”

    “Jacqueline Taylorment. Age 45-ish. She’s been sighted with Vasil since ‘92.”

    “Almost twenty years ago.”

    “Yeah,” Narwhal sighed, misunderstanding her comment. “Her body has no obvious injury but who knows how much of her mind even was left. Might have been some fucked up failsafe, or maybe she just couldn’t take the shock of his death. Fucking bastard.”

    “No,” Dragon said, overwhelmed as she struggled to put the image into words. Her artificial voice came out hoarse somehow. “Her spine has been severed. Lengthwise. It’s been severed in half, down its entire length,” she repeated, moving closer to the body.

    “What? But there’s no—”

    “—no surface injury, yes. Somehow she avoided the skin and muscles to cut through only bone.” Dragon looked closely at the spine. This was different from Vasil. The cut was uneven, jagged, as if something sawed through it. The woman would have been completely paralyzed, lying on the ground in agony, unable to even twitch a muscle.

    She could have been still alive when the PRT arrived on the scene, dying in a room full of people.

    Taylor directed her to this. Dragon recalibrated her instruments for a deeper scan; she froze as she took a closer look at the results.

    “Narwhal. I’m calling in a code green.”

    A shimmer passed over Narwhal as she reinforced her shield. “A biohazard? What did you see?”

    “She’s been enhanced by a tinker.” Muscles sheathed in carbon-fibre armour, extensive rework in all major organs including the lungs with a denser bronchi network. Dragon looked again at the spine and spotted what she missed the first time around — titanium-alloy reinforcements, finely threaded through the bone. The extensiveness of the modifications, the detailed craftsmanship of the designs; Dragon recognized the handiwork with a mounting sense of disbelief.

    “It’s Bonesaw. She’s been modified by Bonesaw.”
     
    Last edited: Mar 17, 2022
  24. nezexyzzar

    nezexyzzar Getting out there.

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    Hi all, sorry for the long delay. Unfortunately I got COVID, which kinda wiped me out for a couple of weeks. Hopefully the double chapter makes up for it :) I had to do some extensive rewrites for Chapter 7 & 8 so the long break actually made me lose track of things, which was annoying.

    Thanks to everyone who commented and left a like on my story while I was away!
     
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  25. STKenyan

    STKenyan Getting sticky.

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    Revenge: a dish best served twenty years in the past.
     
  26. Toguro

    Toguro I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    That ending... wut ? :confused:
     
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  27. gustyeagle

    gustyeagle Know what you're doing yet?

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    I got faked out, I thought Taylor was gonna let Jack go, rather than heartbreak them.
     
  28. Whenever Possible

    Whenever Possible Versed in the lewd.

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    I can see Jack being offended, not at what Vasil did with him/her, but at the lazy kludgework vasil's form of mastering was compared to the psychological manipulations and torments Jack spent so long perfecting. No respect for the intricacies of the craft.
     
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