[Based on this game log. ] I really want to get out of here alive. I've been thinking way too much about my own death for a while now, and I'm really getting tired of it. I'm too young to die. There's too much I haven't seen or done yet. Too much I've seen or done once that I want to see or do again. I have a whole future, infinite possibilities. I really don't want to die. I may not have a choice. The stakes are too high. It's a simple to-do list I've put together. No fancy online project management tools and priority weighting and gentle reminders of due dates and predecessor events and contingency time: 1. Save Alycia. 2. Stop Chin. 3. Save myself. A lot of folk might have done that differently. Most people, I think, would have put self-preservation higher on the list. I wish I could. The other two are too important. I don't know that I want to live if I don't make them happen, if the consequences to them are what my brain says they are. A lot of the rest of the folk would have put stopping Dr. Chin higher as well. On the top, in fact. Stop that villain! I don't know what Achilles Chin is up to. From what Dad has said, backed up by Chin's own track record, I have to assume nothing good. If he's thrown in with Hecate, if he's out to hurt the people of Federal City above our heads, if he's trying to do pretty much anything with the Keynome, the consequences could be catastrophic. I have to save Alycia, first. It's not rational. It's not heroic. It just is . * * * Chin has slipped behind Alycia, who's turning toward me with that "Jesus, Jason, just get the hell out of here" look on her face, and two pistols in her hands. It's too loud in here to talk with her, but something audible s coming over the comms. Voices, shouting -- at us. "-- your asses up here!" That's Rusty. "-- city's under -- forces -- outnumber us --" "-- Hidden Family --" And that's Summer. Something inside me lurches a little bit. "-- energy signals -- not reading like tech -- through the front barrier and still coming --" An attack by the forces of the Hidden Family on FC. In numbers and wielding forces (magic?) that are letting them penetrate the defenses. How does that prioritize vs. everything else? What do I do first? I may have said that last one aloud. Charlotte -- Ghost Girl -- is glaring at me. "When you're done playing with Pretty Penny," she snaps, "come on up and help." And she vanishes. Yeah, an Inspector Gadget reference from a ghost. It's unfair to be haunted by two different cartoons. But how dare she? The rest of this stuff isn't really important? I'm supposed to ignore the threat to the Keynome? Is she implying I'm only down here to exchange witty banter with a woman who --? That car goes off the rails right there, but I'm still angry about it. "Fine. I will." Am I ready to face this danger alone? I guess I don't have any choice. And Achilles Chin raises his pistols, one pointed at the turbine hooked to the Keynome, the other -- -- at the back of Alycia's head. He pulls the trigger. * * * Thought experiment: how do you know if you're protected from stuff you don't know about? My nanobots were designed to throw up a hard shell to protect me from injury, be it accidents or someone trying to blow my brains out. I've never quite been sure, though, if they are tied into my own perceptions (even subconscious ones), or if they have some sort of sensory apparatus built in. If someone shot me in the back of the head, and I was unaware of it, would the bots protect me? My own anecdata is inconclusive. It's hard to tell what I am or aren't aware of, especially mid-battle. For obvious reasons, I've never designed an AI to shoot me in the back of the head when I least expect it. Alycia has my nanobots on her. Are they working for her the same way? If she's unaware of Achilles Chin shooting at her, is she about to die? Can I stop this? How fast is thought? How fast is the thinking of a Second Generation Hyper-Genius? How much time do I have to think about this? Not enough. How much time do I have to act on this? All the time in the world. I really want to get out of here alive. Every time I use the nanobots do so something extraordinary, it breaks my brain, my mind's connection to my body, my soul if you want to get metaphysical, a little bit more. It's been getting worse lately, not better. If I do everything I want to do here -- I might end up a drooling vegetable. I can't help it. Saving myself is only #3 on the list. I have the first two I need to tackle. It's the moment of truth. I pull out all the stops. * * * My mind reaches out, handshakes with Alycia's bots (even the sputtering survivors of her portal, in that metallic goo on the floor). They're there, they're alive, they're happy to see me, and they swarm to my command, even faster than the bullet can travel from the pistol to Alycia. I ignore the harpoon of pain and disorientation. I ignore the way the room seems to go gray. I ignore HAL singing "Daisy, Daisy." I ignore everything but the purpose . Li'lycia is there, a ten-year-old girl in a Wonder Woman costume, an eager smile on her face, twirling into existence behind the real Alycia, and braceletting away the shot. I suspect that's just my own fevered brain interpreting things, but I'm not going to argue. I have more I must do. I have the link with the bots. Alycia has the link with the bots. I have a link with Alycia. Or I will once I force it. And I don't have time, as she's already sensing my presence in the bots, eyes widening, narrowing, her own fingers tightening on both triggers, and I force time to slow -- down -- even -- more ... Her body is locked in place, trapped by the bots. Outrage -- anger -- fear -- And from her lips -- her mind -- come two words. "Hello, hero." * * * I turn around, and she's there, holding the vortex blaster on me. "Hello, hero," she says with a smirk. She turns around and finally spots me, holding the electro-stunner on her. She raises her hands, with a rueful "Hello, hero." Something shadows my face as I lie in the sun, on the beach, in that deserted little cove in Borneo. I open my eyes, and she's silhouetted by the sun. "Hello, hero." I come to, tied against an I-beam in a shadowed warehouse. Someone else is tied behind me, on the other side, giving jerks of their arms to match my own. A tired voice: "Hello, hero." The doorbell to the hotel room rings. Everyone else is out, doing something mysterious for my birthday. I open the door, and she's there. "Hello, hero," she says, hands me a book-shaped package in wrapping paper. She's gone before I can say anything. I run into the office just in time to see her head sticking out of the ventilation duct. The file that was on the desk is gone. "Hello, hero," she says with a big smile before disappearing completely. My phone flickers with light in the middle of the night. Despite the firewalls and block lists Dad raised, she's tracked me down. "HELLO, HERO," the screen says. * * * Every time. She said it every time. At first it was mocking, with that smirk she always used to wear. Then it was casual, familiar, a comfortable ritual among rivals. Then it was something I actually looked forward to hearing. And I forgot. And now I remember. Every time. Every facial expression. Every reaction. Annoyance. Amusement. Frustration. Joy. Lust. Happiness. It all comes crashing down on me, and I feel myself mentally stagger, even as the nanobot network spins up faster to compensate for the emotional blow. And I can feel the wave of those feelings crash back into me, from her. She's forgotten, too. Chin stole it from her. The way Dad stole it from me. Not the same tech, probably. But for the same reason. We've had so much goddamn stolen from us. My eyes feel wet. I know time is not working that way, I can't possibly be crying for real. But in my mind, I am, and I can see Alycia doing the same. * * * Chin's other gun has gone off, too, shooting at that turbine. With a gleeful shout, Li'lycia is there, too. "The Keynome powers the defenses above," Alycia says to me, speaking in my mind. "If he takes down the power generator, the city will fall." "Dad is using a cosmic artifact as ... a power supply?" "Yup." "And your father is dealing with it -- by shooting it?" "Yup." "Does any of that seem kind of ... mundane to you?" "Yup. * * * That conversation is going on at one level. But the botnet can multitask, and so can our minds. "I am so sorry for everything I forgot." She looks at me, and I can see (literally) the pieces falling into place. It wasn't betrayal. It wasn't abandonment. It wasn't using her and casting her aside. They took me from her. They took her from me. Memories checksum against each other, errors flashing like a swarm of red lights. Things she knows, memories that I lack, or are distorted. And some of the opposite -- gaps or sloppy edits on her side that I seem to hold the truth of. It's not telepathy. It's not something I could use in lieu of Leo's merge process (okay, I might, but only with a lot of very dangerous experimentation, and I'd be dead long before I mastered it). But more flashes of recollection tumble back into the light. I remember something I'd very much forgotten about Antarctica, and blush hotly, even as a hot rage builds in my gut. She knows I'm telling the truth. She's not going to shoot. I ease off the bots I have restraining her physically. "I just wanted you to go," she says. "To not be here. I didn't want to kill you, but Father said I -- wait, explode? He'd explode if he touched me, or I him? That doesn't even make any sense! Jason, I just wanted to bring him home. He kept asking for help and I just wanted to help him, just one more time -- but even when I came through, he refused to return, said their plans -- his plans -- were about to come to fruition, and I just needed to keep you off of him --" She shakes here head. "This makes no sense, Jason." "He just tried to shoot you." She turns (her mind, again, networked into mine, using my senses, sharing the bots' input). She sees the bullet, and her face grows cold. "Why would he --? It's madness, Jason. Sheer madness. I would never --" She looks back at me. "I would never have hurt him. Would never have failed him, failed our cause. And he just -- he'd kill me, just to --?" "Alycia, he reached into your head and tore out memories -- to keep you under control, to punish you, whatever. I don't think shooting you in the back is that huge a leap." "And your father did the same." I hear a lost misery in her voice. I hear it in mine. "To keep you under control. Part of his cause, his fucking crusade ." I think about the arguments she and I used to have, sitting in the ruins of a destroyed base, trapped in an orbital shuttle that's lost its descent thrusters, bound back-to-back to that I-beam in that warehouse in Amsterdam. Arguing our fathers' arguments. At first just mimicking what we've been told, but starting to go further, to develop our own reasons, to poke holes in the dinner table cliches, to even mock them a bit. The principles might be sound, but we stopped just parroting the rants about them. "I don't think it's about causes any more." Her eyes burn. "It's the same old thing, every time. It's like a game to them. We're just pieces. And they keep playing it, playing with us, over and over again, never stopping." " 'You'll never succeed, Chin! I'll be there to stop you.' " " 'Until we meet again, Dr. Quill. Fear that day, for it will be your last.' " She shakes her head. If the anger is a hot burning in me, it's a cold core growing within her. "When did they change?" I remember Dad's weird behavior. And my own, back home. "Hecate." I pack that word with all the info I have on what she's done, what I think she's done, her alliance here with Chin, her hatred of my father, and why. The chill grows deeper. I see Alycia, at a coffee shop in Halcyon, sitting with Hecate, being handed an envelope with a florid "A" on it. The communications from Chin, relayed via Hecate-gram. Alycia shakes her head, more slightly this time. "Wishful thinking. This has been doing on for far longer than that. Not that she might not have made things worse for Father, but -- even with that -- thing -- about your father. No. It's about them . Their feud. That's become what their true cause is." "Montagues and Capulets." "I don't plan on drinking any poison." "Maybe something more along the lines of Hamlet ." "Too much poison there, too -- wait, Jason, this whole thing you're doing, right now, the nanobots, your mind -- it's --" "It's necessary , Alycia." She looks a me for a long moment. "Hello, hero," she says, sad before the ice in her heart takes over. "All this, all this fighting. And, yes, it's killing you, and it could have killed me. It would have killed me -- he would have killed me. And for what? All that potential they had, the things they could have done, and they just do the same shit over and over and over again." Her cold eyes lock with mine "They need to answer for this." And the nanobots agree, and something very Alycia like in them answers. Is it her, exerting her own influence over the net? A dozen different hacks and AIs and memetic programs she's slipped in there or I've crafted myself? Or is it me, feeling the heat of anger as strong as her cold, and just as determined to finish this endless manipulation, this too-long and pointless and painful fight, once and for all? Why not go with all of the above? * * * And, that quickly, with that little thought, the danger is over. But the greater threat is still real. Ol'ycia steps out of the shadows, winks at me, then finger-guns Real Alycia with a tongue click. Then she twirls her finger in the air as if pantomiming a party -- -- and a portal opens up above her, horizontal, mid-air. (Is this actually me doing all of this? Some incredibly powerful, extended me that can just bend time and space? I'm almost glad for an instant that it is killing me, because it's way too much power, too easily wielded by capricious mental constructs. Monsters, Jason. Monsters from the Id. ) Dad drops out of the portal, next to Achilles, who's still subjectively frozen. Li'lycia has batted aside the bullet Achilles shot at the turbine. Then with a whoop, she slugs "her" dad in the side of the head, laying him out on the ground with a single blow. Alycia looks over at me, eyes wide. "Is that -- you -- doing that? Or me?" "Who has the bigger anger issues?" "So -- us?" "Yeah." Grim humor, needed to keep me / her / us from patricide. With a click, subjective time is back to normal, and Achilles and Dad are still lying on the ground, moaning. Ol'ycia is still there, though, and she grabs both of them by the neck, holding them in the air, their feet dangling precariously inches from the floor. "Time for some apologies," Alycia tells them. "Or punishment." "Hi, Dad," I say, far more lightly than I feel. * * * They try to talk. They really do. To explain. To pontificate. To cajole. To order. To beg. Even as they gasp for breath, tear at Ol'ycia's hands, I can see it. They do not get a chance. They are faced, just this moment, by two very, very angry people, and a nanobot construct who's happy to hold their necks a little bit tighter if they try to interrupt. Alycia and I are still in rapport through the nanobots. For this brief moment I have clarity, as does she. And we speak with a common mind. "We have a few words we'd like to say," Alycia begins. "You two are geniuses," I say. "You passed that on to each of us -- but then kept us from our potential, singly or together." "You demanded complete loyalty -- but did not return it. Anything that seemed a threat, that smacked of independence, that might turn us away from you, had to be stamped out. So that's what you did." "Do you realize what you've done -- or failed to do? You not only failed the two of us, but you failed the world -- two worlds. With all your genius, your energy, your abilities, you could have created Paradise -- hell, competing Paradises, if you wanted to fight over it. Instead, here you are, in a dead-end universe, reduced to Mad Max battles for civilization." I shake my head. "Little kids perpetually shooting spitballs and going pew-pew-pew at each other. And breaking each other's toys." "We were some of those toys," Alycia notes. "We've forgotten so much -- but, then, you've been the reason we've forgotten. Were we not attentive enough to our lessons? Did we not shout your slogans with enough vigor? Did we find your ideas too small, your horizons too narrow, your dreams eventually those of tired old men who haven't the energy to create, only to tear down. How long have you known that's all you are?" "The thing is, you have done great things. And in the hour of our world's greatest danger, you did band together. It was in you. You almost made it happen." "But you couldn't stand by that decision. You couldn't cooperate. You couldn't even compete. You had to win , one of you, and for that the other had to lose . And now -- you both have lost." They've fallen silent, and it's hard to tell what they're thinking. Hatred from Chin, as his eyes dart back and forth between Alycia and me. Furious hatred. From Dad, it's a mixture of anger, contempt, and, just maybe, a few bubbles of regret in the solution. It's not enough to make me change my mind. "This isn't a debate," I tell them. "This isn't a lecture. This is our judgment. Of you." I've come to a conclusion, and so has Alycia. The same conclusion, perhaps, because we're processing this together in a way that humans never do, were never designed to. There will be regrets later. Disagreement. Recriminations. But for that moment, we're united. After these years of lies and abuse of authority (and, quite arguably, just plain old child abuse as well), it's to late for merciful second chances. Even if that's what, in part, they're going to get. (Is it a mercy? Depends on your point of view. But fuck it -- it's what we do regardless.) "You don't deserve the gifts you've been given," I tell them. "So I'm going to take them away." * * * It's hard to explain what happens next, in part because, once the botnet drops, my cognitive skills roll back just to SGHG "normal", and this is about three levels over that. Also, the Keynome is involved, which means "explanation" is trumped by "assertion of will and desire." In effect, I rewrite Byron Quill and Achilles Chin to remove their hyper-genius. Part of it's the bots, of course, infiltrating their bodies, their brains, giving them quantum-level lobotomies. But the Keynome is tied in as well, because while I know about neurosurgery from a few books Dad made me read on that expedition to the North Pole (and there's some irony for you), I couldn't possibly do this on my own. I'm not. Around me, like ghosts, the surgery is enabled, assisted, supported by figures of Alycia and myself, from a dozen different realities, a hundred, flickering in and out, all the possibilities that the Keynome can tap into. Laughing, crying, shouting, singing. In tuxedo and surgical gown and fatigues and ordinary clothes and swimwear and fragments of light. An Alycia in a black and white super-suit, covered with nanobots, maintains the network around the Keynome. A Jason, in glossy red powered armor, routes electricity from the turbine to fabricate the ever-finer, more sophisticated nanobots needed to perform the microsurgery. Me with a stringy mustache. Her with a shaved head. Me with a scar down the left side of my face, a patch over my eye. Her with circuitry-like tattoos across her face (or perhaps tattoos that are in fact circuits). Me with vampire fangs. Her with cats-eye pupils. It's all a barely discernible blur, held together by my will, and Alycia's, and the Keynome. And the Keynome makes sure that the bots touching our dads don't cause a Sepia-Earth-shattering ka-boom. No, I'm not killing them. I'm just making them normal. They'll still be human-level geniuses, still have the creativity they had. But they'll be ordinary, within the bounds of the human bell curve. They'll have to work for it. And if they turn bad again, abandon the charge I give them to take care of this world and set it on the right path, together -- then, at least, the damage done will be limited to what a normal person can do. This Earth won't be devastated again by a Quill/Chin Hypertech War. Again, is that a mercy, or a curse? They'll remember, like Charlie Gordon, what it was like to be so much more than they are, than they ever can be. But they'll still have a chance to make good on their own, to atone for how they misused their powers, their opportunities. As part of the process, we clean up any external manipulation, magical interference from, oh, let's say Hecate. Unfortunately, there's far less than I had hoped --some general guidance on Chin to do what he was to do, some obfuscation on Dad to ignore Alycia and pay no attention to her backpack. Aside from that, their stupidity, their malice, their abuse -- that was their own. * * * As the bots complete their surgery, the flurry about us begins to die down, the images of alternate Alycias and Jasons fading away. I'm feeling the fatigue, and a sharp pain in my head, and occasional double vision. The upcoming problems and concerns begin to bubble up to my attention. Getting Dad and Chin situated here again. Explaining to Rusty. Summer. Getting home. Hecate. Saving my life. Just another day in the life of a teen-aged super-hero. And then there's Alycia. No idea what's going to happen there. She's still in the circuit, still united with me in will, but the doors are already closing on the connection between us. We're not sharing thoughts any longer, and hardly emotions, just will. Once that's gone, where does that leave us? There will be time for more with her -- I hope -- but nothing will ever be like this again. It's small recompense for all that was taken from us, but I enjoy it while I can.