One Bad Day

Part Nine: Gotta Catch 'Em All

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


"All right, people. We are officially in possession of our own secret underground base, and Lisa assures me we have ample funds to pay for Cranial's services. This puts us in position to launch stage two of this operation." I stepped back from the table with the map of Brockton Bay laminated into the top (Coil had left some pretty cool things around his base, not gonna lie) and looked around the room at the others. "So, how are we going to do this?"

The question was partly rhetorical and partly serious. We'd already hashed out the 'ask first, but be prepared to grab' broad-strokes aspect of the plan—Amy reluctantly, Aisha enthusiastically—but now it was time to get into the nitty-gritty. Who to approach first, what approach to use and what form Plan B would take if Plan A went sideways.

The people we needed to gather together consisted of a bunch of non-powered civilians (mainly people from Arcadia High who knew Vicky best, as well as Gallant's family), Gallant himself (because boyfriend, duh), all of New Wave and (of course) Amy. Of all of these, Amy was an automatic volunteer; the next least problematic group were going to be Vicky's friends and acquaintances from Arcadia. It was a blessing and a mercy that Vicky was still able to rattle off names of people she was particularly close to, as well as a couple of her teachers. The idea was that we'd scoop up as many of these as we could reasonably handle, so as to provide as seamless a set of memories of Vicky's actions at school as possible.

I figured we'd also get relatively few hassles from Gallant and his family, for various reasons. For instance, once his emotion reading capability scanned Amy as being utterly serious, he would hopefully fall into line. Unless he decided to be a dick (because teenage boys with authority are always level-headed and smart about it), in which case we'd pivot seamlessly to Plan B. That would make life a whole lot harder all around but if there was anything I'd learned recently, it was that life positively enjoyed taking every opportunity to shit on me as hard as it could.

Once we had the Stansfields in the base (and boy, was that a surprise when Vicky casually revealed who her boyfriend was under the mask, or rather the helmet) we'd have to move faster, because 'a Ward went dark' could easily be seen as 'a Ward was kidnapped', and then we'd have the PRT after us in every way that counted.

And no, there was no way in hell I was going to provide the authorities with anything resembling the real story. That would cause the involvement of the police, the FBI, the PRT, possibly the Protectorate and almost certainly (as Amy had pointed out) Youth Guard, all of which would have their own agendas, and every single one of whom would be convinced they knew better than us how to handle the situation.

There wasn't any kind of best-case situation in that scenario; we all knew that Toybox in general and Cranial in particular would take one look at the shitshow that would then develop, and refuse to even come close to Brockton Bay. It would be bad case and worst case; Vicky being removed from our care by well-meaning idiots would be problematic enough if Amy could keep it together, but what we were all terrified of was the spectre of Amy going off the rails because Vicky had been taken away from her, leaving her unable to fix what she'd done. I suspected everything that had happened to this point would end up being a mere footnote to the apocalyptic chaos that would ensue if she ever truly broke loose with her full power, uncaring of the consequences.

For a very faint leavening of the utter crap that had been dumped on us so far, I was kind of thankful that the PRT had chosen to believe I hadn't specifically targeted Sophia because she was a Ward (as opposed to targeting her because she was trying to kill me while I had a knife in my hand). But we all knew there was only so far that Director Piggot's forbearance was going to hold out before she called in the big guns. And if it came out that we were kidnapping people (especially heroic capes) for any reason, that might be her trigger point.

We just had to hope and pray that we could get all our ducks in a row and delivered to Cranial before that happened. And of course, if the PRT and Protectorate went on high alert, so would New Wave. While there were no other Thinkers in Brockton Bay as good at digging deep and finding facts as Lisa was, we couldn't bet against there being someone out there that we didn't know about.

Lisa cleared her throat. "It all boils down to three options. 'Operation Squishies First' targets all the civilians on the list to begin with, so we don't have to worry about them ducking and covering when we start to go after the harder targets."

Aisha nodded at that one. She'd named the plan and it was dear to her heart. When nobody else showed much in the way of approval, she stuck out her tongue at us.

"Next up," Lisa intoned, ignoring the byplay, "is 'Crack the Walnut', whereby we go for the hardest targets first on the principle that once we've got those in hand, the rest are much easier to deal with."

I was kind of partial to that one, but I wasn't really sold on it. Amy liked it too, mainly because it promised immediate action.

"And last of all." Lisa stopped and looked meaningfully at us all. "We have 'Ask Nicely', where we approach the people who are most likely to say yes first. Once they're on board, they can assist us in convincing the others."

This was the other one I was in favour of. Dad was wholeheartedly behind it, which wasn't much of a surprise, given his union background. Lisa also liked it, which just left Amy and Aisha opposed. There wasn't much point in asking Vicky, because she would favour whatever Amy liked and we all knew it.

Lisa cleared her throat, just a little dramatically. "All in favour of Squishies First?"

"Wait a minute," I said. "Can we vote for more than one?"

"Sure, if nobody has a problem with it," Lisa said with a shrug. She looked at everyone else. "Anyone? No? Okay, then. Squishies First?"

Aisha raised her hand. "Yeah, this is the plan … oh, come on. Nobody? Not even Vicky? C'mon, Vickster, don't leave a sister hangin' here."

"All right, Most Esteemed Aisha," Vicky agreed, and also raised her hand.

Lisa shot Aisha a mild glare, which was matched by one from Amy. The disapproval rolled off the younger girl's impervious ego like a summer shower from a well-waxed car. With a snort of amusement, Lisa kept talking. "Okay, that's two votes for that plan. Votes for Crack the Walnut?"

I put my hand up then, as did Amy. After a moment of hesitation, Vicky joined her sister in approving of the plan.

With a sigh, Lisa facepalmed. "Because of course …" she muttered. "Okay, that's three votes for that one. Last but definitely not least, who's in favour of Ask Nicely?"

Dad and Lisa put their hands up, and I left mine in the air. Finally, smiling happily, Vicky put hers up as well. "Did we win?" she asked. I wasn't quite sure what she thought we'd won, and neither was anyone else.

"Yes, Vicky, we won," Lisa said kindly. "You can put your hand down now."


Seeing the look of anguish on Amy's face, I went and put my arm around her shoulders. She leaned into me, and I felt the deep shudders that wracked her body. We were doing this as much for her as for Vicky, and I had no idea what her endgame was, once her sister was whole again. But we had to keep it together, and help each other do the same, or all this would've been for nothing.

"So, the end result," Lisa declared. "With two votes for Squishies First, three for Crack the Walnut and four for Ask Nicely, we have our game plan."

"I still think nobody should've been able to vote twice," Aisha grumbled, giving me the stink-eye.

"You should've said something when Lisa asked," Amy reminded her. "The vote stands, and I'll support the result."

"Well, bully for you," Aisha snarked, rolling her eyes.

"Well spoken," Dad said to Amy, causing Aisha to flip them both the bird. "So, who do you think would be the easiest to talk around? Your cousins, or Gallant?"

"Like Eve said to Adam back in the day, that's a hard one." Aisha cackled at her own joke, then pouted when nobody else laughed. "Wow, really? Is it shit-on-Aisha day again already? I thought we had that just the other day."

Lisa sighed and facepalmed again. "Aisha …" she began.

"What?" demanded Aisha. "That was funny!"

Dad nodded. "Sure, for a given definition of 'funny'."

"Bite me," she retorted. "I bet Taylor laughs at your jokes."

"Occasionally," I said. "Or I groan. Just because he's my dad doesn't mean I'm gonna let him off the hook for stupid jokes."

"Getting off-topic here, folks," Lisa said briskly. "Amy, who should we approach first, and how do we break it to them?"

Privately, I flipped a coin in my head. On the one hand, it would be Laserdream and Shielder. On the other, Gallant. There would be benefits and problems either way. For me, I figured she'd favour Vicky's boyfriend.

"… Crystal and Eric, I think," she said after a few moments of intense thought. "We've known each other nearly our whole lives."

Okay, then. I nodded, assimilating her decision. "And how are you going to actually do it? Catch up to them at school or on patrol or what?"

"They don't do patrols without an adult along," she said. "I think I'll wait 'til they're home, then I'll call one of them and get both to meet with me. There's a park not far from their house."

"Good," Lisa decided. "We can set up Plan B there. What's the best way to immobilise them without doing any kind of lasting harm?"

Amy shrugged. "Well, they're not bulletproof, so anything that can deliver a knockout dose of some kind should do it. If they're meeting me, their shields will be down."

"Or I could inject 'em with something," Aisha said boldly. "We get a syringe and get a bug to make lots of knockout stuff. They start getting antsy, I'm standing right behind them. Jab, motherfucker."

"Are you trained to perform injections?" asked Amy.

"Jab, plunge, done," Aisha declared airily, miming the action, then dusted her hands off. "Home and hosed."

Amy sighed. "If you put the needle in at the wrong place, all you'll hit is bone. Or fat deposits, which will slow down the dispersal of a knockout drug. Even epi-pens take time to dispense. Doing it manually takes even longer."

"Chloroform," Aisha tried next. "C'mon. I've seen it a hundred times. You put it on a cloth and hold it over their face, they go crosseyed an' fall over. Can we get that?"

Dad cleared his throat. "Chloroform doesn't work that fast. It takes more than five minutes to totally knock someone out."

"Bugs would take pretty long to knock someone out," argued Aisha.

"Quicker than chloroform. And my knockout touch is instant, which is why we'll be going with that first, and bugs as a backup plan." Amy breathed deeply, crossing her arms so that she was hugging herself. "Trust me, I don't want to do this. But for her sake, we've got to."

We all knew who 'she' was. One look at Vicky's horrifyingly vacant expression as she hovered near her sister, humming to herself, was enough of a reminder of what we were trying to achieve here.

"So when are we going to do this?" I asked.

Amy bit her lip, as though steeling herself for an unpleasant task. "As soon as possible. Tonight."

Lisa nodded in agreement. "Tonight."

Later That Night

I lurked in the shadow of a bush, all my senses alert. My other senses were also highly-strung, with every bug in three blocks all looking around for weird stuff happening. Half a dozen night birds and two bats cruised the night sky, watching for people flying stealthily. Another bird and about a thousand bugs stood guard on Dad as he waited a block away in the car with Lisa and Vicky. From what I could tell, Dad was keeping a close eye on his surroundings while Lisa kept Vicky occupied with a silly word game.

"Anything?" asked Lisa in an undertone to the rat currently perched on her shoulder.

I made the rat shake its head; the only people in the park that my critters could detect were me and Amy. I knew Aisha was somewhere nearby, but I couldn't pinpoint her; it was her job to grab Amy and get her clear if things went sideways.

Amy had made the call five minutes previously, and we were still waiting to see how that would turn out. There were enough Amy-upgraded bugs (and other critters) in the immediate vicinity that we'd be able to grab Lady Photon as well if she showed up with them, but anyone beyond that meant we'd have to make a strategic retreat.

Everything hinged on what Shielder and Laserdream did next.

Five Minutes Ago
Pelham Household
Eric Pelham (AKA 'Shielder')

"So, have you seen the new fighter mods in Space Opera?" Eric didn't pause as he typed a snarky comment into the PHO boards and hit Enter. "I'm thinking the switchable shields are pretty sick."

"Dude, you're Shielder. Of course you'd think that." Zack, his best friend from Arcadia, let out one of his annoying nasal laughs.

"Hey, not everything's about me and my powers, you know?" Eric tilted his head as his Bluetooth earpiece pinged in his ear. "Shit, can you hang on a second? Got another call."

"Yeah, yeah, go be the important superhero. I see how it is." Zack laughed again, his tone belying his words.

Eric rolled his eyes. "Asshole." He pressed the button to accept the new call. "You've got Shielder."

"Eric, it's me." The voice was quiet, almost a whisper, but he recognised it instantly.

"Amy?" Sitting up from where he'd been lounging in his chair, he pressed the earpiece harder into his ear, to make sure he was hearing correctly. "Amy, is that you? Where have you been? Your folks have been worried sick! Where are you? Are you all right? Is Vicky with you?"

"Keep it down!" Now he could hear the desperation in her voice. "Eric, this is really, really important. You can't tell anyone except Crystal that I called."

"Why? What's going on?" He tried to listen to the background noise, to see if there was the echo of a phone on speaker. It didn't sound like it. Vaguely, he tried to recall the lessons that his parents had tried to drill into him about how to deal with a kidnapping scenario, but could only grasp fragments of what he'd been told. "If you're under threat, say 'Everything's okay'."

"Everything is absolutely not okay, but I'm not under threat," she retorted. "It's Vicky. She's … she's hurt. Not dying, not dying. But she needs … I need you to come meet me. At the park. Right now. Bring Crystal. Don't tell Aunt Sarah or Uncle Neil. Please."

"But why not? Why don't you want them to come with us?" Eric couldn't understand. As a superhero, he was fully aware of his parents' limitations, but anything that needed him and Crystal to deal with would be a lot more easily handled with all of the Pelhams there. "Amy, what's going on? Who hurt Vicky? Has this got anything to do with those rumours—"

"Eric, please!" Her voice broke off into a sob, then she got control of herself again. "I'll tell you everything. Just get Crystal and don't tell Aunt Sarah or Uncle Neil. I just need to talk to you two at first. Come to the park, please."

"Okay, okay," he said. "You want me and Crystal to come to the park?"

"No adults," she pleaded. "Promise me, or I'm walking away from the park right now."

He took a deep breath. "I … I promise?"

"Th … thanks, Eric." She sniffled, but she sounded marginally happier than before. "I appreciate it." Then she ended the call.

For a good ten seconds, Eric sat looking at the phone sitting on his desk. "What the hell?" he asked out loud.

"What the hell what, man?" It was Zack's voice. "You okay?"

Eric blinked. He'd totally forgotten about Zack, waiting on the other line. "Yeah, yeah, it's all copacetic," he said absently, still thinking about the bizarre call. "Listen, I gotta bounce. New Wave business and all that stuff. See you at school tomorrow, yeah?"

"You got it, my dude. Full deets then, mmkay?"

"Absolutely." Eric ended that call then sat with the phone in his hand, running his free hand through his blue-dyed hair.

He knew Amy almost as well as he knew Crystal, from years of being her cousin, and also being her superheroic partner when New Wave went out in force. Where Vicky was flamboyant and adventurous, Amy was stolid and serious. Where the rest of the team's powers lent themselves toward dramatic heroics, hers were as non-flashy as they got. She didn't do over the top shit. If anything, she was a bit too blunt to be totally likeable. Not that Eric would ever say so to her face; he liked her just fine as his cousin.

Which was how he knew a desperate, emotional phone call like that was totally out of character for her. Either she was under threat (though he tended to believe her emphatic denial) or something else really weird was going on. If Vicky was hurt, why didn't Amy want any adults in on this?

Slowly, he got up from his chair. He didn't want to let Amy down, and he'd promised not to involve his parents. Do I tell them anyway? What do I do? Leaving his room, phone still in his hand, he headed down the hall to Crystal's room and knocked on the door. "Hey, sis? You decent?"

Enough time passed that he began to wonder if she had headphones on or something, then she opened the door. "Eric, seriously, I was in the middle of—" Then she saw his expression. "Shit, are you okay? What happened?"

He held up his phone, fully aware that the gesture would be absolutely meaningless to her. "Can I come in for a second? There's something really important I need to talk to you about."

She huffed a sigh and rolled her eyes. "Can it wait? I've got a high-value assignment I've got to get back to."

Glancing up and down the hall—no parents to overhear, thank God—he leaned in and lowered his voice. "Amy called. She needs our help, and she sounded really upset." He waggled his phone for emphasis.

"Amy called?" Her voice rose. "And you haven't told Mom or Dad yet why?"

"Keep it down," he hissed, patting at the air with his other hand. "She made me promise not to bring them in on it yet. Just you."

Her eyes narrowed and she grabbed his arm with both hands. Flying backward, she dragged him into her room, then kicked the door so it swung shut. "Okay," she said, her voice intense. "Tell me everything."

The Park
Ten Minutes After the Phone Call

One of the night birds spotted them first. Carefully, trying not to move too much, I got up onto my knees. A bat swooped closer, getting a good read on their size and shape, and I nodded to myself. It was Shielder and Laserdream, and their force fields were up.

A firefly alighted on Amy's hand and blinked twice, to signify that it was her cousins, and that they seemed to have come alone. To signify that everything seemed okay, I left its bioluminescent patch green and didn't trigger the biological switch that would've turned it red. I did the same with Lisa, and heard her relaying the information to Dad. I wasn't quite sure where Aisha was, so all I could do was hope she saw the blinking light from the firefly I'd also placed on the back of Amy's hair.

Still, I wasn't going to automatically trust everything I saw. While two birds and a bat trailed the pair of teens in toward the park, I sent the other flying animals spiralling outward, looking for more fliers. Insects rose in a swarm to ensure nobody was sneaking up on us at ground level. And several very special bugs took to the air and went to meet the incoming visitors. As Lisa and I had told Amy, we might not have to go to plan B, but it was a good idea to have my finger on the trigger just in case.

As Shielder and Laserdream came to a hover over the park, it was clear that they were suspicious. I stayed crouched in next to my bush, which turned out to be a good move. Laserdream pointed her finger and a beam of light splashed over the ground below, impressively bright. After a moment, I realised it was one of her laser beams, but spread out into a flashlight effect. I'd never even heard she could do that.

The beam crossed over the bush I was hiding behind, and I didn't move a muscle. Bugs hovered near the New Wave kids, but couldn't get close due to the faintly glowing force fields they were currently generating. The spotlight beam moved on, and I breathed a little easier.

"Amy?" It was Shielder, trying to shout and whisper at the same time. "Are you alright? Where's Vicky?"

"Get down here, you idiots, and turn that stupid light off," Amy hissed in return, gesturing urgently. "Do you want everyone to see what's going on?"

"No, but what is going on?" demanded Laserdream. Thankfully, she ceased to scan the park with her finger-beam, and they both descended toward Amy. My bugs pursued, seeking a chance to settle on them.

Amy had, of her own accord, selected a spot between a slide and a jungle gym that would make it difficult for bulky force fields to reach ground level without bumping into each other. Shielder, reaching the ground first, looked around warily as he deactivated his eponymous shield, then hurried over to Amy. "Say the word," he whispered, "and we'll get you out of here."

As I settled bugs onto him, Amy shook her head at his words. "No!" she insisted in a sharp undertone. "We're not in danger. But I do need to talk to you, right here and right now. And I want you to listen."

Laserdream lowered herself to the ground, but didn't deactivate her field. Clearly more suspicious than her brother, she continued to look around at the edge of the park, a glow lighting the tip of her finger. "So, talk," she said. "Where's Vicky? Where's your sister? You said she's hurt. I thought you could fix anything."

I tensed, wondering if she was suspicious of Amy's motives or still had the idea that this was some kind of hostage scenario. My Amy-bugs continued to spiral around her field, trying to find a way in. This could still be salvaged, so long as Amy managed to stall long enough to get her to drop her field. At least, I hoped so.

Amy dropped to her knees, her head lowered. "I can't fix her, because I don't do brains. I called you here because I need your help." The emotion in her voice was either genuine, or she was an amazing actor.

Whichever it was, her move was an inspired one. "Brains?" exclaimed Shielder, stepping forward to stand next to her. "What happened to her?"

"And what do you mean, you need our help with this?" demanded Laserdream. Finally, she dropped her shield, moving closer to Amy. "What can we do to help?"

That would have been the ideal time to strike, hitting them both with highly potent sedatives produced by Amy's bugs. Dad would be there in about three minutes, and we could have them back to the base in less than fifteen. But Amy didn't give the signal, so I held back, though I did make sure that Laserdream was also tagged with bugs.

"I need your help, because I fucked up," Amy confessed. "Vicky's brain's been screwed up because of something I did. Her personality's been fragmented. I can't put her back together on my own."

Shielder's jaw dropped. "What the hell?"

Laserdream's reaction was more extreme; her shield snapped into being as she shot ten feet straight up. "What do you mean, 'fragmented'? What the fuck did you do to Vicky?" I noted with more than a little alarm that her fingertip had begun to glow again. Every bug that I'd snuck onto Laserdream and Shielder went to high alert. Stingers quivered, almost touching skin.

To give Amy her due, she wasn't giving me the signal to go to plan B quite yet. "It was an accident," she insisted. "I fucked up and I know it, but I've got a plan to fix it. If we tell the adults, they'll just put her in therapy which will do exactly fuck-all to fix her. Fuck, I can't fix her, not on my own." Tears streaming down her face, she raised her hands in entreaty to her cousins. "Please. I can't fix her without you guys. I need all the help I can get with this."

"I'll do it," Shielder said firmly. "I'll help." He knelt beside Amy and put his arm around her. "We're New Wave. We got this."

"Eric, what the fuck?" Laserdream shook her head. "We've gotta tell Mom and Dad and Aunt Carol about this. You've heard all the horror stories about cape kids trying to do stuff they aren't ready for yet. If Amy can't fix whatever she did to Vicky, we need to bring the adults in on this."

"No." Eric shook his head stubbornly. "Crys, look at her! Amy's about as boring as it gets when it comes to stuff like this! If she says the adults can't fix Vicky, then they can't fix her!"

"Sorry, Eric, but this is a terrible idea." Laserdream began to drift higher. "I'm gonna go fetch Mom. She'll know what to do."

"So that's it?" Amy asked her older cousin, her voice still broken from crying. "You're not even going to give me a chance?"

"I gave you a chance when I came out here," Laserdream replied sadly. "But this isn't a Saturday morning cartoon, and you aren't Li'l Militia. Mistakes have consequences and whatever you've done to Vicky, I'm not going to risk her life just to protect you from getting in trouble."

Amy squeezed her eyes shut, but I knew there were tears still leaking out. "I'm sorry," she whispered. It wasn't for Laserdream; it was for me.

"Yeah, I am too—ow! What the—? Ow! Hey!" Laserdream suddenly began flailing inside her force-field bubble as the bugs stung, delivering carefully calculated dosages of knockout venom into her bloodstream. She swiped and slapped at them, but they evaded her hands and swarmed around her face, preventing her from seeing where she was going. "What the hell is this?"

Still, she would've flown away if she could. The knockout dose was very effective, but it would take more than a few seconds to kick in. Which was why I wanted her distracted. Reaching out to the ghostly form I could see with my power, I took control of her body.

Bugs, I could control endless numbers of. Birds and bats, somewhat fewer. People … well, their brains were infinitely larger and more convoluted than bug brains. I could detect them, barely, and if I picked the right moment I could influence their actions. One person at a time, and it wasn't exactly precise.

Between the bugs buzzing in her face and the sedative now flowing through her veins, Laserdream was in no way concentrating on anything. Controlling her was like manipulating a marionette with mislabelled strings in a high wind, but I managed to get her back down to ground level before her shield blinked out and she collapsed in an untidy heap. I felt my control slip away along with her consciousness, and I blinked hard, sweat covering my face. The beginnings of a very nasty headache began to threaten, but I ignored it. I could have a headache later.

"Holy fucking shit!" Shielder stared at where his sister lay sprawled on the soft grass. "That was cool as fuck! How did you do that, Amy?"

I set a firefly blinking repeatedly in front of Dad's face while flying in a circle; bring the car now. The rumble of the engine starting echoed oddly in the bug's hearing as I stood up. "She didn't. I did. Big fan, by the way. Can I get your autograph?" The main thing I was a big fan about was his willingness to help Amy, but beggars couldn't be choosers. Keeping my hands in plain view and doing my best to appear non-threatening, I strolled across the park toward where Amy was checking on Laserdream.

Shielder stared at me. "Uh, Amy, who's that?" Clearing his throat, he tried again. "Who are you? What's going on around here?"

I shrugged. "Basically, what she told you. I'm a friend she met on the way, and we're all working to help her fix Vicky. This is part one of stage two of the plan." I gave him my most disarming smile. "Hi, I'm Taylor."

"Yeah, hi." He didn't look pleased at the new development. "How did you meet Amy, and what did you do to my sister? Is she going to be okay?"

I ticked off points on my fingers, trying to keep the conversation light and unthreatening. If he tried to flee, I could bring him down … at least, I figured it would go that way. But I really, really hoped it wouldn't become necessary. "We were hiding in the same abandoned building. I dosed Laserdream up with a proprietary mix of ketamine and several other chemicals, with the faintest touch of batrachotoxin. And sure, she'll be okay; it'll wear off in a couple of hours." I'd checked with Amy before I ever agreed to zap someone with her bugs. The potential for danger inherent in the bullet bugs had already made me wary of going overboard with them, and I wanted to make sure nobody was going to get hurt.

"So what happens now?" A moment later, Shielder yelped and jumped as Aisha faded into our awareness and slapped him on the ass. "Yow! Hey, where'd you come from?"

"Well, when a mommy and a daddy love each other very much …" began Aisha in a sing-song tone, accompanied by her wickedest grin.

I facepalmed.

Eric still hadn't tried to bolt by the time Dad pulled up in the car. I put this down to being partially due to loyalty to his cousins, and partially due to curiosity as to what Amy had planned. Neither Amy nor Aisha was as tall as Shielder, and I was taller than them all, so it was up to him and me to get the unconscious Laserdream to the side of the road. We managed it, not without a struggle, just about by the time the car came to a halt.

"Vicky," Amy called. "Can you give us a hand with Crystal, please?"

"Of course, Amy," said Vicky, opening the back door and getting out.

"Hey, Vicky," Shielder greeted her. "You're looking a lot better than I was expec—"

Vicky gave him a wide and vacant smile. "Hello, Eric. You're my cousin."

"Yes, he is." Amy pointed at the back seat of the car. "Can you help us get Crystal in there? She's very tired so she needs to be comfortable."

"Okay, Amy." Still smiling, Vicky gathered up Laserdream with almost insulting ease and put her in the back of the car.

Looking at Shielder's face as Amy was speaking to Vicky, I could tell from the growing horror on his face that he was finally getting the point of what Amy had told him. "Fuuuccck," he mumbled.

"Mm-hmm," I said sympathetically, putting my hand on his shoulder. "Now imagine what it's been like for the last couple of days with her, and why it's so important we fix her before it's too late."

"You said you're going to fix her," Shielder said. "But you haven't said how. Or what me and Crystal can do to help."

"I've been holding off on that until we can get back to base," Amy said. I could tell from the set of her shoulders and the whiteness around her lips that this was getting harder and harder for her all the time, but she was determined to push through until the bitter end.

"One question," said Dad, who hadn't gotten out of the car yet. "This is something that we should've thought about first, but where's everyone going to sit? We've got four passenger seats and six passengers, assuming Aisha's going to be riding her motorbike."

"Hey, I can take a passenger," Aisha offered. "Just sayin'. Dunno how I'd go with two, though."

I knew I was going to make the offer, and tried to stop myself. But my mouth opened and "I'll go with Aisha" came tumbling out. Everyone looked around at me and I grimaced. I mean, how bad can it be? I thought but did not say out loud.

"All-righty!" crowed the young parahuman. "All aboard the Aisha Express!"

"Still got five passengers for four seats," Dad reminded the others.

This posed a real dilemma, which we really should've thought about earlier. The car only had so many seats, and it wasn't as though we had fliers who we trusted both not to turn on us and not get lost. And seating people within the car sounded like the old puzzle with the fox, the goose and the grain.

Lisa climbed out of the back seat to make room for the zonked-out Laserdream. "I'll go in the front seat," she said. "Amy can go in between Vicky and Shielder, and Laserdream can lie across their legs."

"Holy shit, there's more of you?" Shielder looked at the group of us standing around the car, and shook his head. "Geez, Amy, did you go ahead and recruit a team just to deal with this crap?"

Amy shrugged. "I, uh, maybe?"

Shielder looked from her to the rest of us. "Forget it. Let's get back to this 'base' of yours. I wanna see what you can manage to put together in a day or so on your own."

Lisa smirked, a fox-like expression. "Oh, this is so gonna be fun."

By the time Aisha and I got back to the base, I was ready to strangle Lisa for her offhand comment. Riding pillion with an unlicensed teenage maniac was about as close as I could get to the official definition of attempted suicide. She rode the wrong way down one-way streets, dodged through the mid-evening traffic with the aplomb of a motorbike racing expert, and managed to get us back to base in less than ten minutes. And somehow with all that, she never so much as scratched the paint on the motorbike.

After the first three corners, I'd bent almost double to push my face into the back of her neck, so I didn't have to see where we were going. It nearly helped.

I wobbled off the bike, trying not to throw up. Next time, I decided, I would walk.

"So hey, we've got two of them," Aisha announced, following me through the passageway into the base proper. "You think that went pretty good? I reckon it did."

"Yeah, well," I mumbled as I tottered into the break room we'd colonised. "Only because we were prepped and ready to roll. If Laserdream had gotten away, New Wave would already be scouring every street lowlife for our names."

I got a bottle of cold water out of the fridge and poured a little of it over my head, the shock of the chilly liquid running down the back of my neck drawing my complete attention. Then I drank from the neck of the bottle; after that stakeout and the motorbike ride, rehydration was important and I couldn't be bothered finding a glass.

Collapsing into a chair, I found the remote and pointed it at the TV in the corner. I was still pretty impressed that Coil had somehow managed to run an antenna to the surface to get a signal, but that didn't stop me from paying attention to the news. Item after item went by, but not one of them was about the confrontation in the park. It appeared, I concluded after some minutes, that we'd gotten away with it.

The car came in a little after that, and everyone climbed out. Even Laserdream was awake now, though somewhat groggy. She and Shielder stared around at the raw concrete interior of the base, eyes wide.

"Holy fuck, you weren't kidding," Shielder said in a hushed tone to Amy. "You really do have a base."

"Okay, I suppose it's kinda impressive," Laserdream said in a tone that fooled nobody at all. "But an underground base doesn't actually help deal with what's happened to Vicky. And I'm still waiting for an explanation for how we can help her but Mom and Dad can't."

"Oh, they'll be helping," Amy said, leaning against a catwalk rail and crossing her arms. "But on our terms, not theirs. We're going to be rebuilding who she used to be, memory by memory."

"But you can't do brains," Laserdream insisted. "At least not without screwing them up, if I'm not much goddamn mistaken." She took a moment, clearly trying to get her brain in gear. "Okay, so how are you going to unfuck this mess?"

Amy took a deep breath and glanced at Dad, then at Lisa. Dad nodded encouragingly. Lisa's response was less enthusiastic, but she also gave Amy a nod. "May as well tell her," she said.

"Right. Yeah." Amy stepped forward and shook her hands out. "Well, the thing is, we took this base from a supervillain, and one of the things he left lying around was lots and lots of money. So Tattletale there—"

"I knew it!" shouted Shielder suddenly. "I've seen you around before. Weren't you with a gang? The Under-something or others? What happened there?"

Lisa grimaced. "You aren't cleared to know that. Amy?"

Amy glared at Shielder, who even had the good grace to blush a little. "Okay, I'll shut up now," he said placatingly. "How are you gonna do it?"

Her voice was firm. "As I was saying, lots and lots of money. Remember Toybox? Tattletale knows how to contact them. They've got a cape called Cranial. Once we contact Toybox and pay Cranial a lot of money, she's going to be using her tech to read off our memories, then create a personality overlay based on those memories. And then that's going to be implanted in Vicky's head. With any kind of luck at all, it'll merge with the remnants of her old personality and bring her all the way back."

Laserdream nodded slowly. "I can actually see that. Bringing in Toybox, holy fucking hell, but yeah, it's a solid plan. So, how many of Vicky's friends and family do you intend to rope in to have their memories read?"

Amy took a deep breath. "Basically all of them. Every single one."

"Well, that definitely explains why you're keeping this on the down-low," observed Laserdream, sounding far less hostile than before. "Because Aunt Carol is going to absolutely flip her shit when she finds out about this."

"Yeah," Amy said hollowly. "I know."

End of Part Nine