48 Uptime

Garment motioned for us to wait as she quickly wrapped up the last of the alterations and projects over which she had been splitting her attention. Between the dueling cape designs, modifications of old styles, management of her media presence, adjustment to her upgraded equipment, and assorted other projects, any concerns I had about her being bored or isolated were clearly misplaced.

Well, that or they had been successfully addressed by actually being aware of the issue and working to get ahead of it before it became a problem. A lot of things were easy to dismiss as good or bad luck, rather than the result of predictable actions. I had wanted to avoid Garment ending up isolated and stir crazy and could acknowledge that I had put a good deal of work into making sure that didn't happen. This was another thing, recognizing the results of actions, at least on the positive side. It's easy to see everything that goes wrong as my own fault and everything that goes right as a random act of fortune, rather than the consequence of actually taking productive action.

It didn't feel like something I should be proud of, just something that's a basic expectation. Like, meeting it was the bare minimum of what would be expected from anyone. Also, admitting that the things I did had good results for Garment felt like I was putting some kind of obligation onto Garment, and I wasn't comfortable with that. And that was probably because I didn't like having that kind of obligation placed on me, as it often was.

I think the downtime, getting away from the constant blitz of work and focus on the next crisis, was letting me take time to review my thought processes again. I didn't particularly like what I was finding there, but I knew it was better to be aware of what was going on inside my own head rather than just pushing forward and only realizing the shaky foundation for a major decision in retrospect.

Garment indicating that she was ready to go and a missed connection to the Resources and Durability constellation broke me out of my ruminations. After a nod of acknowledgement, we started moving towards the hangars.

This close to the central part of the complex shortcut doors weren't really necessary as everything was clustered, at least compared to the expansions that had bloomed out through the volcano. In movies when you hear about people, okay, usually villains, hollowing out a mountain for their base I don't think anyone really accounts for how much internal space that actually generates. It wasn't just the fact that I was sitting on a geographical footprint large enough to contain a small town, it was that you could then stack that town on top of itself in a repeating if diminishing fashion until you reached the top of the volcano. Seeing even a fraction of it in action, the idea of a volcano-based Bond villain pulling a private army out of apparently nowhere suddenly makes a lot more sense.

Walking through the central workshop was a very different experience now than it had been. That was the impact of an effective complete rebuild of all major systems. Before I got the insane crafting speed that came with Build Rome the prospect of bringing the various systems that composed the multi-level complex of my main production area up to my best standard was an impossible prospect. Systems were picked and chosen based on what I anticipated would be needed, and that always felt like a guessing game. Did I need better synthetics? What about microprocessor fabrication? Should I upgrade the portion of the workshop devoted to automotive manufacture, or focus on cybernetics?

And then there was the whole 'moving target' aspect. Every time a new power would add features to my work there was a drive to roll it out, not just in key areas, but across the entire complex. Because who knows, maybe that final push to ceramic fabrication would take things over the top and provide some critical edge in some future scenario.

Yeah, it was a mess. Like, a mess from a workflow perspective, but also a design mess. Piecemeal upgrades were scattered around the place, partial improvements blending in with older, untouched systems. The patchwork of facilities created by the expansion of my workshop would have been a chaotic mess. My design powers let me correct that, but it had an artificial feel to it. The design of new or upgraded areas being used to smooth over discordant designs. It flowed, but only because my powers helped paper over the gaps.

That wasn't the case anymore. In the space of a few hours, actually mostly while I was sleeping, my duplicates had stripped down and rebuilt virtually the entire workshop. By hand. Every system was torn down to base components and reassembled from the ground up. Redesigns with Gadget Master and Ambrosial Artificer had drastically reduced the bulk and complexity of systems, turning crowded industrial spaces into open areas. Base materials were replaced with infused mithril, adamantium, celestial bronze, bone steel, or even the freshly transmuted cybertonium. All were enhanced by my volcano and Skyforge and crafted in microgravity for the added enhancements of Material Synthesis Science. The work saw the innate quality increases from Lack of Materials, the endurance of Robust Engineering, the constant improvement of Heretical Adaptation, and the divine manifestation of Master Craftsman, drawn from the equipment being wrought entirely by hand. Magic and Magitech powers infused the equipment and tied in new potential applications of production.

Really, the only area that had been compromised was limiting Elven Enchantment to the first level of that power. Infusing energy into something was as simple as breathing now, but naming was still an exertion. The last major step forwards had been the multiple names applied to my heart, and that had been the kind of endeavor I never would have conceived being able to endure. Probably the only reason the drain didn't hit me as hard as I imagined it would was the fact that the work was immediately integrated back into my body, with a primary function of reinforcing my spirit.

Even without an entire workshop of named equipment, the facilities were astonishing. As we walked through I could find myself focused on the kind of projects I could accomplish with the resources around me, not the burning need for improvement. Even if most of the facilities were unlikely to have any serious benefit in my cape career it was refreshing to know that I had that kind of resource to fall back on.

Well, specifically it was Fleet, Survey, and Garment who had the resources. As incredible as the equipment was, my best work was and would constantly be done with my own hands. The Matrix was a colony hive intelligence of nanotech assemblers capable of working on the molecular level, with each nanobot serving as a microscopic equivalent of an entire facility in my workshop. The workshop, or at least the manufacturing facilities in it, weren't for us. They were to allow Garment to run her textile experiments and ensure limitless resources for her work. They were to provide ancillary manufacturing for Fleet and Survey in the event they wanted to prototype a design or experiment with alternate drone technology.

They were crafting facilities that could function without my hand directing them. A tertiary benefit of Shipping the Product was the ability to streamline production lines. The literally divine equipment combined with the near ideal layout and a versatile production base meant that my workshop could produce at a level dwarfing most cities. And some countries.

It was an incredible resource to have and, once again, one that I couldn't currently use. The obstacles that kept me working at the bare minimum level were still present, right outside that door. I may not have been able to fully utilize my workshop just yet, but once things were dealt with, however that was managed, I would have the opportunity to unleash the full force of what I had assembled here.

Until then there were still aspects of the workshop that remained incredibly useful. My facilities for research, communication, and analysis had been upgraded to the same standard as the rest of the workshop. Given the fact that cybertonium was finally in play that was a significant statement. Not only did I have room temperature superconductors for all my power conduits, but I was finally able to take advantage of the true potential of Master Builder and my related powers.

Which meant I was building Transformers technology. Okay, I was actually building divinely enhanced, magically infused Transformers technology that had been miniaturized with the principles of Q-branch and then optimized by a design power that apparently came from a Japanese show about a giant space battleship. The absolute clusterfuck of implications that came from that multidimensional mess did nothing to diminish the importance of what my new systems represented.

The primary advantage of cybertonium wasn't the fact that it was a room temperature superconductor, and if you know anything about superconductors then you'll understand the strength of that statement. No, cybertonium was much more complex than that. Like the 'fold carbon' that my Veritech fighter used to run a jet engine off of nuclear annihilation, cybertonium had a presence beyond the physical universe. Only instead of using it to crush matter in super dimensional space, essentially turning matter directly into energy to run a God damn turbine, cybertonium had a resonance that extended outside the conventional universe, into a kind of buffer space of the multiverse, transwarp space.

Honestly, it was a little frightening how many reality-adjacent realms I could currently access. I had transwarp space, super dimensional space, Star Trek's subspace, Halo's slipstream space, the unstable warped version of space used by some of Fixer's teleportation technology, the assorted spirit-like realms accessible through my assorted magic and divine powers, the temporary spiritual existence created within the magitech simulations now possible in my central computer. Oh, and Hell. Can't forget about Hell, no matter how much I might want to. And all of these were on top of the 'conventional' multiverse model that the world was already dealing with.

Huh. I kind of miss the time when I could just ignore the implications of these powers and focus on the next crisis.

Anyway, transwarp space, and the cybertonium necessary to access it, was the secret to the highest levels of that technology. Wonders of design and engineering that had been sitting outside my grasp from the moment that power shoved a lifetime of robot memories into my brain were suddenly at my full disposal. It really said something when the size-changing aspects of the technology were some of its least remarkable properties. Cybertonium's ability to shove vast portions of its own mass into the transwarp meant I could shrink a giant robot down to the size of a cell phone. Or swing in the other direction and have it expand into a battleship.

Every aspect of cybertonium was useful, from weapons and defensive technologies to something as comparably simple as the upgrade of my subspace pocket, but it was the fact that I finally had proper computers that was making the real difference. I had been hobbling along with diamond based optical processors and atomic scale components supplemented with the occasional quantum processor. With cybertonium I was finally able to move away from that conventional crap.

Humm. I should probably count that towards the jar. I had kind of put that entire mechanism on the back burner, but moderation strategies are important. I wasn't thinking of myself as separate from humans… well, maybe, but it had stronger grounding now. Like, physical grounding, on a couple of different levels. Anyway, thought patterns noticed, quarter, jar, continue.

The new computer was what my robot-backed-mindset considered a proper computer, not the abacus equivalent I had been previously producing. Zettabyte drives for active memory with long term storage in the hundreds of yottabytes. Multidimensional processors that could operate in simultaneous physical states with imposed nano-scale temporal effects driving calculations. Energon infused systems ensuring no waste heat and continuous power access by every component of the system. A design that could operate flawlessly for hundreds of millennia, even without the benefit of my powers, and even further advanced by the inclusion of select components that I had learned to create from my Fixer power. The same type of components that were used in the shockingly advanced systems of the Laboratorium.

It was a big improvement over the laptop I had first built for Garment. She expressed gratitude for the work, but I don't think she fully appreciated the upgrade. Still, it was a relief to finally give her something decent before we started on the rebuild of the computer core.

The core still stood in the center of the workshop, towering over the rebuilt grandeur of levels upon levels of pristine systems and industrial equipment. The interface throne still stood at the center, but it had been adapted from the soul-based interface that had kept me stable in the aftermath of the fight with Lung. Now, instead of being isolated, it sat atop a shimmering spire of gold, silver, and glowing crystal. Diamond processors still in use for conventional system interfaces were nestled adjacent to glowing shards of stabilized energon. An intricate lattice of cybertonium components flowed through the structure, highlighted by gold connectors linking to external systems.

Probably the biggest change was the fact that the 'throne' no longer stood alone. Additional seats and bays had been added further down the spire, the same configuration that facilitated the conference during my incapacitation. A work of science and sorcery that did as much to connect the soul to the system as it did the mind and body. A new level of computer interface that had been able to reach me in a state where I was beyond the ability to function on any level higher than thought.

And a system that had already been adapted for significantly less serious use. Though you would never realize that based on Garment's reaction to the sight of the computer core. I sighed as the Knowledge constellation passed by.

"Garment, I'm sorry, but we've been over this. We've been over this a lot." She indicated that we could still go over this more. The shifting of Tetra from her perch on my shoulder suggested the previous argument was far from settled. "I'm sorry it didn't go the way you wanted. Maybe next time…" Garment indicated she wasn't overly hopeful about the situation. "Garment, we'll watch another movie tonight. You'll have the same chance as anyone to pick the film."

When the temporal acceleration of the upgraded computer system was considered along with the immersion possible from the Technosorcery enhanced neural link it provided opportunities for all kinds of projects, ones extending beyond what is typically possible when operating in a digital environment. Given that I was technically on break I figured it might be a nice idea to unwind with everyone and came up with an idea.

Movie night.

A full-length movie could be watched together with space for mingling and discussion all while barely a minute passed in the outside world. The interface could handle everyone in the workshop, though the duplicates elected to sit the event out and Aisha was spending the night with her father. It seemed like the perfect way to unwind while also assisting in development of both the A.I.s and Tetra. And everyone seemed to enjoy the idea.

Until we came to the question of picking the movie. It was wonderful that my A.I.s had developed diverse tastes over the course of their development. It was less of a wonderful situation when you were mediating arguments over cinema preferences. Even Garment got in on the argument with a fervor I wouldn't have expected.

I proposed sequential selection, letting us work through the group with everyone getting a chance. The initial idea of ordering by seniority was an unmitigated disaster, with me fielding four separate cases for the criteria of what counted and how it should be determined. Tetra and Garment probably did have strong cases, but it was easier to sidestep the issue with random selection, the winners excluded until we had cycled through the entire group, at which point hopefully we would either have come to some kind of agreement over movie themes, or I would just lock down the sequence to cut off any further arguments.

Seriously, this is not the kind of problem I anticipated needing to deal with when I decided to bring strong A.I.s into the world. Those robot apocalypse movies were severely off base.

The lucky winner was Fleet which was why we spent a proportionally tiny but personally significant portion of the previous evening watching 1969's The Italian Job, with Fleet thoroughly enjoying himself, Survey picking apart the plot and the Matrix attempting to figure out what the take away from the experience was supposed to be.

"It wasn't that bad. I know you liked some of the fashions." Garment indicated that she liked SOME of the fashions, while the rest were evidence of an era of human history that would be best to fade from memory.

"The car chase was nice." Tetra offered. Garment begrudgingly agreed it might have had some merit, but she would definitely pick a better movie when it was her turn.

I smiled as we continued through the workshop. Really, I could have just let everyone pick and run a film festival. Of course, sequence would still have been an issue and moderating it would have us right at the same place. Instead, doing one movie a day seemed right somehow. It was a minor commitment in actual time, but gave everyone a common point for the next day. Given how crazy things had been I kind of wish something like this started earlier. It just never occurred to me until I had some time to myself.

The movie night, and the capacity for events like that were nice, but they were a side benefit for what the system had actually been constructed to deal with. When Dragon had said that Bakuda's code was based on fundamentally irreconcilable computational problems she hadn't been exaggerating. The mechanism that Bakuda used could be understood, but the actual encryption was another matter. It was a shockingly powerful effect and I would have been surprised if I hadn't known the true level of power behind parahuman abilities. Bakuda must have been very well aligned with her passenger when she developed it, but the result was personally trying to counter the work of an unbelievably ancient, specialized, and powerful master of a specific field with only my own abilities.

Well, my own abilities and the most advanced computer core on the planet, and even that badly undersold how impressive the system was. The nightmare of cryptography involved in that Deadman's switch was the kind of thing that gave code breakers fits. You would need to do fundamentally impossible aspects of computing and mathematics in order to even begin making the barest hint of progress.

Fortunately, there were more than a few aspects of my systems architecture that would be regarded as fundamentally impossible, even before the magitech additions were considered. I was making progress. It was slow process, but a combination of advanced deconstruction, complex simulation, and a highly aggressive brute force program was chipping away at possibilities. I would eventually get through. I just hoped it would be before Bakuda decided to do anything stupid. Or I suppose I should say 'stupider'.

We cut across from the roughly defined 'manufacturing' area of the workshop to the equally roughly defined 'research' area, and suddenly the earlier thoughts of movies became a lot more relevant. My magical research lab had seen a great deal more use over the last day than it had in the time since I first got it way back on… Monday afternoon.

God, but this week had been a clusterfuck.

Anyway, a combination of taking downtime, the workshop upgrades being a non-factor, and the highly unsettling revelation about the extradimensional nature of my abilities, suddenly a dedicated research center became a godsend. Prior to the little Princess Gwenevere related revelation I was basically groping in the dark with regards to magic. I knew that I had different types of magic, and that magic had similar principles to parahuman abilities, but the actual question of how to develop any of that beyond the starting level of parlor tricks was one with no easy answer. At best it would take months or years of research to figure out the groundings of a type of spellcasting, even with the help of the lab.

Things were different now. Not across the board. There were still types of magic that I had no clue about, but others had a firmer basis. The tiered magic system that came with my alchemy talent and lab was still a complete mystery, and useless beyond the tiny amount of mana I gained from it. The pool of magicka that came with my Skyforge seemed like the kind of thing that would be easy to use, but at the moment it only had the advantage of refilling exceedingly quickly, which would be great if it was in any way compatible with my other types of magic. My Ninjutsu skills came with a ki pool, something mirrored in a number of other powers, but the use of it was an entirely separate challenge from spellcasting, even if the energy was compatible.

Then there were the more encouraging options. Striker magic may have been limited to shields and the passive effects that allowed a striker to function, but the ability came with the understanding of the effects in play. Furthermore, the link with my familiar, despite the… unfortunate additional features, actually provided a phenomenal boost to my magical abilities. The native magic of the striker wasn't possible without the connection, but the benefits extended to all other forms of magic I had available to me. Better control, more energy to draw upon, and a sense of the magic around me that just didn't exist without my familiar's help.

The second casting system was the one that tipped me off to the entire mess. The concept of magical circuits had been thoroughly explored in Princess Gwenevere media and despite serious arguments in the fanbase about the details of the magic system there was a firm basis of how the magic worked and what was possible with it. Okay, I doubt I'll be able to pull off Phantasmagoria or any of the other True Magics, but the principles of magecraft were explained, and at least seemed to match what was shown in the media.

The idea of farming a cartoon for magic lessons was a bit disconcerting, but it had nothing on the work that had gone into the final type of magic that was being researched. The magic lab had seen a series of upgrades as well, but unlike the machinery in the rest of the workshop there was less benefit to be had and more time involved. The addition of magic sensors from my Analysis power was a big help, as were the upgraded quality of the equipment, but generally the place looked the same as when I had first got it.

Well, aside from the set of holographic displays that had been set up in a dedicated area of the lab either displaying key sections of text or looped scenes from a series of movies. This was where my duplicates had been researching Harry Potter.

I slipped my hand inside the jacket of my costume and let it rest on my wand, feeling the soft texture of its surface. Heartwood of a black walnut tree, carefully shaped and carved to enclose a core of tremendous power. Warmth flowed into me, welling up and seeming to resonate with my rebuilt heart. Maybe, with time, the sensation would fade. Maybe I would get used to it, or we would acclimate to each other to the point where it would no longer be an event worthy of note. Maybe, but not now. For the moment I still could feel that connection, the trust and faith that it placed in me, just as strongly as the first time I had held the wand.

My focus was briefly disrupted by the Forge forming a connection to the Resources and Durability constellation. It was a mid-sized mote called Salvager. It gave me the ability to break down technology, recover workable parts and either build new equipment or integrate the parts into my own gear. You know, like how the Scrapper power from Resources and Durability gave me the ability to break down technology into workable components that could be reused in new projects. Or how the Mauler power from Resources and Durability gave me the ability to repurpose old technology into new, advanced forms. Or how Scrapyard Skills power from Resources and Durability let me build advanced technology out of junked parts well beyond the tolerance that kind of tech would usually require.

Alright, so Resources and Durability seemed to have a bit of redundancy in terms of the 'build new technology from old stuff' front. The powers did have their own distinct aspects, such as how Scrapper was actually a fairly powerful reverse engineering power, though the amount of effort needed for truly cutting-edge tech would have been ruinous without other powers to assist. Still, the ability to break down the principles of any technology, even if it was the work of decades, wasn't to be underestimated. Also, it was the combination of scrapping powers that allowed such an effective tear down and rebuild of my workshop. I even had a small warehouse full of workable parts thanks to my various material reduction powers helping during the reconstruction.

Really, it was easy to stay positive about any development of my power with the connection I felt with my wand. Something caught my eye and I could suddenly tell by Garment's mannerisms that she knew what I was doing. I could also tell that she found the entire situation deeply amusing.

"Oh, come on." I said, dropping my hand from the wand. The surge of closeness faded, but not completely. I could tell there was still a connection there, something linking me to the wand. I couldn't hold back a smile at that thought. "It's what I'm supposed to be working on anyway." I looked over at the screens. "And maybe if the adaptations were better I could manage more than a single spell."

Garment indicated that she was sure the duplicates would figure out the rest of it eventually. I shook my head doubtfully. I wasn't sure if this was one of those things where the media I had was inherently inaccurate, or if it was just a consequence of adapting the book descriptions to film. Probably the second, considering the book descriptions varied between the Aleph and Bet versions.

It was probably a good thing I hadn't tried to figure this out blindly. The way tiny variations in wand movement or pronunciation could change a spell were incredible. My duplicates were approaching this with power-gifted perfect efficiency of movement, accelerated learning, the benefits of a dedicated facility, sensors capable of detecting magic, and a link with a familiar spirit that expanded magical power, control, and perception. Even with all of that there was only one spell where they had nailed down the principles well enough to hand it over to me. Judging by Garment's behavior she wanted me to show it off again.

"Please?" Tetra asked from my shoulder. "It's fun."

"Fine." I smirked and drew my wand, instantly feeling the connection flare to full strength. I focused on one of the test objects and moved my wand through the carefully plotted movements as I slowly pronounced the incantation.

"wing-GAR-dee-um leh-vee-OH-sa!"

The large feather resting on the table twitched up into the air, then started bobbing around, mapping to my wand movements. Even without my familiar I could feel the connection, the action of the spell and how the energy I was directing pushed it through the air. I diverted my focus to look at Garment to check her reaction.

To my surprise she didn't seem to be happy with the display. I quirked an eyebrow, and was about to question what was wrong when she lifted her hands to above where her head would have been and began flapping her fingers.

The penny dropped. "No Garment."

She made a pleading motion as I guided the feather back onto the table. "No." I sighed. "Not now. Besides, we need to get going. The duplicates are waiting for us."

She showed her disappointment, but accepted the excuse. I could understand her wanting to see a more dramatic display. And probably push for another robe-based fashion line again. Personally, I wasn't quite ready to bring the Hogwarts aesthetic to my cape life, no matter how strong a case Garment made, or how well she could integrate the manifestations of my familiar.

That was what she had been keen to see, and not just because she was still overwhelmed with glee whenever the fluffy lycaenops manifestations showed up. The boost to my magic was considerable. It wasn't exactly a strength increase, but with this style of magic control and experience was basically the same thing.

Without my familiar I could manage a feather or other items in roughly the same size class. With my familiar I could manage the entire table the trial items rested on. With my familiar and the magic boost provided by drawing power from the reactor in my striker boots? We hadn't done a complete stress test yet, but the duplicates had been able to throw around a chunk of steel weighing five tons like it was a baseball.

The sports analogy was apt, considering how that set had spent their 20% time. I used my implant to call up Survey's recording of the event. They had elected to spend the final portion of their duration playing knock-off 1v1 quidditch, except with magically propelled wrecking balls as bludgers. It really wasn't quidditch so much as a game of 'dodge the giant mass of steel without leaving the arbitrarily defined play area'. Of course, given my durability and that of my duplicates there really wasn't much of a threat there, and the exercise quickly turned into a weird type of three-dimensional billiards, much to the frustration of Survey as she attempted to track the score and assign fouls.

As magical experimentation went it was fairly harmless, but as we left the magic lab I found myself dwelling on the less than harmless experiments. The willingness of my duplicates to endanger themselves for even minor advantages was unnerving, but at least they limited it to the end of their duration, and thanks to the improvements on the potion that wasn't happening quite so often. It also meant that it was happening during their 20% time, and it didn't feel right trying to police their actions during what was very much 'their time'.

That said, I could really do without them cutting their duration short due to magical experimentation. Basically, when considering the magic systems, a list had been assembled of aspects too dangerous to attempt to figure out through experimentation. It seemed my duplicates had a tendency to see that as a kind of menu for the purposes of deciding how to close out their duration. For instance, transfiguration was deemed too risky to mess around with. Guess what the duplicates took that to mean. Still, it was better than the pair who decided to jump straight to apparition practice. Yes, the information gained probably advanced things incredibly, but I'm not convinced it was worth it if they ended up in a condition Survey categorized as 'Extremely splinched'.

Oh, on a cheerier subject, we were passing by the Prismatic Laboratory. Garment looked at the entrance with longing while I tried not to think about the contents. I had finally given Garment a tour of the area, and quickly realized that showing her a place she clearly understood intuitively was pointless, so shifted to moderating things as best as I could. She was very much not willing to let the potential of that place pass, but begrudgingly accepted now was perhaps not the time for Apeiron to begin displaying impossible colors during his escapades. Also, no matter how good the idea seemed, the summer fashion season would need to go without a line of cosmogone daywear.

As it stood I was willing to entertain suggestions for limited uses of the less drastic colors in projects that were specific to the workshop, but no more than that. Her proposal for an apocyan dueling cloak was intriguing, but definitely not something I would be deploying without extensive testing.

The tour wasn't the only reason I had returned to the Laboratory. Even though I was technically on vacation, this was something I felt I needed to see to myself. My duplicates had been in to monitor the system, but I felt I needed to be the one to put it in place.

I could feel it as we walked by. For a place like the Prismatic Laboratory a closed door meant little, not to someone with my senses. Through the Dragon's Pulse I could feel the lifeforce of the skittering things in cages and tanks. Through my demigod senses I could feel the arcane and eldritch machinery churning away in impossible actions, possibly the only machinery in the workshop not to be upgraded, because nobody was willing to delve into the unreal science necessary for such a project. Through my connection to the volcano, I could feel the place grow. It expanded by microns, the space of a hair over the course of time I took to walk past it, but it expanded with ceaseless inevitability. Finally, through a combination of all three, through my sense of life, through the machinery I had put in place, and through the volcano and the mantic circuits I hand installed through it, I could feel the souls.

My recovery had required the mutilation of a soul. The process had saved my life, given Tetra her freedom, somehow birthed five brilliant souls into existence, four of which remained, and was recoverable. The soul that had a quarter of its essence removed was healing under the power of an arcane focus tied into the conduits of unseen energy that flowed through and enhanced my workshop. It would recover and more. It had the potential to grow beyond the state of the cast-off souls that had been shipped to me like party favors. It would have been nice if I could be satisfied with that and forget about the rest of those bottles with their misty, confused faces fading in and out of cohesion. That would have been nice. Been simpler. But it wasn't something I could do.

The altar I had assembled would be able to heal the damaged soul and take it to the point where a sense of self and identity could be reformed. It had been constructed as an act of penance. The ones built after it had been constructed as an act of mercy.

I didn't know how long it would take, but the energies channeled into the array of altars worked to reinforce the souls that had been sent to me. To strengthen their spirit and let them grow beyond the weak wisps that floated aimlessly. After that, I wasn't sure. The bright souls that coruscated in their jars were aware enough to communicate. What was communicated was usually their desire to help however they could, but the communication was still there. Maybe I could get the rest of the souls to a similar state without needing to rip them apart and refine their essence in a volcano.

…you know, when the whole 'demigod' thing showed up I didn't anticipate it leading to something that felt weirdly like a defined role in some fucked up mythological pantheon. I mean, Greek demigods were supposed to have a much more straightforward life cycle. Stab the monster, piss off the goddess, get hounded by the Furies, and die in indignity as a lesson against the follies of hubris. You know, simple, straight forward, and without any of these theological concerns.

The route to the hangars led through the Laboratorium. As we approached the entrance Tetra immediately perked up. Her excitement was endearing, but I couldn't help shaking my head.

"We need to get you a proper room." I felt her droop against my back. "There's more space in here that we could conceivably use. There's no reason for you to have to stay there."

"But I like it there." She protested, pulling herself forward enough that I could see her little mink face. "They're fun, and the music is nice!"

Garment indicated that I shouldn't argue, so I held my tongue as we entered the Laboratorium. The music was indeed nice and reached its usual crescendo to greet us. I was immediately swarmed by the eager attention of what, thanks to Fixer, I now understood to be servo-skulls. The Alchemy constellation missed a connection as I looked over the crowd of cheerful human remains.

The mechanics of the procedure used to create a servo-skull was as disturbing as what you would find for a servitor, but the reasoning was very different. Servitors were basically meat robots and the range of ways in which they could be created made it clear that there was no prestige attached to the position. In fact, it was possible to make it an incredibly torturous existence. That was very much not the case for servo-skulls.

Servo-skulls were still lobotomized former humans bound to work until the point they wore themselves out, but the circumstances of their creation couldn't be more different. Servo-skulls were people who had devoted themselves to a task for their entire life, and then decided that 'entire life' wasn't enough for them. The procedure involved cutting away every part of the brain not related to the task they had devoted a lifetime of skill and experience towards, and then attaching the remaining pieces to incredibly advanced preservation systems, effectively creating an assistant even more devoted to their task than someone with a lifetime of experience.

It was a position of honor rather than punishment and while the state didn't appeal to me in the slightest, if you loved your work then it seemed like as good a way to go as any. And boy did these skulls love their work. They crowded around us with the exuberance I'd come to expect from them, accompanied by a sense of more patient humor bordering on exasperation from the older machine spirits of the Laboratorium's systems.

With the technology that Fixer provided I could finally understand some of the more advanced applications of the Laboratorium's systems. Also, with cybertonium and the capacity to build the full technology of Master Builder I was actually able to produce technology that got more than a passing acknowledgement from the machine spirits. Despite how advanced I considered my earlier work to them they were merely quaint curiosities. Well-crafted curiosities, worth documenting, but nothing to get excited about. It was kind of like if someone showed to a conference on advanced firearms with a masterfully crafted and beautifully engraved arquebus. It would probably get some attention for its workmanship, but nobody was taking it seriously.

It had taken the highest levels of cybertonium based technology to even get the attention of the machine spirits running the lab. Considering the complexity of the more advanced creations of Fixer, Armourer, and Weaponsmith it put things in perspective. Also, considering the consistent enthusiasm demonstrated for any example of tinker tech, it also showed the true level even middling examples of the passenger-directed technology.

That tinker tech assessment had begun to pay dividends. The artificial telekinesis Leet had used in his katana had been deconstructed after considerable effort. While it wasn't the kind of thing you'd want to rely on as a primary drive system it could effectively allow thrustless precision movement and greatly improved handling at speed, something Fleet was considerably excited about. The telekinetic saw effect from the edge of the blade was more difficult to deconstruct, but I wasn't exactly lacking in ways to make an edged weapon ruin someone's day.

The plasma shielding unit had been deceptively complex, but the combined efforts of the Laboratorium and my duplicates had managed to crack it, providing plans for one of the best energy dispersion options available to me. Not something I specifically needed, but it would be highly useful for vehicles or even dedicated shielding systems.

We continued through the Laboratorium as I connected to the systems through my implant and natural connection with technology. At the prompting of the oversight programs, I made small adjustments or maintenance rituals that either couldn't be attended to by the skulls or weren't within their abilities. As usual, the queue of alerts, error messages, and notifications began to clear from the systems, putting the programs in what could generally be considered a better mood, though still within their baseline of obstinate grumpiness.

That was clear as the first messages I received highlighted the need for installation of proper interface systems rather than the adept-level implant I was working through. Additionally, while there was a general sense of approval for the work that had been done on my heart, the rest of the alterations were less well received. Given the previous near lockdowns I had seen I had been seriously concerned about the reaction I would garner following my restoration. Instead of violent panic all I received was a rather lengthy rant about the trials of dealing with undocumented Magos Biologis projects.

I had been doubly concerned about their reaction to Tetra, but that was apparently misplaced. Well, it was justified, just not in the direction I anticipated. There was a reaction, and a significant period of examination and analysis before the conclusion was reached. I had the sense that not every system agreed with the conclusion, but the consensus seemed to be it wasn't their job to dig into the matter any further than they had. There was a notice to verify the assessment with a higher authority, and as far as they were concerned that was that. Tetra had been fully categorized, as indicated by the dedicated plaque that had been added to the analysis bay that she was still calling home.

Subject: Tetra

Designation: Abhuman (Homo Annihilates)

And that was that. The skulls fully accepted it, and the machine spirits either didn't care, were at least satisfied that it wasn't their problem any more, or were taking the stance that 'at least she wasn't a navigator'. I did not know what that meant, but given the background of everything I had come to understand about this place, it probably wasn't pleasant.

Tetra may have been fully accepted by the Laboratorium, but I was still hoping to get her into something at least resembling actual living quarters. When we had talked about decorating her own room following her first transformation I hadn't imagined that to mean the collection of furniture piled into the scanning bay. Yes, maybe the anti-gravity field was fun, and the cat tree like apparatus was certainly well made and quite engaging, but even if it included a small dresser for the collection of overclothes Garment had made for her it still put me in mind more of a zoo exhibit than a home.

Tetra didn't see it that way, and at least for now I wasn't going to fight her on it. She still spent most of her time attached to either myself or one of my duplicates. Literally, in most cases. Tetra still had nutrition requirements and her experience with feeding didn't really involve moderation or adjusting to periods without a source of energy. She was getting better about conserving or moderating her energy when operating on her own, but it would probably be a while before she could be completely independent.

We pushed through to the far entrance, and the reason why this was the route to the hangars. After the first adventure in transporting a Veritech through the workshop, even in Battloid mode, the route was significantly modified to provide direct access. As such there was no longer an issue navigating forty plus feet of robot from the hangars to the Laboratorium. Considering the insistence on documentation of all of my 'Questor Imperialis', that was actually a fairly useful and important feature.

The three of us continued down the stretch towards the garage and hangars. It would take us a few minutes to reach the mobile suit so I checked in with my duplicates. They were still working on preparations, so there was no need to rush. Since I was already connected I took a moment to sort through the mess of messages I'd need to address at some point.

PHO had actually somehow become a worse mess than when I last checked in on it. Given that my account was essentially confirmed, the flood of messages had grown from a torrent to a diluvian apocalypse. I was honestly impressed at the fact that the PHO servers were able to handle that kind of traffic. The boost was across the site, not just in regards to personal messages and I honestly think that without my automated response things would have been worse. There was actually a delay period being enacted on new accounts and reports of multiple attempts to undermine site protocols, either to trace my activity or just gain access to my only 'public' point of contact.

I didn't have evidence that it was Dragon, but it was probably Dragon. She hadn't been able to restrain herself on any other front and my passenger seemed to indicate that she had some connection to the site's administration.

Dragon was another mess I'd have to deal with. I'd been so focused on current problems and defensive actions that I hadn't had a chance to actually work towards the question of who was mastering her. The way the restrictions were structured was very specific, but what people thought of as 'master powers' was a fairly broad category, and usually had more nuance than direct puppet-like control of a person. People like Valefor were in the distinct minority, with things like behavior restrictions or emotional manipulation being much more common.

And since my mind was on that subject I couldn't help but remember the absolute mess that was Amy Dallon's situation. I had, well, no, my duplicates and Aisha had managed to prevent her absence in the wake of the disaster from being absolutely devastating, but that didn't change the fact that she had been locked up for over a week. That actually wasn't unheard of in cases of master effects, but usually there was at least some progress towards resolving the situation. From what I had been able to discover the best that had happened was a transfer to offsite containment. It was clear that explaining the situation to Weld had done nothing to clear up the matter, and may have in fact made things worse. And as bad as it was, there wasn't anything I could do to resolve the matter. Sticking my nose in would have been volatile before. Now, there was no telling what would happen. I could only let the clusterfuck play out and hope the authorities would be able to clear things up, against all evidence to the contrary.

It was the kind of dismal topic that brings your mood straight down. I really could have used something positive to raise my spirits. Unfortunately, I was unlikely to find it in Alena's text messages.

I had wondered what incident would be serious enough to drive another contact attempt. Turns out a 'not S-class' incident involving the bombing or devastation of half a city was enough to convince my sister, or more likely, convince my family to convince my sister to contact me again.

Unfortunately, I was a little incapacitated and brain damaged at the time of the call. My duplicates could have picked up, but I could only imagine how a version of myself who wouldn't need to deal with the consequences of his actions would have handled a call with my sister. Instead, mercifully, they had elected to text her.

'Can't talk now. I'm fine, but a friend of mine was hurt in the attacks. I'm looking after them.'

It was a decent deflection, and probably not something I would have been able to send without a pile of qualifiers and considerable emotional turmoil. I doubt my duplicates were overly concerned with placating my family at the best of times, and given what they were struggling with in terms of my recovery I think they were firmly in 'no fucks given' mode. I was probably lucky they had managed to refrain from profanity in subsequent messages.

'Jozef, what the hell are you doing? You need to call Mom right away. The city isn't safe. Everyone's freaking out. Call Mom and dad and they'll come get you.'

'I can't leave the city. I told you, I'm looking after a friend. I'm not going to abandon them.'

'This isn't funny. Everyone's worried about you. Now's not the time to act stupid and get yourself killed. Just get your Friend to a hospital or whatever and call Mom so she can get you out of there.'

'I told you, I can't leave. Besides, the attacks are over and things have calmed down.'

'Don't give me that. We can all see the news. I'm not even comfortable with how close the house is to everything. I know your apartment is right on top of things.'

Apparently the next response from my duplicates didn't come quickly enough.

'They're saying there's a mandatory evacuation for everyone in the affected zone. You need to get out of there or you're going to get arrested.'

'Nobody is arresting anyone tonight. It's all recovery work out there. And my place is outside the affected area. Besides, I'm staying with my friend, so I'll be fine.'

'Where are you staying?'

'It doesn't matter, just call Mom and she'll come get you anywhere in the city. Please, it's not fair to ask me to relay things between you like this.'

'Alena, I can't talk any more. I'll get back to you in the morning.'

'Damn it Jozef, don't do this now.'

'Do you know how much you're making Mom worry?'

'This isn't the time to be playing these stupid games.'

I wasn't sure how much Alena had to deal with on her end, though Survey offered to pull the call records for both her phone and my parents' line. It really wasn't necessary, since I could basically see what was happening. To be honest, as hard as Alena was to deal with, I felt bad about her getting caught in the middle of things. Previously that would have been enough for me to concede to whatever petty demand was being thrown around. Of course, that was never seen as me doing something for another person, just me finally realizing how selfish or inconsiderate I'd been and finally coming around. It was a pattern of behavior that was hard to break, and one I absolutely could not allow myself to fall into now.

My duplicates were an effective screen for that. Like I said, they didn't need to live with the consequences of any family related guilt for their actions. As such they laid down a final delaying action before my treatment, at least giving me enough buffer that I could focus on the actual problems with the city, rather the old personal ones that I couldn't' get away from.

'Alena, got your messages. My friend is doing better, but I'm going to be helping out for the next couple of days. Probably won't have much time to text, but I'm alright and the city is calming down.'

There was actually a delay before my sister replied to the early morning message, meaning she was otherwise occupied or had overslept. Given the fact that I doubted she got a Friday off work due to an incident in another state, oversleeping would mean she'd been managing the family mess I was specifically avoiding. Also, impacting her professional life in any way was the kind of thing I was guaranteed to never hear the end of.

'If your Friend is doing better you can take the time to call your family. You have no idea how much stress you caused everyone last night. You need to stop playing around and take things seriously.'

I could clearly see that she was getting close to her limit. Feeling bad for her situation didn't mean I could afford to take her place. As much as it probably made things worse, I decided to kick things further down the road. I waited until after I was rested, sent a vague reply, then moved on to enjoy my down time as well as I could manage.

'Can't talk today. Still busy with things for at least the next day."

It was the kind of thing that was a holding action at best. My only options were to either confront the problem, or cut Alena out of my life along with the rest of my family. The thing was, I didn't want to do that to her. I knew how the dynamics in my house played out. She was probably already dealing with not being able to instantly fix things like was expected of her. If I cut off contact, that would be put on her. It wasn't a situation that I had any responsibility for, but I still didn't want her to go through that. As bad as she was, she was still better than Natalia or Mom. Her near pleading tone in the follow up message practically solidified that.

'Jozef, please call me as soon as you can. It's important. Things are a mess and I really need you to take them seriously.'

A personal request and the fact that she was fielding the call was enough to drive the point home. I knew what that meant, and for her sake I decided I was going to need to field the call at some point, if just to put things to rest. It was definitely not something I was looking forward to. I guess on the plus side, I now had something I wanted to avoid more than the vast array of other problems I had previously been putting off.

A significantly cheerier text exchange had come from Doug. Of all the extraordinary things to come out of this crisis, probably the most remarkable was the fact that Doug seemed to have accepted texting as a viable mode of communication, even if I doubted he fully accepted it.

'Joe, just checking with everyone in to make sure they're alright after the attacks.'

'I made it through all right, but won't be able to help out this time. I'm looking after a friend who was hurt in the strikes.'

'Don't worry about it. Glad you're safe, and look after your friend. Check in when you get a chance.'

The exchange was clearly one I should follow up on, and unlike pretty much anything involving my family I wasn't near paralyzed over the prospect. In fact, I considered the time until we reached the hangars and the current hour. This would probably be a good thing to get out of the way.

"Need to make a call. Are you…?" Garment quickly indicated it was fine and I saw Tetra nod her head as well. "Right."

I mentally drew up the number for Doug's phone as the Forge failed to connect to a mote from the Magitech constellation. The phone rang four times before he picked up.

"Hey, Joe?" Doug's gruff voice sounded tired and slightly disoriented. Suddenly I was starting to have my doubts about the call. Still, holding it in comparison to my eventual need to shoot down whatever Alena had been set up for, this suddenly became infinitely preferable.

"Good morning Doug." I said. "Sorry about the hour. I had a free minute and wanted to reach out." I considered the time once again. "I didn't wake you, did I?"

"No, no." He assured me unsteadily. "I need to get moving anyway. Just been a long night." There was a huff. "You sound like you've got things in hand. Must be quite the morning person."

The accusation struck like a knife through my heart. I bit down on the sheer indignity of it and pushed forward. Doug was under a lot of pressure. I'm sure he didn't mean that.

"Are you doing alright? You said it was a bad night?" I asked.

"No, we've got things in hand, for the most part." Suddenly he dropped his voice and began speaking in a hushed and frustrated tone. "It's just some sadistic bastard decided to drop off a quarter ton of baking supplies last night."

I stiffened and responded in what I hoped was the most innocent tone of voice I could manage. "Oh?"

"Alright, maybe a slight exaggeration on that." He sighed. "We've kept things going since Saturday, at least to some extent. Helped us swing back to full capacity after that damn disaster. Seriously, not nearly enough help to go around." I heard him let out a long breath. "Anyway, we had a place set up for food donations, where people could drop off stuff. Mostly cans, rice, pasta, that kind of thing. Then last night some bakery or whatever decided to dump their surplus on our doorstep. Didn't even realize it happened until someone went out and saw the crates."

"…isn't that good?" I asked.

"Broadly, sure. I mean, it might not actually be a quarter ton, but it has to be damn close. I didn't even know butter came in fifty-five-pound containers. I wanted to ship it out to the other shelters but…" His voice dropped again. "But Mrs. Gartenberg's taking this as a personal challenge. She's pretty sure she knows who sent it…"

I'm pretty sure she doesn't.

"…and is on some kick about how sending it on would be admitting defeat. She's conscripting everyone with an oven to help out and I swear the whole neighborhood's going to smell like flour for the next month."

"Well, I'm sure things will work out." I said as calmly as I could manage.

There was another sigh from Doug. "I know. And it's not the thing anyone should be complaining about now. There's just been a lot to deal with. It's good to hear from you. Sorry, I should have asked earlier. Is your friend doing alright?"

I looked over at Garment, the 'friend who had been hurt in the attacks'. Standard policy of lying by staying as close to the truth as possible. After all, Garment had been hurt. It was fixed incredibly quickly and in the end was nothing compared to my own condition, but the fact of the matter was that it was the worst I'd ever seen or even imagined Garment getting hurt.

She held up a hand and wiggled her fingers, showing a lack of even a trace of damage from the strike that left both of us injured. All three of us, really.

"She's doing a lot better." I said with honest relief in my voice. "Things looked worse than they were, thankfully. She's already back on her feet."

"Glad to hear it." His voice was amused. "Sounds like 'she' was lucky to have you around."

I smiled at Garment. "Yeah, I guess. Look, I'll try to get down to the gym later today, see if there's anything I can do to help."

"Appreciate it, but don't stress yourself." He assured me. "I won't lie, we can use all the help we can get, but people have really been stepping up to the plate during this mess." He let out a brief laugh. "Probably the one good thing about it."

"That's great." I replied. "Did everyone make it through alright? I've been out of the loop on things."

"Few scrapes and bruises. Generally, it was like with your friend, things looked worse than it was. Casey ended up caught in the middle of one of the bad parts and wound up in St. Luke's. Things looked bad at first. They weren't sure he was going to make it, and the guy's wife was beside herself. But it turned out it was all overblown." I could practically hear Doug's grin through the phone. "He was released yesterday morning and down here helping out by lunch."

"That's great to hear." I said. "Look, I really will try to get down there today."

"That would be great, but like I said, don't stress over it. We're managing as well as we can. Look after yourself, and glad to hear your friend's doing better."

"Thanks. I'll see you later."

The call disconnected and I let a smile settle onto my face. It was a basic thing, particularly in the face of the type of problems I was struggling with, but I was glad to have the gym. It was mundane, but it was a comfortable kind of mundane. Even in the chaos of the city's recovery efforts it was a kind of low stress social contact. That was a big part of why I signed up in the first place, and I was glad that it continued even when things were otherwise falling apart.

Garment seemed to enjoy the situation as well, and indicated she was pleased that Doug was doing well. And also, that he could probably use more clothes than just the jacket she made for him, particularly if he was transitioning into more of a community leadership position.

We were entering the hangars when the Forge made another connection and I felt a rumbling in the workshop. It was a mote from Toolkits constellation, the pair of the one that had granted me my magical research lab. It was essentially the same amount of space and quality of equipment, but specialized for science research rather than magic. Interestingly, having both of them expanded the space and facilities. It wasn't just one site for magic and another for science, they worked together. The effect wasn't exactly a dedicated magitech research facility, but it was close enough for my purposes.

As powers went it wasn't going to be game changing, but it was a useful resource to have. My ability to integrate magic into technology had expanded dramatically, but was still limited by experience and design concepts. The work was being handled on a case-by-case basis rather than as a complete set of technological principles I could roll out through all my works. The new research area would help fill that gap.

Though it wasn't likely to see any use until the next set of duplicates. We entered the hangar to find both of my copies working through the final set of preparations. The hangar was actually a linked set of hangars that had been provided by the Forge. Some of them, like for the Veritech, were basic in the extreme. Pretty much scaled up versions of the lockers that the rest of my items arrived in. Then you had the ones with special features, like the automated maintenance systems that came with my F-18, and the mirrored site for my striker. The hangars for my mobile suits weren't particularly impressive, but they did have the unique ability to deploy the suits out of the Workshop, even if it was completely sealed.

The independent hangars had been linked by arranging them around a massive hollowed out area of the volcano, turning them into individual bays as part of a hybrid super-hangar and maintenance facility. There wasn't really a real-world equivalent seeing as giant robots weren't really a feature of military doctrines.

My duplicates were in the center of the hangar finishing the last of the preparations. The VF-2SS Veritech stood ready in Battloid mode. The mech looked distinct from the form it had arrived in, but still recognizable. The design and technology had been completely reworked without seriously shifting the silhouette that made it, and its alternate modes, so iconic.

Like with the rest of the Workshop's systems, overhauling the mech had been the work of mere minutes. It was getting into the exact problem I had mentioned earlier, the one that would make every tinker want to enact some medieval torture on me. Rebuilding the Veritech had been something I had been looking forward to. There was an appeal to that kind of work, more so than even what tactical advantages it could bring to the field.

Maybe if my high school had kept it's autoshop, and my parents would have approved me taking a class without direct application to college entrance, I would have scratched that particular itch earlier. As it stood, even the F-18, which I was treating more as a hobby car at this point, would see any upgrades or alterations complete virtually as soon as I decided on what to do. Getting lost in a project, or at least the manual side of a project, just wasn't an option any more.

Not that Fleet seemed to mind. The workshop's first 'Questor Imperialis' was in good form, and Fleet operated it with a sense of pride I could palpably feel through my divine senses. I needed to remember, it was Fleet's first giant robot too, and one he was very proud of. It hadn't been able to be deployed against Lung, but it stood more than ready for whatever the next challenge was. It was safe to say that whatever concerns the Laboratorium's machine spirits might have had about the mech being underdressed in the weapons department had been thoroughly addressed.

But more than that, the Veritech was an aircraft as well as a mech. Okay, it might have been more spacecraft than aircraft, but the important thing was that it operated in a fighter role, something that none of my other mechs did. That meant the expertise from Technical Certainties came into play, letting me upgrade it even further than the rest of my powers could take things. Furthermore, that power allowed me to tune a plane towards a specific role, even incredibly specialized ones. The latest run of upgrades had improved the mech to the point of being able to function as a tactical command vehicle, boasting a suite of sensors and assessment systems that Survey was legitimately jealous of.

The highly focused alterations were the complete antithesis of what had been done to the OZ-06MS Leo. In every way the mech Fleet operated had been built up, the one standing next to it had been stripped down. Even though it was the tallest of the three mechs it was the lightest and least technically impressive. There was a very good reason my duplicate had picked the Gun-EZ over the Leo when deploying against Lung.

When the question came of what to do with the suit there were a lot of options considered, but most of them basically worked out to tearing everything down and starting over. It was only through luck that another idea had been happened upon, one that had already proven itself the last time we had tried this.

I focused on not thinking about that and looked over the mobile suit. It was mostly the same layout as during the previous match, though with some small adjustments. Rather than being built up, the suit had been streamlined and simplified. Ambrosial Artificer was applied to the design, stripping out unnecessary parts to improve performance. That was standard procedure at this point, but was usually accompanied by the addition of extra features or more robust systems to take advantage of the reduction. That wasn't done here. Instead, everything continued to trend down.

Control and motive systems were replaced with miniaturized alternatives, shrinking the frame without losing power. The generator was swapped out whole cloth with a blindingly advanced replacement. Armaments were removed and plating was dialed back to the absolute minimum, reworked into more compatible materials, alloys of cybertonium and magical alloys. Alchemical infusions, Dust, and element zero were integrated to their full extent. The result was a slight, specialized frame, ideal for the suit's dedicated purpose.

I looked up to the final suit in the hangar. The Gun-EZ stood in its bay, apparently untouched from the fight from Lung. The reality was very different. The suit had nearly been subsumed by the Matrix during field repairs and upgrades. The mere minutes it had taken for the nanobots to absorb nearly fifteen meters of space age armor and technology was a stark reminder of the true power of what I had created. Exponential progression was an inherently terrifying concept, and the Matrix was absolutely everything people worried about upon hearing the phrase 'gray goo'.

Well, at least in capacities. Definitely not in attitude. The entire suit had been reconstructed upon return to the Workshop with the field-constructed nanobots cannibalized in the process. It had been fascinating to learn about the Matrix's tier system for categorization of components and the reasoning for not wanting to include inferior work in its gestalt form and mind.

The focus on perfection was a little too familiar and I had to wonder where it had picked up that trait. Then again, one of the first actions I had taken with the Matrix was the renovation of the volcano to include divine mantic conductors. That may have been something of a formative experience. Regardless, if it wasn't nanobots the matrix didn't particularly care about grades of quality, as had been demonstrated during the previous night's assembly of relief supplies. Still, both me and my duplicates had made a point of regularly producing additional tier one nanobots for the Matrix, and action that was clearly appreciated.

Hand assembly of nanotechnology was still an insane concept, even with all the abilities I had supporting it. When I had first started work on the project the combined might of all of my powers had allowed me to hand build hundreds of nanobots every minute. That involved functioning as a team of a hundred with a mass of acceleration powers and working with emulated cybertonium, inducing a fifty percent failure rate.

I now had actual cybertonium. I had an upgraded design taking advantage of the enhancements to the material. I had Exotic Compatibility allowing me to treat materials as iron, bypassing multiple nightmarish aspects of nanofabrication of exotic components, including the need for atomic scale power lathes. I had Build Rome increasing my production by a hundred-fold while countering the practical issues of one person operating at that rate, and I had Shipping the Product multiplying my output by a factor of five. I could produce over five million handcrafted nanobots every minute.

Of course, these were nanobots. Five million nanobots had a fluid volume just under a microliter. As much as the Matrix valued tier one nanobots, they weren't going to be a substantial portion of its mass any time soon. The Matrix was alright with that. As long as there was a continuous stream of production there was no concern over the fact that it would take two years of continuous work for me or a duplicate to produce a liter of nanobots. And tier two nanobots were still deemed 'acceptable'.

I had to wonder about the intelligence I had been cultivating when the most advanced form of nanotechnology on the planet, a union of dozens of advanced fields of physics, engineering, and quantum principles, wrought from mythical, divine, or theoretical materials further enhanced by unfathomable forces, all crafted to a level of quality that stood as a physical impossibility, an near perfection that could not be attained in the material universe, and then bound with enchanted energies, spiritual forces channeled through its structure until it existed as something greater than any machine could hope to be was deemed as 'acceptable', all because there was a better version of the work possible.

The Vehicles constellation passed by as I wondered if this was how Aisha felt when she saw me lament the compromises I had to make in designing her armor.

To be fair, the tier one nanobots were substantially better than tier two. While tier two nanobots had the traditional and near stereotypical liquid metal look associated with gray goo, tier one nanobots glowed gold. It was a small, noticeable difference, the consequence of divine craftsmanship resulting in fairy letters being inscribed at the near atomic level on each of the nanobots. The quality gap was both substantial and universal. Every aspect of the nanomachines' functionality was greatly enhanced. Given that the nanobots were literal parts of Matrix's beings, the components of both body and mind, the impact of tier one's improved processing speed, production rate, energy efficiency, and versatility were all dramatically apparent.

It was for that reason that when the Matrix formed a construct or body from its component nanobots the tier ones were always part of the outer layer, giving the form a golden sheen. That was evident in the shining, armored figure mirroring our approach towards the group.

Matrix may not have kept the absorbed mobile suit, but inspiration had definitely been taken from it. When it came to practical interaction a human scale version of the Gun-EZ was the Matrix's preferred option. Initially, way back before my nap and the overhaul that followed, the form was mostly an empty shell. A paper-thin coating of tier two nanites woven with thin strands of tier one, using mass fields to maintain enough weight to be able to interact with the world while using what was probably less than a liter of total nanobots.

Since the repeated sessions of manufacturing that was no longer the case. Tier one nanites were produced linearly, but the construction of tier two could be conducted at the same time, and the more nanites available to work the more that could be produced. The Matrix had more than enough nanobots to produce a solid human-scale form. I just didn't realize how much more until our last attempt at this exercise.

"Hey." One of the duplicates called and waved us over to the central platform. "We're ready to head up. You good to go?"

"Yeah." I nodded. He gave me a critical look and I decided to be honest. "Just a little nervous after what happened last time."

"We know." The second duplicate assured me. "I mean, we all remember it, right?" I cringed slightly, but he waved me off. "That's the point of this. It's not about the setbacks, it's about pushing forward."

"Straight through your problems." The first quickly checked that everyone was on the central platform before mentally triggering the controls. "Onward and upward."

I rolled my eyes at the statement as the platform began to rise, lifting myself, the duplicates, Tetra, Garment, the Matrix, and both mechs upward. The ceiling of the hangar opened, revealing a shaft leading straight up to the slopes of the volcano.

Did I need a giant mech elevator capable of lifting an entire squad of giant robots out of my volcano for rapid deployment to an area that would never expect to see any conflict? No. I definitely did not 'need' it. Over the course of my break, I was developing a greater appreciation for things that I didn't exactly 'need', and not just ones that the duplicates had snuck in during their free time. In fact, with the accelerated crafting rate and longer 20% time, my duplicates were spending more time enjoying the facilities they surreptitiously added to the workshop, rather than just hiding them like easter eggs. When other people were taking breaks, it was a lot easier to bring yourself to join them.

That said, this would probably be considered a bit intense for a break. The elevator opened to a rectangular arena that had been carved into a substantial portion of the north slope of the volcano. It was massive, 230 by 120 meters with mock seating on the southern side, crawling up the side of the mountain. They were set out like normal arena seating, but given what was going to happen this wasn't the kind of thing you wanted to be observing from an exposed position. It was less 'The first three rows will get wet' and more 'The first twenty rows will be pulped from the force of the shockwaves. The remaining rows will get wet.'.

Fleet used the last of our upward momentum before the platform settled to assist a leap, followed by a quick transition to Guardian mode to briefly hover, then Fighter mode, launching into a tight circle of the arena before transitioning back to Battloid mode.

The Matrix acknowledged preparations and began to stride forward. Exponential production of tier two nanobots was the kind of thing that could quickly get out of hand, at least in terms of management of the practicalities of the sheer volume produced. Of course, that assumes you were dealing with conventional technology, not cybertonium enhanced systems capable of shunting titanic portions of their mass into transwarp space.

Vast quantities of nanobots were pulled out of reservoirs in the unspace between realities. Matrix's form swelled, first in a disjoined, bulbous way, then in a more ordered fashion. Nanobots emerged fully formed into mechanical structures, with parts pushing out of themselves to form more complex arrays that built on themselves further. As a construction A.I. the Matrix had been continually immersed in my technical databases on a level even Survey couldn't match, and that was fully evident in the array of armor, weapons, and supporting systems that were being formed. All of which could be reformed or repurposed at a moment's notice.

When the deployment was complete a towering construct stood at Fleet's side. The profile was the same as the Gun-EZ, but cast in gleaming silver and lined with gold, rather than dull military ceramics. The apparently bulky armor was deceptively thin, but still incredibly durable, especially considering the borderline invincibility of constructs formed of tier one nanobots. Within the mech stood the most advanced array of weapons and support systems available to my technology.

Coupled with Fleet's Veritech they made a frightening set of opponents. Of course, the team wasn't even complete yet. The Leo sat to the Veritech's right, holding a kneeling position that looked almost contemplative. I knew it wouldn't be stationary for long.

Around the area I both saw and sensed workshop drones filling the air. Not the mock deployed toy helicopters that had covered our surf down the mountains. These were the top of the line, anti-grav drive, shielded, with telekinetic stabilization and sub-wave links to workshop systems. Infinite resources meant even auxiliary units like the drones were still assembled out of classes of materials that dwarfed the best production of all but the most specialized tinker's mega projects. They were equipped with the best and most robust sensors I could produce, durable enough to get close to the action, and coordinated by a dedicated intelligence.

I extended a greeting and thanks to Survey through my implant before I turned back to the matter at hand. Tetra was starting to stir anxiously on my back so I lifted an arm to give her the purchase to pull herself forward.

"Are you ready?" I asked. It was more for my sake than hers, and I think she picked up on my uneasiness.

"I'm ready. And don't worry. I'm sure you'll do great." She answered, twisting around to show me a warm grin full of very sharp teeth.

"I don't know. I'm up against pretty tough competition." I chided, patting her head, partly out of affection and partly for the last-minute boost from contact with her fibers. Her coat briefly flared as she pressed into my hand, then looked towards the Leo again. "Go on. These guys are on the clock." I gestured at the duplicates. "Can't keep them waiting."

"I know. I'm going." She scampered up into a pouncing position before turning back to me. "Good luck!"

I smiled and said "You too." but my response was mostly lost under the recoil from the force of her leap.

Tetra might have had a fair amount of size, at least in her zoanthrope form, but there wasn't a lot of mass there. Thus, even though she launched herself like a rifle shot, the reaction forces were only a little offsetting rather than sending me skidding across the ground. She hit the ground once before bouncing into the air and pouncing down on the mech. Right before she landed there was a discharge of energy as she exploded into a giant mass of fibers.

The research and experimentation conducted over the past day hadn't been limited to just my abilities. Life fibers were an incredible form of matter, capable of so much more than I had ever imagined. Getting my Tailor power had given me a glimpse of exactly what could be accomplished with them, but it came at the start of my running battle with the ABB. There was no time to stop and examine the potential, only rushed, spur of the moment applications accomplished out of desperation or blind luck, like when Tetra was able to work with the Matrix to form my sword. Or when she had interfaced with Trauma to reinforce and enhance the shield.

That was the real treasure of that encounter, something I would probably never have understood or appreciated, not without that mad state where we were both trying everything we could to get through, to find some path to survival and victory under the pain and the rage. When Tetra interfaced with the shield she didn't just coat it, she reinforced and enhanced it. New features, better channeling of dust, active adaptation of the structure. Life fibers could interface with and enhance materials or technology.

And they could enhance it like nothing else. Life fibers were a force of growth, of evolution. They brought those properties to everything they did. Initially I would track Tetra's progress by tiny increases of the mass of her fibers. That didn't work anymore. The same aspect of life fibers that made them nightmare spatial threads meant their growth and conservation of mass couldn't be explained by any conventional science. Sufficiently powerful life fiber organisms could thumb their nose at those kinds of limitations, or at limitations in general.

When Tetra rode around on my back or covered me in a partial cocoon she weighed a few pounds. Ten, maybe fifteen at the most. It wasn't clear how much she could influence that, but when her objective was easy transport weight was definitely downplayed.

When her objective was interfacing with a sixteen-meter-tall robot you were instantly made aware of why life fiber lifeforms counted as planet killers. The explosion to fiber mode didn't stop at the dense cocoon that you usually saw from Tetra. It kept flowing out, wrapping around and sinking into the material of the mobile suit.

That was the real point of the suit's designs. Easy interface for Tetra. It didn't have the strongest or most resilient materials I could produce; it had the materials that could most easily be merged with. Tetra cascaded down and through the giant robot, burrowing through metal, wrapping around the edges of metal plating and reinforcing the entire structure. The first time I'd seen it there was something about it that I found unsettling, but I couldn't put my finger on it. It wasn't until later that I was able to piece things together.

Life fibers grew constantly. They learned and adapted from trials and past experiences. Well, Tetra was doing just that. She was drawing on her past experience of flowing through and reinforcing a humanoid form, something that could now come completely naturally to her. I was watching the skills gleaned from my own medical trauma being used to facilitate a mechanical interface.

It was a little unsettling, but I could admit to being happy that something good came out of that mess, beyond the tangle of genetics that we were still sorting out. And no matter how unnerving the display, the results were dramatic enough to overshadow my feelings of apprehension.

There actually was only a brief moment where the mobile suit looked like a body being invaded by life fibers. In an instant they settled and integrated into the structure of the suit. Then it began to change.

This wasn't the bubbling flow of nanites seen during the early stages of Matrix's deployment, or the mechanical precision with which the later stages had been assembled. It was a pattern of growth that wasn't truly organic or technological. It was emotional.

Red energy flared under the plates of the reconfigured Leo suit. I could feel the intensity of it through the Dragon's Pulse, the way it radiated out from Tetra and directed the suit's movements in a way that seemed impossible for something that size. Tetra directed the suit to its feet and in one smooth motion stomped onto the ground.

There was a sense of the machinery almost flexing and, in a sudden burst of power, the structure of the legs shifted, becoming more lithe and agile. The upper body similarly shifted, and another burst was accompanied by sudden expansion of armor and machinery. Sudden, unrestrained growth. The signature of life fibers. At Tetra's direction the suit, now looking much more human, though still decidedly mechanical, took a step back and actually posed.

Red energy coursed through the machinery and crimson highlights painted the edges of the armor. With a smooth motion Tetra raised one of the hands to the head of the mobile suit. It reconfigured as well, shifting its already streamlined form to something more mobile. Two burning points of light, the same color as the molten eyes of Tetra's zoanthrope form appeared on the face plate. With a final sweep of her hand a tangle of fibers surged free of the metal, then whipped back in a wild, flowing mane of apparent hair.

I watched the display with shock mirrored by my duplicates. "Well…" one began.

"Um, that's new." The second acknowledged.

"Certainly more stylish, in pose and, um, in the chassis configuration. I'm not sure where she…" The three of us suddenly noticed that Garment was acting very innocent.

"Garment?" One of the duplicates asked. With some reluctant she admitted she might have given Tetra a bit of advice after seeing her previous attempt at integration, and also that we should all be very proud of how well she was doing and fully encourage her rather than directing any further questions at the person of assisted her out of the goodness of her heart, particularly any questions regarding any additional advice or instructions that may or may not have been given but had yet to be displayed.

I looked back to the life fiber infused Leo. In place of the cautiously calibrated steps that had been present in Tetra's initial attempt the current set of movements had prominent characteristics that could probably be categorized as runway strutting. The nuance included in the movement also served to remind me of how quickly Tetra could pick up information and acquire new skills.

The sight of a fifty-foot-tall robot moving and even slightly looking like a runway model belied the seriousness of that combination. Life fibers were powerful and adaptive. With respect to the power, Tetra may have had limited reserves, but the mobile suit had been custom designed to interface with and sustain her. It wasn't as good as an actual host, but I knew from experience she could endure much greater levels of activity in this state than she could when functioning completely independently. And that meant she was free to unleash hell.

In addition to being deceptively strong and moving with a grace that was now evident the fibers could both grow and emulate technology. The Matrix could manage the same thing to an extent, but there was a reason that configuration came preloaded with a small arsenal from the start. Nanobots needed time to rearrange themselves, move vital components, channel power, and then emulate the weapon or feature needed. Life fibers could manage the same effect, but did so in dynamic bursts, and usually in response to being caught on the back foot. The Matrix might technically be a more versatile opponent, but if the prospect of a nanotech apocalypse was taken out of the picture Tetra was much worse to face in a fight.

"Well, looks like we're up." The first duplicate said. He looked over to the stands where Survey was beginning to fill in a non-splatterable holographic audience. "Garment, you should probably head up, get a seat." She made some complicated motions before she left. "Yes, and keep track of style points as well. We're relying on you for that."

She gestured to let us know she wouldn't let us down, then hurried towards the stands where Survey was preparing something of a commentary box for her. I stood with my duplicates and looked over our opponents just as I felt the Celestial Forge connect to a familiar cluster of motes from the Quality constellation.

"Oh." The second duplicate said. "That's something."

I couldn't help but nod. "Third one. I forgot how hard it can hit you."

"Well, the first one was mid combat, the second one we were kind of paralyzed and barely conscious." He shook his head. "Small mote, big effect."

"Enhancement powers are like that. We didn't have much basis when Smith showed up, but Unnatural Skill: Alchemist jacked up every field of alchemy we knew. It makes sense that Enchanting would hit at least as many points."

That wasn't an exaggeration. Unnatural Skill: Enchanting covered the application of magical effects to items. Every possible way something could be enchanted was expanded by that power, and expanded in ways I had never considered as possibilities. Because they weren't, because it would have been an unnatural application of the skill.

One seemingly minor power struck right across the board. Runes, divine craftsmanship, elven enchantment, talismans, mana infusion, mystic codes, and even certain kinds of alchemical enhancements. It wasn't just a boost in skill or the power of the effects, it was insight into entirely new ways of approaching the problem. In the face of the significance of the power it would have been easy to overlook the second mote.

I had received another Minor Blessing. The blessing of Athena had been consistently useful in artistic crafts and the quality of my work. The blessing of Hestia had completely altered my fundamental understanding of a core aspect of my divine powers. Compared to that, the blessing of Artemis was the kind of thing that could be easy to overlook.

Artemis's blessing was the blessing of bowmanship. Not the thundering revelation that hearthfire had been, but still significant. It was the favor of a goddess directed towards the most prominent area of her portfolio. The bow was the hunt, and the use, care, and most importantly, the creation of it was encompassed by this divine ability.

Cynically, if I had been told the nature of this power I probably would have dismissed it. I already knew how to make a bow, many types of bows to astounding levels of quality. I also already knew how to use a bow. I had the strength and manual dexterity to be proficient with minimal training, and the bow was one of the weapons included in the Martial Arts Ninjutsu ability I received along with the Secret of Steel. From that perspective this was a write off. Another incremental increase in an ability I was already excessively proficient with. Something to be noted and then moved on from barring when it came up in an accounting of powers.

That line of thinking would have been arrogant in the extreme. Hubristic would probably be the right word. This was not some petty skill boost. This was divine favor. It was a fundamental aspect of reality opened up to you, a core source of power, an aspect of being shared freely so that I might be able to glimpse the true nature of how the divine interacted with the material.

I did not know how to use a bow. I did not know how to make or care for a bow. I had held the ability to bind the elastic forces of materials with string so that they might propel a sharpened implement in a direction vaguely of my choosing. That was not a bow. That was not the tool that pulled man out of caves and into a world that had been beyond his reach. That was not what brought down beasts that moved with speeds no human could hope to match, that plucked birds out of the air and slew the predators that would devour your friends and family. Divine bowmanship and the divine idea of a bow meant so much more.

Maybe functionally things would play out as I would have imagined them. I would be able to build better bows and use them to a level I otherwise couldn't hope to achieve. Maybe that's all anyone else would see, but not me. I would know the significance of the tool I could now craft to divine eminence. I would know what it meant, and what I could do with it.

I had the sense there weren't many Forge-relevant blessings that could have come from Artemis. Being blessed with mastery of the bow, it didn't feel like I was getting leftovers. It felt like I was being entrusted with something significantly, something meaningful.

Glancing at my duplicates I could tell they had just finished picking through the implications of that power as well. The second grinned at me.

"Yeah. I get it too." He looked over at the towering robots arrayed against us. "I get what it means. Probably not going to help here, but the enchanting might."

"Possibly." The first duplicate agreed before turning back towards us. "Hey, we've gotten blessings from Athena, Hestia, and now Artemis, in that order. You think there's some significance to that?"

I got his meaning after a second and snorted. "What, like as a commentary on our love life?" I asked dryly.

The second shrugged. "We'll, it's not like we're seeing Aphrodite or Hera."

I blinked. "Shit, do you think they're possibilities?"

"Maybe? Who knows how deep this stuff goes?"

"Uh, guys?" The first said. "This is fascinating and all, but we are on a timer here. You ready to get started?"

I swallowed. "Ready as I'll ever be."

"Great." He said with more enthusiasm than I felt. "Take the lead. We'll form up on you."

I nodded. I forced myself to. Confidence was important here. Remembering what I was working with, what I was working towards, it helped with that. One misstep didn't overturn that. Keep moving forward.

"Deploy and head up. We'll start once everyone is in position." They nodded in return and I took a deep breath before focusing on my power.

A spiritual call drew my familiar to me. I felt the tuffs form on my head and tail grow from my spine as the lycaenops spirit settled over me. With a mental trigger I connected to the striker systems in my boots and activated them.

I felt a disorienting sensation as my legs beneath my knees were shunted into a magical pocket dimension as my boots transitioned from head-stomping mode to miniature fighter craft. The space freed up by shunting my shins and feet into another dimension was instantly filled by rapidly expanding machinery. Engines, reactors, processors, guidance and weapons systems, magical reactors and converters. There was a buzz of power as a massive runic circle spread across the ground beneath me.

Notably, I felt the shift in the fit of my pants as they shifted into a form that Garment insisted still worked with the rest of the costume while being tight enough not to obstruct the connection of circulation of magic through my body. The quality and enhancements on the clothing meant it was still perfectly comfortable, but let's just say I was now distinctly aware of the fit. I had the sense both of my duplicates were exercising the same basic decency as me and pretending nothing had changed.

The strikers ran through their start up sequence, magical energy being drawn, converted, enhanced, and reinforced. Secondary effects locked in place, providing an oxygen supply, protection from wind, reduction of g-forces, and various other features necessary to function with an aircraft strapped to each leg. With a thrum of power, the main engines kicked in and the three of us began to rise from the ground.

The engines were using a fraction of a fraction of their power. Strikers could support full scale fighter engines, and that's before the advantages of my miniaturization powers were considered. Even without the pool of technology I could draw from I would have been able to staple on the equivalent of a F-35's main engine to each leg. With my resources I had gone all out, the best I could manage. Space opera level star drives from long range attack craft hybridized with the capacities of super dimensional engines.

It really spoke to how overpowered these were when you considered that I was using the repulsors from I am Iron Man as maneuverability thrusters.

I didn't have the most powerful engines on the planet stapled to my feet because I was planning to race an ICBM or take a day trip to the moon. Strikers used their 'conventional' engine as a power source to enhance the user's magic. A World War Two level internal combustion engine was enough to cause a significant boost in power. The technology I had crammed on my feet took my magical abilities as far as I could push them.

Which was good, because what we were about to attempt technically counted as High Thaumaturgy.

It all grew from a simple question. How far could you really push projection magic? Swords were easy enough, as were various small items and pieces of technology, but what about serious constructs? How advanced could you make something? How powerful? How big?

The questions triggered a set of experiments, and the limits of advanced projection magic slowly became clear. But limits present challenges, and challenges can be worked through. And the type of projection magic that throws something out with barely a throught wasn't close to pushing the limit of the craft. For that, for true High Thaumaturgy, you needed ritual. You needed incantations. You needed a ten-count aria.

We began to chant.

"I stand within the dream of shadows to be made real."

The words echoed between us as we called out the lines of the aria together. Technically this should have been a ten-count chant, but Do One Thing at a Time applied to spellcasting as well as any other art, cutting the length in half while boosting the results.

"Creations not wrought by the hand of man."

An aria, at least for the purposes of magecraft, wasn't about the magic, it was about yourself. Holding the mindset necessary for High Thaumaturgy was incredibly difficult. The chant served as something between an affirmation and a form of self-hypnosis, driving away distractions and allowing you to truly focus on your magic.

"Brought forth from the light of stars and the fire of heaven."

It was actually close to some of the mindfulness work I had done in therapy, though just distinct enough to ensure that one didn't provide any help for the other. Still, awareness of the process let me appreciate what I was accomplishing in this act.

"Attuned and impermanent, for purpose and task I call you forth."

Magic built as the ritual neared its completion; my mind danced through plans and schematics, through material compositions, circuitry outlines, weapon designs, through aerodynamic assessments and stress analysis. Thousands of details burning perfectly in my mind, ready to be formed through exertion of will and the shaping of mana.

"Gradation Air!"

The Time constellation missed a connection as the ritual completed. The image of a hammer striking an anvil rang through my mind like an explosion and magic flooded through my circuits, drawn from every energy pool I could muster and empowered by the systems of my striker unit. Mana exploded out from my body and condensed around me, taking the solid form of a fifty-foot-tall robot.

I felt the solidified mana around me. The divine and enhanced materials being emulated. The layers of optimized and hybridized technologies. Systems taken from a dozen powers, potentially a dozen universes, blended seamlessly through the structure of the mech.

The design was close to my motoroid in build, slim and mostly human in proportions. A good blend of agility and power. My duplicates had taken their own approaches. The first had formed a thinner suit, mostly emulated mithril and wind Dust with a large integrated flight system, including a set of hardened mass fields on the back serving as airfoils, hanging like glowing blue wings.

The second duplicate had taken a much different approach. His suit was smaller, about half the height of mine. The thing was, it wasn't alone. He had taken advantage of Shipping the Product, forming a smaller suit but expending three times the mana and getting five suits in exchange. I could feel his joy through the Dragon's Pulse as each of the suits began to shift. Two transforming into arms, two into legs, and then merging with his own transformed suit. The result was a disproportionate suit with oversized limbs and considerable bulk, but one that towered over any other mech on the field.

"Ready." He sounded off, giving a thumbs up with a gigantic hand.

"Ready over here as well." Called the first giving a cheery salute with his winged mech. "On your mark."

I swallowed and nodded to myself in the cockpit of my own suit. This was the hard part, but it was also the main reason for going through all of this. Projection, it was a complicated form of magic. It was also an expensive form of magic. I could create projections at a fraction of the true cost, but my reserves weren't endless, even with the strikers and my other pools of power.

Projection of base materials was incredibly cheap and easy to accomplish. More complicated technology got more expensive, largely due to needing to project internal components. Projecting materials with extraordinary properties is where things got complicated. They were almost impossible to get exactly right and were extremely expensive to emulate. That said even the most complicated divine alloy had nothing on the complexities introduced by power sources.

It was simple, really. You couldn't get power from nothing, even with magic. Mana was the fuel that allowed magic to happen, and if you wanted something to happen you needed to put in at least as much energy as you were getting out. Now, I cheated on certain forms of magic, but I was still bound by the limitations of the system. And a big part of that was the fact that projecting something that had a certain amount of energy required you to put that amount of energy into the item.

What that meant was if you projected an item with a power source you needed to cover all the energy it contained with the mana powering your spell. More advanced power sources didn't help in this case. They were excellent when you actually formed them, but creating something like highly refined ragnite required as much energy as could be wrung out of that ragnite across its entire lifetime.

For small items this was a minor inconvenience. Power cells could be created fully charged with only a spike in mana cost. In a lot of cases, it was easier to produce weapons with discrete reserves of ammunition than near bottomless power cells. Projecting something like a lascannon power cell would be a noticeable exertion.

Projecting the reactor of a mech was borderline impossible. You'd either end up with a machine running on the equivalent of AA batteries, puttering away with barely any power, or one with maybe five minutes of actual combat time. The scale of a spell that could create the kind of reactor that would power a giant robot for any meaningful time was just not something that could be accomplished outside of lengthy and complicated rituals. The kind that takes multiple days, not five lines of an incantation.

Really, the only solution would be if you somehow didn't need to generate the power source for your mech. If you had some other ability, some infinitely growing ability tied to hope and determination, something with the ability to reach towering heights, but started with a relatively small amount of power that could be generated.

Just enough to power a mech.

I had spiral. My duplicates had spiral. None of us needed to project a power source. We were the power source. As long as we believed it was possible, as long as we had hope and determination, we could do this.

Or couldn't, in which case you'd lose focus at a critical point, have all spiral energy cut out, feel your mech seize up, and go tumbling down the mountain as a bouncing pile of junk until you crashed against the arbitrary barrier around my workshop.

I took another breath. That was a learning experience. I'm not sure what I learned other than I didn't want it to happen again, but with spiral, that kind of thought actually counted for something. Every act, every trial, every push forward and the spiral grew. It got stronger and hopefully easier to use. It built on itself to the point where nothing would stand in my or in our way.

I let out the breath and gripped the controls of my mech. The projected suits had limited control systems, instead relying on the interaction between spiral energy and my own divine control of technology to allow me to pilot it. Really there was no such thing as unintuitive controls in the face of my talent and determination.

The thought was the kind of middle school nonsense that made me want to cringe, but I pushed down the reaction and held on to the feeling. This wasn't about the limits you were taught you had. It was about the unknown future and your determination to reach it, to make it yours. It was about the power of infinity, power without limits. Power of Apeiron.

"Ready to launch. Mark." I grabbed that feeling and drove it into my machine. Through thermal, technical, and magical senses I could feel every component of my mech. This was literally a vision of my mind brought to life. Imagination made real. The perfect resonance for spiral energy.

Green light flashed from the display as a point of light flashed in its center, then began rotating outward, filling in the rest of the display as it expanded in a spiral pattern. The energy surged through the suit, invigorating the machinery of its body as it flowed through. With a final green flash, the eyes of the mech flared and I shifted into a ready stance.

Through my rear sensors I saw the same effect play out across the mechs of my first and second duplicate. The first took to the air in a low hover while the second shifted into a guarded stance.

The six mechs squared off against each other. Despite the coming conflict I couldn't help but smile. Six machines, all different, all specialized in their role. One thing I had devoted myself towards, and to my own detriment, was attempting to make my motoroid perfect in every role. It was understandably tempting. I had the ability to miniaturize, hybridize and combine technology. I had shapeshifting weapons and armaments. I had everything I needed to ensure I could meet every challenge.

It was the consequence of following Armsmaster's example. The reality of the situation was that I could build a dedicated vehicle that would run circles around my 'do everything' motoroid when operating in its chosen role. I had the resources to deploy specialized systems, and I now realized I had the manpower to support it as well. I could actually build to task, and looking across what that meant, at what specialized technology signified for me, I could meet that task extremely well.

Not that this kind of force was likely to be deployed that often. It was the kind of response you used for S-class and related situations, not any of the problems I was currently dealing with in the city. But I wasn't here to evaluate the tactical merits of a strike team of Endbringer sized mechs. I was here to enjoy my break, and most importantly, build my control of spiral energy. That's what this match was about, and where the real value of this kind of exercise would be found.

I smoothly raised the hand of my mech. The slimmer frame gave me a better range of movement and more natural dexterity than any of our opponents, save Tetra. Still, she would have always been an unpredictable challenge, and the challenge was what made this fun.

"Team Apeiron, ready!" I called out, gesturing at Fleet's Veritech.

"Workshop team, ready!" He called back, with as much excitement as I had ever heard from him.

Survey's voice came projected from the box atop the now hologram choked stands. "Match start. Duplicate timer on the clock, running to end of duration. Agreed upon rules and guidelines remain unchanged. Commentary and analysis will continue."

I stepped forward, as did Fleet. I tensed and mirrored the action through my mech. Fleet maintained his stance, but Tetra and Matrix began squaring off against my duplicates. A port in the center of the area opened and I could feel the machinery working beneath us.

A buzzer sounded from the stands and from the port at the center of the court a seven-foot-wide orange and black sphere launched into the air. I couldn't keep the grin off my face as I launched my mech after it, marking the start of the world's second game of three-on-three giant robot basketball.

It was a good vacation.

(Author note: Would have liked to close out the workshop portion in this chapter, but it didn't work out. We'll be getting out to Brockton Bay next chapter, including dealing with the gym, Undersiders, and Flechette while heading into Joe's next therapy session. Still enjoying getting back to my old pace of writing and not stressing over inter-chapter pacing. Also thank to everyone who offered their support and encounagement after my last author's note.)

Jumpchain abilities this chapter:

Salvager (Babylon 5) 300:

When the ore runs out and the company tells the miners to leave, that's where you really shine. It's cheaper to leave gear to rot in an abandoned site than it is to get it into orbit, across the galaxy and set up again so there's always something good just waiting for a new owner. With this skill you are an expert at jury rigging tech, taking it apart, stripping out the usable parts and putting them into something else. With time and effort, you can puzzle out the workings of most technologies and how to integrate them into your own gear. Every day or industrial equipment might take a few moments, but bleeding edge gear will take years, even decades to understand.

Workshop: Science (Samurai Jack) 200:

A small base filled with all the equipment you'll need to work. This lab can be used for your choice of scientific or magical research.

Minor Blessing Artemis - Bowmanship (Percy Jackson) 100:

For one reason or another you've got a god who cares slightly about you and has seen fit to grant you some minor boon within their domains. Choose one god from any pantheon and gain a minor boon from them. The god will care slightly about you but unless you go on to further distinguish yourself it will be more of a minor interest in your affairs than someone they feel the need to help (Effectively think a diminished version of one ability a demigod might have, think minor ones are stuff along the lines of breathing water, lucid dreaming, or appropriate vague extra senses, useful but nothing especially major). This can be taken multiple times.

Unnatural Skill:Enchanting (Percy Jackson) 200:

Whether from your heritage or just being that good you've got one particular mundane skill that your feats with border on supernatural. Whether you're a smith on the level of the Cyclopses, a near prescient tactician or a swordsman who is ny unstoppable with a blade your feats will be legendary. You are on a level within your skill such that only other beings of legend can hope to match you. This may be taken multiple times. You may not choose magic but you may choose a particular application of magic if you have it already (so curses, enchanting might work, more specific gets a bigger boost).