|sf04 the uprising|
To every Earth, we make a promise.
We amend the errors of our predecessors. We bring peace and order. We bring civilization.
This is our duty, as Orbitals, as members of the Ascendancy.
We are the forever people. The stars will rise.
When Lar's failed schemes unmasked an age-old conspiracy of genocide, chaos reigned for a brief time in the interdimensionally networked society of the Orbitals. Where once there was union of purpose, now there was discord. Many Arcologies landed on their worlds, trying to blend in either discreetly or directly, to varying degrees of success. Others simply drifted away into the void, never to be heard of again. Some turned their back on Orbital life entirely, embracing neoprimitivism...
And others formed what became known as the Ascendancy.
They rooted out the old conspiracy in a series of highly organized investigations and trials, leaving behind only a purified core. They took the oath, freshly written by their visionary founders, and set out to use their technologies to bring the Suborbitals up to their level. One multiverse, under the rule of the Ascendancy, with prosperity and peace for Orbital and Suborbital alike. The stars will rise, a promise, a dream for tomorrow.
Of course, few of those who took the oath knew that the Ascendancy was simply phase two of the unnamed conspiracy. This had been planned hundreds of years previous, after all, as a contingency plan.
Instead of operating in the shadows, now they operated in the light. After jettisoning the weakest links in their chain as traitors in grand show trials, the true purified core remained. They would still strip mine worlds, they would still ensure no Earth rose above their level. Only now, they would do it with the permission of those they were destroying. And if a world simply refused to "become civilized," well... nobody could fault them for not trying.
It was this purified core, the higher-order Proctors, who met regularly to discuss efforts at pacifying, integrating, and stripping down planets for resources. After over a decade of conquest, they'd held a dozen Earths under their sway... some kneeling readily, others requiring broken knees first.
The latest acquisition of the Ascendancy was proving to be quite problematic.
"We moved too soon," Rww argued, across the networked holocommunication room. "If we had allowed #A076 to become closer allies to their nations, they would've more readily accepted a full Ascendancy presence."
"If we had waited, the traitor Proctor Hel's Gatherer network could have grown stronger! My infiltrators smashed it to pieces before that could happen," the Proctor in the virtual hot seat replied, eager to defend his actions. "I disagree with you, Rww. The timing was perfect."
(Supposedly this was a standard meeting about all worlds in the Ascendancy, but they'd been talking about Proctor Lar's pet project for the duration.)
Rww continued the attack. "From your own reports, the Gatherers were growing complacent anyway. We could have attacked them at any time with the same level of success," he said. "Lar, they were never much of a threat. They were assuming we'd need far more time, that our power acquisition would be gradual. Essence Cores meant we could move quickly, yes, but--"
"Yes! Essence Cores. And who gave you Essence Cores?" Proctor Lar barked out... an old man's bitter rebuke, from a stolen young man's cloned body. "I was the one who developed that technology! I distilled Faerie lore into hard science and paved the path for our Ascendancy's rapid rise! If you'd left me to rot in that white room in #A076, you'd have maybe three worlds in your empire by this point, at best!"
It was time to bring this pointless bickering to heel.
Primary Proctor Teq raised a hand, making his holographic avatar flash briefly, for attention. The virtual presences in the room turned their eyes to him, to hear what their primary council leader had to say.
"Proctor Lar has more than earned his seat at the table," Teq stated. "His technologies have enabled our Ascendancy's growth curve. His predictions all came to pass -- he arranged the destruction of the Gatherers, he successfully ruined Kas two point three's experiments which were coming far too close to Essence Core technology, and his forces have slipped into the gap left behind by #A076 successfully. He even successfully neutralized the Indian BioDome Nation before it could become an issue. No one remains who can face us. America has signed on to the Ascendancy, Britain has signed on to the Ascendancy--"
"That world's Britain is soaked in chaos and disorder thanks to his incompetence!" Rww interrupted. "How can you possibly consider that... ah... I apologize, Proctor Teq, I didn't mean to interrupt..."
"Your Optimistic nature betrays you, Rww," Teq chided. "Control yourself. ...I understand your concerns. I understand all your concerns, my fellow Proctors. But we have faced stronger opposition than this. Do you remember Earth #992B? Its resistance factor was off our scale. Then we invented a new scale, and it went off that one. But in the end, we broke that world, brought it to heel. There was no sympathy in Orbitalkind for them by that point, thanks to our internal media campaign painting them as Suborbital savages. It was a complete victory. One way or another... Proctor Lar's Earth will be sorted out, similarly. Proctor Lar has my confidence."
The young conspirator puffed out his chest in pride, nodding along with the words, casting glances to his fellow Proctors. Having Teq in your corner was terrific for your standing in the high echelon of the Ascendancy, after all.
"This meeting has ceased to be constructive and will now be terminated," Teq declared. "Tend to your local affairs and leave interdimensional ones to me, please. Lar's Earth is not the only one we're experiencing difficulties with, by far, and you would be best served focusing on your own duties. Thank you. The stars will rise."
The virtual meeting room went dark, as dozens of projectors switched themselves off.
Which came as something of a surprise to its owner, Proctor Rww, who poked at a control panel just out of frame.
"If you'll excuse me, I've locked your connection, Rww," Teq explained. "We need to talk."
"P-Proctor Teq, ah... if this is about interrupting you, I meant no disrespect," the flickering image insisted. "I understand your logic completely, and I assure you, my worries do not stem from my Optimism--"
"Your worries are completely reasonable. Proctor Lar is an idiot and an incompetent, and I fully expect him to crash and burn," Teq agreed.
Rww opened and closed his mouth a few times before he figured out what word he wanted to say.
"Pardon?" he said.
"It was Lar's dogged persistence that got us in this mess, Rww. It's not common knowledge... but he was disgusted with how long it was taking his Earth to self-destruct," Teq explained. "He saw it as a black mark on our record that such a fragmented world hadn't fallen to pieces yet. He was desperate to jumpstart its doom, to the point of dropping Arcology #BE12 in Canada, to the point of brainwashing #A076 and trying to crash it into the surface. He loves grand, dramatic gestures. And he's going to reach the breaking point sooner and later, where he feels the need for another one. Another grand, dramatic mistake."
The holographically projected council member listened without understanding. The calm, even tone in which Teq ran down all the reasons why Proctor Lar should never have been granted the title of Proctor... it was nonsensical.
He asked the obvious question. "Why, then?" he asked. "Why did you put Lar in charge of the very world he hates so much...?"
"Well, he is right that we are successful due to his technology, and must begrudgingly acknowledge his efforts... but the reason for his specific assignment? It's because we have absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain in the process," Teq said... with a smile unbecoming of his status as a cold logician.
"Err... sir? I don't follow. His pending failure is a gain?"
"Consider two outcomes, Rww. First, perhaps he will live up to his own hype, and bring his Earth to heel. Either he bribes the greedy merchants of Britain into consuming the world, or promises the divisive political parties of America more power than they could ever want... either way, he could succeed. He could take that shattered world and bring it into the fold. Another prosperous member-world of the Ascendancy!"
"I... have a doubt that would be possible, but assuming there is in fact a non-zero chance, very well. And the other outcome...?"
"Lar ruins everything and leaves the planet a scorched wasteland of death and misery, another example of how Suborbitals are chaotic savages. He is immediately disciplined, stripped of rank, and put in a dead end job for the rest of his life. And yet, the Ascendancy continues on, and all the better for it. That IS a highly problematic Earth, after all... destroying it would be a loss, but a very acceptable one. With any luck, maybe he'll even die in the process. If the world and the Proctor murdered each other, we still win."
"So... you are betting on his absolute success or absolute failure, sir?"
Teq's smile dampened down, as his momentary wave of glee at the thought of Lar's future passed. He nodded in agreement, glad to see Rww grasping the logic.
"I've projected the outcomes myself, Rww. He's not a man of half-measures. He will conquer that world, or burn it to ashes," Teq said. "But one way or another... the Ascendancy is legion. We are not one man. We are the forever people. And as for Lar, and his mixed-up Earth... to Hell with them. To Hell with them both."
by stefan gagne
Look -- in the sky! A bird! A plane!
No, true believers, it's the majestic heroine Starwoman, and her trusty sidekick, Astro Gal!
These dynamic damsels are crusaders for truth, justice, and the American way! For years they have watched over the skies of Urbantropolis, swooping down to right wrongs, to save citizens in distress, to ensure peace and freedom for all citizens. Through countless battles against the nefarious forces of evil, they have proven their heroism and their righteousness!
But on this day, on this fateful and gray October day, they face their most difficult challenge yet...
Subsonic speeds are critical for urban flight. While Astro Gal could scan the rooftops at higher speeds, anything which approached the sound barrier would shatter windows for blocks around -- she also had to be sure not to create air currents in her wake that would trouble the World Review Daily helicopter that had been following the chase.
Mother had often complained about civilians putting themselves in harm's way just to watch a superheroine get the job done. Still, she was able to smile for the camera and make speeches despite the minute grinding of her teeth, audible only to those like Astro Gal with super hearing. And better Mother make the speeches than her; she was just the sidekick, after all...
Distracting thoughts. Countless battles with her father, the evil Doctor Mindmelter, had taught Astro Gal to flush distracting thoughts aside and focus on the task at hand. She continued her search, looking for a flash of cape, a glint of light off metal, anything which would hint at their elusive prey--
The light scrape of his boots on pavement. No one else's footwear sounded like that; he'd used his family fortune to make the ultimate protective urban combat suit. Special cleats which adapted themselves to any terrain he needed to pound his way across...
"Mother, he's in the Silver City District, on... top of the banking tower, I think," Astro Gal mumbled. She didn't need to use a communicator, or even shout -- after all, Starwoman and Astro Gal shared the same powers, having been involved in the same space shuttle incident and bombarded by the same Kirby Radiation. Super hearing came with the package.
A blue streak roared past her, and Astro Gal accelerated to match speed and vector. Soon, the blur resolved to the caped figure of Starwoman... and in less than three seconds, they were on their prey--
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--slamming headfirst into an industrial air conditioning unit on the rooftop.
Psionic grenade, of course. Shared strengths between mother and daughter meant shared weaknesses, as well. While her father had never figured out how to project his malevolence into the minds of women, their target today had extensively researched methods of taking them down. He'd been waiting for this day to come, and was prepared for the fight.
Astro Gal was still pulling herself out of the wreckage of the air conditioner while Starwoman was doing battle with the man in black. Mother was always more resilient, shared super weaknesses or not.
A fight, technically speaking, should've lasted three seconds. He was an ordinary human in a very, very expensive combat suit -- they were metahuman superheroines, with genomes altered by cosmic rays. Superstrength meant a haymaker could tear off an ordinary man's jaw, which is why Astro Gal trained extensively to only use exactly as much of that power as was required...
Starwoman, who always had finer control and was able to apply just enough to any punch, couldn't get through his armor.
The iridescent sparks from her impacts told the story -- personal force field generator. Quick kinetic strikes would be deflected easily.
Her mother backed off a minute, staying in her fighting stance, as she locked eyes with her enemy.
The man spat out some blood. Being a quick projectile of sorts, it hit the inside of his shield and then slowly dripped through to the rooftop. Apparently some of the punch had gotten through.
His eyes glared through the whites of his mask's visor.
"Weren't expecting much from me, were you?" he asked. "Just a rich playboy, pretending to be a hero--"
"You're no hero," Starwoman accused. "You're a vigilante. You don't work with the police, you don't take the oath of patriotism, you're a loose cannon. And you've finally gone too far. I'm under orders to take you down."
"I take orders from justice, not from the White House. And you won't find a man, woman, or child alive in America who isn't secretly thrilled that I finally killed the Merry Prankster," Knightwatch replied. "I did what you weren't willing to do, and now, hundreds of lives he would've taken in the years to come are spared."
"Vengeance isn't justice, Knightwatch--"
"My parents are DEAD, Haley!" the masked man shouted. "They cry out for this justice. If I'd done this ages ago, they wouldn't bezzzzzttt--"
Electricity arced across his teeth, in mid-rebuke.
Knightwatch sank to his knees, and then slumped forward to the concrete. Behind him stood Astro Gal, who had taken his distracting thoughts and used them to her advantage. A kinetic shield needed a strong power source, after all... and could be overloaded, if you moved slowly enough for the shield to let you through.
When he came to, all the useful portions of his armor had been removed... including his mask. And the media were there, interviewing Starwoman about her takedown of this dangerous, psychotic vigilante.
With no mask, with the cameras on him, it was all over for Knightwatch. He was just Darryl Dwayne. There was a code to these things: the masks stay on, respect between heroes... this was proof enough that he'd been booted out of the justice buddies, as it were. Official orders to put an end to the legend of Knightwatch.
Astro Gal had been watching over him, while her mother wrangled the news cameras. Babysat by the babysitter.
"This isn't over," he declared.
"Darryl, please, just... let it go," Astro Gal whispered. "It's bad enough already. Don't make a scene..."
"What makes you think you're any better than me?" the former Knightwatch asked. "A code of honor? A shiny badge? Official recognition from the powers that be? The lovely Kirby Radiation you got in space, and all the gifts that came with it?"
"Justice. That's all," she said. "That's the difference."
"Really. Except you enforce their laws, not justice itself. There is a difference; don't you see that?"
Astro Gal frowned. "I stand up for what's right. That's all I care about."
"Then why aren't you out there with the rest of your friends, fighting the Ascendancy?"
Midair. Birds in midair, pigeons, rats of the sky. Unmoving.
Her mother, in mid-dramatic-arm-gesture, to the smiles of the cameramen and the reporters. Saying nothing, moving not an inch.
But Astro Gal could move. This wasn't the dreaded Clockstopper's time manipulation, it wasn't her father's psionic control in action. This was happening. Except this wasn't happening. This wasn't how it happened...
"All your friends are out there, fighting the good fight," Knightwatch said. "Your family, even the two you've started to consider your mothers, they're somewhere out there and they're challenging the alien invaders. Where are you, Carrie Lane? Where are you?"
Her legs weakened. Her costume felt heavy. Everything felt wrong...
"I'm... I'm in my bed, I'm asleep, this is just a dream," Astro Gal declared. "Lucid dreaming. I can control this. I learned how to block out psionics in my dreams, I can control this--"
"You're sitting in your big empty family home in New Orleans," Knightwatch continued. "You're all alone, Carrie. Just like you were in Hawaii. You remember Hawaii, don't you? Your mother and father's final crisis, their ultimate custody battle. How many died? How many died in their mutual loathing, Carrie?"
"I'm dreaming, I can control this, I can--"
Her mouth had vanished.
"Everybody died, didn't they?" Knightwatch asked. "How heroic was it of your mother to kill so many people on that day? Oh, but they were mind-controlled puppets! There was murder and horror everywhere, as your father drove the islands insane, culling the competition for paternal roles, punishing the women he hated! Do you remember the blood, Carrie? I don't recall anything about spilled blood in the official heroic code of conduct. All that blood, everywhere. Just like there's going to be in England, soon. Just like the streets of America will enjoy eventually. All because your friends abandoned you, and because you didn't save them from the Ascendancy... you know what happens after that, don't you...? After everybody's dead?"
no no no no no
"All alone. Again."
Urbantropolis, filled with straw dummies, in rough approximations of clothes. Fake citizens, so the fake superheroine could save them from fake perils, over and over. So she wouldn't go insane from loneliness, like she had done in Hawaii.
please not again please help me--
Darkness, save for the light of the moon. Even through tears, she could see it clearly. She could see every nook and cranny, and could even see the outlines of Arcology Luna #01, constructed so long ago. Super vision had a habit of kicking in whether she needed it or not, after all.
Awake, now. Awake in the family home of Una point zero one and Nelliwyn Myfanwy.
Who weren't there to reassure her. They were gone. Vanished into the night a week previous, never to be seen again. No note, no message afterwards. Could be dead, for all she knew...
Carrie didn't dare go to sleep again, after that. She didn't want to face the straw people again. Dawn was on its way; she would stay vigilant, and prepare, and go be a heroine, and then everything would be okay again. It had to be.
6:46am and the sun rises. Carrie Lane is there to greet the dawn.
Una and Nel had constructed their dream home quite specifically -- the light of the dawning sun would spread through the kitchen with golden waves of light, every time. This was the cozy and comfortable life they wanted, after so many years of craziness and adventure and passion in their youth. It was a refuge from the weirdness of the world.
The effect was a bit less impressive when a teenage superheroine has been littering up the place with no parental oversight.
Notably, there were still cardboard boxes from the sequential evenings of Chinese takeout, covering various surfaces. Carrie could just throw them out, but her heart wasn't really into it. That was the same reason she never bothered reading the fortune cookies, still in their cellophane wrappers... her mindset wasn't appropriate for the relentless optimism of a mystical fortune. (Although the Fae-Chinese restaurant she always favored used a bit of magic to spice up their food, they did not have Foresight and their cookies did not actually predict the future. They were still unnervingly cheerful, though.)
She'd pushed the takeout boxes into a rough U shape, so she could have some clear space for her breakfast. Cold cereal, of course. Easiest thing to make, and easiest thing to eat while browsing the Internet with her Orbital-made, tablet-sized workstation.
Some part of her hoped that when she launched her communicator program, she'd see a vertical column of green dots, indicating all her friends were online. The rest of her knew the column would be dismally red.
Maria Morales, MIA. That was the most worrying.
Carrie had accidentally stumbled across the Gatherer operations years ago, and in the process, learned how Maria's mother was working for that organization now. It was the reason why Maria had to constantly move to new cities, going wherever the job took her family. (Maria never talked about how or why they moved around, and Carrie didn't pry. She understood the sanctity of a secret identity, even when it was only partially secret.)
But through all the craziness of her life, Maria had at least maintained an online presence. Her friend, Gwen Berners-Lee, had set up a variety of heavily secured Internet links through which she could talk to Carrie without trouble. And now, no Maria. Not even any Gwen, who was never, ever offline. They'd gone dark.
Camille Gearhaus-Runeblade, or whatever she was calling herself this week, MIA. Also very worrying.
The kid had grown on Carrie. There was an age gap, but she had spunk, and the makings of a fine heroine in her own right. Often Carrie would babysit for Cammy, and got to watch her grow up, from birth to childhood... always fascinating for someone who was deadlocked at age fifteen...
There was a chance Cammy was dead. L'Anonyme had issued a declaration, that he was going to attempt to rescue the Crown Prince and Princess... and the footage leaked onto the Internet of their failed attempt showed what was clearly the Clockwork Mermaid, going down in flames into the Thames. And if Cammy had gone along on that ride...
Una and Nel could be dead, for all she knew.
Maybe they were dead. Why wouldn't they reach out to her, otherwise?
Maybe everybody was dead--
NO. No. Distracting thoughts.
She forced herself to scroll down the list, expecting to see more red dots.
Susie Moonthistle's online handle! The one she published her web comic under!
Without a second thought, Carrie tapped on the link, to call up a video chat. And tapped on the table with her cereal spoon, as second after second passed, with the chimes of a connection-in-progress ringing away from the tiny speaker on the tablet...
The window played through its opening animation, as the link was established.
"Can I help you?" a man with white hair asked.
Carrie deadlocked for a moment, not sure how to react to her friend turning into a forty-something male.
"Uh... I'm... trying to reach Susie?" she tried.
"You've reached the Royal Witching Academy. I'm Urq, and I'm in charge of triaging all communications," the Ascendancy technician replied. "Princess Susan is unavailable at this time. If you would like to leave a message, I will pass it along to her Summerlion handlers, but for security purposes, we are not allowing guests at this time and all Internet access must go through our routing and monitoring station..."
Meaning I could ask about the weather and what she had for lunch, but little else, Carrie realized. I certainly couldn't ask if she knew where her parents were. Or where Una and Nel are. Or if they're even alive...
"Just... tell her I said hi. It's, um, Carrie Lane," she added. "Tell her I said hi, and... I hope she's okay."
With this simple transaction completed, Urq disconnected the line without another word or even the briefest of nods.
Carrie let the tablet drop to the kitchen table, next to her now-incredibly-soggy cereal, discarded cardboard boxes, and uneaten cookies full of hope and promise.
All alone. Again.
She didn't normally head out to work this early, but there wasn't any point to staying around. She dumped the uneaten cereal down the garbage disposal, and headed upstairs to change.
There was at least one thing Carrie Lane could do that would matter to someone.
A bank is no place for lying down on the job. Unless a man was waving around an automatic rifle and demanding you lie down on the job, of course. Which was happening. But what wasn't happening was the usual amount of nail-biting tension that accompanied a high stakes armed robbery, and that confused the twitchy madman who was doing his best to perpetuate a high stakes armed robbery.
Sure, he'd established control over the customers and the tellers, had taken the sidearm away from the rent-a-cop, and was moments away from a huge payday. But the way the teller was smiling did not fit expectations.
"Lady, knock it off, and put everything you got in the bag!" the robber demanded, with a shake of the gun for emphasis.
"You're new in this city, aren't you?" the chubby mother of three asked.
"Think this is a joke? This ain't a joke!"
"No, I'm just thinking you're a newcomer to Atlanta," she said, while not filling the bag with money. "I mean, if you'd even done a little reading about us--"
"I ain't staying and playing tourist! I'm taking what you got and getting the hell out of the country!" the man shouted. "Now you fill the bag or I fill you with lead!"
The teller dallied a bit longer... then with a shrug, began loading up the bag, quite casually.
"She must be finishing up her breakfast, or something," she pondered, stacking bundles in nice and neat. "She'll be along in a minute, don't you worry. So! Off to see the world after this? I vacationed in Paris last year. Lovely city--"
And then the gun wasn't in her face anymore.
And the robber's arm had been fractured.
He screamed in pain, twisting to try to escape the vice-like grip that had just clamped itself down on his arm. All this did, however, was pivot himself deeper into his assailant's grasp -- the attacker had been expecting him to move that way, and was waiting to receive him. A kindler, gentler way of locking down control on a foe.
"Hello, Astro Gal!" the teller said, switching to smoothly removing bundles of money from the bag.
"Sorry I'm late, Dolores," the masked heroine replied. "I've had a rough morning."
"Haven't we all, dearie? Quite alright, nobody's hurt--"
"--well, except him."
"Right, right. Sorry about that," Astro Gal apologized, while wrestling the man down to the ground, keeping a firm hold all the way. "Are you hurt badly? I think I was a bit too quick through the door to make up for lost time. Don't worry, the precinct will ensure you get medical attention -- please, sir, don't squirm around so much, I don't want to make your injury any worse. Dolores, can you...?"
"Already on the phone, love," the teller replied, cocking the handset to her shoulder. "Hello, police? Yes. Again. Yes, she's here. Right. --on their way. Can I get you anything while we wait? Glass of water?"
The heroine looked up from zip-tying the bad guy to a comfortable waiting bench, and smiled.
Here, she was useful. She was needed. And everything made perfect sense.
Atlanta was her town. True, it was a heck of a commute -- ever since Milton retired after the sale of an Action Comics #1 and closed the comic book shop, she'd had to fly back and forth the old fashioned way. (With superhuman flight.) But once here... she could watch over her city, turn on the super hearing, and spot-check any trouble that troubled the town. Atlanta loved their friendly neighborhood Astro Gal, and just knowing she was around kept crime down.
Even better, this year around, she was between run-throughs of high school. Una and Nel had agreed her life was stable enough that she didn't need that daily routine to keep her from relapsing. And then they went away. They went away and she-- now she could hero full-time, without having to worry about making excuses for very long bathroom breaks. All day and into the night, Astro Gal would patrol, and fight crime, and save those in distress, and be loved for it.
And then she'd go home and everything would be terrible again. But at least she knew the next morning, she could come back here, and be super. And she couldn't see anything changing that.
The precinct dispatched the usual bank robbery brigade... EMTs to deal with any injuries, including injuries to the suspect. Police officers to take witness statements, to ensure a smooth prosecution. The process took time, since the wheels of law and order were methodical -- zooming in to save the day with a very carefully executed takedown was only the start of that process. On the whole, Carrie's role in the system was minor.
That meant while they were doing their business, she was free to try to turn the thief's life around.
"I mean, things aren't really so bad, are they?" she was saying, to the man secured firmly to a cozy couch. "There's new opportunities everywhere, from the cities to the Fringe and even in Faeusa! The world's finally opening up. No time like the present to make a fresh start! I'm sure once you've served your time for this transgression, you can really make something of yourself! You just need to believe in you. Do you understand?"
The ragged-looking fellow, finally able to get a word in edgewise as the heroine's optimistic ramble wound down, decided to spit in her face. Literally.
Expectoration wasn't a reaction she was expecting.
Often, she'd get thanks for her pep talks. Or at least sarcastic eye-rolling, which meant they had listened, and would maybe think about it later. Outright hate, sometimes, but...
"Stupid kid. Don't you get it?" the criminal asked. "It's the end of the world. Why do you think I wanted the money? I'm getting the hell out of here. Away from them. The goddamn aliens."
Atlanta, where everything made sense...
Except Atlanta was part of Eastusa. And the leader of Eastusa had thrown in with the Ascendancy.
"You saw what's going down in England, now that those lowly humans decided to stand up to the invaders. They're getting their limey asses kicked," he continued. "It's all over. Ascendancy's just pretending to be nice to us, but eventually, we'll all be dead. They'll nuke the planet and eat it all up, like they wanted to do in the first place. So... screw them, screw this country, and screw you, brat. I could've gotten away, but now I'll die in jail when they finally drop the axe, and it's all gonna be your fault. You remember that."
She hadn't wiped the tiny gob off her mask by the time the officers finished hauling him away. In fact, she barely noticed anything around her, until someone addressed her by name.
"...uh. Astro Gal?"
"Yes? Um. Yes, citizen?" she said, before quickly wiping away the evidence.
The police officer's concern was clear on his face. Astro Gal was one of them, now; an unofficial, unorthodox member of the fraternal order of policemen. And they looked out for her.
"You okay, kiddo?" he asked.
"Yes. It's... well. I guess things have been a bit tense since the Ascendancy showed up, so things happen, you know?" she said. "That poor man. He just can't see the bigger picture... it's not so bad. ...it's not so bad, right?"
There was no right answer to that. Not if he wanted to be honest, and not if he wanted to keep the department's mascot / daughter / heroine / close ally looking to the stars, which she did best. So, he decided to get on with what he came to do.
"I was dispatched to bring you in," he said. "I mean, to tell you the Chief of Police wants to talk to you."
"Thanks, officer! I've always got time for Chief O'Dare," Astro Gal declared.
"...yeah. About that... I got some bad news, kid."
Every good heroine should maintain cordial relations with the local police department -- especially on this Earth, Carrie had come to realize. Her home world had the oath, the one all heroes took, which made them a legal extension of the justice system. Here, she worked by the good grace of the police, who turned a blind eye to the vigilante nature of her crime fighting provided that she continued to use good judgment and careful control over her powers.
She in particular worked by the good grace of one Chief Barbara O'Dare, who headed up the Atlanta P.D. At first, Chief O'Dare had been skeptical of the young girl playing at being a hero... but time and time again she proved her capabilities against superhuman and mundane threats alike, using her invulnerability to take bullets that would've ended a cop's life, to defuse tense situations before any hostages could be harmed, and so on. In time, their working relationship went from skeptical to cordial to closely knit indeed.
In some ways, if Una and Nel were her mothers, Barbara O'Dare was her mentor. The Chief had been on the force many a year, and knew her city inside and out. She knew how to get control on a situation and wrestle it to the ground. They'd been working together so long that little discussion was needed -- both knew what they had to do.
Discussion would be needed today, because the one sitting at Chief O'Dare's desk was not Chief O'Dare.
The snow-white hair and finely pressed military uniform said Ascendancy. And the sign on the door, which had been hastily affixed over Barbara O'Dare's, now read Ser, Chief of Police.
Astro Gal was half expecting this. After all, President Waller had given a State of the Union address two nights previous, to talk about integrating the Ascendancy into law enforcement and other civil emergency services... a simple extension of our agreement with Arcology #A076, he had phrased it. They would be deploying the method used to pacify terrorists like the Federalists and the Braid of Dawn as well, something called Total Social Conversion. (The process had been rammed through the Food & Drug Administration and declared safe for use on criminals, much to the outcry of those who were daring enough to cry out against the Ascendancy.)
Therefore, having the Ascendancy take up a post in Atlanta made sense. They had the authorization of the Commander in Chief, after all.
But she hadn't been expecting to see a familiar face completely replaced by one of them. And, from the sour and downtrodden looks of the police officers in the pit, they weren't happy about this, either.
Ser, in contrast, was an extremely happy man. He got right up from Barbara's desk, and rushed over to shake Astro Gal's hand, the instant she walked through Barbara's door.
"It's so good to see you, so VERY good to see you!" Ser declared, all enthusiasm and giddiness. "Astro Gal! An honest-to-goodness superheroine. Amazing, simply amazing. Please, have a seat, relax! Consider my office to be akin to your office."
Astro Gal had nearly crushed his wrist on reflex, from the aggressive way in which he charged right up and seized her hand. Fortunately she caught herself a millisecond before that, and fell into a state of mute confusion afterwards. A seat was offered, so a seat was taken. Even if she wasn't sure what else was going on.
The man resumed his stolen seat, still with a smile a mile wide, leaning his elbows on the desk and propping his chin up in his hands. An idolizing stare.
"I'm sorry, just... I've always enjoyed comic books," he explained. "It's an artform that's arisen on most Earths in the Orbital cultural database. Nearly every time, it focuses on superhumans with an overwhelming sense of justice... a lesson I've taken to heart, myself. I have an overwhelming sense of justice, and, well, the Ascendancy's technology does make us something like superhumans, yes? Like the Iron Man?"
(For some reason, Astro Gal was immediately reminded of a famous issue in which Tony Stark went on a drinking bender, hopped in the armor, and completely screwed up his heroing antics -- putting lives at risk in the process.)
"I know, I know exactly what you're thinking," Ser continued, as Astro Gal continued to stare at him in befuddlement. "Who's this fellow, what's he doing here, and so on. Well! The powers that be in your government and mine have assigned me to help keep Atlanta peaceful and orderly. Just like you've been doing. I--"
"Where's Mrs. O'Dare?" she asked, directly.
"Ah. Barbara O'Dare has accepted an early retirement package from the department," he explained. "We offered her another position in your police organization, one more suited to her ongoing years, but she... was not amicable to it. So, we parted ways. I'll be your new liaison to the police force, Carrie."
Alarm bells went off in her mind. Her hands gripped the armrests of the chair hard enough to make them creak.
Ser noticed, and immediately tried to put her at ease. "Ohh, please, I apologize! I mean, Astro Gal. Secret identity, yes...?"
"How do you know my name? --if that is my name, which I'll neither confirm nor deny," she added, too late. "Nobody knows that name, except for the former president, and Chief O'Dare..."
"Mrs. O'Dare didn't tell us, if you're wondering," Ser said. "She did not... what is the phrase... 'mouse you out'?"
"Rat me out."
"Right, she did not rat you out. And I'm afraid William Petersen apparently took any files of value with him when he retired from the public eye," Ser added. "No, no. We're... well. If you'll pardon a bit of hubris, we are an organization of geniuses with incredible science at our fingertips. It was not difficult to analyze your... social patterns and connections, your speech and mannerisms, and determine your identity. But! As I said, I am a lover of comics, and I know the importance of the secret identity. It will remain secret."
"Good... good. Thanks. ...so, uh. You're my new liaison, then?"
"Well, yes, but... hmm. I'm not sure how to put this delicately," Ser said, hunting for the words. "Ah, yes. I said the Ascendancy was essentially superhuman. We have far greater capability than the police officers of your world -- and that's no slight on them, they do the best they can with what little they have! It's extremely noble, the risks they take. But... well. I'm not sure there's going to be much use for you, anymore."
Ser slid an Orbital tablet workstation onto his desk, activating it.
A small hologram hovered above the oak desk. It depicted an Ascendancy soldier... replete in shiny armor, with various statistics and facts hovering around him.
Standard Ascendancy shock trooper outfitting, impervious to bullets, with an energy shield to harden it against explosions and rebuff flames.
Standard Ascendancy energy rifle, capable of neurostatic blasts that will render any human subject unconscious in less than 0.78 seconds, or vaporize hard targets in 1.54 seconds.
Finally, a standard Ascendancy jetpack, with exceptional maneuverability and speed in urban environments.
"Pound for pound, any one of our basic soldiers is a match for your abilities against this world's criminal element," he stated. "While you have more... how to say it... 'finesse' at hand-to-hand grappling, we are more than capable of safely neutralizing a target without needing such a physical encounter in the first place. So... I don't think you're going to find much to do, now that we're around."
He deactivated the hologram, and put the tablet away. His smile had gone from adoring to smug... the tiniest of tweaks around the corner, but for someone good at reading body language with super senses, as clear as shouting out loud from a mountaintop.
"Now, I'm not going to tell you that you can't play hero anymore," Ser clarified. "I do honestly admire your spirit. You remind me a lot of my own daughter, you know. Once she sets her mind on something, she shows great determination. A fine Pragmatist, just like her parents. But in youth, sometimes we don't recognize when it's time to be determined... and when it's time to back down."
In and around all the words of praise, the message was clear -- you aren't needed, or even wanted. And Astro Gal was quick to defend who and what she was, not backing down to that.
"I can use my super hearing to find crimes before they're even reported to the police," she said. "And I can get to the scene first, with my speed--"
"Our sensors -- which can scan right down to the tiniest particle of radiation, I'm proud to say -- and our predictive A.I. systems can detect crimes even before they happen," Ser rebutted. "We can dispatch an entire phalanx before you'd even get there. Before there was even a crime, for that matter."
"You can't be everywhere at once. There's going to be things you miss..."
"We have enough manpower, between our advanced guard and the traditional police forces for traditional crowd control and mop-up operations. We'll have the city nicely blanketed, I assure you."
"Back in Urbantropolis, there were dozens of costumed heroes, and we still couldn't thwart every evil scheme," she tried.
"Ah, but this is Atlanta, not Urbantropolis, yes?" he pointed out. "Tell me honestly, Carrie. How often do you face criminals on par with the supervillains you used to fight? True, I read the case files about those stray artifacts; you were exceptionally heroic! And you have dealt with the occasional psychopathic magic-using Fae. And a few wannabe comic book villains, who emerged merely because you exist, and they wanted to take a shot at you. But in truth... we have more than enough resources for typical or atypical Atlanta crime."
"I... I could go to another city," she suggested, running out of ideas, and running out of steam.
"The Ascendancy is mobilizing rapidly, under an executive order from your President, to reinforce emergency services in all Eastusa settlements. We're even going to... well, we're planning to take over law enforcement in Faeusa from the Summerlions, although that's going to take a bit more diplomacy, and more cultural understanding of what 'law' means to the Fae. The point is, we have the situation covered. Completely."
"There's... surely there's some threats you can't--"
Ser raised a hand, to stop her.
"I should point out that there's certainly threats you can't take on with superpowered fisticuffs, before you start making that suggestion," he said. "But the Ascendancy has visited many worlds, and dealt with many threats. We're neutralizing the zombie and mutant menaces. We destroyed America's age-old enemy, the Atlantean Kingdom, in seconds. And... well. I was hoping to offer this as an olive branch, but if I must use it as a logical refutement... we eliminated the psychic core of your father in Hawaii."
Astro Gal's words stopped dead in her throat.
"Doctor Mindmelter, I believe he called himself...?" Ser said. "Able to psionically control any male within range of his free-roaming mental presence. We have had experience with psionics before, on Earth #44C9. The countermeasures worked beautifully in Hawaii. We have eradicated him, and he will no longer threaten this world. ...can you say that act of justice was within your capacity, Carrie?"
Vengeance isn't justice, Knightwatch. Words of a memory, echoed in a dream.
She should have been angry. She should have been livid, that the Ascendancy had taken it on themselves to murder her father. Her last living relative, gone from this world.
...the abusive, controlling father who tried to run her life and protect her purity. The one who punished her any time she strayed from the path of Daddy's Good Little Girl.
She shouldn't have been satisfied to know he was dead, especially since it justified the Ascendancy's point, that Astro Gal was not up to the tasks this world had thrown at her. But she couldn't argue it. She couldn't argue anything, anymore.
The office door opened, quietly. One of those shiny jetpack-wearing guards, a perfect in-the-flesh replica of the holographic schematics she had memorized from earlier, was here to do his duty.
"It's been a fascinating discussion, Astro Gal, but... I'm afraid there's a lot of work to do, refitting the department, bringing it up to Ascendancy standards," the new Chief of Police said. "I wanted so badly to meet you, to say thank you for all the hard work you've done for this city in the past... but now I have hard work of my own to do, yes? Yes. Thanks for this time. Good day."
She still had questions of her own, of course.
Instead, she mutely left the office. Because in the end, none of the answers mattered.
This was how things were going to be. The Eastusa government and the Ascendancy were working hand in hand... determined not to fall to chaos and panic, the way England had after such a promising start to its own alliance. They were taking over, piece by piece, and with the full consent of those in power.
In the end, for all her superhuman power... Carrie Lane had no power. She wasn't even a sworn officer of the law. She was just a concerned citizen, who was allowed to do what she could to help, by those with real power. And like it or not, those days were probably over, now.
This wasn't a problem that could be solved by a haymaker or an armbar takedown. There was no self-destruct button in the mad scientist's lair, the robot couldn't be talked into destroying itself with a logical paradox. She was only one girl, and this enemy -- who was legally her friend, even if she'd never call them friends -- lurked well beyond the pages of the comic.
Which is not to say Astro Gal was willing to give up without a fight.
She was in the city -- her city -- and had come to do justice. She would fly her patrol route, and would keep her ears open for crimes. Even being seen in the sky was comfort enough to her people... a familiar sight in Atlanta, as familiar as a traffic helicopter or a flock of pigeons. It wouldn't be Atlanta without those sights, and she wanted to be there for them, even if... well, some days, there wasn't actually much crime to fight, but...
No. Distracting thoughts. She had a point to prove, that she could and would fight the good fight. Surely the opportunity for that fight would present itself today, and she would show the Ascendancy that Astro Gal was still the city's champion.
The opportunity arose as she was banking left, over the business district.
Glass shattering. A window pane, large shop front display. Astro Gal's trained senses could distinguish between different types of glass, to avoid coming down like a ton of bricks on someone who had accidentally nudged a glass of milk off a kitchen counter.
The city had been on edge, since the arrival of the Ascendancy. Most kept that edge inside, smiling on the outside, trying to pretend nothing was wrong. Others felt the need to express their concerns. Physically. And criminally. Like the bank robber this morning, driven to desperation by that feeling that the entire world was a powderkeg waiting to go...
Focus, Astro Gal thought. She identified the flight vector to take her safely towards the broken glass, accelerated, and touched down just outside...
...a pile of bodies, on the sidewalk.
Men in silver armor had just finished lowering their weapons.
At first, panic. The Ascendancy just murdered a half dozen people. But her ears tuned in, hearing heartbeats... they had been stunned. Those schematics that Ser showed her did indicate that the rifles defaulted to a non-lethal setting, after all.
Still... the crime had barely started. Someone was clearly carrying off a network console, a video set designed to display news streams and podcasts and the like. It sat, shattered, on the sidewalk where he'd fallen to the ground.
The others, well... maybe two of them were with him, judging from age grouping, cultural background, and similar dress. But the rest had only been walking along on the business district's sidewalks, based on the way they fell. In fact, one of them had been pushing a baby stroller. It had rolled to a halt against a brick wall. The baby was not making a sound, but there was a heartbeat, thank god...
"Neutralized," the Ascendancy soldier spoke, into his helmet's comm unit. "Burglary in progress. Dispatch local officers for retrieval and questioning for six, likely total social conversion for three--"
"What have you done?!" Astro Gal blurted out, despite knowing full well what they did. Some moral outrage has to make itself known, after all.
"...copy that. Yes, the superhero is also here," the soldier replied back over his unit, before cocking his head to look at her. "Ma'am, please leave the crime scene. We are still securing the--"
"You opened fire on innocent civilians!"
"They are unharmed, ma'am, and will wake within the hour--"
"And a baby! You shot a baby. I mean, how stupid do you have to be to think an infant is a criminal mastermind you have to hose down with energy weapons?! And what if the kid had rolled into traffic?"
Black and whites pulled up to the scene -- two patrol cars and one van -- as they debated. Ser had clearly dispatched them before the crime was even in progress. Atlanta P.D. emerged, but paused to watch, puzzled to see Astro Gal there... and not sure if they should proceed.
One curt nod from the silver-helmeted soldier sent them reluctantly into motion, to gather up the unconscious bodies. One moved to retrieve the baby stroller.
"Ma'am, we have the situation under control, and have always had the situation under control," the soldier continued. "It's a simple matter of physics and predictive vectors to determine that the child would remain safe, based on the angle of approach and the probability of various limb movements during the mother's collapse. We acted to minimize injury, and we have minimized injury, as you can see. Please clear the scene. We do not want to risk any harm to these citizens during a confrontation with you."
This is completely insane, Carrie Lane thought, inside. How is nobody seeing this is completely insane? Who cares if the elected official du jour likes these guys? This isn't right, this isn't justice, this isn't...
But the police officers, the ones born on this Earth, were busy doing the Ascendancy's dirty work. The van had already been modified to move stunned prisoners... racks of stretchers, with self-sealing safety straps to secure the bodies. Everything ticking along, according to the direction the Ascendancy had chosen for this world. And going against that would be going against the rule of law.
We do not want to risk any harm to these citizens during a confrontation with you.
They would be perfectly happy to declare her a vigilante. To take her down.
A pretty obvious line in the sand. One she could cross. It'd be easy; step forward, step into the soldier, pop that helmet right off his head. Just flesh and blood under there. Astro Gal was good at taking down flesh and blood...
...and then she'd be a criminal. She'd be going against everything she stood for, as a crusader of the law. No matter how gonzo the law was, it was the law she'd sworn to uphold...
...unjust laws, putting power in the hands of obvious invaders with evil intent!
...which... was a bit like Knightfall's excuse, as well. Because the system kept the Merry Prankster alive (and thus able to kill again and again) he felt betrayed by those in power. His outrage carried him too far, just as much as Carrie's outrage felt justified in taking that step towards becoming a public enemy...
...this was going to take some thought.
A stray whisper caught her ear, leading those thoughts.
One of the officers who was busy trying to figure out how to haul away a six-month-old infant for questioning had grumbled, and mumbled under his breath:
O'Dare wouldn't have put up with this crap.
Two minutes later, the crime scene was completely clear. They'd even used a simple matter duplicator to seal up the broken window. New passersby had no idea anything had even happened.
Beyond the Freedom Wall of Atlanta lay farmlands. This was the Fringe, contested territory... the only place where Eastusa could do any proper agriculture. The right to have a square meal drove much of the two-hundred-year hot-and-cold war with the Fae, above anything else.
These days, that war had cooled to the point of being a distant memory. Especially THESE days, with the Braid of Dawn and the Federalists being systematically dismantled by Ascendancy agents, using information offered up freely by their turncoat leaders. Nobody had anything to fear out here, anymore.
Despite that, vestiges of the old ways existed. For instance, the O'Dare family farm had an anti-aircraft gun, rusting away on a corner of the cornfield, in case any wyverns decided to take a strafing run on the place.
Barbara O'Dare came from a long line of law enforcers, of various stripes. Most of her family had been Frontliners, military men and women who defended the Fringe and the Eastusa cities from Fae attacks. Barbara herself went into criminal law enforcement, having had her fill of farming life early on and eager for the bright lights of the big city...
And when that big city no longer wanted her, well, this was the only other place she could go.
Few people knew about the farm. The Chief of Police was a very private woman; she didn't even keep family photos in her office. Not because she hated her kids or anything, they were the light of her life... but she'd seen previous police chiefs who led very public lives getting their families put in harm's way by vengeful criminals. Barbara had played it smart, and compartmentalized her public and private lives.
With Carrie Lane as a close confidante, though, the O'Dare farm wasn't much of a secret. But whether or not Barbara would've gone back to the boring old family homestead after being fired was another matter...
She circled overhead a few times, listening for that familiar heartbeat. And was surprised to hear quite a few heartbeats, from the manor house between fields of well-tended crops. One of which was certainly Barbara's, which was good enough for her. (She knew better than to tune in her hearing on their voices; overhearing someone's private conversation from hundreds of feet up was quite impolite. Heartbeats were easy enough to isolate and focus on.)
Carrie landed outside the farm, to approach on foot. She had a secret identity to maintain, after all... and had stashed her costume in her knapsack, for now. Being a friend of the family in and out of costume meant she didn't need to mask up before dropping in.
She knocked carefully on the wooden door of the old farmhouse, not wanting to accidentally blast it off its hinges or anything like that.
The woman who answered the door was shorter than expected.
"Hullo," the young girl spoke. "Are you selling something?"
"Uh... no, I'm Carrie Lane. I'm a friend of... er, your... aunt? Your grandmother? Barbara O'Dare," she clarified.
"Oh. Auntie Barbara's busy doing stuff in the basement," the kid said. "You come in and sit down and I'll go get her, okay? Okay."
Carrie had only been here a few times. Even though they built trust rapidly, Barbara hadn't been ready to let her into this compartment of her life right away -- it was only in the last few years, when Chief O'Dare noticed Carrie feeling a bit down about her breakup that she suggested Carrie attend one of her family reunions. The condition was that Astro Gal couldn't come; that would have raised too many questions.
So, Carrie knew the way to the living room, despite the kid leading her on. (Thankfully a kid who had missed the last O'Dare reunion... otherwise, Carrie the unaging teenager would've been confusing to her.) Plenty of soft furniture, with yarn-knitted doilies and the like. Portraits of children on the walls. It smelled like a kindly grandmother's house, all dusty and cozy and old, as the house had seen multiple generations of O'Dares come and go...
Carrie had a seat next to a teddy bear.
...which was a little odd. It was an old and ratty-looking thing... maybe some sort of nostalgic throwback children's toy, given that right in its plush belly was a cassette player.
(Nobody alive today would've recognized an audio cassette, the format having gone dead sometime after the 1980s. But Carrie, who had been alive for a considerable amount of time and had a very sharp memory, firmly recalled enjoying Huey Lewis and the News on cassette. And recalled those creepy talking teddy bears that played back audio cassettes.)
"Ah... is this yours?" she asked the kid, who was busy looting a crystal jar of little candies on the coffee table.
"Naw, that came in the mail today," the little girl said, totally uninterested in the toy. "I've got way cooler toys back home. They can talk and stuff."
"Actually, I think this one can talk--"
Someone taller than her grabbed Carrie's attention.
"Caroline, shoo, shoo," Barbara O'Dare said, waving the kid away. "Go play in the parlor. Auntie Barbara needs to talk to her friend."
The little girl, still not giving much of a care about any of this, skipped away without a second word. As Barbara took a seat across from Carrie, in a rocking chair.
...and seemed... upset. Concerned. It was difficult, reading Barbara; she made her views clear and honest in her speech, but if she wasn't saying anything, she could guard her emotional core like nobody else.
"Um... hi," Carrie offered. "Sorry for dropping in unannounced like this, but... well, I heard about your retirement, and I wanted to see how you were doing..."
"I've been expecting you, actually," Barbara said... and nodded to the candy dish, knowing Carrie's sweet tooth and hypermetabolism. (Carrie accepted gratefully, fetching and unwrapping a butterscotch.) "Things are a bit crazy right now out there, huh."
"You could say that, yeah..."
"Can't say I was particularly thrilled at being railroaded into early retirement," Barbara said, rocking lightly in her chair. (She looks older than I remember, Carrie thought.) "After all, I'd wanted to go gray and decrepit and spend my days playing golf in Florida. Instead, the family house fell to me. Here I spent most of my life getting away from the farm, and now it's my responsibility, for lack of a better option."
"Well... yeah, I guess, but... you were kicked out of the force!" Carrie said, trying to refocus things. "That's just horrible! And the Ascendancy--"
"--are in charge of things now, yes," Barbara filled in. "That's the way it goes. Every four years, you go into a little box and elect some damn fool idiot to office, hoping like hell that he won't make things worse than the last damn fool idiot you voted for. And then he hands the keys over to someone you never voted for. Go figure. ...you're not happy about this, I'd hazard. No more than I am."
Carrie swallowed. Which meant accidentally swallowing the butterscotch candy, but nothing her Super Digestion couldn't deal with.
"I'm... not really sure what to do next," she admitted. "They're enforcing the law now, and they don't want me around. I guess I could keep trying to... do what I do. This is my country, my people, and I want to defend them. But..."
"But it's rough to defend your country when it's taking a tack you don't agree with. The O'Dares have been there and back again, of course. The Frontliners don't get much say in what wars they fight, for instance. They put their faith in the higher-ups that their lives will be given for just causes, but... in the end, a soldier marches to the drum that's beaten for him. That's how it is."
"So... I should work with the Ascendancy?" Carrie asked, confused. "They don't want me. Does that mean I should retire, like you did? --I mean, I'm not saying you just gave up or anything, I just... I mean... I don't even know WHAT I mean anymore. ...I wish Una was here..."
Barbara rocked in her chair a little, watching as her longtime partner in crime-fighting sank into the plush couch a little deeper.
"You've got some thinking to do, that's clear," the former Chief of Police agreed. "And not under the best of circumstances. Still no sign of your guardians, huh?"
"No. I'm... alone. All alone in the house," Carrie said. "I could maybe deal with this, sort it all out, if I just had some stability. I like to know where I stand, and who I'm standing with. But now everything's changing, everything's completely crazy, and... I just don't know what to DO, Mrs. O'Dare. ...you know, I've always... I've always thought we were kind of like family..."
Immediately, Carrie regretted saying it.
O'Dare was good at guarding herself, but not perfect. And that right there, that was a conflicted expression.
The desire to help, to comfort. To take in this wayward child and show her there could be light at the end of the tunnel.
But... a defensive pulling back. Ever so slight, rocking away from Carrie just a half inch more than she had to, in the rocking chair. Worry. Concern. This was not a good time for Carrie to impose... certainly not a good time for Carrie to suggest she temporarily move in, just so she had something resembling a family again...
Heartbeats. She'd heard many heartbeats in the house. In the basement, with whispered talking.
Maybe it was a family reunion... and not a pleasant one. The deed to the family estate in question, maybe. She didn't want to use super hearing to pry; she owed Barbara more than that, to force her way into a sensitive situation. For all that this woman had done to support Carrie over the years, the least Carrie could do in return was respect that privacy.
So, she stood, to leave.
"I think I need to sort this out for myself," she announced. "But thanks for listening to me. I'm glad I was able to see you again, even if we might not be working together again."
Finally... something approaching a smile, from her mentor.
"Eh, you never know where things take you," Barbara O'Dare noted. "Maybe we'll work together again, one day. You go and find yourself, Carrie. Figure out what justice means to you, and what you'll do to find it. You've got a strong heart... I don't doubt for a minute that it'll steer you true."
Five minutes later, and Carrie Lane was hovering above Atlanta again.
For all Barbara's confidence and kind words, and all Carrie's bravado at declaring she'd sort things out herself... the sun was going to go down soon. And that meant going back to the empty house.
A potentially former superhero, an ordinary teenage girl, all alone in an empty house littered with uneaten fortune cookies and smelly socks.
If all her friends had abandoned her, if she couldn't stay with the only other person she considered to be family, then... that left a single option. One she was hoping she didn't need to turn to, but another night, another night alone, not another night, no, that's too much on top of everything else...
...she'd just have to be very, very friendly. Despite the way they drifted apart. Broke up, really. Nothing that couldn't be mended. Hopefully.
Then it started raining.
It was not only pouring, but flashing lightning across the sky by the time the doorbell rang.
Then the doorbell rang again, because nobody answered it the first time.
Finally, after some internal debate over whose responsibility it was to open the door and who had made the firmer case for why he was too busy to do it himself, a door-opener had been selected and the door was thus opened before the bell could be rung a third time.
Neither the opener nor the one who was requesting the open door recognized each other, which did not help the situation.
"You're not the weed guy," the dudebro in the bathrobe and boxer shorts pointed out.
"And you're not Van," Carrie Lane pointed out.
"Oh. Uh, hang on. --IVAN! YO! Some kid here to see you!"
So, that was how they were reintroduced to each other. One of them, leaning over from his computer and looking really confused. The other, hugging herself for warmth and looking like she'd just swum the length of the English Channel.
Quickly, he kicked away from his ratty second-hand office chair, pushing past his roommate to show her in. Shutting the door, to keep the thunderstorm out.
"Doug, quit being a useless lump and get some towels already," Van Buren politely requested.
The door-answering dude rolled his eyes, and wandered towards the bathroom. "Jeez, whatever, bro. Towels, fine..."
Leaving the teenager and the college senior alone. For the first time in years.
"Um. Hi," Carrie offered. "I... ah... I'm good to see you again. I mean, it's good to see you again..."
"Yeah. Ah, yeah, you too, I mean... yeah," Van offered in return. "So... um..."
His Georgia State University sweatshirt would have to do as a towel, given it was promptly grabbed onto for dear life by a soaking wet, crying teenage girl.
The unspoken history between the two was the stuff of after-school network dramas.
They'd met during the first of Carrie's many stints through the high school system, as part of her cover identity. (Being unaging meant she had to cycle from school to school, before anybody noticed.) He was just another punk with crap grades and a bad attitude, running with a gang that played at being Federalists. With a name uncannily like that of a long dead president, Ivan Buren started calling himself Van Buren, and raising all kinds of hell.
Except... he wasn't really a hell-raising type. That would be his buddies. Van went along with the hell-raising, because he didn't really care one way or another, except for wanting to tag along with folks he knew rather than being left at the curb. I guess I'm a natural follower, was his reasoning.
Which meant he'd followed them into a burglary, stealing a bunch of artifacts being hoarded by Orbitals known as the Gatherers, and... well, at the end of the day, a considerable amount of superhero punching was required to make the problem go away. And through this mess... Carrie Lane, with her secret identity exposed to him, had bonded with Van Buren. From friendship to boyfriend / girlfriend in no time at all, really.
Without the gang around and with a better role model to play tagalong with, Van pulled up his grades, particularly in history class. He wasn't exactly a study hall nerd, but he fumbled his way to somewhere above the state average. He even got accepted into college, with Carrie cheering him on all the way...
And then he left.
He was getting older. She wasn't. He was moving on with his life. She was stuck in a cycle of the same four grades, over and over. They were still hanging around the same city, but they'd grown worlds apart. Meetups were awkward at best, problematic at worst. For all they had in common, for the love they had, there was just too much going on to make it work.
Parting was amicable. (Well, Carrie had cried her eyes out at an O'Dare family reunion. But there wasn't any hostility on the way out the door, at least.) She'd focused on her superhero work, even skipping a high school cycle, to work at the comic shop full time. Until it closed down. And then it was just hero work, and home life. And now, just hero work. And now, and now...
"I don't know," she said, honestly. "I don't know what to do."
"I think it's pretty clear you wanna knock Ser's smug little grin right off his face," Ivan said. (Ivan. Not Van. Van Buren was a punk kid. Ivan Buren had a historical studies scholarship.)
"Wanting to do something isn't the same as knowing what to do," Carrie stated. "If I go and just randomly punch any Ascendancy people I see... I mean... it doesn't FIX anything. It doesn't help anyone. They're in charge, because the people in charge say they are. Some... some silly girl in spandex can't really change any of this..."
He had a tissue ready for her before she even reached for one. Granted, he had to borrow the box from his roommate Doug, and he hated to think what Doug routinely used them for, but that didn't matter right now. At least Doug had given them some privacy -- he was too busy watching video streams from his designated couch position to care about their intimate conversation.
"And they're seriously all gone? Una, Nel, Emily, all of them?" Ivan asked. "I mean, I heard some official state reports about how the Faerie Queen went rogue, but it was such obvious state propaganda bullshit that I just assumed... well, I assumed they were out there kicking ass. And that you were with them."
"They won't want me around. I don't know why, but they don't. I mean, they would've contacted me, right? They would've done something..."
"Well, maybe they did. I mean, some serious James Bond, double secret C.I.A. transmission stuff...? Microdots or parabolic antennas? Did any dudes in trenchcoats speak to you in cryptic code phrases lately?"
"There's nothing, Van. There's nowhere else I can go. Even Mrs. O'Dare's having some kind of... I don't know, family problems. And I guess I'm not part of her family, not really. I... I just... can I stay here? Not for long. Until I can figure out what I should be doing next... you know what I'm like when I'm all alone. I'm having the dreams again, Van. The straw people. I don't wanna relapse to the way I was, stuck in Hawaii for hundreds of years and going nuts. I'm, I mean, I'm not saying I will, but..."
Van leaned back in his office chair a bit, away from girl sitting at the end of his bed. And looked old.
He wasn't THAT much older. It had been about seven years since they first met, and at that point, they were fifteen and "fifteen." But... he was taller, now. More filled out. And, oddly, looking like a whole heap of trouble had been carried on his shoulders for quite some time. Midterms and long-winded history reports, maybe. College had been tough enough to give Carrie problems, last time she tried it...
"Look... I... okay. I'm not gonna turn you out, that'd be goddamn cold. And yes, I do still care about you. But just so we're clear, I told Doug you're my... uh. I said you were my kid cousin."
"Hey, I mean, what was I supposed to say?" Ivan asked. "That we were in a relationship back when I was in high school? You'd've been EIGHT. Doug is not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he's bright enough and jerky enough to assume I'm some kind of pedobear if I didn't have a good explanation..."
Secret identities. Cover stories. A routine Carrie knew all too well... especially when working with people who she'd known for long enough to cause problems like these. To cause Van, the one she loved once upon a time, problems like these.
It wasn't like she was expecting to show up out of the blue, after not seeing him for years out of the sheer awkwardness of it, and resume heavy petting in the back of his mother's hatchback while pirated classical music from Dashboard Confessional played on his stereo. All she really wanted was a place to lay her head, some place with a familiar face, right? That was all she could have hoped for, so, that's all she must've been hoping for...
"Right. Okay," she agreed. "Fine. That's okay..."
"Great. Good," Ivan agreed, getting to his feet. (He glanced around the room, momentarily concerned he might have forgotten to take down that naughty calendar he got as a gag gift last year.) "Anyway... it's getting late, so... let's talk sleeping arrangements. I may need a wad of TNT to dislodge Doug from the couch, but I'm cool with taking it so you can..."
She was already fast asleep on his bed by that point.
With a sigh, Ivan turn back to his computer, and tapped the touchscreen. After pausing a few processes and saving the project he was working on, he re-locked and shut it down for the night. And carefully, very carefully, retrieved a pillow from the bed to take with him to the apartment's living room. Just not the pillow she was hugging in her sleep.
When she woke up, she'd found her clothes freshly laundered and folded at the foot of the bed, along with a note.
SINGH'S THERMONUCLEAR CURRY INFERNO, 12:30pm. We'll catch up. Got classes 2 go 2, cya.
Plenty of time, between then and now. So, she decided she'd take her time as well. Get some breakfast, if that was even possible using only the the kitchen of two college-age bachelors. Enjoy a nice, hot shower. Things like that.
On emerging from the bedroom, she found she wasn't alone. Two others were on the couch. One, the pile of allegedly human tissue named Doug. If his roomie had any classes, clearly they weren't morning ones. In fact, if she didn't know any better (from the bed and blanket stuffed in the corner of the couch) she'dve guessed that Doug hadn't moved an inch from the night before.
The other was, weirdly enough, a teddy bear. Creepy plastic eyes, and a cassette player in its stomach.
Maybe Van got it for me as a gift? she thought. Maybe talking bears are coming back in style...?
"Hey," Doug greeted. He was too busy for extensive smalltalk -- playing some first-person perspective shooter, making believe he was a Frontliner taking it to an invading Faerie army. (Video games like that were considered poor taste in the Second Age, but the developers just called them historical simulators and ignored any outcry.)
"Hey. Uh. Is that bear supposed to be for me?" Carrie asked, pointing to it. "Did it come with a cookie bouquet or flowers or something...? Or, uh... maybe for... Van's girlfriend?"
"Ivan? Girlfriend? That recluse? Not likely," Doug offered, without looking over to the bear or its alleged owner. "Naw, some plain jane delivery chick dropped it off this morning for Ivan. Hey, if you see Ivan later today, tell him I'm sick of signing for his packages. Next time I'm leaving them on the front stoop. --oh, come ON! That was not a headshot! I call hax!"
For lack of anything else to do, she tried to start up Van's computer, a classic Eastusa laptop-style workstation. Way inferior to her Orbital-designed tablet, but it'd browse the internet, which was all that mattered. She could sign into her messenger system and see if there was any word from Susie...
Except his system was passworded. And encrypted. And generally locked down in a rather paranoid style. No doubt because his roomie would use it to look at porn, or something.
So, she killed a few hours watching Doug blast elves with a shotgun, and then hopped a bus to the GSU campus district. No sense flying; her costume was packed away in her backpack, and, well, she wasn't heroing today. Maybe not ever again, if the Ascendancy had anything to say about it.
Despite being grounded, her spirits were oddly high. This was... normalcy. An ordinary life, with people, including Doug under the definition of people. On top of that, the restaurant Van wanted to meet up at was the one where they had their first date, so long ago... back before they even realized they were dating. Carrie always loved spicy food, which is why she loved that weird little Fae-Chinese restaurant back in New Orleans. VERY spicy noodles.
In fact, she was smiling brightly when she spotted that familiar face, sitting at a familiar booth.
He wasn't smiling, though. Or even looking at her. He was watching the video set, stuck up in one corner of the restaurant.
Usually, Khan Singh (who didn't even realize whom he was named after, much like her old boss, Milton Keyes) aired old Bollywood movies on his video sets, to set the right mood. He'd never been to India and was actually dozens of generations removed, but he liked to cash in on his heritage when it came to restaurant atmosphere.
But today, the video set was tuned to news streams, a regular rotation of the most popular ones. Much like the rest of the city... glued to the information, soaking it in, as if that would help them parse the crisis they were facing.
Op/ed was the name of the game. After all, any new and actual, factual information about the Ascendancy's encroaching control over the country came straight from the top in a very controlled manner. For lack of anything better to report, most of the stations were busy hiring any so-called expert analyst they could find. Most were just opinionated ranters. Like this one.
"I'm sick of all the doomsayers and hippies saying the Ascendancy is going to eat our babies or whatever," the man with the red power tie was saying. "So they caused Pandora! So what? That was hundreds of years ago! I mean, look at the Faerie Court. We were at full-on war with them for two centuries, and now what are they? Our allies. We forgave the sins of their fathers, because there's no point to holding a grudge this long. There's no point to holding a grudge against the Ascendancy when they've been nothing but helpful so far, just like the Orbitals in New Orleans were. We need more tolerance. We need open minds. The Ascendancy are going to get this country moving forward again, after so much stagnation. And I say we give them the leeway to get 'er done!"
Van hadn't even noticed Carrie sitting across the booth from him, battered old costume-storing knapsack at her side, until that last fierce statement from whoever-he-was made him shake his head in disgust.
"This is not going to end well," he declared. "I've had to write enough ten-page papers over the last few years about things just like this to know it's not going to end well..."
Carrie popped open the menu. It had changed quite a bit over the years, as various trends and health inspectors came and went, but she knew which curry she'd be having. Presumably Van knew too, since they came here quite a few times when they were still dating...
"Hey, did you order already?" Carrie asked.
"I swear, it's like... everybody's just lying down," he continued. "Keeping their heads down. Either they're too scared to admit this isn't what we're being told it is, or they've convinced themselves everything'll be fine. Or they're afraid speaking up will dump us headfirst into the London riots--"
"Do we have to talk about the Ascendancy today? ...please? I just... I just wanna get something to eat," she clarified. "Have a few laughs. Like old times. Nice and normal..."
There it was again. That weight, pressing down on his shoulders. Despite wearing nothing heavier than an old leather jacket... his gang skin, which he never left behind, even if he left everything else behind. It was too comfy for that.
"Sorry. I know you're going through some really rough crap right now," he said. "Look... I was thinking it over last night. You're taking a break from high school to focus on heroing, right? How about reversing that? Take a break from heroing, and just be completely and totally normal. At least until you've found your center."
"It's looking like I have to do that, yeah," she agreed. "And I do like routine. I should get that back, even if just to get some breathing room. So I'm thinking I'll look at some schools near GSU, so I can commute easily--"
"I can't stay at the house in New Orleans anymore. And commuting back and forth was getting a bit silly, anyway, especially with the teleportation henge under the old comic shop going away," she said. "I won't be a bother. Heck, I'd be out all day in class, so you'd barely notice I was there..."
"Carrie... you can't stay with me long term, you know," Ivan specified.
"It won't be a problem! I mean, I can pay for my own food, I've got a bank account that Una and Nel set up for me for when I needed Eastusa money. It'll work out. We could be together again! Just like the old days!"
Van folded his hands, and pressed them to his forehead, leaning forward. Then spoke frankly.
"The old days are the old days," he said. "We were different people then. ...more specifically, I'm different people now, and you're... the same. You're... Christ, I have no idea how to even explain this... you're a kid. I'm not, anymore."
She didn't even notice the plate of curry being set carefully in front of her. Apparently, Van had in fact already ordered.
The waiter was gone before she replied.
"I... wasn't expecting to be your girlfriend again," Carrie decided. "I mean. I just wanted somewhere familiar to go. I wasn't hoping for anything. Heh. It'd be silly, yeah? I mean, I'm seven years younger than you, supposedly. That'd just be... wrong. Disgusting. I--"
"Stop. Just... stop, okay?" Ivan requested. "I know this line of thought, because you were having it right up near the end of high school, too. I don't mean you're a freak. There's nothing wrong with you. You CAN be loved. ...and I still care about you a hell of a lot, Carrie. You got a crap hand in the poker game of life and that sucks, and I feel for you, and I've thought about you plenty over the last few years, and... and this is just how it is. ...your curry's gonna go cold."
"It's spicy," she replied, distantly. "That's the heat that matters. It'll be fine."
Resigning himself to how ugly this was going to get, Ivan decided he may as well start to eat his lunch. Stomachs didn't care whether or not you were reliving a nasty breakup from the past, they just wanted what they wanted.
Similarly, Carrie decided food was going to need to be eaten, one way or another. Her Super Digestion agreed, as she took a few spoonfuls of the curry, as she thought of what to say next.
Thought of what to DO next. Who she wanted to be. That was the question, wasn't it?
She couldn't be Astro Gal, teenage heroine, anymore. The Ascendancy had seen to that. The only way to put on the tights again would be to uselessly punch the very people she once supported.
She wasn't young Carrie Lane, nondescript high school student, keeping her secret identity through endless waves of classes she'd already ground through. Faking her age...
The only reason she was faking her age was to keep Astro Gal and Carrie Lane apart.
"I could enroll at GSU," she thought aloud.
"Hmmf?" Ivan semi-said, around a spoonful of curry.
"That's the problem, isn't it?" Carrie wondered. "I'm stuck. I can't be a hero. I'm sick of being a... a little kid. So. I guess it's time for me to grow up. ...I tried college before. I screwed it up, big time. Couldn't handle the pressure alone. Mom had to pay my bail when a series of really bad choices led me to being caught holding when some frat party was busted by the cops."
"Heh, yeah, I remember that story! Laugh riot," Ivan said with a chuckle. ...before catching himself and resumed his serious face. "I mean, ahem, yes, do go on."
"She told me that thanks to the cosmic radiation, my brain would probably never be developed enough to be able to handle adult living. ...and maybe she was wrong," Carrie decided. "She was wrong about a lot of things. I... don't like to admit that, but... it's true. So... so. So. How do I say this. --mind if I take a page from your playbook?"
"By all means."
"Then screw the rules. Screw the secret identity. Screw the hero codes," she said. "I'll get on with my life and grow the hell up. I've been ready to hit college for more than two centuries. And if anybody asks about my age? I live in a world with Faeries and flying ships powered by steam. An ageless girl is almost mundane. And if someone links me to Astro Gal? ... then... so what. My mom's a superheroine."
"I mean Una," Carrie said, with a smile. "And Nel. They're big damn heroines. Queen Emily is a heroine. Auntie Elisa's one. And so are you! --er, hero, not heroine. And I can still be one too, in my own way. Carrie Lane, superhero. All grown up. Even if... not... y'know, physically. So. Screw it. Let's do it. THAT is what I want to do next."
His fist banged the table hard enough to make her and her curry dish jump. But he was smiling.
"See? See? That's what I'm trying to say," he agreed, with a smile. "I grew up, you didn't, but... hell, why not? You could. I know you. You can be whatever the hell you want to be, whatever you MAKE yourself into. You pounded that lesson into my head over and over, right? I didn't have to be a punk, going nowhere. So you don't have to be an anonymous teen, going nowhere."
"And we could be roomies AND classmates!"
That was enough to stop his rah-rah encouragement in its tracks. But... he knew how important that was to her, so he kept the smile up.
"One step at a time, okay? I mean, this is good, I like this. Step in the right direction. Also, for now? Let's not start holding press conferences for Astro Gal's unmasking. I... may have an inside line here, but let's just say that sometime soon, the world's going to want a hero ag... what the hell's that?"
"Huh?" she asked, following his eye line... back to the video set, in the corner of the restaurant.
The farm was burning.
From a news helicopter's perspective, high above, smoke was pouring out of an old manor house, awash in flames. Fields of crops blazed away merrily in the noon daylight. And, at the end of a dirt road near the edge of the property... a rusty old ack-ack anti-aircraft gun.
Which was not in the same position it had been when Carrie passed by it on the way to the front door, yesterday. Someone had been firing it at attackers from the sky.
"Details are unclear, but officials have said that the incident in the farmland surrounding Atlanta is linked to terrorism," the announcer was explaining. "Whether this was a wyvern attack from the last remnants of the Braid of Dawn, or if the Federalists were involved is unknown. To repeat, our top story today--"
Napkins, spoons, forks, little packets of artificial sweetener, everything flew into the air as a gale force wind slammed straight through Singh's Thermonuclear Curry Inferno. Waiters were knocked aside, plates of ridiculously spicy food splattering against the walls and other customers.
Ivan's hair had a nice wind-swept look, too, given he was at the origin point of the incredibly fast moving object. As for his companion... both she and her costume-concealing knapsack were gone.
Normally, when Astro Gal wanted to drop in to visit the Chief of Police, she entered through the roof access door. No need to raise a stir by touching down on a crowded street, and going in through the window would just be silly. Sometimes she'd spot other officers up there having a quick smoke break, before she leisurely strolled down a few flights of stairs and through to the main department pit. These days, the colorfully costumed superheroine was a common enough sight not to raise any eyebrows or concerns.
Today, she entered through a window. A closed window.
It was a "breaking through a window" sort of mood, this foul and black mood she was in, after all. But to her credit, she used her senses to make sure nobody was near it and angled the impact to prevent any flying glass shards from hitting anyone. Plus... she decided that rather than bother the men and women in the main room, whom she had no problems with, she'd give the new "Chief" a bit of a draft to deal with.
Ser, who was busy watching the same news report on his Orbital tablet workstation, didn't even look up at the sound of shattering glass and the inrush of wind.
Two of his armored Ascendancy guards did take notice. They were in the room in less than a second, energy blasters trained on Astro Gal... but not opening fire, not yet.
The Chief set his tablet down, and folded his hands in front of him, looking up at his guest.
"May I help you?" Ser offered.
"You killed Mrs. O'Dare," the heroine accused.
"Interesting. And how do you know that attack wasn't instigated by the Braid of Dawn, or the Federalists?" he asked. "We haven't given any details to the press yet. What do your crime fighting deductive skills tell you?"
"That there are no telltale scorch marks of incendiary stomach bile anywhere, which means no Wyvern attack," she explained, trying to keep her anger in check, to stay at his level. For now. "No way were they accurate enough not to leave a few misfires behind, especially if the fire was that large. As for Federalists, they favor 4x4s and land vehicles, and the anti-aircraft guns were used. Also, no tire tracks anywhere. So, an attack from the sky, with pinpoint precision weapons. In other words... the Ascendancy killed her."
Ser smiled, and nodded in agreement... but did clarify one point.
"Unfortunately, she and her terrorist cell seem to have escaped capture by my squadron," he added. "They used the arson to cover their escape. So, your Mrs. O'Dare and her family are quite alive and well, wherever they is. But it's really only a matter of time and resource allocation to hunt her down--"
"Barbara O'Dare is not a terrorist! She's one of the greatest patriots America has seen, and a champion of justice--"
"Astro Gal... we are America, now," Ser explained... leaning back in his chair, holding his arms wide. "All of us. Orbital and Suborbital alike. America is part of the Ascendancy, and the Ascendancy believes in America. Anyone who seeks to disrupt the peace and order of the new American way of life? That's a terrorist, not a patriot. She has chosen to organize strikes against the legitimate and recognized government of her own country, and why? Because they're continuing an alliance they started years ago?"
"An alliance with #A076, not with you!"
"But we're all connected, don't you see? #A076 are Orbitals. We are Orbitals. We are neighbors, friends, and comrades. We support each other, raise each other up, make each other stronger. We ascend. I'm afraid Mrs. O'Dare -- and the Frontliners who went AWOL and started organizing raids in her basement -- are choosing to reject the future. They must be stopped."
Astro Gal's gloved fist began to clench tighter and tighter.
"Ser... so help me God, if you harm her..."
"I don't want to hurt her. Not even in some shallow 'I don't want to hurt her but I will if I have to' sort of dodgy way. I really, genuinely, am seeking to avoid hurting her," he insisted. "That's why I let her get away, rather than risk further confrontation today. Barbara O'Dare is a citizen of the Ascendancy, now. She has to be brought back into the fold, made to see the light. Out of respect to her and to you, I promise that I will do my best to bring her back home, unharmed, so that she can be given Total Social Conversion--"
His desk went out the window. Since the window wasn't actually large enough to fit the desk, that meant some of the wall went with it, as well. Some tiny voice in the back of Carrie's mind was frantically trying to figure out if the falling furniture would hurt anyone when it hit the sidewalk, while the rest of her proceeded not to care... as she held Ser up, off the ground, by the collar of his shirt.
Now, the energy weapons were aimed right at her head. Which honestly was incredibly stupid, because all she had to do was duck and they'd blast their boss. Fortunately, the guards were calm and ready, and unlikely to take a shot before being authorized to... and Ser, equally calm and ready, was saying nothing.
He was letting her get it out of her system. Because in the end, he knew she could do nothing.
By this point... the uniformed officers just beyond the glass walls of his office were staring in at the scene, jaws hanging, waiting to see what happened next. And... given that Ser's team had just attacked their former boss... Carrie's hearing certainly picked up a few of them mumbling under their breath, do it, do it...
Ser's voice was quiet, now. Not a worried whisper... just a whisper.
"You really want to cross this line, Carrie?" he asked her. "Are you sure? Think, now. Think of the consequences..."
For this, she had an answer. She started by tossing him back into his office chair hard enough to roll it into the wall.
"Crossing that line goes both ways, Ser," she warned. "If you step onto my side of it... if you step on the people I love and care for... I'm going to step back. Right into you. Last warning."
A streak of blue shunted through the hole in the wall, back into the open air over Atlanta. She didn't bother with the niceties of not taking off at superspeed while inside a building. She ignored whatever the bastard was shouting after her. She ignored the citizens below, who noticed what was going on when Ser's desk flattened someone's luxury car.
Only when she was safely away from the situation, hidden away from any observing eyes, did she pause to change back into her civilian clothes. And finally breathe.
It took three bus rides to get back to campus -- switching back twice, since she kept missing her stop, riding too far. By the time she got up the stairs to Van's third story walkup apartment, she was out of breath. Not from the climb, of course, but from the worry and the effort put at worrying.
The many sights and smells of the bachelor pad greeted her on arrival. She'd forgotten to knock and had simply twisted the handle until the lock broke. Oops.
Doug took no serious notice, of course. He offered his customary "Hey" and then went right back to shooting people in their virtual heads. Carrie took no serious notice of him in turn, heading straight across the common room, and into Van's bedroom. His door was closed, but she hadn't bothered knocking before, and wasn't knocking this time.
"I think I might've just poked the Ascendancy with a really big stick," she announced.
The expression on his face would probably be analogous to being caught masturbating. Except, of course, he wasn't. No, he was sitting in front of his computer... editing video footage. While colorful flyers were cranking out of his printer, one right after another.
STOP THE LIES - RISE UP AGAINST THE ASCENDANCY! they cheerfully announced in blood red letters.
"Uh... this... isn't what it looks like," Van mumbled.
Her own problems went on pause, as she carefully reached around him, plucking a tri-fold from a stack of finished leaflets.
GSU students, citizens of Atlanta, concerned citizens! Join us in Hurt Park for the Stop the Lies rally. We will #occupyatlanta all day, every day, starting now... until the Ascendancy releases its stranglehold on our government. Video broadcasts from around the world, revealing the truth behind their lies, will be aired. As there is a very real danger of arrest and/or Total Social Conversion, please adhere to the following rules regarding public gatherings. Do not bring L'Anonyme masks; any gathering with more than two individuals wearing masks is unlawful...
Astro Gal poked them with a stick, sure. But Astro Gal could take being poked back with sticks, even sticks as sharp as the kind the Ascendancy carried around. In contrast, a gathering of totally normal humans, going out of their way to enrage the Ascendancy...
There. That look, that weight on his shoulders, as he slumped in his secondhand office chair. Now Carrie knew where it came from.
"Look, I know it's risky," he said. "There's a reason nobody's been willing to try a seriously large scale protest yet, after seeing how well that went in England--"
"I saw them gun down criminals and innocents alike yesterday, just for someone starting to steal electronics," Carrie told him. "They shot a baby, Van. Seriously. For reals. They shot a baby. Just... let the sheer insanity of that sink in, for a minute. If they'd do that, what do you think they'll do to you--?"
"Someone's gotta speak up, okay? Speak up in a big way, cut through the bullshit!" he declared, trying to get some fire back, after the awkward start of this discussion. "And... honestly I wasn't keen on being that person, but... the group nominated me, since I'm one of the only ones stateside at the moment--"
He pointed to the fine print at the bottom.
"Bloggers Without Borders," he named. "It's a living history project I got involved in a few years ago. Like, trust fund kids with more money than common sense and a desire to see the world. I'm their stateside webmaster, I catalogue and tidy up everything. They shoot video travelogues, focusing on anthropology, archaeology, tracking oral histories, things like that. See, there's a lot of cultures out there left in the wake of Pandora, and... I guess that's besides the point. Point is, they were already studying abroad when the Ascendancy showed up. So... our focus shifted from documenting pottery shards to documenting the Ascendancy."
"And you're going to air the Ascendancy's dirty laundry in public?" Carrie asked. "Van, that's just--"
"My name is Ivan," Ivan declared. "I'm not Van Buren of the Dead Presidents, anymore. Okay? I've got more to worry about than hanging out and mocking high school kids. You're talking to Ivan Buren, and he's got adult responsibilities! The things I've seen in these videos, they NEED to get out there--"
"So leak it online! Anonymously. You don't have to put your face out there and get it shot off!"
"Too easy to discredit. You need to stake your rep on something if you want people to take it seriously. The Ascendancy's probably ready to slam dunk this thing on a public relations front, and we need to make it as serious as possible," he explained. "Look... Carrie. I know this is dangerous. Hell, I'm not entirely jazzed about it, myself. My buddies are expecting this to be our generation's Tahir Square, here. I'm thinking Tiananmen Square and Kent State. But... dammit. Someone has to go out there and tell the truth, no matter how stupid that is on a personal level. Because people just looking out for their own affairs is what got us in this situation."
Her next protest would've been but you could die. Except... he'd already shot down that reason not to do it, repeatedly.
And Carrie had nothing else she could offer. Maybe I don't want you to do it, but that wouldn't fly, either...
She needed a comfort hug, right now. And she was getting one. It took a few seconds for her to realize that.
"I know you're scared," Ivan whispered, in her ear. Her, in his arms... "Hell, I'm scared. But... learning history's taught me one thing. You forget history, you repeat the same mistakes. I won't let them forget this. You taught me to be a hero, Carrie. This is... how it is. How it's gotta be."
"I'm coming with you," she decided.
He didn't let go of his embrace. If anything, it tightened slightly.
"No arguments," she said. "If you have to do this, so do I. I'm growing up, V... Ivan. I poked a hornet's nest today, and it was stupid, and childish. Maybe it's time for me to be an adult. Stand against them in an adult way. And this way... I can protect you, if things go wrong."
"I dunno, Carrie. If things do get nasty, and you go all superhero without your costume..."
"You're putting your face out there. So will I. ...and if something happens, well... whatever. I should deal with the consequences instead of hiding myself away like a little kid."
A comforting hug is one thing. A comforting kiss is something of another stripe entirely.
Especially when it goes beyond comforting.
Close together, now. Hearing each other's heartbeats.
"When we... when we broke up, it wasn't because I was afraid, or disgusted, or... anything," Ivan said, in honesty. "I just didn't feel right, pushing you to join me as I was moving on. You were so comfortable playing at being a high schooler. You wanted that stability in your life..."
"I know what I want now," Carrie answered.
Doug didn't notice when Carrie had walked through, so he didn't notice when she closed the door to Van's bedroom.
And nobody noticed as the video editing software continued to spool clips into Ivan's master file. Raw footage, completely unedited, unobserved. The occupants were too occupied with other things to care.
This was sort of familiar. She'd just never experienced it from the other side.
A few times, back during the days when she played at being a teenager, Van had to sneak out of her bedroom without being spotted by Nel and Una. The first time was so touch and go, hitting squeaky floor panel after squeaky floor panel. Afterwards, they stuck to having her fly him quietly out of the window.
This morning, as the sun was coming up, Carrie was sneaking out of Van's bedroom. She left him a note, saying that she'd meet him at the rally. But first... she had an errand to run.
On waking, she decided that a great way to show her support was to grab some food for the rally protestors. If they were seriously going to be occupying the park all day and beyond, they were going to need takeout. And Carrie knew the perfect little Fae-Chinese restaurant back in New Orleans. One she had a bottomless account at, perfect for impromptu catering. All she had to do was fly over there, grab some chow, and fly back. It wouldn't take long; the rally would be just starting by that point.
The dawn's light greeted her warmly, soaring through the air, her knapsack straps flapping in the wind. And this morning, it felt good. Full of promise. Even with the dangers ahead, Carrie felt... stable. Like she was ready to take on the world, and not just while wearing tights and socking supervillains.
She soared over her empty family home. One day, once all this craziness was over, she'd return... to see that her family was safe and sound, before moving on to the college campus and to her future. A good thought to have, today. Any other day the idea of upping stakes and leaving the peace and security of her home would've been terrifying, but... not today.
The restaurant was opening its doors for the morning rush, just as she touched down in an alley behind it. Walked around to the front, whistling a tune.
The elf behind the counter, wearing a spider silk replica of what he assumed was traditional Chinese garb, greeted her with a bow and a slightly misinformed and unintentionally racist Chinese accent.
"Carrie Lane! Very good to see you, yah, very good!" he spoke, with a smile. "You want usual order, yes? We make special for you, very quick, very good!"
"Actually, I had something else in mind," she said. And rattled off a long list, with enough variety and enough quantity to satisfy any group of anti-Ascendancy protestors. "...and extra noodles, and... can you charge it to the usual account? And how soon can you get it for me? I need to hurry back..."
"Ahhh... may take some time," he admitted. "But we work fast for you, no problem! Throw in plenty of fortune cookie, too. Delivery girl just gave us new batch, fresh. Good fortune for you!"
If they start without me, that means Ivan could be in danger and I won't be there to protect him, she thought.
Won't he just be thrilled to see me standing by his side, ready to face the day, and with breakfast? she also thought. And Ser's not stupid enough to just blast everybody if they're staying within the boundaries of the law. It'll be okay.
Minutes ticked by, as elves frantically rushed around in the kitchen, putting together Carrie's jumbo-sized meal. She passed the time by checking the messenger software on her smartphone. Nobody she knew was online, including Ivan. Expected. Not as worrying, anymore.
Boxes started arriving, stacking one by one. Along with a bag filled with fresh fortune cookies.
On a whim, she plucked one out, and peeled off the plastic wrap. Days before, the mindless optimism of these things wasn't to her taste. Today, it felt it'd hit the spot.
Crack the cookie, enjoy it, unfold the little paper slip.
Your problems will fade away if you just look more closely at them.
Nicely vague and optimistic, indeed. So, she decided to help herself to another cookie. Crack it open, pop the shards in her mouth, check the paper...
Your problems will fade away if you just look more closely at them.
Another. And another. Same message.
Serious James Bond, double secret C.I.A. transmission stuff...? Microdots or parabolic antennas...
Immediately, she zoomed in, using her super senses. Because something was off. The period at the end of the sentence wasn't perfectly round. It wasn't even a solid dot...
The words came into sharp focus, immediately.
By the time the restaurant owner came back with the rest of the food, Carrie Lane was gone.
She'd broken the sound barrier. Normally, she didn't fly that fast -- it caused sonic booms and other issues for folks on the ground -- but the last thing on her mind was caring about the rules of physics.
Everything made sense. Horrific sense.
The Ascendancy didn't know where Barbara O'Dare was, or what she was up to... until Carrie led them right to her doorstep. Just like they were hoping she'd do in her desperation and isolation, leading them to her family and friends. They cut her off from everyone intentionally, they used her, they used her completely...
And they had to know she was with Ivan. Maybe they started looking at him, after that. Looking at what he was up to. She could be flying right back to a burned-out wreck where his apartment once was. Or to find Hurt Park on fire, with everybody dead...
They wouldn't be insane enough to just murder all the protestors. Oh, no. They'd capture them all and subject them to Total Social Conversion, which was obviously a fate akin to death. She had to catch up, had to get to Ivan. She'd left him unprotected...
Hearing her smartphone ring while she was flying at supersonic speeds wouldn't have been possible. Unless you were a superheroine with super senses, of course.
She dared to slow down enough to answer the call.
"Ivan?" she asked.
"No, it's not your boyfriend. It's Ser."
Her blood ran colder than the air she was hurtling through.
"What... what have you done with--"
"Nothing. I told you, Carrie. I don't want to hurt anyone, genuinely and honestly. But you should get down here, quickly. And by you, I mean Astro Gal. We have a dangerous situation brewing, and given the nature of it... I think it'd be best if a superhero the people trust is on hand. Neither of us want to see any bloodshed. So just this once, please, let's work together. Come to Hurt Park, at the university. Hurry."
She didn't have to show up as Astro Gal. She was trying to be Carrie Lane, after all.
But... Ser did have a point. A heroine could stand between the two sides of this conflict. May even be able to disarm the situation, before it becomes a situation. She wouldn't be fighting the Ascendancy's battles, she'd be standing for the people... and they'd recognize her. Everyone might listen to reason...
Never before had she changed into her costume this quickly. And then, she was back to supersonic speeds.
Word had leaked that the cops were deploying, headed to Hurt Park. The protestors had to get there first, ahead of schedule, or they wouldn't be able to even set foot in the park...
Tensions were running high, as the two faced off.
On the street, the police. Riot helmets and shields, forming a solid line... while Ser commanded from just behind the front, flanked by two heavily armored Ascendancy guards. All of them had been equipped fully with weapons of all stripes, from non-lethal to lethal. None of them were being deployed. Yet.
On the grass of the park, the protestors. Students and activists, ordinary citizens who found safety in numbers. Even some Frontliners who were breaking ranks with their commander in chief, daring to speak out against the state.
At the core of this group, surrounded by signs and banners... was a large-scale video screen, incredibly expensive. It was being fed a stream of video footage from Ivan's portable laptop, testimonials and reports from the front lines of the Ascendancy's worldwide operations. Ivan himself knelt beside the screen, queuing up the video reel he'd worked so hard to edit, making sure the connections were working...
One of many videos from L'Anonyme was wrapping up. Smuggled personal filmer footage, digitized by the Bloggers Without Borders network. Tales of open violence in the streets of London, of rioters and protestors throwing rocks and getting blasted left and right by Ascendancy troops. People being hauled off for Total Social Conversion, returned to their families as emotionless zombies. But that was old news, commonly known, even if the brutality had been downplayed on respectable news streams.
The next video, weirdly enough, was of some brown-skinned woman wearing a pirate-themed costume.
"So I just talk into that thing? What's that, like a personal filmer?" she was asking the unseen cameraman. "Right. So. Name's Penny Dreadful. Smuggler, brigand, thief. Not a bad girl, though. I've been arming up the mutant tribes in Africa, trying to help them fight the Ascendancy. Tribe by tribe, they're being snatched up into that floating city, and they never come back again. Now, nothing rallies warring factions like a common enemy, so the civil war's on hold while they try to attack their new foe... but they haven't had much luck even breaching the armor on that thing--"
Whatever else she had to say was made irrelevant by the arrival of a local celebrity.
Applause was tentative. After all, Astro Gal supported law and order -- she arrested criminals and worked with the police. And if the protestors didn't stay carefully within the boundaries of public gathering laws, well, maybe she had been dispatched to round them up...? But didn't she crash headfirst into police headquarters yesterday, and smash up Chief Ser's office...?
That applause grew a bit more firm, when the superheroine circled around... and landed on stage, in front of the video wall. Although she didn't wave, or smile, or make a speech. She was talking to the guy who brought the videos, for some reason.
"Any trouble yet, uh, citizen?" Astro Gal asked, glancing nervously at the wall of police officers, in the not-so-distant distance.
Ivan glanced up from his computer. He tried to keep his voice down, knowing Carrie would be able to hear it, even through the din of the protesting and the video wall. "I thought you said you were coming without the mask...?"
"I may have a shot at talking them down," she offered. "Ser is convinced he's a reasonable man who doesn't want to cause trouble. Maybe, uh... I kind of sent his desk out a window yesterday, but I think Astro Gal can take a run at getting him to leave you alone."
"You seriously think he's going to care what you have to say?"
"I think if I stay here too long and look like a costumed hero is standing with you guys, it might be enough excuse for them to come charging in here," Astro Gal mumbled. "I'm playing this by ear. But I'm going to do my best. Just... hold fast. I'll be back. I promise. I love you."
In a dash, she switched sides. Not in her heart, just physically relocating to face Ser.
The line of police officers parted, as Ser motioned for them to stand aside, so he could talk with her. The two armed Ascendancy thugs came with him, of course.
"Astro Gal," Ser recognized. "I'm glad you came. I'm glad you understand the seriousness of what these unfortunately misguided citizens are doing..."
"Ser, please, they're just peacefully protesting," she insisted. "There's no need for an armed response of any kind, as long as they stay within the park and follow the letter of the law, yes?"
"I know. And I'm trying to keep the peace, Astro Gal. We've taken no action and we'll continue to take no action if they stay lawful," he agreed. "But... they're also broadcasting all these lies about the Ascendancy, riling up the crowd... this may lead to inciting a riot. I don't know how long this can go on until it descends into chaos. I don't want to have to order my men to stun them all and sort the mess out at the station. That's why I called you."
"Me? What do you expect me to do?" she asked. Some of that fire from the other day returning to her... righteous indignation. "This is America. That's freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. I'm not going to put a stop to it, if that's what you want."
"I'm not expecting you to. But the people trust you, yes?" he said. "So, if you ask them to disperse, to go home, for their own safety..."
"For starters, I'd be seen as your tool, if I ordered them to leave. They'd know the order's really coming from you, not me. And obviously, I'd never ask them to do that anyway, so don't bother asking--"
"Aren't you a hero? Don't you WANT to save people?" he interrupted. Gestured out to the crowd, to the gathered mass of people... her people, citizens of Atlanta. "They're endangering their lives, and for what? To resist the future? Astro Gal, we are not trying to harm anyone, we are not trying to control anyone! All we want to do is help. We want to correct the errors of our ancestors! But if your people can't let go of the past, they can't embrace the future!"
"They've learned from their past, Ser. And they've learned you're not their future--"
He snapped his fingers, motioning for her to be silent. And directed his gaze to the crowd.
"...are you seriously shushing me?" she asked. "You sniveling--"
And then she saw what he was seeing.
A bloodied Orbital, tied to a chair, on the video screen. One of the many testimonials submitted by Ivan's worldwide network of bloggers... but not one he had even known was in his master reel, because he had been a bit distracted the previous night.
"Tell them who you are," the mysterious cameraman said. With far more menace than any of the other blogger cameramen had been using. "Do it."
"...my name is Yun, and I'm a Thaumatologist in the Ascendancy," the captive admitted. "I was inserted undercover into the Gatherer network, to take it down from within. We've been planning this world's absorption into the Ascendancy for five years."
"Five years. Lying in wait. Planning this big day, waiting for the right moment to sweep in and SAVE everyone. But we had to die to make way, didn't we? People like me and my partner, Bob. You killed him, and your people got away with it!"
"TELL THEM. Tell them what you told me. If you want to take another breath, you are going to talk!"
"Essence Capacitors are powered by human souls. That's what Total Social Conversion does. We strip out immortal souls with black magic, and use them to power our technology."
And then the screen went dark.
Because the computer that was streaming the video had been destroyed by one amplified energy blast, neatly into the center of it.
Which meant the blast went neatly into the center of the person who was holding the computer as well.
It wasn't conceivable that such a silence could fall, after that. There was plenty of sign shaking and protest shouting to do, after all. But... that one hypertechnology-based gunshot was enough to silence the crowd and police alike. Just enough for Astro Gal to be able to hear a body slumping to the stage.
Ser's personal energy blaster wasn't really designed for that kind of output. The smoking gun was literally smoking... held in shaking hands.
Immediately, his guards stepped up, to block him from reprisal... but the superheroine was no longer with them. She had made a direct flight straight to the stage, to the blank video screen. And to the student who was previously in control of the truth that the Ascendancy didn't want them to see.
His eyes were still open. There was nothing behind them anymore, no light whatsoever... just a look of mild surprise. He'd been dead before he even fell to the stage, from the energy beam that punched straight through both his computer and his chest.
Ivan Buren. An unfortunate boy with unfortunate friends. Life had picked one path for him, towards self-destruction, until Astro Gal intervened. He pulled himself out of that fate and worked his ass off to become something more. A boy with incredible potential and firm convictions. A man with a hero's heart, which she had grown to love. And all of that life he'd struggled to find for himself, now gone, and wasted...
The protestors gathered, as Astro Gal knelt beside the boy... but did not weep. She just closed her eyes. Swallowing it down, for now. Just for the moment.
And then turned with a glare, back to the one who shot him.
No reason to fly at supersonic speeds, now. She walked. She walked through the crowd, which parted way for her, straight towards the murderer. His guards weren't sure what to do about that; they expected a violent outburst, a sudden and swift action. Not this... march, this slow progression of absolute determination. Like she had all the time in the world...
For his part, Ser had already dropped the red-hot pistol. And was trying to explain himself, to give one of his smooth speeches about how everything he stood for was right, that things had to be done, that this was all perfectly justifiable.
The best he could manage, withering under Astro Gal's glare, was: "I wasn't trying to hurt him, I just... Proctor Lar, he decreed, highest priority that, that the information wasn't supposed to be..."
He had his two armored guards, yes. But the police had melted away, now. They were maintaining the line of defense, in case the crowd turned violent... with one exception. A nice little gap, directly in front of Astro Gal, directly in front of Ser and his henchmen. They'd kindly stepped out of the way so she could do what she had to do.
The heroine paused, before the two-man wall of silver armor, which was the only thing between her and her enemy. The guards had their weapons aimed at her... weapons designed with considerably more firepower than Ser's personal pistol.
In fact, they had been designed to have as much power and speed as she had. If it came down to a slugfest, or an aerial battle, they might have stood a chance at defeating her. And Astro Gal knew it.
After all, Ser had shown her the schematics... standard Ascendancy shock trooper outfitting, impervious to bullets, with an energy shield to harden it against explosions and rebuff flames. Standard Ascendancy energy rifle, capable of neurostatic blasts that will render any human subject unconscious in less than 0.78 seconds, or vaporizing hard targets in 1.54 seconds. Finally, a standard Ascendancy jetpack, with exceptional maneuverability and speed in urban environments.
These were enemies that were capable of fighting Astro Gal in a pound-for-pound superpowered slugfest, and winning. After all, Astro Gal's super strength, speed, and invulnerability were the only things she had, and brute strength was nothing compared to the technological might of the Ascendancy...
Except Astro Gal wasn't the superheroine. She was, originally, the sidekick. The one who worked in and around the fight, exploiting weaknesses, while her big shiny heroine mother distracted the enemy. Maybe Starwoman got all the press for winning the fight... but Astro Gal was the reason why that fight was won. Usually because the bad guys, no matter how strong they were, underestimated her.
For instance, when you're going to eventually fight a sidekick, it's probably a bad idea to show her the complete schematics for your hypertechnology supersoldier armor. Even for a second. Because while you may think it'll intimidate her... what she's actually thinking is "Why didn't they build oxygen tanks into that suit?"
Astro Gal and Ser's two guards promptly disappeared.
Analysis of the many, many collected bits of footage from that day by people in the crowd with cameras and phones showed what really happened. Their shielding was designed to deflect bullets, but wasn't going to stop a grapple. Knightfall's kinetic shields weren't capable of that, either.
Which meant Astro Gal could duck low, charge forward, wrap an arm around the waist of each man, and then launch at ridiculous speed straight into the sky.
True, the shields would absorb the impact; from the schematics she knew it was a safe move to make, that her forearms wouldn't bisect the men in half even if she launched vertically at speed. But the shields wouldn't do much about the G-forces knocking them out -- and if that didn't do the job, taking them into low earth orbit briefly would do the trick. After all, it was pretty hard to breathe up there, and they weren't immortals like Astro Gal was. Also, someone had made the mistake of not putting oxygen masks on a suit designed for high-speed atmospheric maneuvers.
On the ground, that minute or so consisted of confused talk among the protestors as to what the hell just happened. All while the cops were closing ranks... around Ser. To cut off any escape routes he might have had, and to keep any potential lynch mob from getting to him.
Soon after, Astro Gal was back, lightly tossing the unconscious bodies of two supersoldiers to the ground. To either side of the cowering Ser.
Who she picked up off the ground, effortlessly. She'd had him by the throat before... this time, quite literally. All she had to do was one light squeeze...
"You... you can't," Ser insisted, wriggling in place. "You can't--"
"Give me one good reason not to," she asked, through clenched teeth.
"B... because you're a hero!"
And yet, it'd be easy. So easy to end his life. She would barely have to expend any effort, thanks to her super strength. The police might even turn a blind eye to it. Her cause was just. He was a murderer. It needed to be done...
Instead of tearing his throat out, she tossed him to the police, who were waiting to catch him. Nightsticks crossed, pinning him in place.
She raised her voice, to be sure Ser heard it loud and clear... and that all gathered here, police and protestors alike, heard as well.
"As far as I'm concerned, Atlanta is now an Ascendancy-free zone," Astro Gal declared. "If I see any more of your thugs in my town, and I don't care if you sent them to hunt me down or if they're just seeing the sights, I'm going to take them apart and drop them off outside the city limits with what's left of their armor. I don't care if the city government embraces you, I don't care if the President embraces you... America does not, and Astro Gal will not let you in here. This is a city of freedom and justice. And anybody who wants to stand with me against you is welcome to help. ...Officer, dump this trash outside the Freedom Wall. Let him and his cronies walk back home to their Arcology."
...although she did spare a brief and knowing nod to the officer in charge, the one who had circled the wagons, both to keep Ser from fleeing and to keep him safe from the protestors. The unspoken agreement was: If we don't get these three out of the city now, the Ascendancy will just use it as an excuse to send troops on an armed rescue mission, or the mob will kill them.
The crowd, which had been murmuring this entire time... finally broke out into cheering, as the officers escorted the three Ascendancy officials away from the scene. The crowd of armored riot police were careful not to expose their prisoners to any reprisals in the form of thrown rocks or such, but fortunately the exuberance of seeing the opposition go away was enough to temper any violent responses.
That exuberance dampened somewhat, as Astro Gal walked back to join them... and every step she took dragged on her, heavier and heavier. Until finally, at the protest stage, she couldn't stand any more.
She sank to her knees beside the body of Ivan Buren. And finally, with a heroine's business done, she could weep.
Despite the extensive damage, computer experts in the crowd had salvaged the video files on Ivan's laptop... including the crucial one, the one with the utterly ridiculous claim that for some reason the Ascendancy wanted so badly to silence. There was excited talk, talk of spreading the truth, of organizing rallies in every Eastusa city. That this would be the start of it, the day they began to fight back...
But any glee at this victory was tempered by the ambulance on the scene, to take away the fallen protestor. And it was during one of those moments, when everybody was lost in thought, that Astro Gal slipped away. And Carrie Lane emerged, two blocks from the scene, to wait at a bus stop for her ride home.
Home. That dingy little apartment. It had been home, for the briefest of moments. But without him... it was just a place where she'd left some of her clothes. Loose ends to wrap up, before she got on with her life.
This time, Doug answered the door. He'd moved from the couch.
"...hey," he greeted.
"Hey," she responded.
"I, uh... I saw the news. You saw it too, right?" he asked. "About Ivan...? They just IDed him, on the news. I'm, uh... I'm sorry."
"Yeah. Me too."
"So. Uh. Now what?"
"I'm gonna collect my things and go," Carrie said. "I'm sorry. I didn't want any of this to happen, I... I'm sorry."
"If you want. I mean, I don't mind if you wanna stay a bit--"
"It wouldn't be safe for you. I should get moving."
"Uh, if you want, okay. You gonna be alright? I mean... y'know... anything I can do for you?"
She closed the door to Ivan's room behind her, too exhausted to talk any longer.
They'd set up a makeshift shrine, in the middle of Hurt Park. Strangers would pass through, dropping off flowers, lighting candles, leaving messages with pushpins on a bulletin board someone had helpfully set up for them. Nobody knew the boy, the one who died on that day... but all of them felt a debt to him. He exposed the truth of the Ascendancy. After all, why else would they have killed him?
The only photos anyone could find of Ivan Buren online came from his high school days, so the tastefully desaturated black and white pictures were of a young man in a gang banger's leather jacket. Not exactly hero material, but that didn't matter.
A young homeless girl's fingers traced the lines of the photo, as if she was caressing the boy himself. A comforting touch.
Plenty of amateur poets had left little inspiring stanzas around the shrine, but one caught her eye in particular.
He fell, so that we would no longer lie down.
Not wanting to linger too long, she returned to her shopping cart, rolling it away on its three good wheels. Today had been a good haul; a few usable plastic bottles, some discarded but unused specimen bags from behind the hospital. Most importantly... a large metal sheet, with enough lead composition to work for what she had in mind.
Despite being unshowered for days, despite going hungry, despite everything she'd lost... her spirits were high. There was an energy in the air. Talk of uprising, of revolution. America was born in revolution, after all -- revolution against tyrants from overseas who sought to control the people. This was simply a return to form, wasn't it...?
And while the heroine who delivered them from the Ascendancy had only been seen a few times since that day, they knew that Atlanta was an Ascendancy-free town. They knew that if any more silver warriors flew in from the sky, they would immediately be challenged head-on, by their champion. Even if the mayor had decried Astro Gal's vigilantism, even if the police were allegedly tasked to bringing her in, they knew the true story. This was the beginning of the end for the ones who wanted to collar them in the name of friendship.
She found herself whistling the theme song to a superhero cartoon series, when her melody was joined by a persistent bell tone.
A pay phone. There weren't many left in the city, with ubiquitous wireless smartphones and the like. They only existed for emergencies, at this point... one-way calls. A pay phone ringing off the hook was unheard of.
She considered running... pushing her cart and getting out of there. But... why bother? They knew where she was, after all. They always did, thanks to the Kirby Radiation. May as well hear whatever nonsense they wanted to say.
Carrie Lane picked up the phone.
"Hello again," she said.
"It doesn't have to be like this, Carrie."
His voice. Of course.
"I've made my stand, Ser. This is how it has to be."
"You made the wrong stand. But it's going to be okay, Carrie. I've no intention of harming you. Notice how we haven't sent in a phalanx to take you down?" Ser asked. "That's because I've talked this over with Proctor Lar. I explained you were a wayward young girl, led astray by the likes of radicals like Barbara O'Dare and Ivan Buren. You need our compassion, above all else. So. Instead of sending in a kill team -- and I'll note we do know where you are, and we always have, we could do that at any time -- we're going to save you."
"Really. Total Social Conversion, I take it?"
"Eventually. For now, we need to explain to the public what's happened," he continued. "Convince them that our viewpoint is right. That a dangerous vigilante is on the loose, but that she deserves our pity and must be turned in to the police."
"You're not going to get much cooperation with that one, Ser," Carrie predicted. "Especially not after the truth about your goals sinks in. Ivan and his friends got the word out. They're onto you."
"Lies and half-truths, of course. Honestly, soul-stealing? The very thought is absurd. We can spin that. And as for the public letting you run free... well, maybe so, at first. But in time, they will turn you in. The Ascendancy has addressed worse situations than this. I promise you, Carrie, we will turn them against you, and then we will have you. And then you will serve us. It's for your own good."
"Don't come back here," she warned. "You murdered the man I love. If I see you again, I won't be able to stop myself from making a mistake. I'll kill you. Goodbye."
She considered tearing the phone off its base, but others might need it for emergency calls later. So, she simply hung up.
Ten minutes later, and she was in the abandoned basement she now called home. Safely away from any major population centers of the city, in case that kill team did eventually show up... she couldn't endanger anyone else. They wanted her to lead them right to the doorstep of her potential allies, and that wasn't going to happen, never again. Astro Gal would have to make do, toiling away in anonymity and poverty. All that mattered now was securing her country against invaders, so that she could finally have the life Ivan wanted for her.
She gave the teddy bear at the front of her shopping cart a scratch behind the ears, before starting to unload her collection of bottles.
"You are not alone."
One of the bottles slipped from her grasp, crashing to the filthy floor. It shattered on impact.
Her bear was talking.
Which was impossible. She'd checked, on the day she cleaned her things out from Ivan's apartment, when she decided to bring the bear along on a whim. The toy didn't have a cassette in its belly. It didn't even have batteries. And yet... it was talking. Its plastic mouth was moving to mimic speech, as the tiny speaker continued...
"This is Queen Emily Moonthistle of the Faerie Court, in exile," the bear spoke. "And if you can hear this, it's because we trust you to do the right thing. The time is coming to stand against the invaders. They've come to slowly tear down everything you cherish, right down to your very souls, and must be stopped.
"These bears have been delivered to possible resistance fighters all over the world, so that we can communicate with you. One magnetic tape played at my location causes all the bears to speak in unison, with my voice. It's an untraceable broadcast -- and the bears are enchanted with glamour to be inaudible in the presence of an Ascendancy power source, to minimize risk of our plans leaking to the enemy.
"So. That's how this is going to work. Now, let me explain where we go from here.
"We're working on a weapon which will completely incapacitate Ascendancy technology. If we can cripple the Arcologies, all of them, all at once... then we win the war. Without their technology, the Ascendancy can't enforce their will on our world.
"Once the weapon is developed, your role in this will be to find a way to breach your nearest Arcology's defenses and deliver this weapon inside its walls, as close to the center of the city as possible, so that it can work properly. I know this is asking a hell of a lot of you. I understand if you want to throw this stupid toy bear away and pretend you never heard it. But you wouldn't have this gift if I didn't think you couldn't help in some way. We trust you to find that way.
"To Penny Dreadful, we've got an idea for how the mutants can effectively fight against the Ascendancy. Get your fastest ship ready to send a negotiator north. Make sure you choose the strongest telepath you can find; ask the tribal leaders to submit candidates.
"To Barbara O'Dare, we understand you've already been hard at work with your family and with other moles within the Frontliners to find a way to take back Eastusa. We're glad to hear you survived the Ascendancy's attack on your home. Stay hidden, stay safe, for now. We're going to do what we can to help you.
"To Clarke and the Mayor, we've got an idea for how NanoSeattle can join the fight. It's going to be risky, but you may be our only shot at getting into the least accessible Arcology of the bunch.
"To Taamusi, right now, we've got no access to our daughter. We need you to watch over her from the shadows, which no doubt you've been doing, along with the other Winterhounds. Scout appreciates your loyalty, but take no actions just yet. When the time comes to strike, the Wild Hunt will truly begin, he assures you.
"To Benny the Broker, assuming you even received this bear given you're under heavy surveillance, we could use a hand here reclaiming London. You got us this far; if you've got any other resources on tap in England, send word through... well, you're a master at finding crazy ways to send messages. Surprise us.
"To... well. Carrie, I hope you found Ivan's bear. We hoped we could work with his organization, and that he could provide us safe and indirect contact with you. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry to hear what happened to him. Carrie... but we're behind you, all the way. You're in a bad situation, but you are not alone. Una and Nel love you very much, and we're working hard to find a way to reunite you.
"We'll be in touch. Wait for further transmissions from your bear. This is the day we start to fight back. This is where the Ascendancy is shown it can be stopped. You're never alone. We are in this together."
The bear's plastic eyes slid shut, its motors finally coming to rest.
to be continued
copyright 2011 stefan gagne
copyright 2012 stefan gagne