1.2 Intermission (Scenes 1-5)

Scene 1 – 10 Years Ago
Interior Hospital Room, Early Afternoon
Penelope Page

“I’m sorry, Mr. Page, but the results are positive. Your daughter has cancer.”

I glared up at the doctor from the bed where I lay. “I’m right here, you know,” I said, icily.

Dad spared me a quick glance and squeezed my hand gently, trying to get me to calm down. “Is it serious, doctor?”

“All cancer is serious,” she told him. “But I think that her prognosis looks good. It will be a simply surgery, then we’ll move to chemo. It will take time, but Penny is young. She has time.”

“Stop ignoring me, bitch,” I growled. “I’m 15, not 5!”

The doctor finally looked at me, giving me a kind, patient smile. “You’re going to be fine, honey,” she lied. “They make really excellent wigs these days.” Then she turned right back to my dad, and said, “I’m afraid I have to get to another patient, but don’t hesitate to call if you need more information. Here’s my card.” She handed it to him, then flounced out.

I snorted. “‘You’re going to be fine,’” I mocked. “I have cancer! I’m not going to be fine!”

Dad stroked the hand that he still held. “Penny, please… try to be optimistic?”

I snorted.

Scene 2 – 8 Years Ago
Interior Hospital Room, Late Morning
Penelope Page

“Penny? Mr. Page?” the doctor – my third in two years – said as he stepped into the room. “I’m afraid I have bad news.”

“What is it?” I asked, pulling myself upright with a slight wince of pain.

He glanced down at a chart in his hand as though to confirm what he was reading, then said, “I know it sounds crazy, but your cancer appears to have a metagene which has activated in response to your chemotherapy treatments.”

I blinked, then looked up at dad. “Wait, I thought I didn’t have any metagenes?”

“You don’t,” he confirmed. “I had you tested shortly after you were born, then again after the cancer developed. I had this mad hope that you might develop powers that would save you…”

“So how could my cancer have a metagene?” I asked the doctor. “It’s my DNA, right? Just a little messed up?”

“There are two possibilities,” he told me. “Either random mutation created its metagene – it’s incredibly unlikely, yes, but it must have happened in the past with every other metagene – or you do have the same metagene, and it’s simply not one that has been documented yet. Honestly, it’s fascinating either way – there are cases of both flora and fauna with metagenes, but as far as I know this is the first time that a cancer has ever activated a metagene.” He produced a piece of paper and offered it to me. “In fact, I’d love to write a case study on it, if you’ll consent.”

Dad squeezed my fingers – he would support whatever I chose. “No,” I said after a moment. “And in fact, I think I’d like a new doctor, too.”

His face fell, but he nodded in acceptance. “I’ll let Doctor Dorian know.”

Scene 3 – 8 Years Ago
Interior Hospital Room, Evening
Penelope Page

When I was a kid, I suppose my dad thought I would outlive him. No parent expects to outlive their child, after all.

When I was a slightly older kid, I was diagnosed with a vicious kind of cancer that was going to tear through my body if not stopped, and I was certain that I would die.

Fortunately, I responded well to chemotherapy and the tumors began to recede. Once again, outliving my father was a possibility.

Three weeks ago, I was told that my cancer had superpowers, and I was certain that death was imminent. I suppose I took it out on the doctor – but who can blame me for reacting badly? My father was going to have to watch me waste away, and come to terms with outliving me, again.

Two days ago, it turned out that we were wrong again.

“I’m so sorry, Miss Page,” the nurse told me sympathetically. “Doctor Dorian is doing everything he can to keep your care covered, but your father’s insurance company isn’t willing to keep paying for it without… well. You may have to look at research options. I know you didn’t want to, but… well, here’s an offer that’s come already.”

Along with a note signed by a half the staff of the hospital and a bundle of flowers, she left behind a tablet computer that was already open to a pdf of some company’s offer to treat me in return for being allowed to conduct research on my supertumor. I read it, struggling to understand the legal jargon without Dad’s help.

As far as I could tell, it seemed to be saying that the Ambrosia Company – which according to Google specialized in metagene research – would provide ‘all necessary care’, including schooling, housing, food, and whatever medical treatment their doctors deemed necessary. In return, I agreed to allow them to test portions of the cancer which had been removed. The most concerning part of it was that it granted power of attorney over me to the company, as I was a minor – that, I assumed, would expire when I turned 18 in a few months.

Assuming I lived that long, I thought to myself.

The contract had a number attached to it, which was noted to be that of the specialist who would be caring for me, a Dr. Kaufman. I tapped it, and the tablet switched over to a video call app. I straightened up a little as it rang, wincing.

Dr. Kaufman, as it turned out, was a slim woman of average height, with long brown hair in a loose ponytail, bright blue eyes, and rather sharp, aristocratic features. “Hello,” she said with a slightly crooked smile. “Well, you’re not Susan or Miles, so I suppose you must be Penelope. Or do you prefer Penny?”

“Penny is fine,” I said with a shrug. “You’d be the doctor who’d be treating me, then?”

She somehow managed to bow, despite sitting. “Doctor Laura Kaufman, at your service, and yes, I’ll be the one treating you. She tilted whatever device she was using for the call so I could see a tall redheaded man sitting in the background of the office space she seemed to be in, facing away from the camera. Like Kaufman, he was wearing a lab coat. He apparently didn’t take as good care of it though, as hers was pristine while his had reddish stains. “Dr. Hartland back there will be doing the actual research while I stick to treatment.”

“Is he more of a researcher where you’re a caregiver, then?”

Kaufman shrugged. “We have different specialties, mostly. He’s probably one of the world’s top experts on metagenes, and he’s eager to examine the one your tumor has developed – any newly discovered metagene is interesting to him. My specialty as a researcher was neurology and the structure of the brain, and I usually take when we’re doing research on large-scale biology, where he leads on microbiology.”

“How are you on treatment?” I demanded. “Research is whatever, but I’m a real person, and I don’t want to be treated as a science dummy.”

“…a science dummy?”

“Like a crash test dummy, but for science.”

Kaufman seemed to be struggling to hold back a smile. “Penny, crash test dummies are for science.”

I shrugged. “You get the point.”

She was still smiling as she said, “Well, I may have been primarily a researcher before Ambrosia got their hands on me, but my horizons have definitely expanded in the seven years that I’ve been here. I have a lot of experience treating patients, for various reasons. And…” She glanced over her shoulder at Hartland, but he was clearly engrossed in whatever he was doing. She dug through a purse and after a moment produced a picture of an adorable kid, maybe six or seven years old, which she held up to the camera. “I’m a mother, if that makes any difference. I’m not some heartless monster only interested in science. That’s Hart’s job,” she joked with that same crooked smile, pointing a thumb over her shoulder at Hartland.

Scene 4 – 6 Years Ago
Ambrosia Co. Laboratory, Morning
Penelope Page

“Miles?” I asked, confused. “Where’s Laura?” Normally she was the one to check up on me every morning, but today it was Miles Mercer, a twenty-something guy who I knew was friends with Laura despite the age gap – she was old enough to be my mother, if perhaps not his. I had never been clear on what exactly he did for Ambrosia, but whatever it was he was one of the higher-ups, and the two of us had never really interacted.

“She-” he started, then paused, looking guilty. He ran a hand through his hair, seeming nervous, and muttered something under his breath in Japanese, then rallied. “She’s not available right now, I’m afraid.”

“What happened?” I straightened up in my bed, without pain for once. Laura did good work. “Is she alright?”

He sat in the chair she usually used beside my bed. “Listen, kid-”

“Penny. And I’m not a kid.”

“Penny, then. Ambrosia is a pretty big deal, these days. There are a lot of competitors out there, and Laura is… pretty important to Ambrosia’s success. A lot of our earlier breakthroughs were her, and…” He trailed off.

“Are you saying she’s been assassinated?” I cried, horrified.

Miles winced. “No no, not that,” he assured me. “She was just kidnapped, that’s all. Yeah, kidnapped. That’s it,” he said again, sounding unsure. “She’s back already anyway, this new hero called Canaveral went and got her for us.”

“…so why is she not visiting?”

“She was injured in the, uh. The kidnapper hurt her. But she’s fine!” he promised. “She’ll be back on her regular schedule soon. She just needs a little recuperation time. She’ll be fine.”

“She’d better be,” I warned him.

Scene 5 – 5 Years Ago
Interior Surgery Theater, Evening
Laura Kaufman

I’ve fucked up a lot, in my life.

I had a husband and a child that I loved more than anything in the world. But they’re lost to me now, probably forever. I haven’t seen them in ten years and it seems increasingly unlikely that I’ll ever see either of them again.

I’ve spent those ten years working for a company that literally kidnapped me, and which still holds me captive. I’ve tried to escape – once I even made it far enough that one of Ambrosia’s pet heroes had to come grab me – but still, I’m here in this fucking building, and I have no choice but to work for Susan fucking Thornhill.

One of the few good things in my life has been the presence of Penelope Page. She was clever and quick and funny, and I consistently found her a bright spot in my otherwise dreary days. She did her best not to let the cancer that seemed impossible to excise from her get her down, and I, inspired by her, did my best to do the same with my own life. I did my best by her, treated her in many ways like she had been my own child.

And now she was soon to be lost to me, perhaps forever.

The metacancer that Hart had studied had, it turned out, developed a power that allowed it to take control of nearby organic cells. It allowed it to spread incomprehensibly quickly, and meant that Penny required daily treatment. It meant that even when we thought we had removed all the cancerous cells, others would transform themself into new tumors.

His research had yielded results, to be sure – Hart had developed a treatment based on those cells and their transformation which brought skin cells under the conscious command of the person in question, allowing for a low level of shapeshifting – instantly tanning or lightening your skin, fixing scars and other blemishes – and he had high hopes of extending this transformative treatment to other organs as well.

The problem was that he had allowed the cancer to spread to far more of Penny’s body that I could condone, seeking to extend the transformative treatment by observing the metacancer’s effects on other parts of the body.

And now she was dying.

Penny was only 20 years old, she was too young to have to face this. She was facing it bravely, to be sure – she had been brave since she was 15 – but she shouldn’t have to. Not when we should be able to fix it.

Years ago, when I was first brought to Ambrosia, Hartland and I had been working off of my previous attempts to replicate cosmic power activators. Our result, if Thornhill had allowed us to publish it, would have lent credence to the theory that cosmic powers were simply unidentified metagenes that had been activated by the technology in question. We had created the PA5, which used psychic waves to force the brain to activate any and all metagenes a person possessed.

It was risky, of course – if a person had multiple metagenes, as many people did, the result of all of them activating simultaneously could be incredibly dangerous. But if we activated the metagene that Penny was believed to have, perhaps she could take control of the cancer’s cells instead of the other way around.

It was a long shot – metagenes rarely activated in the same way twice, even among people who had the exact same gene and the same activation scenario. Twin studies had shown that for decades, and I had seen in confirmed by Hartland’s genetic therapy experiments, copying people’s metagenes to others for profit.

But it was the only chance Penny had, at this point. I had to try.

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1.2. Scenes 36-37

Scene 36 – October 26th
Interior Cell Block, Afternoon
Abraham Armstrong

“Alright, Legion,” I said as I entered her cell and leaned against the wall, eying her through the force field. “You’ve had your chat with the Kaufmans.” And I couldn’t help but wonder what she had said – wanting to talk with the two of them was no doubt why she had been at Quinn’s house the night she was first sighted. But I hadn’t been privy to the contents of the conversations, and Susan had declined to tell me. They were of a personal nature, and if Quinn or David decided to tell me on their own then that was one thing, but she wouldn’t do it herself. As a result of my curiosity, I was a little annoyed when I said, “Now give me my best friend back.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure he’s still your friend? It’s been years, after all.”

“Only three,” I said, frowning at the villain. “That’s not so long, really.”

“And what if he doesn’t want to see you anymore?”

“What are you saying, Legion? Why wouldn’t he want to see me?”

“Oh, I thought you knew why I had to take him,” Legion said. “I suppose I should warn you. A moment…” She raised a hand and produced a small clicked from nowhere. It clicked, and the commlink in my ear suddenly went dead. Sparks popped from the cameras in the corners of the cell – they had clearly been ruined as well. The force field that separated us shut down too – what the hell was that thing?

I crouched into a fighting stance, ready for an escape attempt – this was, after all, why I was here to supervise her transformation – and tested the door behind me experimentally. If it was an escape, the tech she had managed to sneak in would probably have popped its lock, but I discovered that it was stuck closed. On the other side of the door I could hear a commotion – the cameras’ destruction had obviously been noticed, and agents were already trying to get into the cell to give me back up.

Legion grinned, suddenly moving at full speed rather than the slow pace she had apparently only been pretending was force on her. “Snuck it in by hiding it inside a bone. Your scanners can’t see through my bones when I’m this dense – I could have anything in here.” She laughed. “In this case, however, you have nothing to fear. Instead, I think you have a decision to make. You see, the reason I took Ventus was that he had discovered something which I think you’ll find unfortunate.”

My eyes narrowed. What could Will have discovered that… “Are you saying he knew about Ambrosia?” I asked, my heart sinking.

“Got it in one,” she said approvingly. “Yes, Ventus discovered the company after capturing a client back in Vegas.” The two of us had both grown up in Las Vegas, and spent the first two years of our careers as heroes there. Then I had been transferred to New Venice to lead the team after the previous team leader, the Warden, retired – Ventus, meanwhile, had remained. “At first he thought we only sold powers to villains, but after his investigation was quashed by Nanoblade, he began to realize the truth.”

“Wait, hold on. Are you saying that Nanoblade got his powers from you?” Nanoblade was one of the biggest heroes out there, and had been a mentor to Ventus and I both.

“Oh yes. You didn’t think we only sold magic, did you? We wouldn’t get very far like that – Middleman can’t duplicate powers, after all. But many cosmic powers can be granted repeatedly.”

“I… I never really thought about it, beyond myself,” I quietly admitted. “I tried not to think about it that much.”

She nodded. “Probably for the best. The point, however, is that Ventus didn’t stop his investigation, he just had to do it in secret. He was good at it, too, and turned up a great deal of information. Including that you purchased your powers from us, Abraham Armstrong.” Legion shrugged. “So, the company sent me to deal with him. I can bring him back, of course, but if he still plans to go public with all of this another me will just take him out again.”

“And what the hell do you want me to do about this?” I asked.

“There are two possibilities here,” she said. “Either you can convince him to remain quiet – you are his best friend, after all – or this ‘escape attempt’ goes badly, and you manage to destroy my brain. Either way, I’ll be gone and your secret will be safe.”

“Why are you putting this decision on me,” I growled. “You can’t ask me to choose that! He was my best friend!”

“I ask you to make this decision because you are his best friend,” she countered.

“Will this at least count as my third favor?” I asked without much hope.

Legion shook her head. “Oh no. I don’t owe you anything, whatever that me may have thought. This affects you, and you need to make the choice regardless.”

I glanced at the doorway behind me. It seemed to be taking a while for them to get through… “Can I talk to him before you make the change final?”

She nodded. “Certainly.” The shapeshifter held up her hand again and it began to bulge, shaping itself into a head. A strong jawline, heavily tanned skin, black hair that would have hung down to his shoulders if she had bothered to give him any… he had more stress lines than the last time I had seen him, but when his grass-green eyes opened and locked on mine, I knew that it could be none other than my best friend, William Wordsworth.

Scene 37 – October 26
Interior Cell Block, Continuous
Abraham Armstrong

It took a moment before I found my voice again, then I said, “Will…”

“Canaveral,” he said, coolly. That was a bad sign – he usually called me Abe or Navi.

“I… I hear that you’ve learned some things,” I tried, “that… that don’t sound very good, from a certain perspective.”

“You could say that,” he agreed, still in that same unaffected, emotionless voice.

“I…” I sighed. “I can’t lie to you, Will. The Ambrosia Company is… it’s not exactly a morally-upright institution.”

“That’s a bit of an understatement,” Legion commented. “Publicly, perhaps, but I think we all know that the face we put on in public isn’t necessarily the truth.”

I glared at her. “You’re not helping,” I snapped. “And why the hell do you work for them, if you know how bad they are?”

She sighed. “Loyalty, I’m afraid. They saved my life.”

“I thought that I saved your life.”

“It’s arguable, and like I said I disagree with the me who helped you.” She shrugged. “Besides, if they had a different enforcer they would probably be even worse than me. At least I don’t kill anyone – anyone other than myself, anyway.”

I stared at her, then pointed at Will’s head where it emerged from her arm.

“Does he look dead to you?” Legion asked. “The man isn’t even dead legally, just missing-in-action.”

“Get to the point,” Will groaned. “Existing as a disembodied head isn’t exactly comfortable, you know.”

“Right.” I shook myself, trying to refocus. “Will, Ambrosia does a lot of bad things, yes, but… they do good, too. I would never have become a hero if not for them.”

“There wouldn’t be so many villains if not for them, either,” he retorted. “Not to mention that the brawn that they distribute throughout the country.”

I glanced at Legion. “I didn’t know they were involved in brawn distribution – is that true?”

“Maybe?” She gave a noncommittal shrug. “Not my department. I know there’s some level of involvement but I don’t know the details of it.” There came a loud thud at the door, and I glanced over my shoulder to double check that it was still holding. “Better hurry up,” the villain added.

I sighed. “Look, Will, I’ll be straight with you-”

The corner of his mouth twitched. “Since when have you been straight? Especially with me.”

I grinned at him for a moment, then remembered the situation we were in and cleared my throat. “You’re up for resurrection – Legion is willing to bring you back. But only if you agree to keep quiet about Ambrosia.”

He narrowed his eyes. “I don’t know if I can agree to that. I mean, think about what they’ve done!”

“They’ve granted powers to heroes too!” I protested.

“I already said that you and Nanoblade doesn’t make up for all the villains!”

“You think it’s just the two of them?” Legion asked, then laughed. “Oh, Ventus, you have no idea. Canaveral isn’t the only hero to buy his powers – he isn’t even the only one in the New Champions!”

I hadn’t known anyone else in the Champions had gotten their powers from Ambrosia, but decided to think about that later. “And they’ve taken villains off the playing field, too,” I added. “My power was taken away from a Russian villain in order for me to get it.”

“So you’re saying that they can do more than bribe people with the possibility of extra powers, they can also threaten to take them away?” Ventus asked. “That just makes them even scarier.”

“We tried to bribe him to stay quiet first,” Legion told me. “It didn’t work.”

I sighed. “Will, you’re going to die if you don’t stay quiet. And it’ll be permanent this time – no way to come back. I don’t want you gone forever!”

“I’m already dead,” he said, a trace of pain in his eyes – I doubt I could have seen it if I didn’t know the man so well. “I don’t care if Legion thinks she doesn’t kill – this isn’t a life.”

She sighed. “You have the right to your opinion,” the villain said, “but the fact that you have one to express means you’re alive. But… yes, not for long.”

I closed me eyes and tried to come to terms with what I was about to do. Will had been my best friend from childhood. He had been my first crush, my first boyfriend, my first kiss. My first partner – we had been closer than brothers. And now… could I really do this to him?

“I know what you’re thinking,” Will said. “It’s not going to work. You can’t make her bring me back if she doesn’t want to.”

I hadn’t been thinking about that, and the fact that I wasn’t just made me feel worse. Had I really changed so much that Will was wrong about me? “I’m so sorry, Will,” I said, my voice breaking as I tried to hold back tears. “But I don’t have a choice.”

Legion snorted.

“What do you mean, Navi?” Will asked.

I turned away before opening my eyes again – I couldn’t look. “Make the escape attempt, Legion,” I said. “Where’s your brain?”

“I have it in my pelvis right now,” she told me.

I could hear the understanding in Will’s voice as he realized what was about to happen. “Fuck you, Abe,” he said. “Fuck you very…”

Then he was gone, and Legion was lashing out at the walls, the ceiling… making it look like a great battle had occurred. I played my part too, bouncing around her strikes to build up a little sweat to make it realistic. After a few seconds, she broke through the door to the cell, revealing a crowd of agents, several of whom had been attempting to break through themselves. I broke off a leg of the table, launched it through Legion’s midsection, and she collapsed and took my best friend with her.

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1.2. Scenes 32-35

Scene 32 – October 26th
Interior MLED Compound, Morning
Quinn Kaufman

Dad and I had been rather surprised when the MLED called and asked the two of us to come in – we couldn’t think of any reason they’d specifically want to talk to us. After all, it had been less than two weeks since my powers manifested, so I still had most of my one-month grace period before registration was mandatory. And while I had had contact with Legion, I had told Canaveral all about it – there was nothing that I knew that the MLED didn’t, at this point.

Still, we couldn’t exactly decline the invitation, so he called off work and I called off my two classes for the day, and we dressed in nice clothes before heading into the Compound.

The receptionist smiled at me as we approached. “Hello again, Mr. Kaufman. And is this your father?”

“Mx. Kaufman,” he corrected. “And yes, I’m their father.” I grinned up at him, pleased to have his support.

The receptionist seemed confused by the correction, but rolled with it. “Are you hear to visit the Journeymen again, Mr – Mx. Kaufman?”

I shook my head. “No, we received an invitation from the director.” I showed him the letter that had arrived by express mail yesterday. “I don’t suppose you have any idea why?”

He examined it with surprise. “None, sorry. But it appears to be in order, so… you’ll be following the green line today, not the orange.” He tapped a few buttons on his keyboard, then continued, “Director Shepard will meet you there.”

Scene 33 – October 26th
Interior Cell Block, Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

“Director Shepard,” my father said as he shook the woman’s hand, only an inch or two taller than me but probably twice my weight in solid muscle. “A pleasure to meet you.”

“And you as well, Professor Kaufman.” She turned to me and offered a hand as well. “And Mx. Kaufman too. I’m sorry we haven’t had the chance to meet yet, but as I’m sure you understand I’m unspeakably busy.”

I shook her hand despite the distinct possibility that she might accidentally break me in two – or deliberately. Regardless of what she said, her face and voice were stern, and she certainly didn’t seem happy to meet us. My anxious mind aside, what I said was, “Nice to meet you too.”

“So,” Dad said, “why did you call us here on such short notice? And to a cell block, no less?” The green line had led us to a metallic door where a uniformed MLED officer had scanned us and patted us down before allowing us in – the PA4 that I wore beneath my clothes most days had required him to consult with the Director, who had been waiting on the other side of the door. And now we were standing at the entrance to a long row of incredibly secure cells, most of which – but not all – were empty.

The director frowned. “Nothing good, I’m afraid.” She seemed to catch the look of fear in my eyes, because she added, “not something that either of you two have done, but… well, do either of you know much about the villain known as Legion?”

“I know a decent amount – I’m sure you know that, of course.”

“I know what’s in the papers,” Dad said. “Shapeshifter who can duplicate and heal people, or something along those lines.”

“Close enough,” the director agreed. “She’s agreed to resurrect a deceased hero, in return for a concession. A private conversation with the Kaufman family. First you,” she nodded to me, “and then your father.”

We absorbed this for a moment. “…why?”

“She has refused to say. We absolutely guarantee your safety, however. Her powers are being suppressed and there will be a force field in between you and her at all times. If you agree to speak with her, you will be saving a man’s life.”

“…I thought power suppression wasn’t real,” I said.

“Not as such,” Director Shepard admitted, “but many powers are inhibited in certain environments or by certain stimuli. Someone who can control water has little power in a desert, for instance. In Legion’s case, it appears that cold temperatures slow the speed of her shapeshifting, and her cell is therefore being kept at 20 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Dad sighed. “Quinn first?”

“She specifically requested your child first,” Shepard confirmed. “Whatever information has led her to seek this conversation did not include your transition, and she specified you using your deadname,” the director warned me, and I tensed, “but after being informed of your name and pronouns she immediately corrected herself and has not slipped up as far as I am aware. I wished to warn you that she knows it, however.”

“…thank you.” I managed after a moment. It wasn’t the director’s fault that Legion apparently knew my birth name – in fact, it seemed like the director had been the one to correct the villain.

My father was looking at the floor. “Lift your chin and set your shoulders, / Plant your feet and take a brace,” he murmured, then looked up at us. “I’m willing to do it if Quinn is.”

I shrugged. “Sure, why the hell not? It’s not the first time I’ve talked with her.” Inside my heart was pounding, because that conversation had been terrifying, but I recognized the lines Dad had just quoted – he always quoted them when he was trying to be brave. And if Dad was going to face down the dangerous supervillain without powers, how could I do less with them?

The director smiled thinly. “Thank you.”

Scene 34 – October 26th
Interior Cell Block, Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

I was directed to Legion’s cell, where I sat on one side of a table which seemed to pass through a forcefield, allowing her to sit on the other side. She was currently in the shape of the director, which I couldn’t help but comment on. “I thought you couldn’t copy people without absorbing them.”

She shrugged in slow-motion. “Perfectly? To the point of fooling DNA scans and fingerprinting? Yes, I need to absorb them. But I can fool the eye with just a visual reference. And as for vocal mannerisms and body language, that’s just practice.” Her body suddenly morphed and I was looking at Canaveral. “Would you prefer to speak to a hero? Whatever makes you comfortable, Quinn.”

I frowned at her. “I think I’d rather speak to you in your real form. If you even remember what it is.”

She chuckled – it was exactly the same as the chuckles I had heard from the actual Canaveral. “A brave one, aren’t you?”

“I try.” I try very, very hard.

“Well that’s not an option, I’m afraid. My real form is reserved for the original me. But if you’d rather, I can make something completely new for you.”

“Please.”

She changed again, returning to a suit much like the director’s but with a more curvaceous figure beneath it. Her face became sharp, her ears slightly pointed, and her hair curled up around her ears. Every part of her took on a purplish tint – so deep it was nearly black for the suit, so pale it was nearly white for the hair, and every shade in between. Even her skin had a lavender cast to it. “Better?”

“Good enough,” I said. “A fan of purple, I see.” She shrugged. “So why do you want to talk to me and dad?”

“I have a message for you.”

“From who?”

“Laura Kaufman – your mother.”

I glared. “Don’t talk about my mother, Legion.”

She held up her hands placating. “I don’t mean to poke at old wounds, but I must deliver this message. I promised her, and I owe her everything. I know it sounds hard to believe, but-”

“What the hell do you know about my mother?” I snapped. “How could you know anything! I barely know anything! She’s been gone for 15 years!”

“From you, perhaps,” she said quietly. “I only lost her two years ago.”

“…what are you saying.”

“Your mother didn’t die, 15 years ago.”

“You expect me to believe she just left?” I had to laugh at the very notion. “That’s ridiculous. She would never do that to me – to dad.”

Legion shook her head. “It wasn’t by her choice. Can I give the message?”

“I’m not sure I want to hear anything you have to say anymore,” I said, standing.

Then she opened her mouth and spoke in the voice of my mother – a voice that I could only barely remember hearing, outside of recordings. “Tell Quinn… tell them that I never wanted to leave them,” said my mother. “Tell them how sorry I am. How much I love them. Tell them… tell them that I’ll be watching over them.”

I didn’t respond. How could I?

“I paraphrased a little, I’m afraid,” Legion said, quietly. “She never had a chance to learn your real name, to see who you are. But I’m certain that Laura would have been proud of the person you’re becoming.”

Scene 35 – October 26th
Interior MLED Compound – Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

I left the cell in a bit of a daze. I found it hard to believe that Legion had known my mother, but the voice… how else would they have heard it? It wasn’t as though she was a public figure. And yet…

My father was ushered into the cell after me, giving me a concerned look as we passed. Legion probably had a similar message for him.

The director, waiting back at the entrance, blinked briefly when I returned. “You seem a little stunned,” she said. “Was it that bad?”

“It was… not bad, exactly,” I admitted. “Surprising, certainly.” I rubbed at my brow, still trying to wrap my head around what had just happened. “Were you listening?”

Shepard shook her head. “No. Legion asked for a private meeting, and so the mics were muted. We had visual, to make sure that you were in no danger, but…”

“She said that she had a message from my mom,” I said, the words spilling out without conscious thought. “She said that she knew my mom, that she hadn’t died all those years ago… she told me that mom loved me, and would have been proud of me.” I hugged myself as I continued, “Dad’s told me that before, of course, but… I’ve never heard it in her voice.” My own voice nearly broke, tears welling at the corners of my eyes. “And… and she was alive. For 13 years she was alive, when we thought she was dead. And… and she’s still dead. Only two years ago, she died…”

“Did Legion give any details?” Director Shepard asked.

I shook my head. “No… maybe I should have asked, but I just… I couldn’t stay in there. I don’t know why.”

“It’s hard, to face a revelation like that. To hear someone’s last words. Especially when you’re not expecting it.” She placed a hand on my shoulder, surprisingly gentle. “She may have been-” the director started, then stopped and shook her head. “Nevermind.”

“What?”

“I wasn’t thinking.”

“No, tell me.”

She sighed. “I was going to say that Legion may have been lying, to try to manipulate you.”

I laughed, my voice still raw. “What would be the point? I’m no one.”

“You are someone,” the director said. “You’re Quinn Kaufman.”

“And who the fuck is that, huh? I’ve got nothing to offer anyone.” I wiped away a tear. “Even my own mom didn’t want to stay. Shows how much she loved me.”

Again, Shepard seemed to want to say something but didn’t. She just shook her head again, then said. “Quinn, I can’t speak for your mother, and I’ve only met you today. But from everything I’ve seen and heard of you, you’re an exemplary young person – you’re kind, clever, and brave. Everything we look for in a hero. It’s your choice what you want to do with your powers – the MLED can’t force you to use them. But if you want to join the Journeymen, we would love to have you.”

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1.2. Scenes 30-31

Scene 30 – October 24th
Interior MLED Compound, Morning
Susan Shepard

I sighed in displeasure as I looked at my schedule for the day. “Really, Henry? You put Legion’s interrogation as the first thing on my schedule?”

My deputy director shrugged. “I knew you would want to handle such a dangerous villain yourself,” he said, and I had to admit that the man was right. “And the rest of your day is already packed with other appointments. There was no other time, Susan.”

I pulled a face, knowing that I was being childish, but nodded. “Thank you, Henry. I’ll see you tonight.”

My deputy director was a night owl and always had been – he was much happier as my deputy, taking the night shift, than he had been as director. To be fair, I was happier too – I didn’t mind the night shift, but they were boring more often than not. Although I complained to him – and he was the only one in the MLED that I allowed myself to be so informal with, and vice versa – I enjoyed having a full schedule, and night shifts tended to be slow. Most crimes happened during the day, contrary to what cop shows might claim, and so do job orientations, press conferences, interviews, and all the other things than an MLED Director had to accomplish.

Yes, I enjoyed my job. What would I fill my time with if I wasn’t here, after all?

Henry nodded to me and began wheeling himself out of the office we shared. I took a few minutes to skim his summary of the night once more – we had gone over it before he left, but I liked to keep things fresh in my mind – then brushed a bit of dog hair off the cuff of my suit jacket before I began making my way down to the cell where we held a copy of Penelope Page, better known as Legion.

I nodded to the trooper manning the checkpoint outside the cell block wing as he saluted me. “Morning, agent.”

“Ma’am,” he responded. He checked the badge that I held to him, then the itinerary on his tablet. He then gestured for me to step through the scanner. It beeped red as I did, detecting the pistol I wore beneath my jacket, but of course, as the director, I was cleared to take a weapon into the cells, and he made no protest. Instead, he unlocked the heavy metal door and waved me by.

I gestured for one of the two agents who manned this side of the cell block entrance to follow me, and she fell into step behind me without question, speeding her pace slightly after a moment to match my longer stride. Within a few moments, we were there.

Scene 31 – October 24th
Interior Cell Block, Continuous
Susan Shepard

Legion’s cell had been kept refrigerated in the hopes that it would slow her shape-shifting ability down, after the pleasant discovery that Vulcan freezing her over seemed to have suspended her. It wasn’t as cold as he had go – it was hard to match the level of cold that the man could create by absorbing heat when all you had to do it was technology – but it was still well below freezing, and I saw that she was moving sluggishly.

I sat down at the table crossing the force field that separated the inside of the cell from the outside. After a moment, Page began making her way into the seat on her side of it and sat down. I spent the long seconds it took her to do so observing the villain’s current form.

After the various chunks of demonic tree that Vulcan had frozen and dismembered were left in the cell, they had slowly congealed back into this form – a heavily-built woman wearing shades of purple,, with shaggy purple hair that hung down to around her chin. Like Loki’s hair, it was the kind of perfectly-designed unkempt that only superpowers could maintain in reality.

“To what do I owe the pleasure, Director Shepard?” she finally asked.

I raised a brow. “Don’t you know, Miss Page? This isn’t the first time you’ve been captured, after all. It’s not even the first time I’ve been the one interrogating you.” A slight exaggeration of the truth that I had been observing as part of training to become a deputy director, several years before Henry had suffered his injury and stepped back. I wondered if she would call me out on it – the villain always maintained that she didn’t have a hivemind, but it was an open question whether she was lying about it or not.

She shrugged. “From my perspective, it is. No hivemind, remember?” It was certainly a consistent story, at least. “Every version of me that’s come through these cells dies. What do you think of that, Director?”

“I think that’s getting a little ahead of things,” I said calmly. “Let’s start with the basics.” The villain flapped a hand dismissively – it was almost funny to see, given her current slowed motion. “Are you Penelope Page?”

“Arguably, yes. Are you Susan Shepard?”

I ignored that. “Have you had your rights read to you, and do you understand them?”

“Once I thawed out some, yeah, and I understand them. How about you, read any good books lately?”

“What brought you to New Venice?”

“Seeing friends,” she said with a grin. “How long have you been director?”

“Who did you have contact with since arriving?”

“I spent some time with myself, and some with these really hunky guys. How’s your love life?”

I narrowed my eyes with her, realizing that her appearance was shifting. Her hair was was growing shorter and curlier, shifting into a blonde hue – her heavy built was gaining muscular definition as well as losing an inch of two of height – her clothes were darkening and becoming a full suit rather than the semi-formal waistcoat she had been wearing. In fact, she was taking on a pretty good approximation of my form. “What do you expect to accomplish with this?” I couldn’t help but ask.

“With what?” she asked. The voice wasn’t quite right though, and neither were the facial features – without the guidance of having devoured someone, she couldn’t perfectly replicate a person. She could get damned close though.

“This,” I said, gesturing to her.

She shrugged. “My job, I suppose.”

“Your job is to impersonate me?” I asked.

“Not at all. I’m just here to deliver a message.”

“To who?”

“Now that would be telling.” She smirked – her voice was already much closer to mine, just from those few sentences of practice. It was, in fact, a little unnerving, but I refused to let her get to me. “Let’s talk concessions.”

“I’m not finished with my questions. Like I said, you’re getting a little ahead of things.”

She shifted position a little, straightening her back and adjusting her expression to match my posture more closely. “I don’t have any intention of sitting through a boring interrogation when I could be doing what I came here for.”

“Did you come here to be captured?” I asked, not really expecting an answer. But, I was noticing, she seemed to be avoiding questions that she didn’t want to answer, which would be answer enough if it was true. Canaveral had told me, during his debriefing, that he thought she had gone down too easily – Zookeeper hadn’t thought so and neither had Vulcan, but I was inclined to trust Abe’s instincts.

“That wasn’t why I decided to come to New Venice,” she denied. “I mean really, I could be captured by the MLED anywhere.”

“Why here then?”

Legion smirked, but said nothing.

I went through some more standard questions, but she remained silent. It was clear that she was waiting for her own preferred topic to come up, and despite her denial it seemed obvious to me that she wanted to make the deal. It was the same thing that had been observed by directors across the country every time a Legion was captured – she always had some concession in mind in return for resurrecting one or more heroes. I didn’t like doing what it was obvious she wanted, but the benefits of bringing lost heroes back from the dead couldn’t be denied, so after I got through the standard interview without success I let her make her demands.

“Let’s talk deals,” I said, and she subtly perked up in exactly the same way I did when I could smell my secretary bringing me coffee, nose twitching slightly and shoulders twitching. Her mimicry of me was unnervingly good now, and I had to ask what she was hoping to do with it. Was it just to fuck with me? Was it a method of putting me on edge? If so, I had to admit to myself that it was working. I did my utmost not to show it.

“The standard? My demands for a resurrection?”

“That depends on who you’re bringing back, and what you’re demanding,” I noted. “And how many. You have quite a lot of mass with you, as you demonstrated with that demon tree.”

“Did you like it?”

“How many people are you capable of bringing back with your current mass?” If she could be negotiated up from the standard one deceased hero… I could sign off on feeding her some pig carcasses to boost her mass if necessary.

“If we’re looking at mass along, somewhere between twenty and thirty,” she said, and I blinked in surprise. “What? Trees are heavy. I’m packing a lot of mass right now.”

“I suppose so. I’m just shocked that you were able to compress it so far down,” I said. “I’m only 160 pounds, and you’ve squeezed 20 times my weight into a body my size?”

She shrugged. “I don’t fully understand how I do it either, but yes. Probably some kind of subliminally controlled pocket dimension, if you believe Doctor H-” she cut herself off, but I was already cheering in my head. “Can you just forget I said that? That’s supposed to be a secret.”

“I’m afraid not, Miss Page,” I said calmly. This could be the biggest breakthrough with Legion in years! A ‘Doctor H’? Why would a woman with Legion’s shapeshifting powers need a doctor? Was it possible that they were unstable on some level? Were her injuries stored away in some fashion, similar to how any injury Zookeeper suffered persisted each time she took that form? It seemed unlikely given that Legion’s brand of shapeshifting was unbounded, but perhaps it was similar to Loki’s illusions – to create anything quickly, he needed to build it up before use and could then call upon it as necessary. Did Legion have a similar limitation for assuming shapes quickly?

Or was I reading too much in a single comment that she might have dropped just to continue screwing with me? Probably. “Not unless you’re willing to bring back a great many people, at least.”

“Ah well. It’s not like they can do anything to me, anyway. This me, that is.” She grinned. “After all, I’m going to be dead soon. A government-sanctioned suicide. And you have no qualms about it at all, do you?”

“This arrangement saves a great many lives, Miss Page. Some of them are lives that you took.” Despite my words, I did in fact have a great many regrets about the arrangement the MLED invariably reached with captured Legions. It was official policy and not my place to go against – not while speaking to a villain, at least, although I definitely planned to bring it up at the next regional meeting – but it didn’t sit right with me. Certainly not when Legion put it like that, using my own mouth and voice – perhaps that was her point. And yes, we asked our agents and heroes to put their lives on the line every day – but we never asked them to kill themselves. They knew that they were at risk but they weren’t expected or wanted to die.

“And since ‘they’ can’t do anything to you, as you say, why don’t you tell me who they are?” I didn’t expect her to tell me, but it was worth a shot.

Legion shook her head. “I’ve said too much already, and I have loyalty. No, it’ll still be just one person.” She smiled a little ruefully. “I don’t have the option to bring back more anyway – I only have the pattern for one.”

“What do you mean?”

“We can only use a pattern once – no making multiple perfect copies of a thing. People are no different. And patterns don’t automatically transfer when we create additional copies of ourselves, so…” she shrugged. “I’ve only got one person with me.”

“Hm.” This was a wrinkled I hadn’t known about, and I would have to add it to her file – assuming it was true, anyway, and not a falsehood to guarantee the person she would resurrect. “I may or may not be able to grant concessions for them, depending on who it is.”

“Ventus,” she told me – a hero who commanded the winds, he had died to a Legion three years ago, if I remembered right. Never a top player in the hero field, but a good man. And he had been a friend of Canaveral’s, who would surely be pleased to have him back.

“And what do you want in return?” I asked.

“Oh, nothing much…”

If you enjoy my writing, please consider sponsoring me on Patreon. If you can’t afford a recurring donation, you can make an individual donation through Paypal, or purchase one of my books. The more I make from my writing, the more time I can devote to it, which will improve both the quantity and quality of my work.

1.2. Scenes 28-29

Scene 28 – October 23rd
Interior MLED Compound, Early Afternoon
Quinn Kaufman

Holly and I had parted ways not long after dinner, but the following morning she texted me to let me know that Legion had been captured – or one of them had, at least, and the other two were have thought to left the city – and as such the Compound was no longer on high alert. She had invited me to come by whenever I was available to spend more time with the Journeymen, since my visit had been cut short. So after my classes were over for the day, I headed over to the Compound.

The receptionist was the same young man I had met a few days ago, and he greeted me politely. “Welcome back to the Metahuman Law Enforcement Division’s New Venice Compound,” he said as I approached the desk.

“That’s a bit of a mouthful,” I noted.

He shrugged. “There’s a reason it usually just gets called the Compound. Are you here to register with the DMO today, sir?”

I bit my tongue – it wasn’t worth arguing about – and shook my head. “No, I’m here to continue the visitation that was interrupted on the 20th.”

“Of course. I just need to call ahead to confirm your invitation.” He pressed a button and picked up the phone. “Hello, Anima? The young fellow who was visiting a few days ago has come again.” The receptionist listened to her response, then nodded. “I’ll send him right up.” He smiled at me. “You remember the way?”

“Yes. Do I need a new passphrase?”

“Yes, one moment…” he tapped at his keyboard for a few seconds, then said, “your passcode for the elevator will be…” He sighed. “Holy elevating machine, Starling.”

“…really?”

“It’s a random generator, four words from the dictionary. It’s not usually that relevant or coherent.”

“Right, it was ‘correct horse battery staple’ last time.”

The man shrugged. “Anyway, you’re clear to head on up.”

I didn’t bother to pull on a mask from the elevator’s visitor tray this time. After all, I had already decided that I wasn’t going to keep my identity from the heroes, whether or not I ended up joining.

Scene 29 – October 23rd
Interior MLED Compound, Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

When I reached the central common room, I saw a couple faces I recognized and a couple I didn’t. Simone was there, playing a video game with Hypnos, and they were joined by a redheaded man in a tank top that showed off a muscular build almost as impressive as Simone’s. Along with the three gamers there was also a young ginger girl watching them play, and a curvy ginger in a blue bodysuit and green jacket that I recognized as Anima, the most senior member of the New Champions.

I raised my eyebrows as I stepped into the room. “Should I have dyed my hair red? I feel like I missed a memo here.”

Anima chuckled, then stepped forward and shook my hand. “Quinn, right? I’m Anima. It’s nice to meet you properly.” I must have been visibly confused at the ‘properly’, because she explained, “I was on console duty the night you ran into Abe.”

“Ah.” I glanced at the other two redheads. “Can someone finish the introductions? You two weren’t here last time, I don’t think.”

The redhead grinned up at me from where he sat. “I’m Jack Forester – Sequoia. I was on patrol with Anima that night.”

“I’m Molly Madigan, aka Referee,” said the girl with a shy smile. “I was out of town.”

“She travels all the time!” Simone complained, grabbing the younger girl in a hug and pulling her close. “She’s our baby and she’s always gone!”

“…let me go, please?” Molly quietly asked, and the black girl released her without protest.

“Why do you travel so much?” I asked. She couldn’t have been out of high school – was she an athlete? A performer?

She mumbled something that I didn’t catch. “Speak up, dear,” Anima encouraged her.

“I go to martial arts tournaments a lot,” she said a little louder. “They pay me for my aura of fairness, and I usually get private lessons too.” Then she pulled her legs up on the couch and hugged them.

“She’s shy around people she doesn’t know,” Jack told me. “It’s nothing personal – I’m sure she’ll warm up to you soon.”

I nodded and made a mental note not to press her, then glanced around. “Where’s Holly?”

“Loki is on console with me this afternoon,” Anima said. “I stepped away for a moment to meet you. I should go join him again, though.” She glanced at a clock on the wall. “Actually, he goes off console duty in just a few minutes. I’ll let him off early.” She smiled at me again before leaving. “Maybe we’ll get to actually talk next time.”

“So,” I said, leaning over the back of the couch between Jack and Hypnos. “What are your pronouns?”

“He/him,” said Jack.

Molly mumbled into her legs, which Simone translated as, “She/her.”

“Anima uses she/her as well,” Hypnos finished.

I nodded. “Noted. I use they/them, myself.”

“And I’m using he/him, since I’m in costume,” came a familiar voice from behind me.

I looked over my shoulder and grinned at Loki, who cut a very different figure in a tight black bodysuit than he did in the loose flowing garb he had worn on the previous occasions I had met him. Not only was he presenting male rather than female – and still quite attractive, in an androgynous way that I aimed for but couldn’t pull off nearly as well – but his hair was far shorter and darker, a stylishly-unkempt black mess rather than flowing blonde locks. Even his eyes were different, deep black instead of bright blue.

“Great to see you again,” I said, offering him my hand. That made all five of the Journeymen in one room!

He glanced at it, then back up to my face with a raised brow. “Seems a little formal, don’t you think?” he said, then pulled me in for a hug.

“Unexpected, but far from unwelcome,” I said after a moment of stunned surprise, returning it.

“…kiss, kiss, kiss…” came a soft chant from behind me, and Loki and I both glared at Simone, who quickly turned back to the TV as though still immersed in a video game. Her deception was undermined by the fact that it was paused.

“Do I need to use the spray bottle again?” Loki asked, one materializing in mid-air next to Simone, who vanished and reappeared on Molly’s other side, jokingly hiding behind the younger girl.

“Hey, speaking of powers,” I began, leaning over the couch again. Loki pulled his mask down to hang around his neck and moved to lean over the other couch in a similar position, between Simone and Molly. “How does that work, exactly?”

“How do powers work?” Hypnos asked.

“No, that.” I pointed at the spray bottle.

“I explained yesterday, didn’t I? It’s a mental construct built from soul energy which-”

“No, I mean how does it actually spray someone? It’s just light and sound, right?”

“Sound waves are a vibration of air molecules,” Loki began, “and if they’re being excited just right, your brain will interpret them wrong – particularly when paired with the right image. It took some experimentation, but I figured out how to make it feel like you’re being sprayed with a light misting of water.”

“How long did that take?”

He shrugged. “A few months, maybe?”

“And how often does it come up?”

The bottle dodged around Molly and sprayed Simone, who yelped. “You’d be surprised.”

“Oh, hey, you probably don’t know our powers, right?” said Jack. “I assume everyone who was there told you, but…”

I made an uncertain, ‘sort-of’ gesture. “A little bit – you’re public figures, after all. But not fully, no. You turn into a tree, right?”

He laughed. “That’s one way of putting it. But no,” he flexed, and his body quite suddenly was wood-grained with green, leafy hair rather than flame-red. “I transform into a sort of magical wood, not fully into a tree. The family legend is that we’re descended from a dryad. I get stronger and tougher, and…” he held up one hand, and the wood began to grow. In a few seconds, he had produced a rough but identifiable wooden sailing ship the size of a beer bottle, which he handed to me. “I can’t grow anything too complicated, at least not yet. They also crumble to nothing when I turn back.” He did so, and the ship broke apart like a dry leaf. “It’s classed as Self Buff 1 and Touch Control 2.”

“I have an aura that buffs and debuffs people to make things fair,” Molly spoke up, surprising me a little. “Area Control 2.”

“I have ESP and weird Newton’s-Law-Enabled Telekinesis,” I told them.

“So, do you have any questions for us?” Jack asked. “I was told that you’re still making your mind up about whether or not to register as a hero, right?”

“Yeah, I’m trying not to make any snap decisions,” I said.

“Well, if you have any questions for us, feel free to ask.”

“I’m kind of curious about scheduling, I guess. What are you all expected to do? How much of a time commitment is it?”

“It varies from person to person,” Loki told me. “Molly and Jack are both under 18, so there’s legal stuff preventing them from working even as much as Simone and I do. There’s 4 mandated training hours a week, but beyond that it tends to be what the boss thinks you’ll be useful for and what you’re willing to take – the full heroes don’t get to veto their hours, but we do, since the whole Youth MLED thing is supposed to be for training purposes.”

“My boyfriend here is the only one who actually is here just to train his powers,” Jack said, nudging Hypnos. “So he never takes shifts with combat expected.”

“I usually get paired with people who can’t travel as fast on their own,” offered Simone. “No one in the New Champions is slow, really, but Canaveral and Zookeeper are much faster than, say, Vulcan. And he and Starling are both faster than Anima, so I’m with her a lot when she patrols.”

“Who sets those schedules?”

“Canaveral, as the team leader for the New Champions,” said Loki. “He works with either Director Shepard or Deputy Director Blackmire to put them together. Sometimes they pull me in – they put me on a leadership training track last year.”

“So who do you think I’d be working with most of the time?” I asked him.

He tapped his chin thoughtfully, and my eyes were momentarily drawn to the curve of his jawline and his lips before he spoke. “Well, you’ll have at least one shift with all the Champions, either on patrol or on console – that’s standard, to see how you work with everyone. After that… I’ve heard that you move a lot like Canaveral does, your powers have a bit in common, and he’s certainly taken a liking to you, so I’d guess that you’ll be working with him a lot.”

“Enough boring superhero talk,” said Hypnos, startling me as he had been quiet for a while. “What do you guys think will happen with Legion?”

“Freezing seemed to work to stop her from shapeshifting,” Jack commented, “so maybe they’ll stick her in a walk-in-freezer and call it a day.”

“Don’t be silly,” Simone said. “They’ll have to incinerate her. No other way to keep her from escaping.”

“I literally just said that the freezing works-”

“Canaveral told me that she can resurrect the people she’s killed,” I said. “I imagine that they’ll try and convince her to bring back a hero or three, as well as to say why she was here.”

“That seems like there would be a high price,” Jack said dubiously. “If my understanding of her powers is right, that would effectively be her giving up her life, right? There’s no hivemind, so each of them is a person all on their own.” I hadn’t thought about that – was the MLED really going to ask a prisoner to commit suicide for them?

“The problem is that there’s some people who are incredibly difficult to actually hold if they don’t want to be there,” Loki said. “Teleporters are one of them. Shapeshifters aren’t, usually, but they don’t usually have the level of combat ability that Legion has, or the simple breadth of different options.”

“Wait, but aren’t there ways to shut down people’s powers?” I asked. “Drugs and control collars and such?”

“Control collars aren’t real,” Hypnos said dismissively. “Neither are power-dampening drugs.”

“Yeah, that’s just Hollywood,” Simone agreed. “Shock collars triggered by power use, maybe, but power dampening isn’t a thing unless someone else’s power is doing it. And those powers are in short supply.”

“No, that can’t be,” I protested. “There’s definitely a drug that can shut powers down! It was used on Canaveral and I the night we met!”

Everyone stared at me in confusion. “You must have misunderstood something-” Simone began.

“It’s called equality,” Loki said, and all eyes snapped to him. “It shuts down most cosmic or natural powers, but doesn’t work on most magical powers. A rainbow-looking gas, right?” I nodded.

“How did you know about it?” Simone asked.

He shrugged. “Prisons don’t use equality for a simple reason, though – no one manufactures it. Or almost no one,” he allowed when I raised an eyebrow. “It’s expensive and difficult to make, and there are villains who’ll destroy anywhere that they even think is producing it. Whoever made the vial that was used on you,” he said to me, “must have been either very brave or very crazy.”

If you enjoy my writing, please consider sponsoring me on Patreon. If you can’t afford a recurring donation, you can make an individual donation through Paypal, or purchase one of my books. The more I make from my writing, the more time I can devote to it, which will improve both the quantity and quality of my work.

1.2. Scenes 25-27

Scene 25 – October 22nd
Exterior City, Continuous
Abraham Armstrong

“Thank you,” I cautiously said. “Is she…”

He shrugged. “I’m sure she’s fine – Legion is a tough cookie, after all. It’ll take more than a little rubble to take her out.”

“Thank you for not burying me as well,” Emilia said, seeming a little nervous. She had never had any trouble playing nice with our friends on the other side like Essa, Maria, and especially Max, but Rube was not a friend. The man was a psychopath, with little care for how his luck powers affected others, and it was surprising that they had bothered to protect Zookeeper.

“I’m not here to fight you,” he noted, “so what would be the point in hurting you? Particularly when as a hero, you’re bound to protect me once Legion gets out from under there.” And there it was – only helping because it was a benefit to him.

“Even so, our thanks,” I said again. I didn’t particularly like having a casual chat with him either, if I was being honest with myself, but it was my job – particularly given my cultivated image as the friendly, approachable face of the MLED in New Venice.

I idly wondered if we would be able to get a snapshot of Rube’s face from my cowl’s camera – unlike most villains in the city, they hadn’t been identified. Not in a way that would stand up in court if necessary, anyway. There was always something that messed up the image or the procedure – glare off a window, a painter unknowingly painting over a hidden camera, and in one memorable case a bird that had flown by at just the right time and place to cover the man’s face.

“Abe,” Starling whispered in my ear, “your helmet cam has been filled with static since that rubble came down. I can see rough details, but…” Yeah, that figured. And Zookeeper, of course, couldn’t carry that sort of equipment.

“Anyway,” Rube said, reaching into his hoodie and producing a pistol. “I have a hunch that Legion is about to make a reappearance, so…”

Indeed, seconds after he spoke, the rubble began to roll away and crumble as from underneath the pile, something rose. Something large and broad, far bigger than the shapes Legion had been taking up to this point.

It resembled a tree in the same way that a sea anemone resembled a bush. Thick tendrils hung down from branch-like arms, each long enough to reach the street and writhing, ready to grab anyone within reach. The trunk of the monstrous thing was ringed by eyes, with a single enormous mouth filled with far too many razor-sharp teeth.

“And who are you supposed to be, exactly?” Legion boomed out, her voice both magnified and deepened by her new form.

“Lucky for me that she’s never heard of me,” Rube quipped, gesturing vaguely with his pistol. It fired in the middle of his arc, the bullet sailing off… somewhere.

“I hate her,” Emilia muttered, glaring at Rube. “She has no right to be as dangerous as she is while when she doesn’t take this shit seriously.” Suddenly she was a falcon again, her coat falling empty to the ground as she winged to avoid a chunk of rubble that Legion had hefted in a few tentacles and flung at us.

I slapped the car-sized piece of rubble, twisting with my power as I did, and it stopped dead in midair, falling to the ground a moment later and creating a barrier between us and the monstrous tree Legion had become. “Any ideas?” I asked Rube as I crouched behind it, trying not to let it sound bitter.

He shrugged, not even bothering to use the cover I had created. “I don’t make plans, Canaveral, things just work out for me.” Another chunk sailed directly at his face and was interrupted by piece falling from the sky – it must have only just dislodged from the building.

“Great,” I sighed. “Console, what’s Vulcan’s ETA?”

“It was three minutes, but after that gunshot a moment ago the streets are clearing in a wide radius. Call it 90 seconds.”

“Again, you’re welcome,” Rube said with a bright smile.

“I hate you,” I muttered, and launched myself into the air over the top of the rubble.

Three tentacles began to snake through the air towards me, but a twist of power adjusted my trajectory to send me between them. As I sailed through the air, I produced a cluster of ball bearings and sent them towards Legion’s eyes, popping several of them.

At that point I was caught by the leg by a fourth tendril that I hadn’t seen, and I bit back a scream as it wrenched me in an unexpected direction – there was an unpleasant pop as my knee dislocated.

Emilia, still in the form of a falcon, let out an angry screech and zoomed towards me. In the blink of an eye she was a jaguar in midair, tearing through the tentacle that held me, then she was a bird once more before she touched the ground. The tentacle, severed from its branch, was now falling and me along with it, but I was caught bare moments later by a long trunk – Emilia as an elephant didn’t let me touch the ground and set me down safely before turning into a parrot and landing beside me.

“Are you alright, Navi?” she asked, somehow conveying her worry despite the limitations of a parrot’s voice.

“I’m okay,” I said with a grunt. “Just a dislocated knee. But without Anima here…” I lacked the enhanced toughness or regeneration of some heroes – I relied on mobility and dodging instead. I instinctively reduced the force of blows that hit me, and if I was expecting them I could negate the hits completely as I had with the giant chunk of rubble Legion had thrown, but a surprise like that could wreck me. And given my reliance on mobility, a dislocated knee put me out of the fight without Anima’s healing abilities on hand.

“Vulcan will be here soon,” Emilia assured me. She hopped a little closer, onto my shoulder, and rubbed my cheek briefly with her beak in a tiny bird kiss. “Just wait here.” Then she was gone.

God, I loved that woman.

Scene 26 – October 22nd
Exterior City, Continuous
Abraham Armstrong

I lay back, trying not to move my leg any more than necessary. “Console, status update,” I ordered.

“I have no eyes on the battle at present,” he noted, “but Vulcan is only 30 seconds away. I’ve notified the medical team to be prepared to treat your knee and sent a message to Anima, but she probably won’t be in until tomorrow.”

I nodded. “…I should give you a view of what’s going on, shouldn’t I?”

“Please.”

With a grunt of effort and a spike of pain, I propped myself up on my elbows and focused on the battle, allowing Starling to view the mayhem through my cowl’s camera.

My wonderful girlfriend was still deftly swooping around the tentacle-adorned tree monster, neatly avoiding the tendrils as they attempted to grab at her. As I watched she was caught by one wing and swiftly trussed up by two more tendrils, and I tensed in worry, but a moment later she was a rhinoceros and the tentacles, were forced off of her suddenly far larger form. She shifted back into a bird before she hit the ground, and continued harrying Legion without pause.

Unlike me, Zookeeper was lucky enough to have regenerative powers. Specifically, injuries she received in one form didn’t carry into any others – they persisted if she returned that that shape before she had had time to recreate the form, but she kept a large enough collection of the most useful shapes that it was rarely an issue. The injury she had likely suffered as a hawk a moment ago were now gone, having become what I thought was an owl of some sort.

Meanwhile, Rube simply stood and watched – the asshole didn’t seem inclined to contribute. He glanced up at the sky, and I followed his gaze to see a star that seemed to be getting brighter rather quickly.

“Starling-” I began, intending to ask if he was seeing it too, but I was interrupted by a thunderous crack like a cannon going off as what I could only assume to be a small meteor struck the tree squarely in the trunk, setting it on fire and destroying at least half of the branches when it exploded on impact.

Rube observed Legion for a moment as she released a deep and pained scream, then nodded decisively. “My work here is done!” he declared, then turned on his heel and left.

Behind me, I heard another loud retort, but one I recognized – the sound of Vulcan using his incredible strength to run, each step cracking the asphalt beneath him. He barreled into Legion as well and the flames swiftly began to die down as the metal man absorbed the heat, frost beginning to form over her monstrous body after mere moments.

He began tearing her apart with a startling amount of ease – perhaps she was still stunned by the meteor Rube had apparently summoned. She began fighting back after a moment, tentacles sliding ineffectively off his steel hide, then twisting around each other to thicken and attempt stronger blows, but to no avail.

Within a few moments, it was over.

Scene 27 – October 22nd
Exterior City, Continuous
Abraham Armstrong

The aftermath of the battle, of course, took a lot longer.

First there were statements to give to the police officers who arrived a few minutes later – the response time in this Buff Boy-controlled part of town was horrendous. Then we had to wait even longer for a group of MLED agents to arrive with a containment truck to transport Legion back to the Compound. Then it turned out that the truck wasn’t quite large enough to fit all of her, so Vulcan had to use himself as a plasma torch to cut some of her frozen branches and tendrils off until she fit. Then I had to give an official statement to a journalist from the NVT who had showed up. Then it was slowly making our own way back, me held in Vulcan’s arms as Emilia fretted. Somewhere in there an EMT had given me a brace to help me manage until I could get back to the more advanced facilities at the Compound.

The work didn’t end there, of course. There was a more extensive debrief with Director Shepard – or actually, at this time of night, Deputy Director Blackmire. There was my personal policy of holding a debrief with the other combatants to determine what we did well and what we could have done better. There was Dr. Rogers fussing over my knee when I got back. There was Miriam fussing over my knee when he was done, and then magically donating some of her life force to heal me, even though she wasn’t supposed to have been in tonight. There was Rogers fussing over my knee again because he had never trusted magic. There was the paperwork to fill out with the PR department because I had talked to the press. There was double-checking all the paperwork that Zookeeper and Vulcan had filled out, and the one-on-one debrief with Blackmire about how the team had handled itself during the combat…

I liked being a hero. It was what I had always dreamed of being, and I liked almost everything about it. I liked being a role model, I liked making people feel safe, I liked helping people. I liked fighting bad guys, and I liked bantering with the ones who engaged in banter. But I had never planned to become a team leader, and the vastly increased responsibilities I had as the leader weren’t something I liked. They were important, yes, so I did them, but I wasn’t happy about it.

Eventually, however, all the paperwork was finished, and I could finally rest. I woke up Emilia, who had been dozing in the common room while she waited for me, and we went home.

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1.2. Scenes 23-24

Scene 23 – October 22nd
Interior MLED Compound, Late Evening
Abraham Armstrong

I tried my best to stifle a yawn as I leaned back in my chair in the common room. “Any news yet?”
There was a sigh from the console room. “No, Abe, we still haven’t heard or seen anything from Legion,” Ben said through the speaker.

“Maybe she’s left town,” Vulcan suggested, sounding almost as tired as me. The two of us had been on call for the last two days – me as the most experienced at fighting Legion, him as the only one immune to her absorption. After three and seven years as heroes, respectively, neither of us were strangers to long nights, but it was still tiring. Simone, being a Journeymen, wasn’t permitted to be on call for this long and was at home sleeping – lucky kid.

“We have no reason to think that, unfortunately,” I said before taking a sip of coffee. “We know of one thing that she was after, but we’ve sighted at least three bodies. That means, minimum, three objectives.” Vulcan let out a heavy sigh, and I reached up to pat him on the shoulder. “Chin up, kid – Aegis is still on track to be available tomorrow, so it’s only one more night no matter what happens.”

He nodded at that. “You’re right, sir. Just one more night.” The young man offered a tentative smile. “Could be worse, I suppose.”

“Goddamn it-” I began, but was interrupted by Starling’s voice from the console room.

“We’ve got a firefight on the north edge of town,” he informed us. “Buff Boy territory – looks like Legion decided to exit that way and they took exception without realizing just who they were pissing off.”

Vulcan began shrugging his shirt off as I pulled my cowl over my head. “How many of her are there?”

“Unclear. However many there are, she’s in full monster mode – much farther than she went when you ran into her, Abe.”

“Fuck.” I glanced at Vulcan. He moved surprisingly fast considering his size, but his weight kept him from being able to travel rooftops, which was a necessity for quick travel in New Venice. It would take him a while to get to the north edge. Simone was recharging her teleportation distance today and would be somewhere in Oregon right now – while she could be back in a moment’s notice, it would use up all of that distance, which was rather pointless.

“You go ahead,” Vulcan suggested. “I’ll catch up.”

“I can’t do much against her on my own, unfortunately – Sunday proved that. I can hold my own, but I can’t stop her from leaving whenever she wants.”

“Zookeeper has suggested that she can come and assist you, Canaveral,” said Starling. Emilia was on patrol right now, and her falcon form was fast enough to be anywhere in the city in a matter of minutes. “She believes that her control over her own shape might trump Legion’s ability to absorb her.”

This was my least favorite part of being a leader. I was constantly making calls that sent my best friends, and in this case my girlfriend, into danger. If I had the choice, I would wrap her in cotton and protect her from the world, shield her from everything I could – but I couldn’t make that choice, not when she was right. Not to mention that she wouldn’t want me to even if I expressed it. “Send her ahead,” I told Starling. “I’ll be with her in a matter of minutes.”

Scene 24 – October 22nd
Exterior City, Late Evening
Abraham Armstrong

I got to the site of the battle only a few minutes later, as promised, after having moved as fast or faster than I ever had. I barely paused to take in the scene as I arrived – Legion was, as Ben had said, in full monster mode, while Emilia was presently in the shape of a panther, landing on Legion’s face after a leap, then bounding off again along with a few scraps of flesh. The panther shrank into a falcon just in time to make a tight turn and avoid a large tentacle that had struck out at her.

Legion’s combat form was always a little different, but there were some commonalities whenever she decided to take a battle seriously, as she hadn’t done with me on my own. She always looked something like a mixture between an bear and an octopus – thick fur covered her as a kind of armor and every limb was tipped with razor-sharp claws, and there were far too many of those limbs, moving in ways that were unnatural for anything with bones. She usually had multiple heads, but today it seemed that she had decided to use extra eyes without growing additional heads – her head had a ring of bulbous eyes at the level of her brow almost like a crown, and a set of massive jaws occupied the entire region that should have been a face.

It was disconcerting, to say the least.

Emilia landed on my shoulder and briefly took the shape of a parrot to speak to me, saying, “I can keep distracting her for a little longer – get these gangsters out of the way before she eats them!” Then she was off again, shifting back into the falcon to approach at high speed, dodging and weaving around Legion’s limbs to keep herself from being struck.

As usual, she was right. There were around two dozen thugs lying around in various conditions – most unconscious, some just lying there and moaning. There were even a few that seemed to have had a chance to take brawn, as they were unhurt and their gold-tinged skin was still faintly steaming. Even they were holding back, though, showing a surprising amount of sense for members of the Buff Boys.

I sauntered up to a pair of the juiced-up thugs – a muscular Asian man of about my height, and a similarly well-built white woman a few inches shorter – trying to maintain as casual an air as I could while still watching the battle out of the corner of my eye. “Steering clear of the battle?” I asked.

The man glanced at me. “We’re no fools,” he said in a deep voice with a faint accent – Chinese, I thought. “We would have no chance against a monster like that.”

The woman nodded. “We’re just watching until Rube shows up,” she said.

“It certainly is a spectacle,” I agreed. “I can’t just stand around and watch, though – I have to get all of your friends here clear as well.” I gestured to the groaning and unconscious bodies that littered the street – hopefully no one was dead, but it remained to be seen. “Maybe you could lend a hand?”

They gave each other a look, then shrugged simultaneously. “I suppose the boss might be annoyed if we didn’t,” the woman admitted. “Alright.”

“Speaking of your boss,” I asked before they walked away, “you wouldn’t happen to know why there was no one fun at last week’s engagement, would you?”

“…fun?” the man said.

“Metas,” the woman guessed. “It was on Brewer’s word – she said nothing would go wrong with those buyers. Shows what she knows. Ridealong’s kind of pissed at himself right now for listening to a newbie.”

“More pissed at her,” the other thug commented.

“The MLED thanks you for your information,” I said with a grin, splitting off to start pulling bodies away from Legion.

A few minutes later, I and the BB thugs that had stayed away from Legion had gotten all of their fallen comrades out of danger. The shapeshifting villain, meanwhile, had abandoned much of the mass she’d brought with her, leaving it as a tree rooted into the ground, in favor of taking to the air after Zookeeper. My girlfriend was, thankfully, managing to stay ahead of her – while Legion was a far larger bird at the moment and would deal massive damage if she caught Emilia, Emilia was taking more maneuverable shapes.

It was one of the things that my girlfriend had over the other shapeshifter, in my completely unbiased opinion. Zookeeper’s power was limited to actual animals, while Legion could take on any form that she could imagine – but Emilia wasn’t limited by mass. No matter what form Legion took, in order to remain herself – whatever that meant for a woman who could duplicate herself as much as she wanted – she had to retain her human brain. That meant a pretty sizable bird, one which couldn’t make sharp turns all too easily. Emilia’s power, on the other hand, didn’t care one wit about mass – she could become an elephant as easily as an ant.

Speaking of brains… last time I had run into her I hadn’t been able to figure out where Legion was keeping her brain. The head was the first guess, but I hadn’t struck it in my attempts to attack her body, either. With the bird shape she currently wore, however, I could clearly see where the brain had to be. If I could strike her there…

It would definitely draw her attention, though. “Hey guys,” I said to the two thugs that had helped me clear the field, “I’m gonna do something stupid and draw Legion’s attention.”

“Who the hell is Legion?” the woman asked.

I pointed.

“Oh.”

“Anyway, you two had better get off the field too. You don’t want to be anywhere near whoever she’s mad at.”

“That’s a she?” said the guy, staring.

“…yes.” I gave them a gentle shove. “Now get going.”

They backed off, but not very far.

…eh, close enough. I took half a second to look for a convenient weapon – a manhole cover or piece of rubble of around the right size would be ideal – but didn’t see any. Instead, I stomped, twisting energies as I did, and with a loud crack, a chunk of the pavement came loose – another momentary exertion sent it to my hand. The piece of pavement, I noted with pleasure, had come loose perfectly shaped for my purposes. I reeled back and hurled it at Legion’s head, twisting with my power to give it a force more appropriate to an oncoming train.

Despite its speed, Legion’s unnatural-looking bird form twisted in midair and avoided it. That goddamn…

I winced as my projectile struck the building that had been behind her – that was poorly thought out. I was usually better about compensating for whatever was behind my target.

The building shuddered for a moment, one of the windows cracked, then a large portion of its roof began breaking off with a loud rumble. It came down in pieces right on both Legion and Emilia.

My heart stopped as dust rose – the fall had been too unexpected and too fast for me to react to – Emilia, having been engaged in life-or-death combat with a supervillain, had surely been caught in it. This was all my fault, I had hurt or killed the woman I-

I blinked in surprise as the dust began to settle. A falcon was lying on its back on a pile of rubble, seeming somewhat stunned but unharmed. A moment later a familiar-looking trenchcoat, launched into the air by the impact of the collapse, drifted down over it. She was okay!

The cloth shifted, and a moment later Emilia stood in human form once more, tying her coat closed to cover herself. She reached into a pocket and produced a domino mask which she slipped on. “That was lucky,” she noted as she began to make her way down the pile. “I think that Legion is somewhere underneath… all of that.” She gestured vaguely at the pile.

Zookeeper

“I’m so glad you’re alright!” I cried, rushing to meet her and pulling her close. I remembered just in time that we had agreed not to make our relationship public until we had been together for at least a year, and restrained myself to only a hug – even so, she pressed a brief kiss to my neck as she sank into my arms. “You’re not hurt, are you?”

“No, I’m okay,” she assured me. “Like I said, I was lucky.”

“You’re welcome!” came a cheerful voice from behind us. I released Emilia and turned to see the smiling face of Rube, the Buff Boy’s enforcer, considered by the MLED to be the second most dangerous villain in New Venice.

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1.2. Scenes 21-22

Scene 21 – October 22nd
Interior Warehouse, Evening
“Penelope Page” (Blue)

I met with my other selves in the backup rendezvous. While my mission had gone off without a hitch, the periodic updates we had passed on by bird mail told me that both of them had run into superheroes. Patron of Ambrosia Co. or not, Canaveral was altogether too good of a person to trust, and too good of a tracker to use the primary safehouse that the company kept in New Venice.

As a result, instead of a nice office space we had to meet in a warehouse. It wasn’t that much of a hardship, I supposed, but still. I – or at least, this iteration of me, one step away from the original Penelope Page, – preferred a little more comfort, if I was given the choice. Ah well.

The third gen iterations arrived shortly after me – one of them slipping in wearing the face of a dockworker, then shrinking down into a butch-looking woman in a waistcoat and a purple undercut. The other came in through the roof after landing there as a flock of birds, showing herself in a green-colored women’s school uniform of some sort. Very few iterations of me had any strong preferences towards any particular look, but we tended to settle on a single aesthetic simply to help distinguish ourselves from each other.

I nodded to them as they arrived. “Student. Butch.” Names, on the other hand, had been trickier, at least for the first year. After that, we all agreed that we simply had to go by whatever name was suggested by our chosen aesthetic, or things got confusing.

They both nodded to me. “How did things go for you, Blue?” asked Butch.

I shrugged. “No trouble on my end – none of the guards had any suspicions, and our imprisoned friend had been rescued by us before. I chose an IT girl for the infiltration and ensured that the cell’s cameras suffered a malfunction when I slipped down there. Thornhill’s best purchaser is free once more, albeit in the IT girl’s body, and a body with signs of a heart attack has been left behind. I thought it would be a fun challenge, after I let them spot me, but the fools apparently didn’t expect me to be sneaking into their base – I can’t imagine why not.”

It was a simple trick, and one that I had done several times before – I could perfectly replicate anyone if I absorbed them, but I didn’t have to limit myself to pure recreation. I was fully capable of mixing and matching as I chose. By leaving behind a copy of the IT girl’s body with Thornhill’s agent’s brain, the agent would be able to cover for the unfortunate that I had used to slip through the MLED’s security. In a week or two she would submit a letter of resignation, and no one would connect it to the sudden death of who they thought the agent had been – the body that had been left behind, of course, was another copy of me, one who sometime today would have arranged herself to appear as though she was having massive cardiac arrest, then replace her own brain with that of the IT girl, who would die before even really waking.

Student rolled her eyes. “Yes, we’ve all done the trick before. We know how it works.”

I glared at her. “You’re one to talk, Student, when you messed up a mission as simple as ‘pass on Laura’s last messages to her family.’”

“It’s not my fault that there were superheroes knocking at the family door! I decided not to potentially screw things up, and took on a different mission!” she defended herself.

I turned to Butch. “And did you finish the mission, after you two decided to swap?”

She fidgeted a little. “Well… after getting the message I had a hunch that the younger of the two heroes, the one who was wearing Laura’s invention, might be her child. I was going to deliver her message to them, but… I decided that it was better to be safe, since I didn’t actually know their identity.”

I frowned at her. “Come on, Butch. Who else was it going to be? They had a key to the house for gods’ sake!”

“Boyfriend? Girlfriend? I don’t know! I realize that it was probably the kid, yes, but you know we’re supposed to respect identity stuff! The heroic patrons get pissy if Ambrosia is sketchy where anyone can see!”

I rolled my eyes. “That’s more of a guideline. Besides, no one knows that Legion is associated with Ambrosia.”

“Um…” Student scratched at the back of her head. “I kind of spent Canaveral’s second favor.”

“…on what.” I growled. “Please, enlighten me what was so important that you had to spend one of the very valuable favors that Ambrosia Co. is owed by such a respected figure.”

“Look, he brought Laura back when she was kidnapped!” she cried. “And Laura saved us, remember? We owe him!”

“He didn’t do it for us, Student,” Butch snarled. “He’s a hero, it’s just what he does. And besides, that was his first favor. We don’t owe him anything – we owe Laura.”

“Don’t think I’ve forgotten about your fuckup,” I snapped at Butch, then turned back to Student. “She is right, though. That’s not a good enough reason.”

Student crossed her arms defiantly. “I think we owe him.”

I rubbed my temples – I shouldn’t be able to get headaches, and yet I could feel one coming on. “Fine, I guess. it’s too late to do anything about now. You spent it on?”

“Maxwell Copperfield’s location. We’re on a time limit, I didn’t have time to look,” she said, glancing away from me.

“Fine. And did that mission go alright, at least?”

She nodded, looking back at me. “I just came from it. He’s amenable to lending Miles the book, once he has it – he said that he expects to be able to lay his hands on it in the next month or two.”

“Good.” I returned my attention to Butch. “Now then. We have to be out of the city by tonight, or else Aegis will be on our tail, and you remember how that went for us last time, right?” All three of us shuddered in unison. “How do you expect to fix this?”

“I’ll do the usual resurrection trick,” Butch suggested. “I can even use it to cover for the two of you leaving New Venice.”

“Who are you resurrecting, exactly?” Student asked. A lesser known aspect of our powers was that when we used a template to recreate something, we lost the template, or at least the part of it that had been used. Newly created iterations of us didn’t start with any templates at all, requiring a quick infusion of basic forms like birds that we used for communication. And while bird forms could be done with the imprecise copying that we used to create additional Legions, which didn’t lose the form, resurrecting a person required a perfect recreation of the brain at a minimum. As the oldest Legion here, I was the only one of the three of us to have any people in my memory – or I should be, at least. “You didn’t forget to mention eating one of the New Champions, did you?”

“I was thinking Ventus?” she said, and I thought I heard a sly undertone to her question. “If you just pass him to me…”

I thought for a moment, trying to remember if he was one of the people that Madam Thornhill or one of her vice presidents had noted not to be resurrected. He had been a friend of Canaveral’s early on, as I recalled, and the two of them had fought me together early on, before Canaveral had become the New Champions’ team leader. He had survived then, hadn’t he? So when did I… “Don’t you remember why we took him in the first place?” I asked Butch after a moment.

She nodded. “But it’s been years since then, and no one would believe him if he tried to reveal it at this point. And I bet that Canaveral can convince him to keep quiet. I know it’s always a pain,” she added, “but…”

“And if he can’t, then Ventus will be out of the request list for resurrection.” I considered her request. Ventus wouldn’t have been my first choice to resurrect – he had been taken for a reason, and on the occasions I remembered bringing his brain out to speak to him he had given no sign that he had changed. I found it hard to believe that Butch actually thought he was a good prospect. How had she drifted, to come up with the idea?

Perhaps it had little to do with Ventus. Thinking back a minute to when Student had confessed to wasting one of Canaveral’s favors, Butch had seemed even more angry than me – I was mad about the waste, but she seemed personally offended. Did she expect that dangling Ventus’s resurrection in front of his best friend would be some kind of punishment?

I couldn’t help but to be curious about how she expected it to work, so I responded simply by offering my hand. She took it, and we merged briefly, our nervous systems combining. There was a moment of disorientation as I felt through two bodies and saw through four eyes and heard through four ears, then we separated once more with a shudder. The animal messengers that we used had simple brains, only enough to hold the instructions and message we programmed them with. A direct exchange with another human brain, however, was a hell of a lot to handle – worse than recombining from a group of small animals. We had never even tried recombining full human bodies, suspecting that it would be essentially impossible.

Butch and I took a moment to recollect ourselves, then nodded to each other and to Student. “Alright, Student and I will slip out to the south,” I told her. “You make your distraction to the north. And be sure to do it tonight – I like having a whole continent between me and Aegis.”

Scene 22 – October 22nd
Exterior City, Late Evening
“Penelope Page” (Butch)

I had made my way across the city with little difficulty, choosing to travel in the form of a flock of seagulls. I could, of course, leave the city without anyone noticing, and the thought crossed my mind after they recombined into me a little ways south of the Buff Boys’ territory on the edge of New Venice. After all, the resurrection trick that I was going to pull would mean the end of my brief existence as an individual.

While I had 25 years of Penelope Page’s memories to draw on, I hadn’t been the one to make those memories – with a different brain, I diverged farther from the original Penny every moment I was alive, every breath I took. Blue was one of the longest surviving splits even at only two years old, and at this point no one would mistake her for being the same person as Penny if they spoke to both, although they would probably still guess some relation. How far might I diverge, as a third-generation incarnation of Legion, if I had the time?

But, like spawning fourth-generations, it had long ago been decided that third-generations risked drifting too far from the original if they lived too long. I wouldn’t have been allowed to live longer than three months anyway. I completely understood why, too – the first third-generation to live past four months had gone off the reservation and left, after all, and I had Blue’s memory of voting in favor of a time limit of third-generations like me. How could I blame the other mes when I knew exactly why they had voted that way, and would have made the same choice myself?

So it was without much bitterness that I took the form of an overweight man wearing an expensive-looking suit and some flashy jewelry. There was no way the BB wouldn’t notice me and demand some kind of toll for passing through their territory. I would choose to take offense and reveal myself as Legion. A brawl would break out, and if I held back enough, a hero or three was bound to show up to take me on. Then it was a simply matter of allowing myself to be captured without making it look like I was faking the battle, and I would be exactly where I wanted to be.

“Hey, tubby!” called a voice from behind me, and I couldn’t help a grin. “You’re in Buff Boy territory! Either pay up or go to the gym!” I heard some snickering at what the gang members who had surrounded me no doubt thought was a hilarious gag.

Right on time.

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1.2. Scenes 18-20

Scene 18 – October 21st
Interior Hideout, Morning
Maxwell Copperfield

I yawned as I stepped out of the shower, already clad in the illusion of my true appearance, but not bothering to wear my suit. After all, I wasn’t planning on going anywhere as the Magnificent Maxwell, today. Well, I’m always magnificent, but I wasn’t going to be Magnificent. It was just another day of internet research, along with the usual daily routine.

After my successful theft of Dallas’s thesis, I had read through it to learn where Merlin’s introductory guide had been when the thesis was written in 1964. I had hoped that I would be able to take a brief jaunt to wherever it was and steal it immediately, but had run into a problem.

The book had been in storage in a London museum – the fools had no idea what they had had – but when I took a moment to check that museum’s files, I discovered that it had been transferred to a different branch of the museum for display in 1971. Then in 1976 it was put back into storage, until 1984 when it was gifted to a different museum…

It was tricky enough to track it, given how few of the museums kept their records online, that I completely understood why it had gotten Dallas his thesis. I had spent the last two months tracking the damn thing, and was still only up to 2009!

The latest problem that had risen in my tracking was that the book, along with a number of other artifacts, had wound up back in London in what was apparently the site of the original Camelot, for a cultural heritage festival or some such thing. The festival had been attacked by a magical supervillain and defended by a magical superhero and, with all the magic flying about, most of the relics had somehow managed to fall into the foundation stones of Camelot!

The hero had been very apologetic, of course, but it had been a huge blunder – particularly since she had been unable to recover the items from the stones. Apparently there had been a preexisting enchantment which had probably been laid by Merlin to use the stones as storage, and it was that enchantment which had malfunctioned from the various energies being thrown around. She said that the extradimensional space had been thoroughly locked to her, and there was no way to bring them out.

Well, maybe Murphy Fox was so easily stymied, but extra-dimensional pockets were exactly my area of expertise. I was confident that I would have no trouble extracting the book when I got my hands on the right stone.

The trouble was, no one had made note of which relic had fallen into which stone. From one book, I suddenly had to track 14 large stones, each of which was displayed in different museums across the globe. And when I figured out where they were, I would have to check each one for its contents!
Supervillainy didn’t pay enough for this, I mused as I picked up a phone to dial today’s museum, and put on a British accent. “Hello, Carnegie History Museum? This is Wynne Jones, from the British Museum. No, the one in Denver. I’m calling about an item that our museum donated to yours in 2009, a stone from the foundations of Camelot…”

Scene 19 – October 21st
Exterior Restaurant, Noon
Maxwell Copperfield

I took a break from calling museums and occasionally hacking databases around lunchtime to, well, get lunch. I had forgotten to go grocery shopping last week and a man cannot live on cereal alone, so I had to venture into the world and acquire food.

I picked a rather nice place downtown that Emilia had introduced me to last year – some truly excellent steak, although the potatoes I had ordered with it today weren’t the best. I spent a pleasant lunch flirting with the corporate-looking woman eating a solitary lunch of her own at the table next to me, and had just asked for the check and a doggie bag when an acquaintance showed up.

“Maxwell Copperfield,” said the hero Starling, as he stared down at me with disdain. “What are you doing here?”

Starling

I raised an eyebrow at the man. “Lunch,” I told him.

He rolled his eyes. “I can see that. Why?”

“…I need to eat, Brant,” I reminded him. “Magic can do a lot of things, but I still need food.”

He glared, leaning over the table at me. I refused to give him the satisfaction of leaning back. “I’m watching you, Copperfield. Keep your nose out of trouble. Don’t do anything you’ll regret.”

I opened my mouth to respond, but he was already walking away, swirling his green cape around him as though he looked cool doing it. The man absolutely had to have the last word. “Asshole,” I muttered to myself.

“Sorry about him,” apologized his partner for the day, Referee. She was the youngest of the Journeymen, and in my opinion the most powerful. She emitted an magical aura around her that averaged out people’s abilities, putting everyone on an fair footing. The weak became stronger, the fast became slower… even the effects of chance were neutralized, supposedly. Everyone was equal in whatever contest took place in her aura, whether it be a fight or a game of football. All that remained was skill. “He’s in a bad mood because Legion isn’t in custody yet.”

I blinked in surprise. “Legion is in town?” She nodded. “How many?”

“Three,” she told me. “Apparently she arrived last night, a few hours before my flight touched down. Canaveral had a run-in with her so we know that she’s only here to talk to people, but…” she sighed. “I’m worried that he’ll want me along next time she shows up. He didn’t have much success against her, so…”

Referee was in high demand for the effects of her aura, I knew – along with civilians who wanted her overseeing tournaments and the like, every MLED director in the country wanted her to help with whatever overpowered menace was threatening their city that day. With her along, anyone was able to take on threats like Legion or Graviton, while without her there were only a few who could do so and have any hope of succeeding.

“How can they justify having you on patrol with her out there?” I asked.

The kid shrugged. “Danger ratings don’t really apply to me,” she pointed out. “Legion isn’t any more or less dangerous to me than anyone else, so…”

“Point.” I glanced at where Starling was sulking a little ways down the street, signing an autograph for someone. “Do you know why he confronted me? Usually he just pretends I don’t exist. Even when we’re out with friends, actually. Very rude.” I idly opened up a pocket and snatched the ink out from the pen he was using for the autograph, and the hero muttered as it stopped writing in the middle of his signature.

“We’re supposed to give you a message,” Referee told me. “Apparently one of the things that Legion is in town for is to talk to you, specifically.”

I turned my attention away from Starling. “What? Why would she want to talk to me?”

The junior heroine shrugged. “I wasn’t told the reason – all I know is that she’s looking for you.”

“Hmm.” No one really understood what Legion was up to or what her motives were – she had been a mystery since she appeared. “Well, I’ll keep an eye out. Thanks for the warning, Molly.”

“Hey!” She jabbed me in the shoulder. “It’s Referee when I’m in costume, Max.”

I smirked at her. “Well then, it’s Magnificent to you.”

“You’re not in costume-” she began, but stopped when I snapped my fingers and instantly donned my suit. “Touche.”

Scene 20 – October 21st
Interior Hideout, Early Evening
Maxwell Copperfield

I was grateful for Referee’s warning, but to be honest, I didn’t change my plans at all. It wasn’t as though Legion could do any harm to me, after all – few could, when I could dump anyone without magical resistance into a pocket dimension and dispose of them however I chose. Legion, to the best of my knowledge, had nothing to do with magic whatsoever, so there was no reason she would have any magical resilience.

I saw no reason to fear the woman – however many of her there were, I could dump up to three tons into my pocket dimensions. And yes, the various tools and tricks I currently kept in them took up probably half a ton – I kept a lot on hand, just in case – but that was still two and a half tons of space if I needed it. If she showed up, I’d simply drop her into a pocket dimension and deal with her later.

So after lunch, I returned to my hideout and continued my work. Not the drudgery of tracking stones through museums – that I left relegated to the morning. No, the afternoons were reserved for my real work, my passion, my one true love – magic.

It was a constant struggle to advance my magical knowledge and skill. Oh, it was a struggle I was up to, yes, but magic was so esoteric and complex that it was extraordinarily difficult and time-consuming to expand your knowledge at all. Every type of magic seemed to differ from every other kind – the one illusion spell I had managed to learn required a completely different mindset than my dimensional pockets did. Everyone who used magic, whether magician, wizard, or conjurer, had a particular type of magic that they excelled at, something which came naturally to them. When they sought to learn something new, it was far more difficult. But the closer it was to something they had already mastered – or better yet, to their particular specialty – the easier it was. That was why, as I sought to expand my magical repertoire, I was beginning with a modification of the dimensional pockets I had, at this point, mastered.

Typically, when I opened a pocket and dumped something in, it lost all kinetic energy – no matter how fast it had been going, the energy was lost when I reopened its pocket and deposited it back into the world. I had high hopes that I could do the opposite as well – release things from their extra-dimensional storage with more speed. That alone would vastly increase my prowess, but even more than that, it could be my gateway from dimensional manipulation into kinetic manipulation, and from kinetic energy it should be a short step into thermal energy, sound energy, and more…

But first, I had to crack the secret of adding kinetic energy back.

I had tried a number of modifications to my mental state as I cast, most of them simply causing the spell to fail. One, that I had filed under ‘never try this again,’ had apparently released the matter that I had dumped from its pocket as energy instead – a complete matter-to-energy conversion. It had been an enormous explosion, which I only barely managed to contain by pocketing all the air in my test chamber – the shockwave had been unable to travel, and while the incredible heat had scorched the walls, they were made from sturdy enough stuff that it had survived. It was a good thing that I was doing my experimentation on such small objects, too – individual granules of flour, typically.

My current line of experimentation was based on that failure, though – if I could release the things I pocketed as energy instead of matter, perhaps I could release only some of it. Certainly, I could release only a part of an object – that had been easy. But releasing most of it normally while selecting only a few atoms to convert to energy, and attempting to limit it to kinetic energy? That was more of a mental balancing act.

Part of the reason that magical experimentation is so slow is that when you’re creating a new spell, it takes a long time to fix it in your mind. The ways you have to bend your thinking to cast magic at all are as twisted as a hose after a winter in the garage, but it becomes easy with practice. Trying to tie your mind in an entirely new knot? You’re lucky if you can make more than one attempt an hour, between the lengthy meditation and the struggle to figure out what went wrong in the previous experiment.

All of that to say that I made only a few attempts that afternoon. My latest failure had nearly worked, but the energy had come out as thermal rather than kinetic, causing a brief spark as the single grain of flour burst into flame and then burned out. As it was nearly dinnertime, I was about ready to call it a day, when a voice came from behind me.

“Ah, Max,” it said, in a pleasant soprano. “So good to see you.”

I whirled on the intruder who had dared to enter into my hideout. “Who the hell are you?” I demanded, producing one of the guns that the woman from Ambrosia had lost to me last week. I usually didn’t keep guns, returning them to the NVPD for the bounty on criminals’ guns that they paid, but I hadn’t had a chance to bring the latest batch over yet.

The intruder, a woman in green who was built like an amazon, ignored my question. “Silly of you not to move after last week, but I suppose you never were a smart one.” She smiled at me. “And don’t bother trying to drop me into your hammerspace,” she warned me as I tried to do just that without success. “I ate a tree or two before I came in – I’m a little beyond your weight limit right now.”

I blanched. “Legion.”

“The one and only,” she said with a smirk, giving a brief bow. “…well, I suppose that’s not quite accurate.” The villain laughed. “But you have no need to worry, Max. I’m not here to fight – in fact…” She grinned fiendishly at me again. “I’m here to help.”

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1.2. Scene 17

Scene 17 – October 22nd
Interior Restaurant, Early Evening
Holly Koval

I ended up continuing to shop with Kaufman – they had a decent chunk of budget left, and I took it upon myself to help them get the best deals. Plus, they had terrible taste in plaid patterns, and someone had to save them from their own fashion sense. It’s my duty as a hero, I joked when they tried to decline the offer.

After finishing a round of the thrift shops in the waterfront district, we decided to get dinner together at the Shrieking Eel, a cheap seafood place that was a lot better than its name suggested. Somehow, the topic of conversation – which had gone surprisingly smoothly after its initial awkward start – had returned to magic.

“Say, since you’re probably the best magician I actually know,” Kaufman asked as the plate of salmon we were going to share arrived, “do you mind explaining some things? I don’t know much about magic myself, so I’m a little confused about… most of it.”

“Of course!” I said happily. I loved talking about magic – it was my chief passion in life. Sure, heroism was important too, and art was great, but if I was honest with yourself, magic was what I really got up in the morning for. “Just tell me if I start to get too long-winded – I know most people aren’t as into it as I am.”

“I’ll stop you if you forget to breath,” they assured me, and I chuckled. “I guess my first question is… how exactly does it work?”

“Quite well, thank you.”

“No no, I mean how does it actually work? Like, even on a basic level, are you manipulating gravitons or plucking on fundamental strings or what?”

I nodded understandingly. “I know what you mean, Quinn, and I’m sorry to tell you that no one really knows. Magic is a mystery – if it wasn’t, we probably wouldn’t call it magic anymore. We’d call it… I don’t know… thaumaturgy, probably. Finding the thaum, a fundamental particle of magic, is the life’s work of a hell of a lot of magicians, including Arthur Peregrine himself, but no one has ever been able to.

“The most commonly accepted theory is that… well, have you heard about string theory? Lots of tiny dimensions beyond the three spacial dimensions and one for time?”

“Yeah,” they confirmed.

“Well, the theory is that magic somehow taps into those dimensions. Whether they’re so small that they’re impossible to notice or they’re so large that they’re impossible to notice, it’s possible, by arranging your mind right, to pull energy from them. Or use them to manipulate your surroundings. Like a two-dimensional creature picking up a pair of scissors and rearranging their paper however they want.”

Kaufman seems to consider this for a moment. “I may not be a physicist,” they admitted, “but I don’t think that actually makes much sense.”

“Agreed,” I said with a nod. “But that’s the most common theory.”

“What’s yours?”

“I think it’s a bit more fundamental than that.”

“More fundamental that string theory? Don’t tell the string theorists that,” they joked.

I gave them a playful shove, and stole the piece of salmon that they had been going for. “Har har. No, really. I think there’s some kind of fundamental law of the universe that makes it respond to thoughts, as long as they’re the right ones.”

“Why would that be?”

“Well, you’ve heard about Arthur Peregrine’s proof of the existence of the soul, right?” I asked.

“I don’t think I’m subscribed to that periodical. Tell me?”

“This was 1962. He was able to prove that soul energy existed, on a third level of reality. It’s like…” I paused to gesture, arranging my mind to create an image hovering in midair. “Imagine that this sheet is the universe.”

Kaufman nodded. “Okay. Is this like the sheet that gravity distorts?”

“Sort of. This sheet is an empty universe,” I clarified. “No particles, no energy. Now…” With a thought, a few places on the sheet were pulled downward and twisted a little. “These are particles – they distort the universe around them, which affects nearby particles.”

“I’m with you so far.”

“Imagine an arrangement of these particles which warped space in a way that created a similar, self-sustaining warp – a new particle, where one hadn’t been before.”

“Don’t the laws of thermodynamics object to that?” they asked.

I shrugged. “It’s not actually new matter or energy – it just looks like it. Let me show you.” I set my illusory teaching aid so that the original particles were in a circle, all pulling the sheet down – in the middle, it rose up above the normal level of the sheet. “You see, particles are on a level below spacetime, in this metaphor. But the energy that makes up the soul lies above.

Kaufman hummed to themself as they digested the idea. “So certain arrangements of particles – which, I assume, include brains?” I nodded in confirmation, and they continued, “will create soul energy. And I’m guessing that soul energy can similarly interact to affect real particles?”

“Essentially,” I agreed. “It’s a lot more complicated than that, really, but you’ve basically got it. Everyone has soul energy naturally, but magical training involves training your brain to generate more or it, as well as to get more control over it. It’s been accepted magical theory for centuries that souls were real, but because they’re on a different level of reality, it was difficult to prove.”

“How did he do it?”

“I’d need a lot more than one dinner to get you to the level you’d need to be to understand that,” I said apologetically.

“Is that an invitation?” they asked, and I found myself blushing, especially as they continued, “because you’re a great teacher, and I’d love to keep learning about this stuff.”

“Um,” I stammered, having never been as thankful for the illusions that constantly replaced my actual appearance as I was then – it made hiding my red cheeks easy. “Maybe? Like I said, I’m very busy.”

“Of course,” they said, accepting my non-answer easily. “That all makes sense to me, I have to say. Although of course I don’t really know anything about magic.” Kaufman – no, Quinn, I decided – was a lifesaver, having effortlessly steered the conversation back to magic. “I do have another question, though.”

“Shoot,” I said, still trying to get my heartrate back under control.

“Canaveral and I met the Magnificent Maxwell last week.”

“He mentioned something of the sort.”

“Well,” Quinn continued, “when he did magic, he did it by snapping his fingers, or waving his arm. But when I’ve seen you do it, you kind of…” they tried to brush their fingers together, presumably trying to replicate one of the gestures I used for my own magic and failing. “…it’s different, is the point,” they said, giving up trying to copy me.

“Well, we’re different people,” I agreed.

They groaned and leaned forward, resting their forehead on the table. I resisted the urge to run my fingers through through their hair as they complained, “Holly, come on!”

“It’s the real answer though!” I protested. “Look, souls are created by brains, which are unique, or the next best thing to it – only a few people can duplicate them flawlessly. That means that souls are unique too. So the methods of manipulating yourself to cause your soul to manipulate the world to do magic will vary from person to person!”

“Is that how Canaveral does it without even a gesture?”

“What do you mean?”

“Ah, never mind.” Quinn sat back up. “So wait, how much do souls have to do with consciousness?”

“Oh, you want consciousness,” I said dismissively. “That’s psionic territory, that’s completely different. Well, mostly,” I admitted after a moment,

They rubbed their forehead. “I feel like I’ve stumbled into a vast new world that makes absolutely no sense, even though I know all the words. Is this how people feel when I talk about biology?”

“Probably.” We shared a laugh. “Any other questions?”

“Well…” They took a moment to pay for their half of the meal, and I do the same. “You mentioned that you’re not making magical illusions, right? What are you doing, if it’s not an illusion?”

I dismissed my teaching aide as we rose and begin meandering. “This is the bit where magic and psionics overlap,” I told them. “Imagine a dog.”

“Okay.”

“What kind is it?”

“Golden retriever.”

I nodded. “I was thinking of a beagle, myself.”

“Good choice, but what does that have to do with…?”

“The point is, that we both had the same prompt – a dog,” I said, “but we were thinking of different kinds of dog. Which is the weakness of an illusion.”

“I think I’m missing something here.”

“See, an illusion isn’t real,” I explained.

“Well I get that, but…”

“It’s not even interacting with particles. Light and sound? They go right through.”

“Hold on,” Quinn protested, “how do you see it? Does it make its own photons?”

I shook my head. “Remember how I said this was the overlap with psionics? Illusions are just slapped down on the psychic landscape.”

“…I’m missing something again.”

“Alright, imagine that we both look at that telephone pole there,” I said.

“Why do I have to imagine that instead of actually looking?” they asked.

I ignored their meaningless interjection. “We both look at it and think telephone pole. Our thoughts leave pressure on the psychic landscape – which is basically just the residue of everything everyone has ever thought about something – so now that telephone pole has a slightly stronger impression.”

“I think I’m with you,” Quinn said with a smirk.

“Most thoughts just blur out, but the ones that people keep having merge and become stronger,” I said. “That’s how things like tulpas and religions get started – lots of people all thinking the same thing. That’s how even blind psychics can get around – they can sense that something is thought of as a telephone pole, even without seeing it. Hell, it’s how a person can just seem like a Michael or a John or whatever. Even without being probably sensitive, most people can pick up on a strong enough psychic impression.”

“So an illusion…”

“There’s no shortcuts, with psionics,” I told them. “If you want to make lasting a psychic impression, it takes a lot of thought, a lot of people, or both. But magic can give you that shortcut. Just punch a strong enough impression of a dog somewhere, and people will actually see that dog – their brain picks up on the dog in the psychic landscape and will add one into your vision even though your eyes don’t see anything.”

“Ah!” they said in realization. “But I see a golden retriever, and you see a beagle!”

“Exactly!” I said approvingly, clapping them on the shoulder. “A real dog would have some golden retriever in its impression too, or whatever its breed is. And its behavior, and so on. Your brain will fill in anything that’s not there, yes, but each brain is different, so everyone will see those parts of an illusion differently. Remember Max? What did he look like?”

“Handsome. Short brown hair, sharp cheekbones. Strong jawline.”

I nodded. “Probably not.”

“No?”

“No,” I said again. “Because I see him with curly black hair down to his shoulders and bright green eyes.”

“He wears an illusion?” they asked.

“Yeah, it’s just an impression of a handsome man,” I explained. “Whatever you think of as handsome is what you’ll see.”

Quinn thought about this for a while as we continued walking together. “Illusions sound pretty easy to see through, if you just have a partner,” they said after a while.

“Harder than you think,” I told them. “After all, how often do you compare what you think you see with other people?”

“Fair point.”

“But yeah, that’s a definite weakness. You can put more into your impression if you want to make them more consistent – say, specify the dog as being a golden retriever, and then I wouldn’t see a beagle. But the more details you give to the mental construct yourself, the more likely it will be inconsistent with what the viewers think, and then it’ll act in obviously fake ways. Plus, the more detail you use the more difficult it is.”

“I understand, mostly,” Quinn decided. “And what do you do, instead?”

“One of two methods, both of which are the hard way,” I complained. “One is that I make a mental construct and place it into the actual world as soul energy, not into the psychic landscape. It actually does affect reality as it’s supposed to – at least, for the interactions that I’ve managed to model properly, which is just photons and sound waves for now – but people’s brains don’t cover for imperfections like with illusions, so I need to really really understand how everything works in order to make it realistic. That’s what I have to do for anything that’s going to last when I’m not paying attention to it.”

“And the other?”

“I manually control whatever photons or sound waves I’m working with,” I said. “Also immensely complicated – even more so, if I’m doing anything that needs to be realistic. On the other hand, without the start-up time of creating the mental construct, it’s way faster. That way is good for lasers and shock waves and other offensive uses.”

“I can’t even imagine how much concentration and effort it must take to control individual photons like that,” Quinn said, awed. “How on earth do you do it?”

I gave them a proud smile. “I’m very good.”

If you enjoy my writing, please consider sponsoring me on Patreon. If you can’t afford a recurring donation, you can make an individual donation through Paypal, or purchase one of my books. The more I make from my writing, the more time I can devote to it, which will improve both the quantity and quality of my work.