One Bad Day


Part Thirteen: Make Your Own Luck


[A/N: This chapter commissioned by GW_Yoda and beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]


Toybox
Cranial


"… okay, just reminding you, this is going to be a premium-rate job," Lil warned. "Seventy-five percent up front, and I keep fifty percent even if it falls through."

The girl on the other end of the phone call sighed; more in resignation than anything else, Lil judged. "Yeah, got it. Is there any way we can bring that down a little? I can cover it, but any discount's a good discount, you know?"

This was familiar ground for Lil, but she had to go over it every single time. "You could come to me instead of me going to you. That would zero out the travel cost and halve the security outlay. Reducing the number of memory sets I'm going to have to juggle would knock it down some as well. And I always charge more for involving unwilling subjects. My gear is delicate."

"You're just reading from them, not implanting memories. And most of them aren't capes, so there's a lot less chance of damaging your equipment." Tattletale was clearly trying to be persuasive. "And we can't tell them what's up, because—"

"Listen, I don't care about your hero-villain bullshit," Lil said impatiently. "The one who's getting the memory implant, the cape. Is she fully cognizant and aware of what's going to happen, and in full agreement with it?"

"Ah." It seemed Tattletale was finally on the same page. "Well, she's not against it, and it should be relatively easy to get her to sit still for the procedure—"

"Not the same thing." Lil had learned to be blunt, because otherwise people kept thinking they could argue her around. "If you can't cut any of that back, then the price stands. Can you pay?"

This time, the sigh was all resignation. "I'm sending the Number Man the authorisation to verify my ability to pay. He should be contacting you soon."

"Good." Lil banked with the Number Man herself. When it came to money matters, he was the platinum standard. "Once I've got that, I'll contact you back and arrange for my arrival there. Just remember: if there's any interruptions in the memory withdrawal or implantation process, it can easily cause ongoing problems later on. So security has to be rock-solid at your end."

"Wait, I thought you said I was paying for you to arrange security."

Lil rolled her eyes. "My security will be there to protect me and my equipment, and ensure I can duck and run if I have to. Your security will be there to make sure nobody interrupts, and to ensure I don't have to duck and run. Can you arrange that?"

Tattletale muttered something about 'pound of flesh closest to my heart' but didn't protest more strenuously. "Yeah, we got this. Several capes on site with a strong motivation for this to succeed. Good enough?"

"We'll have to see, won't we? I'll call you back once Number Man's contacted me." Lil ended the call then sat back, rubbing her forehead.

It sounded like a weird job. She didn't like weird jobs. They went places she wasn't necessarily comfortable with, there were usually complications of one sort or another, and the clients nearly always managed to avoid passing on details that would've been handy to know before commencement.

But she'd set her prices high for a reason, and she had no actual excuse for turning this one down. Plus, one of the drawcards for Toybox was that they got the job done. This was one of the reasons people kept coming back. And having a bad feeling about something wasn't necessarily a solid reason to drop it sight unseen.

Anyway, that was why she'd demanded extra for security.

Standing up, she headed out of her lab into the common area. Glace was there, watching TV with a hot chocolate in hand. "Hey," her fellow Tinker greeted her. "That job come through?"

Lil nodded. "Yeah. Premium rates, too."

"Woo!" Glace pumped her fist in the air. One-third of all fees got shared with the other members of Toybox; it was in their charter. So a win for one was a win for all. "Nicely done."

"Thanks. Dodge and Pyrotechnical around?"

"In their labs, as far as I know. Let me know how it turns out." Glace went back to watching TV.

"Will do." Lil moved on and poked her head into Dodge's workshop.

The kid was doing something finicky with a circuit-board, so she waited. Eventually, he straightened up from the magnifier, which she took as an opportunity to clear her throat. It was better, in her opinion, to not startle her colleagues while they were messing with things that could bend the very fabric of space-time into a pretzel.

"Oh, hi," he said, glancing around. "What's up?"

"That transport job I told you about the other day. Can we be ready to roll in thirty minutes?" With the amount of work ahead of her, it was going to take a while to get set up at the far end, and she wanted plenty of wiggle room.

His eyes went distant behind his goggles for a moment. "Uh, sure. Just your travel chair?"

"Plus a dozen or so extra memory modules and the processor unit," she said, and grimaced. "It's one of those complicated jobs." She was going to have to work hard to make sure all the modules she needed were in working order and packed safely for the trip to Brockton Bay, but that was why she'd arranged for the wiggle room.

"Wait, how are we carrying the modules?" Dodge looked momentarily worried. "They're fairly heavy, aren't they?"

"And fragile," Lil confirmed. Normally, when people came to her, she had a throne-like affair she sat the subjects down in, with a full sense-dep helmet that came down over the head onto the shoulders. It was only portable in the technical sense, requiring a forklift or pallet-jack to move it from one place to another. It also incorporated enough built-in memory modules to store the full brain-scans of two dozen people. "But I'm going to ask Pyrotechnical to come along as security, so he can maybe give us a hand."

Her 'travel chair' was a lot lighter (and more fragile), but had the supreme advantage of weighing not much more than a standard office chair. The helmet that came with it only covered the top half of the head with an opaque drop-down visor; Glace had jokingly likened it to a hairdresser's drying accessory, so now they called it the Hair Dryer as an in-joke. Its one big drawback was that it held no integral memory modules, but those could easily be carried along and plugged in. However, as Dodge had noted, they were heavy (and fragile).

"Yeah, that'll help," Dodge agreed. He put his thumb to his lips and chewed on the nail for a moment. "With everything we need to take along, the eight-by-eight is too small. We'll go with the sixteen instead. Roller bags for the modules?"

"Mm-hmm," Lil said distractedly. The memory processing unit (there was no way she could merge all those memories into one gestalt without it) was going to be an absolute beast to transport across; it was as heavy as a dozen memory modules all by itself, and a lot bulkier. "Didn't we have a cart of some sort that I can move the processor on?"

"Maybe," Dodge allowed dubiously. By the very nature of his specialty, he rarely needed mechanical assistance to move things from one place to another. "Or you could get Big Rig to throw one together for you."

"That's an idea." Lil nodded in agreement. "I'll get back to you in fifteen." She strolled on to Pyrotechnical's lab. "Hey, remember that job I asked if you could provide security for …?"


Circus


"Wait a minute."

She'd lost count of the number of times she'd tried to pick this lock, and failed. Over and over again, she'd been on the very edge of success when something happened, and her efforts undid themselves. But this time she'd heard it: the tiny click of one piece of metal snapping to another.

There was only one thing which could make that specific noise. "Magnets …" she breathed. "Coil, you slimy, tricky, motherfucking asshole." Keys, by definition, were made to fit precisely into the inner space of the lock, allowing no extraneous movement. The lock was designed to actively resist being picked by way of strategically placed magnets. It was the only explanation. Coil's keys also probably had magnets built into them, just to make sure of things; he was tricky like that.

If he wasn't already dead, I'd kill him myself.

She pulled a road flare out of her hammer-space and ignited it, then directed the heat into the lock, concentrating it there as hard as she could. It wouldn't melt the metal—if that was even a possibility, she would've blowtorched the door off its hinges long ago—but magnets didn't like heat, not even a little bit. And once the magnets were no longer magnets, she could pick the damn lock as per normal.

It was going to take a little while, she knew. Road flares didn't generate all that much heat, and she'd still have to wait for the whole thing to cool down afterward before she could start picking it again. But by the time she was finished with this lock, the magnets were going to be fucked, and that was all she needed.

Tattletale, when I get out of here, I'm going to kill you, just because.


PRT ENE Director's Office
Director Emily Piggot


Not for the first time, Emily decided it was a good thing that she was incapable of triggering with powers. Because with the sheer seething rage she felt right now, the top half of the PRT building would've been a smoking ruin if she had. Standing as straight as she could, knuckles planted on her desk, she glowered at both Armsmaster and the PRT captain who had brought her the bad news.

"How the fuck could this have happened?" It was only via the most stringent application of self-control that she didn't raise her voice, or start swearing non-stop. God knew, she wanted to do both. "You both agreed it was a good plan. You had four people in that house, apart from Brandish and Manpower! Yet somehow, someone infiltrated the house, drugged everyone, then spirited both New Wave capes out of the house, and our outside surveillance teams didn't see a damn thing. Can someone please explain this egregious fuckup to me in terms I can understand? Because unless you can, the phrases 'extreme negligence' and 'dereliction of duty' are going to be highlighted and underlined in my report on this matter."

Captain Hanson straightened his back an extra couple of degrees, even though he was already at attention. "Ma'am, I have been speaking to my teams, and they were awake and alert the whole time. Robertson says that Manpower offered to make the coffee himself. The only person who could've drugged it was … well, him."

Which opened a whole new can of worms. Emily shook her head. "Why would Manpower deliberately drug the people guarding him?"

"There's a Master involved," Armsmaster said, his voice flat with certainty. "There has to be. Also, I've got some interesting information that's only just come to light. First: the cameras belonging to the surveillance teams were blocked at very specific intervals by moths and other night-time insects. I've analysed the footage and picked out hints that a vehicle drove through that area at that time, but it's impossible to get any sort of make or model, much less an image of the driver. Second: the autopsy on Coil came back. He was shot in the head, alright. But what he was shot with was a bug. Some sort of large beetle, to be exact. There are traces of extraneous biological material throughout the wound that match insect chitin."

Emily stared at him. "A bug. He was shot in the head with a bug." Part of her wanted to call in Master/Stranger screening for him, but she knew he was serious. "So … the bug controller's involved?"

Armsmaster nodded. "Maybe also the bomb Tinker. If they can strap explosives to rats and birds, then they can attach micro-explosive charges to large bugs and turn them into ad hoc bullets."

"Great." So now she was going to have to watch out for bugs as well as rats and birds. "Is there a possibility that the bug was just sitting on Coil's head and someone shot it—and him—with an ordinary gun?"

"Not according to the guard who was in that cell, ma'am," Captain Hanson replied.

"Well … fuck." She massaged her temples. "Okay, fine. Get out of my office. Find Gallant. Find New Wave. Find everyone. Find someone who can fucking make sense of this shitshow." She paused, glaring at them both. "Why are you still here?"

"We're not, ma'am!" Captain Hanson could take a hint. He turned and quick-marched from the office, with Armsmaster not far behind him.

Emily slowly subsided into her chair again.

This fucking city.

This fucking job.


Laserdream


"Carefully, now."

Amy watched as Crystal used her force field to place Carol on the bed in what had to have been the mercenarys' infirmary. Carol was still asleep—a single finger-brush from Amy had reinforced that—and her face was much more relaxed, so she actually looked happy for once. Crystal did not plan to be in her immediate vicinity when she woke up; once she realised what was happening, things were likely to get apocalyptic.

"What are we going to do with her after this, Ames?" Crystal asked. It was an extremely valid question. "For that matter, how are we going to stop her from wrecking everything when Cranial tries to get a brain-scan off her? I'm absolutely certain that no amount of persuasion is going to get her to calm down and cooperate."

"I'm definitely not the one to ask about that." Amy frowned down at her mother. "She's the one person with the most viable memories Vicky needs to rebuild her personality. We can't just leave her out of this." She looked around, a look of panic crossing her face. "Shit, who's watching Vicky while everyone's out bringing the girls in?"

"Chill." Crystal put her hand on Amy's shoulder and squeezed reassuringly. "Dad's on duty there. He's handling it. We're all handling it."

"Right." To Crystal's concern, Amy was shaking slightly. "We're handling it. We have to handle it. We all have to handle it. When's Cranial get here, again?"

"Very shortly." That was Lisa, who'd just leaned in through the doorway. "Lady Photon and Shielder are on their way back in with Vicky's friends. Have you got a place to stick them until it's time to do the memory reading?"

"Several," Crystal said. "One problem, though. What do we tell them about tonight that won't drastically erode public confidence in Vicky, and New Wave as a whole?"

Lisa froze. "Shit," she whispered. "Are we going to have to mindwipe them, too?" She paused momentarily, as though going through options. "We're going to have to mindwipe them, too."

"Can we afford it, is the question." Crystal raised an eyebrow in Lisa's general direction. "I heard some of the language coming out of your mouth when you first got her price estimate."

"Uh …" Lisa stared off into the distance, her lips moving soundlessly. "That's a problem. That's a real problem. But if I chip in my own money, we can just about cover seven mindwipes."

"Fourteen," Crystal said. "Each of 'em has a parent coming to chaperone."

"Fuck!" yelled Lisa, so loudly and suddenly that both Crystal and Amy jumped. "We can't do it. The money won't cover it. Unless …" She looked hopefully at Amy.

"Nope." Amy shook her head definitively. "Who knows what'll fucking happen this time? I'm not going near anyone else's brains, ever."

Crystal tried to take Amy's hand, but the frizzy-haired brunette pulled away. "Ames—" Crystal began.

"Don't call me that!" snapped Amy. "Vicky calls me that." She hesitated, breathing deeply. "Just … just leave me alone for a bit. Let me think." Turning, she paced out of the infirmary.

"Well fucking done," Crystal observed, giving Lisa a well-deserved stink-eye. "For a high-powered Thinker, that was an absolutely brilliant effort at shooting yourself in the foot. Did you happen to use a laser sight?"

Lisa returned it, along with two raised middle fingers. "Well, fuck you too. I'm just trying to find solutions here. Can you think of another one?"

"Trying to pressure the one person who could do it clearly wasn't the right move." Crystal indicated Carol's supine form. "And how are we going to get her memories read without letting her wreck the whole show?"

"Maybe she doesn't need to be conscious?" hazarded Lisa. "I'll ask Cranial when she gets here."

"Yeah, you do that." Crystal ran her hand through her hair. "And while you're at it, see if she gives a bulk discount on mindwiping people."

"Words spoken by no superhero ever before today," snarked Lisa, and ducked out of the infirmary.

Her dig may have been spoken in jest, but it touched a nerve. Crystal found herself wondering if there was truth in there somewhere. Would superheroes kidnap people and actively attempt to mindwipe them, to save the good name of another hero?

After tonight, can I even call myself a hero?

She had no idea.


Tattletale


By the time Lisa spotted Aisha's bike coming into the underground parking lot, she was nearly ready to tear her own hair out with frustration. Taylor was still hanging on from behind, so Aisha hadn't quite managed to lose her yet. Maybe Taylor can pull some kind of Master bullshit out of her ass to make everyone okay with this shit.

Just as she got up to go and meet them at the garage entrance, the timer on her phone sounded. She was disoriented for a second, but then her memory kicked in. Cranial's here.

All of a sudden, her carefully constructed house of cards was looking more like a trash fire in the making. Getting Vicky back on deck was priority one; that was a guarantee. With the depths Amy was willing to sink to see that done, Lisa didn't want to see what would happen if the teenage biokinetic went all the way over the edge.

Stepping out onto the walkway, she spotted Amy brooding in the distance. "Aisha and Taylor are back!" she called out. "Go and let them in, okay?"

Amy gave a wave that could've meant anything, but at least she turned away in the correct direction. She seemed to get along well with the other girls, so hopefully she wasn't about to be a dick and leave them standing around out there. As for her attitude … well, Lisa had had to deal with worse in the past, so she was willing to let that part slide.

Heading to the stairs, she hurried down to the lower level. One of the walls had acquired a silvery-gray sheen that it didn't normally possess, and an obviously Tinkertech chair was already set up in the open area before it. As she watched, the wall shimmered and an almost cadaverously thin woman stepped through, pulling a couple of wheeled suitcases. She wore a white lab-coat over a black bodysuit with what looked like green brainwave traces here and there on it. A close-fitting helmet made her head look larger than it was, and her eyes were covered by a pair of heavy goggles.

"Hi," panted Lisa. "Good to meet you. Tattletale."

Cranial—because it couldn't be anyone else but her—rested her burdens carefully upright and gave Lisa a polite nod. "Hello. Interesting place you have here. Dodge was concerned when the coordinates you sent through looked like they were below ground level. Endbringer shelter?"

"Repurposed," Lisa confirmed, then looked around as a burly man in a flame-themed costume emerged from the shimmering wall, towing a heavy cart with something the size of a bar fridge on it. From the way the wheels rumbled over the concrete floor, it was somewhat more massive than a fridge. "So, what do you need?"

"Power supply, the more reliable the better," Cranial responded promptly. "Nobody to mess with my stuff while I'm here. And the more time I get to mesh everything together before re-implanting the gestalt, the better."

"Gotcha." Lisa recalled the problem with Carol. "Question. How well does the memory reading process work with someone who's unconscious?"

Cranial's mouth tightened. "It can be done, but if they're in REM sleep, it can throw off the recording. Especially if the subject is dreaming about what you're trying to extract a memory of."

Crap. Okay, figure out a way around that. Next problem. "Uh … I have fourteen people I'd really rather not remember much or any of this. What do you charge for memory erasures of the last few hours?"

"And there it is." Cranial laughed cynically. "Fourteen people? I can do it, but you'll have to render them unconscious immediately after the process so they don't start wondering where they are. Also, I'm charging my special 'last minute extra job' tax on that one."

The sinking feeling in Lisa's gut was like a black hole, sucking in everything around it. "So … no bulk discount then?" A quick exertion of her power told her exactly how much Cranial was going to charge her for the extra. It was more than the money she'd be able to raise, even if she maxed out her credit card.

"No such thing, in this trade." Cranial folded her arms, looking down at Lisa. "So, are we doing the mindwipes as well?"

They were between a rock and a hard place now. Trying to cancel the whole deal would lose half the money she'd pledged for the job, and Vicky's problems would still be unsolved. "No. Just the rest of it. What we agreed on." The words were bitter on her lips. She'd have to sort out the New Wave publicity problem some other way.

Cranial nodded, apparently satisfied with that. "Good. Power supply?"

That, at least, Lisa could deal with. "Over here." She led the way along to an unobtrusive closet and opened the door to reveal a switchboard with several power sockets of varying capability. "We're connected to city power, and we've got three generators ready to kick in if we lose that. The guy who set this place up was paranoid as hell, but he knew his business."

"So I see. Yes, I can definitely work with that." Cranial turned to Lisa. "I should be ready for the first subject in twenty minutes, half an hour at the outside."

Lisa frowned. "Huh. I thought you took something like four hours just to get ready."

"Hardly." Cranial snorted with dry amusement. "That's how long it generally takes me to be done and gone. I don't like travel jobs. That's why—"

"—you charge extra. Got it." Lisa nodded. "Okay, is there anything else you need? A snack? Water?"

"No. I brought my own. I've got it from here, thanks." Cranial gave her another nod, then turned and headed back to where the flame-costumed man was positioning the heavy cart next to the chair.

Lisa sighed, then clenched her fists tightly to try to get over the jitters. So much could still go wrong, but at least Cranial seemed to know what she was doing.

She'd better. This is our best, last hope to avoid Amypocalypse.


Panacea


"Aisha and Taylor are back! Go and let them in, okay?"

Amy had nearly told Lisa to go fuck herself right then and there, but decided against it. The once-blonde-now-redhead was working her ass off to help Vicky, so they were on the same side for the moment. Still, the anger had surged when Lisa had silently suggested that she fuck up some other people's brains just to make life easier for New Wave after the fact. She didn't give two flying fucks about New Wave. It was Vicky she cared about: first, last and always.

Muttering under her breath, she stomped along the passageway to the door barring Taylor and Aisha from entering, and slapped the open button. It slid aside, and the pair came in; Taylor walking sedately, and Aisha almost dancing with suppressed energy. And then, a dozen birds flew through the closing doors, and perched on Taylor's arms and shoulders when she stopped walking.

Amy frowned. Not at the birds; that was Taylor's thing, these days. But both the newcomers were carrying tightly packed shopping bags, and Amy was almost certain Lisa hadn't sent them out to buy stuff. "Okay, what's this about?" she asked.

"Dealing with a potential problem," Taylor explained. "While we were out and about, making sure the PRT didn't spot Sarah and Eric picking up the partygoers, Aisha had a brainwave."

"Because I'm a fuckin' genius," Aisha boasted proudly. "Sure, we got all these people providin' their memory stuff for the Vickster to get her brainmeats back in order, but what happens when they all go back to school an' stuff, talkin' about how they all got kidnapped an' made to do this stuff? It'd blow up hotter'n Behemoth's asshole after a handful of Carolina Reapers."

Amy nodded. "Lisa was talking about that." She grimaced. "Wanted me to wipe their minds, after."

"Ah, no, fuck that shit." Aisha shook her head vigorously. "After what's already happened? Stupidest idea ever, an' I know bad decisions. I make 'em all the damn time."

"Thank you," Amy said, feeling somewhat mollified. "So, what's your solution?"

"One second," Taylor said, gesturing down the passageway with a nod of her head. "Lisa's on the way. Don't want to have to explain all this twice."


Tattletale


Hustling along the passageway, Lisa registered the shopping bags, but decided to temporarily ignore them. "It's about time. Where've you two been? Sarah and Eric will be back at any time, and we're going to have our hands full after that, keeping Vicky's friends quiet."

Aisha shook her head, beaming all over her face. "Nope. We got all that sorted. Figured you mighta maybe forgot about afterward, so we did a couple of detours along the way."

"Detours?" Lisa wanted to use her power to demystify what Aisha was saying, but she was edging too close to a Thinker headache as it was. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"Lisa." Taylor's voice was calm, even as they walked rapidly back toward the main open area of the base. "Chill. Aisha's actually got it figured out. And Sarah and Eric are taking the slow way back, so we've got time to get set up."

"Get set up?" Lisa stared at her, then at the bags, as Taylor lifted one by way of illustration. "Get what set up? What are those, anyway? Why did you waste time going shopping?"

It was clear Aisha was enjoying herself far too much. "So, got a question for you. Suppose there's a bunch of kids and adults who've told they're coming to a party, but in actual fact they've been kidnapped to provide memories so a superhero can get her life back together. What's the best way to make sure they don't start gossiping to everyone all around 'em about it, afterward?"

Amy, who had been slouching along with the rest of them, took the bait before Lisa could. "Okay, how?"

"Well, duh." Aisha gave her a grin about three degrees more smug than Lisa had ever seen in the mirror. "We tell 'em that's exactly what we're doing … but we present it as the party theme."

Lisa blinked as those seven words changed the whole scenario. "Holy shit," she breathed. "Aisha, you're a fucking genius. They'll play along because they think it's just part of the theme."

"Exactly." Taylor hefted one of her bags. "So, can we find a place to get all this set up? I swear, my arms are three inches longer."

Lisa nodded. "Sure. Uh … where'd you get all the party stuff from, anyway?" The bags looked very full.

"Here an' there," Aisha said with a sly grin. "It's amazing what places you'll find open at this time of night."

"Wait," Amy said. "How'd you pay for it all? Please tell me you didn't shoplift all that stuff." Her tone indicated that she would find it highly amusing if such was the case.

"Some of it, yeah," Aisha admitted easily. "The rest of it? We maxed out Lisa's credit card."

"My credit—" Lisa made a grab for her pocket. Her wallet wasn't there. "What the fuck? When did you take that?"

"On the way out the door." Aisha grinned impudently. "Had a notion I might need it."

"Focus!" Taylor snapped, raising her voice. "Party. Setup. Now."

"Right, right." Lisa gave Aisha a glower that promised this wasn't over yet. "This way."

"Woo!" Aisha whooped. "Par-tay in the hizzouse!"

Lisa facepalmed. "Aisha, I will forgive you for the credit card if you never, ever say that again."

As they moved off, Amy fell in alongside Taylor. "Okay, so you've got that problem sorted. We've got a bigger one, though." She raised her voice slightly. "Lisa, what'd Cranial say about Carol?"

"That it would be a whole lot easier if she wasn't asleep." Lisa took one of Aisha's bags from her and started looking through it. "Shit, did you just grab everything on the shelf and shove it in here?"

"Pretty much," Aisha confirmed proudly.

"So yeah," Amy said to Taylor. "Can you or the resident genius there figure out how to get Carol processed through without making the party totally weird?"

Taylor paused for a moment. "Depends. Can you make a very specific bug for me?"

They spoke some more, but Lisa tuned them out. If they were working on a solution, that was good enough for her. Right now, she had a party to set up.


Lady Photon
Ten Minutes Later


Sarah and Eric swooped down to where Aisha had told them to go. "And here we are, folks. On the first step of your superhero/supervillain party experience. Are we ready to venture into the unknown?"

The girls and their parents looked around a little dubiously, for which she didn't blame them. This was literally a construction site, with an open trapdoor in the ground providing the sole entrance. Bethany's mother Constance raised her hand. "Are we supposed to be—"

"Heyyyy!" At that moment, Aisha popped her head out of the open trapdoor, shining a flashlight up under her face to throw most of it into eerie shadow. "Whoa, hey, it's the heroes! Get on down here, so we can thwart the dastardly plans of the eeeeevil supervillain Mind-Melter, right under his ugly-ass nose!"

Sarah wasn't sure whether it was her bouncy presentation or the utter campiness of what she was saying, but the girls all crowded toward the entrance. One by one, they climbed down into the dimly lit passageway, Sarah following behind the last one. When she got to the bottom, Vicky's friends were clustered around Aisha, who was handing out domino masks.

"Gotta have your masks, folks. Heroes gotta wear masks, so the villains can't learn who they are." She briefly shone the flashlight in her own face, to show the purple-glitter mask she was wearing. "Come on, mask up, and let's get this par-tay started!"

With all the masks secured in place, they proceeded along the tunnel, with Aisha cheerfully reciting a total line of bullshit about the faux 'Mind-Melter' and his 'reign of terror' over the city. Sarah was ninety-nine percent sure the girl was just making it up off the top of her head, but she was almost as fascinated as the others. Aisha, she decided, had a distinct future as a con artist if she were so inclined.

When they reached the other end, the way was barred by a tall figure, crawling with bugs and speaking in an eerie buzzing monotone. Sarah recognised it as Taylor, but only because she'd met the girl before. In full light, the creepiness factor would've been considerable; where they were, the dim light only allowed for flashes of reflection off of a million crawling carapaces, enhancing it considerably.

"Stop where you are," buzzed the monstrosity before them, holding out a hand dripping with bugs. "I am the Hive Queen Swarmina! Only those loyal to my master, Mind-Melter, may pass! Are you loyal?"

"Of course we're loyal!" Aisha stated boldly. "No heroes here. We're all loyal minions of Mind-Melter, aren't we, guys?" At the same time, she nodded her head in an exaggerated motion.

It only took them a second or so to catch on, then a chorus of, "Yes", "Sure", "Totally", came back from the girls. Sarah was impressed; with each time she got them to do what she said, Aisha was drawing them deeper into the roleplay.

"Very well. You may enter the domain of Mind-Melter." 'Swarmina' stood aside and hit a control, opening a sliding door and allowing them to enter the base proper. More than one shied away from Taylor, who merely stood there and buzzed at them.

"Whoa …" murmured Eric from beside Sarah as they stepped through in their turn. "They've been busy."

His comment was entirely justified. Streamers were strung up everywhere, along with cape-themed festive banners. Hanging from the ceiling was what Sarah tentatively identified as an inflatable disco ball, throwing glittery lights back all over the massive interior space. Tables and chairs had been dragged in from who knew where, with finger foods and bottles of pop set up next to stacks of paper cups and plates.

"Okay then, gather around," said Aisha in a stage whisper as music started playing across the PA system. "This is the deal. Mind-Melter has captured Glory Girl, and is planning to make her into a mindless zombie with his Mind-Melter chair down there." Stepping over to the rail, she pointed down toward where Cranial (Sarah had never met her, but the woman in the lab coat couldn't be anyone else) was setting up her equipment.

"Well, why don't we just destroy the chair then?" asked one of the girls in a smug I've-thought-of-a-solution-you-haven't tone. Sarah disliked her already.

"Because Mind-Melter has a guard," Aisha said, pointing out a guy wearing a flame-themed costume and hefting a bulky-looking rifle. "And we don't want to blow our cover. So, we're going to do something a ton more devious. While Swarmina's watching us—" she pointed to where Taylor had entered through the sliding door, "—we can't do anything, but when she leaves the room, one of you guys goes down there and tells Mind-Melter's minion that you're here to test the chair. While you're in the chair, you concentrate on all your best wishes for Glory Girl. This means that once you've all put your best wishes in there and she gets placed in the chair, instead of being zombified, she'll be made strong enough to defeat Mind-Melter with all your strengths combined. Got it?"

Again, it was the most basic of Saturday morning cartoon plots, but already Sarah could see the girls nodding in agreement. Pretending to be heroes, thwarting a supervillain, and having a party at the same time … it was simple, easy and fun. Plus, of course, the base itself and the Tinkertech chair made for amazing props.

The girls gathered around the tables and got their glasses of pop, Constance sought Sarah out. "Is that … is that chair safe?" she asked quietly, swivelling her eyes sideways to where Cranial was causing lights to run up and down the frame of the chair. "I mean, it's not going to do anything really, is it?"

And that's why overly realistic props are a bad thing. Sarah sighed internally. "It won't do a thing to them. In fact, I'll be going down there myself in about thirty seconds, just to show the kids how it's done." She turned and caught Taylor's eye as the bug-covered girl drifted through the crowd, then gave her a slight nod.

Returning the gesture, Taylor turned and headed out through another doorway. Accordingly, the music changed from the latest teen hit to an old classic; the Mission Impossible theme. Feeling like an idiot but determined to make this work, Sarah mimed sneaking onto the stairway down, pausing at the landing to peer around with exaggerated caution. When she got to the bottom, she darted across the open floor, pulled an entirely unnecessary shoulder-roll (aided considerably by her flight) to applause from those watching above, and arrived at Cranial's chair.

"I am here to test the chair!" she announced, loudly enough for all to hear.

To her credit, Cranial didn't burst out laughing. "Sure," she agreed, with the most wooden acting Sarah had ever seen. "You can 'test' the chair. Go ahead and sit down."

Sarah took her seat, not without a little trepidation. The helmet slid down over her head, and the opaque visor dropped into place. "Should I concentrate on Glory Girl?" she asked quietly.

"No," Cranial said, much more naturally. "Just let your mind drift. I'll take care of the rest."

Let my mind drift, hah. I'd love to see you do that right now. Sarah's brain was darting in a dozen different directions at once, but she took a deep breath and forced calm on herself. Victoria needs me right now, more than ever. I have to do this for her.

And then the visor slid up and Cranial lifted the helmet away. "Okay, done."

"Wait … that's it?" Sarah had expected to be there for minutes on end, not thirty seconds at most.

"Well, yeah. It's a simple scan-and-copy. It's not like I was stitching anything in there." Cranial's tone was matter-of-fact. "You can get up now."

"Right. Uh, thanks." Sarah got up from the chair to more applause from the people lining the rail above.

"Don't thank me, hon. Thank Tattletale. She's the one bankrolling this job."

When this is over, I'm giving Lisa the biggest hug. Sarah made her way back up to the balcony, arriving at the top of the stairs just in time for the triumphant flourish in the music. She nodded to Constance. "And that's how easy it is."

"Whoa ..." That was Bethany, crowding up alongside her mom. "Can I go next? Mom, can I?"

Constance glanced at Sarah, who gave her a reassuring nod. "I suppose you can," she allowed, and Sarah let out a tiny sigh of relief. They could probably get by even if one or two of Vicky's friends refused to donate memories (not that they knew exactly what the chair was about) but the more, the better.

Once Cranial was ready for her next subject, she turned and looked up towards the ongoing party. Again, Taylor (in her guise as 'Swarmina') nonchalantly wandered out of the area, and the music changed to another action-charged piece. Sarah gave Bethany a tiny nudge. "Go," she whispered.

With everyone watching, the teen crept down the stairs and scuttled across to where Cranial waited. Sarah watched curiously, interested in what the process looked like from the outside. Cranial didn't disappoint; lights rippled up and down the frame of the chair, and over the surface of the helmet. But the process seemed even shorter than it had with her. Maybe ten seconds passed before Cranial was raising the visor and ushering Bethany out of the chair.

More spontaneous applause arose as Bethany hurried back across and climbed the stairs to rejoin her peers. They crowded around her, asking what it had been like. Sarah wasn't close enough to hear the answer, and she turned away to see how everything else was going.

Aisha had vanished, most likely to relieve Neil on taking-care-of-Vicky duty, so everything was running smoothly on that front as well. Now, all we need is a solution to the Carol problem …


Taylor


Okay, let's see how this goes.

It was weird pretending to pretend to be a villainous minion. Walking slowly through the crowd, covered in bugs, I watched the partygoers edge away from me but smile at the same time; they were miming fear, but knew I wasn't a real villain. However, with the three-sixty-degree awareness the bugs gave me, I could move around without actually looking where I was going.

This was good, because my main attention was on two of the three other bugs that had been perching on a shelf in the infirmary since Amy created them. At my command, they took wing and buzzed over toward where Brandish lay asleep on the bed. Landing side by side on her bare arm, they arched their backs and extruded two long sharp stingers. When the first one plunged its stinger into a vein, Brandish barely twitched. I sent that bug back to the shelf once it was done, then told the second one to inject its payload as well.

After that, I made it rejoin its friends and they all sat there watching Brandish. Their eyesight was terrible, but at least I could make out basic shape and light. On the bed, Carol Dallon stirred; I felt the ghost of her nervous system as she woke up. Her eyes inched open, but she flopped onto her back and didn't move. Staring at the ceiling, blinking every now and again, she wasn't asleep but neither was she exactly awake, courtesy of the strong hypnotic injected by the first bug.

It was never easy for me to affect people, but I could … barely. If they had any strong impulses, they could easily override my commands. It usually took Regent's natural indolence or someone just not caring for me to make them do what I want.

But in the semi-waking state Carol Dallon was in, she was barely experiencing the world, and cared even less. I could use my tenuous hold on her nervous system to sit her up and swing her legs over the side of the bed. It would've been better if she'd been in costume, but I could only work with what I had.

As 'Swarmina' (I suspected I was never going to live that name down) I deliberately turned my back on Cranial and the Tinkertech chair. I wasn't sure how people would react to seeing Carol Dallon in civilian clothing, but Amy was right. Her memories of Vicky were central to the whole situation.


Laserdream


Crystal knew Taylor would walk 'offstage' and use a bug to signal Lisa to change the music once Cranial was ready for another subject. Cranial was indeed ready, but 'Swarmina' didn't seem about to make herself scarce, and the music never changed. However, someone was crossing the floor, down below.

When Crystal recognised who it was, she blinked twice before accepting what her eyes were telling her. Holy shit, it's Aunt Carol. Taylor and Amy pulled it off!

She wasn't overly thrilled about having Taylor puppet her aunt, but considering the alternatives, this was what her father usually called 'the least worst option'. "Shhh," she said theatrically. "Brandish has infiltrated the base! Mind-Melter can't possibly win now!"

The crowd fell silent and everyone pushed up to the rail. 'Swarmina' resolutely kept looking in the other direction as Crystal's aunt reached Cranial and spoke the same phrase. She was seated in the chair, and the process began. Crystal found herself digging her nails into her palm. Please, please, please let this work.

It took nearly a minute and a half, and Crystal got the impression some people were holding their breaths, before Cranial raised the visor and removed the helmet. And then, when Aunt Carol got up off the chair, she stumbled. Crystal tried not to gasp out loud.

As Aunt Carol tried to head back the way she'd come, she stumbled again, and shook her head. Crystal had a bad feeling about what that meant. Oh, shit. She's coming out of it.

"Hey, Swarmina!" shouted Eric, drawing all eyes. "Were you hatched from a cocoon, or are you so ugly that bugs just love you?"

"That is not a funny joke," Taylor responded with the monotone buzz. "You are not a nice boy."

As everyone laughed, Crystal vaulted over the rail and flew down to where her aunt was leaning against the wall. Her eyes focused, and there was real intent in them. "Where am I?" hissed Aunt Carol. "What's going on here? Who are these people?"

"It's all good," Crystal said soothingly. "Here, let me—"

"No!" Carol pulled away from her. "I'm staying right here, and I want answers."

Crystal acted on instinct; throwing a bubble around Carol, she took off flying at her best speed. With any luck, Eric's banter with Taylor had gotten everyone's attention, and nobody would think this was too unusual. On the other hand, she'd certainly gotten Aunt Carol's attention.

"Hey!" her aunt shouted, her voice thankfully muffled by the force field. "Let me out of this! Put me down right this moment, young lady!"

"Not until you listen," insisted Crystal. "There's stuff you don't know—"

Just in time, she saw the glowing blade ignite inside the force field bubble and lash out toward her. It could cut through most materials; Eric's field was strong enough to defend against it, but hers wasn't. Stopping on the spot, she let Carol out of the field, then backed up. They were only a short distance from the infirmary …

"Start talking." There was something in Carol's eyes that wasn't entirely sane. "Are you my niece, or just someone who looks like her? Where is my daughter?" The blade crackled softly. Crystal smelled ozone.

"Vicky's going to be just fine—"

Carol stepped closer. "Going to be?" Then she stopped; eyes widening, she reached back over her shoulder. "What have you done?"

"Aunt Carol—" Crystal watched the glowing blade as it waved back and forth across the corridor. With her other hand, Carol scrabbled at her back. Then finally what she hoped was the third bug's knockout dose took hold, and Carol sank to one knee. Her eyes were still blazing, even as her body failed her, and she tried to lash out with the blade. Fortunately, it only travelled about six inches toward Crystal before it winked out and Carol fell on her face.

Crystal breathed heavily, leaning on her knees and hoping she wasn't about to throw up, then looked at the bug that took flight from Carol's back, heading toward the infirmary. Thank fuck Taylor was on the ball. Mom is never gonna believe this.

Calling up her force field again, she scooped her aunt up and headed toward the infirmary. With any luck they'd be done and dusted, and Vicky would be mentally whole, before Carol woke up again.

Let's hope that's the last of the drama. I can't deal with any more of this shit.


Circus


The metal around the lock glowed red-hot as she discarded the last of the road flares. She had to admit; the ventilation system in this cell was pretty damn good for something that had ducts measuring about two inches square. Flexible she was, but not that damn flexible.

Now all she had to do was wait until the door cooled down enough, and she'd have the lock picked. And then …

Tattletale, you bitch. I'm coming for you.


End of Part Thirteen