I thought I would die inside that locker, and I thought for a while that I did, but that couldn't have been what happened. I had been trapped in there for hours, screaming myself hoarse... school had already let out, and I was just hoping a janitor might find me. It was a futile hope after none of my fellow students, and I was pretty sure even teachers ever helped me, but I wasn't going to give the Trio the satisfaction oaf murdering me without even trying to save myself. Rage, rage against the dying of the light, my mom would have quoted.

Did you know that Winslow turned off all the heat as soon as school was out? I mean, when it was working at all. I lost consciousness shivering, wondering whether it was the hypothermia or toxic shock that would kill me first.







I regained consciousness thumping onto the floor as if I had rolled off the top bunk of a bunk bed. I hit with considerable force, and though I groaned in pain, the wind having been knocked out of me, I had already diagnosed my shoulder, which I mostly landed on with nothing more than a contusion.

I thought someone had opened up the locker, and I must have spilt out onto the floor like a sack of potatoes, but opening my eyes and glancing up, I appeared to be in a small, efficiency apartment. I could see the small kitchenette directly in front of me, and it looked like they hadn't even finished unpacking because the ground was littered with brown cardboard boxes with the name "MILITECH" stencilled on the side.

Great, I was kidnapped by a gang that was... doing a... guns deal? Gun trade? What the hell? That doesn't make any sense. It made more sense that I died, except...

If I died, I wouldn't still be covered with the blood and filth that was in the locker, surely. And the afterlife wouldn't be a shitty apartment full of cardboard boxes. And there wasn't any trail of such filth coming from the door, so there was no way I walked or was dragged in here.


Wait one second!

I teleported! I must be a cape! I triggered with a teleportation Mover power... but please, why did I end up in the middle of some stash house full of whatever is inside these Militech boxes? It had to be some kind of weapons in there even if they looked more like moving boxes; I mean... the name!

I always wanted to be a hero, but I sure wasn't ready right now! Power, I like your moxie in trying to break up a gun deal first thing, but we have to get ready first! You're moving almost as fast as Ladybug did when she killed Jack Slash as soon as she triggered over half a decade ago.

Since his death, it had been theorised that the famous serial killer had some type of Thinker precognition power that was especially useful against other capes, which allowed him to get away from so many heroes that attempted to bring him down so often, but when a six-year-old girl Triggered with bug-controlling powers while you were torturing her parents, who thankfully hadn't gotten around to calling the exterminator to remove the giant wasp hive in the backyard, well... there is only so much fancy footwork can do against thousands of wasps, all controlled with a singular purpose- to murder you.

Power, we don't even have a mask! I stood up and squinched my eyes. Power! Go back to Winslow, for now!


Power? ... Go back... to my room at home!

Uh, go... anywhere else but here? Wait, anywhere safe but here! I don't want to be in a volcano, next to Oni Lee or at the bottom of the ocean!

I stood there with my hands balled into my fists, eyes closed, eyebrows furrowed and face scrunched up. It suddenly dawned on me how ridiculous I looked. I looked like Carrie after she was drenched in pig's blood trying to hold a fart in.

The thought of the blood and my cut fingers, damaged fingernails and numerous scratches on my body had a number of possible bacterial infections and toxic shock syndrome coming to my head. In fact, I was already infected with a number of harmful bacteria, which might proceed to sepsis in as little as twelve hours if left untreated. I was sure of it. Prompt treatment was important at this stage, and I started moving without realising what I was doing. There was no phone visible to call emergency services, and leaving this apartment was fraught with peril, so I would have to treat myself, which was not a big deal at all...

I came back to my senses in the shower, just letting the hot water run all over my body. It felt heavenly after being stuck in that locker for hours. Not only was it disgusting, but I was a tall girl, and my shoulders and neck were crinked from being in there so long... or at least they were. Rolling my neck, it felt a lot better after having the hot water run on them for so long.

I sort of remembered what I had been doing as if my body had been on autopilot for a while. I stepped out of the shower, giving the bloody remnants of my clothes a wide berth. I didn't care if this was Lung's personal stash house; there was no way I would ever wear those clothes again. I'd rather run through the Docks in nothing but this towel!

I glanced at a mug that read "World's Number One Dad" that was half-filled with an off-white powder. I had already taken about twenty milligrams of the powder. It was a shame that there were no gel capsules around, and the time necessary for me to fabricate an actual pill press would have caused my treatment to be delayed unacceptably.

This drug was an extremely effective broad-spectrum antibiotic. Only one treatment was necessary to eradicate everything from syphilis to MRSA and everything in between. Honestly, there was really only one negative side effect to it...

I immediately threw my towel off my body and rushed to the toilet. Thankfully in such a small bathroom, it was only two steps away.

"Oh, shit..." I said aloud as I felt my stomach rumbling dangerously.

And shit, I did.

I realised I was a Tinker about halfway through the twenty minutes I spent on the toilet. I would have learned immediately, but for the first ten minutes, there was no real conscious thought at all. Just groaning and pain.

The antibiotic had literally destroyed every micro-organism in my body, which actually would have been a really bad thing as humans had evolved to depend on their microfauna biome. Except it wasn't the only thing, I made when I was in a fugue.

There were no amounts of courtesy flushing that would forgive the sin I committed against this commode, so I just flushed it for what must have been the twelfth time once, grabbed the mug full of super antibiotics and walked out of the bathroom.

I had made four drugs at the kitchenette, which I found incredibly impressive. It wasn't even a proper kitchen; it was the kind that you might find in a hotel that you rented by the week or crappy apartments... like the crappy apartment, I was currently in.

I had memories of already taking two of the drugs, the other one I needed to take immediately, and the last was made as a contingency.

The second drug I had taken in my fugue made me frown deeply, and I started to get pissed off. It was an anti-depressant, and it was as good as the antibiotic was. It was guaranteed to normalise neurotransmitter levels within six to twelve hours of administration and only needed to be taken once a week.

Did my power think I was depressed?! ... well... I mean... It still didn't have the right to take the decision out of my hands itself!

Wait, why was I talking about my power like it was another person? The Agent theory of Parahuman powers was widely denigrated, and only crazy crackpots on PHO actually subscribed to it. I just wasn't used to going into a fugue as I had done.

At the back of my mind rested a deep field of absolute knowledge, like I had a hundred different encyclopedias hooked into my brain. The knowledge was mostly about medicine, biology, anatomy, organic chemistry and genetics. I had also been trying hard not to think about the vast trove of psychiatric data I had access to.

According to the same part of my brain that diagnosed the exact strains of staph bacteria I had been exposed to, I was at a mental health crisis point; just one bad day would have been all that it took to push me over the edge into some permanent solutions. It felt that gaining powers was only postponing the inevitable and that I would likely do something foolish and get myself killed in a classic example of self-destructive behaviour if I didn't take things in hand. It felt that my mental state was a bigger danger than the bacteria. It could be treated pharmacologically, but that wasn't really a cure.

I did... not like being confronted with this. But, my possible mental breakdown and a psychological break could wait. I was really at some risk if I didn't take this third drug very soon.

I had made it out of a can of yoghurt and some miscellaneous kitchen chemicals, the latter of which was the same thing I made the other three drugs out of, which didn't make me feel that much better about them, except that I knew that they would work and be fine.

Sighing, I grabbed a spoon out of the drawer and ate the entire can of yoghurt. Mmm, it was strawberry flavour. This would replace all the beneficial microbiomes in my digestive system after the earlier antibiotic wrecked it.

After finishing the yoghurt, I glanced at the last drug I had made, which I hadn't thought much about. I made it as a contingency, as a tool to escape. I was already exhausted, but if I was in the middle of a dangerous area like the docks or deep in Empire or ABB territory, I might not have enough time to stay in this stash house. There was no telling when someone might arrive. It might be months or minutes!

So I made a very potent dopamine reuptake inhibitor; it was a very strong and long-lasting neural stimulant. One dose, and I could stay awake for at least forty-eight hours with no real side effects.

My hand rushed to cover my own mouth in shock. Aghast, I said, "Oh, no..."

Had I just Broken Bad and created super-meth? Already? Oh god. No, no, no! I will not be Skidmark's second girlfriend! What will they call me? Hollar, to go with Squealer?! I felt ill.

I shook my head rapidly to clear it and stared at the over six hundred grams of powder in an empty old margarine tub as if I had just made some mashed potatoes or something. Oh god! A single dose was only twenty-five milligrams by oral administration! The PRT would get me for distribution! If the gangs didn't catch me first!

It was all over!

I started panting, acutely aware that I was hyperventilating and having an anxiety attack but ignoring the corner of my brain that was brimming full of medical advice. I sat down, slumped on a couch on the other side of the room, which was surrounded by boxes full of guns and stared out into space for a time.

I wasn't sure if it was because the super-antidepressants were starting to work, but I only let myself have a panic attack for about five or ten minutes at the most. After that, I started calming down a little bit, even if I was still kind of hyperventilating. I realised I wasn't thinking straight. Nobody knew what I had done. I could flush the incriminating evidence, and it would be fine.

I started to get up to go do just that, but something caught my eye on the coffee table in front of me. It was one of only two tables in the apartment, the other being a small table next to the kitchenette that was stacked full of cardboard boxes. This table, however, only had what looked like a smartphone on it. It was either a small tablet or a large phone, and I considered the latter to be more likely. Smartphones were still quite expensive, and this one looked even swankier than the DragonTech phones that were all the rage if you were rich.

That made her become very, very scared. Nobody would leave their expensive phone here if they were not going to come back and get it, and soon. I had to call the BBPD or the PRT right away, or I was going to be dead meat! I didn't think that the PRT would care about saving me at all, but they would be at least interested in all of these boxes, and I might get saved as a result, but I had to move fast. I had already spent at least two hours in a fugue making those drugs!

I was pretty sure you could still make an emergency call even if you didn't have the PIN number to unlock a phone, so I grabbed the phone off the table, the screen coming to life as soon as she picked it up.

What I saw caused me to drop the phone in shock, it slipping through my limp-with-shock fingers and tumbling onto the floor with a clatter.

Dad was death on cell phones, even flip phones, so I had never had one, but I was pretty sure what I saw was called the lock screen. You could select a picture that would be displayed while the phone was locked.

So, why, then, was a picture of me and my mom the lock screen photo of this phone that presumably belonged to gun runners?!

Everyone said that powers were bullcrap and you shouldn't try to understand them with normal logic, but there was a point when things got too crazy to explain away with that simple platitude.

I reached down and grabbed the phone from the floor, the screen lighting up again. I didn't recognise this photo of my mom or me, and I was confident it was never taken. They were on the roof of a building, and the background was a cityscape that would look more in place in Tokyo than in Brockton Bay. I was absolutely sure I had never been there!

I tried to move the photo around with my thumb, but as soon as I touched the screen, a green padlock icon appeared along with the text, "BIOMETRIC MATCH." Then the phone unlocked, and I was looking at a totally unfamiliar screen full of odd icons and glyphs.

Wait... what?! Did this phone just unlock to my fingerprint?! I did a lot of research on fingerprints back when I still thought the teachers and school officials would still do anything about the Trio. How stupid I was back then. How could this phone unlock to my fingerprint? Maybe any fingerprint unlocked it? That didn't seem to sit right with the words biometric match, though. This was starting to get weirder and weirder, and I was half-expecting some kind of SAW situation from that disgusting Earth Aleph horror movie.

I looked at the unfamiliar glyphs on the screen, but there was one that looked like an old-time telephone, so I pressed it. For the moment, I was ignoring the fact that the Home Screen picture was my dad and me with my dad wearing some kind of military uniform. I find the dialer and enter 9-1-1 and CALL, putting the phone up to my head.

The phone answers immediately, and the voice is slick but slightly computer generated, "Night City Emergency Services, Miss Taylor Hebert, I see your location as the twenty-ninth floor of Megabuilding H8 in Westbrook. Please be advised present response times to your position exceed ONE ONE ZERO minutes. Do you wish to continue?"


I stammer out, "No, thank you," and get another computer-generated response, "Very well, you have been charged ten eurodollars for this service. Have a good day."

I glance at the phone's screen in shock, in time to see a red alert at the top of the screen indicating that ten eurodollars, whatever those are, have been deducted from my account. I have been thinking about this for a while, but I need to say it out loud, "Toto, I don't think I am in Kansas anymore."

I stare at the picture on the home screen, perplexed. Dad looks pretty good in a military uniform, but I can't even determine which military he is in. I set the phone down and do some breathing exercises that the information in the back of my head is telling me will be helpful for stress, as I have been hyperventilating for over fifteen minutes, and my hands were starting to cramp into useless claws.

My... what is this, even? A medical-based Thinker power? But I diagnosed myself immediately with a carpopedal spasm caused by hyperventilation due to localised hypocalcemia. Treatment was getting my breathing under conscious control, so I started breathing in a slow pattern that was clinically proven to provide anxiolytic benefits.

After a few minutes of just sitting there and relaxing, I grab the phone again, and this time I try unlocking it with my left pinky finger, only to get a stern red icon. Sighing, I use my right thumb, and it unlocks. I was very good with computers, and ultimately this was just an unfamiliar computer interface. But it was one that was clearly designed for ease of use, as the icons made sense and were straightforward.

I navigate through a number of pending notifications and find what seems to be the text messaging app, seeing a lot of texts to this phone that was more or less similar in nature, in that they were all offering condolences or saying that they would miss ... me? They were clearly texting a Taylor Hebert.

There was a different app for e-mails, and there were a couple of pending notifications in that app too, which I pulled up. The first e-mail answered a lot of questions but gave me a lot more besides.

FROM: Alice Newman Militech HR

TO: Taylor Hebert Dependents, Militech Intranet

DATE: Saturday, August 5, 2062

SUBJECT: Dependent Settlement

Dear Miss Hebert,

First, let me offer our condolences for the recent loss of your father, MAJOR DANIEL HEBERT, who was killed in the line of duty at [REDACTED] on [REDACTED]. All of Militech owes you a great debt.

However, while Major Hebert was eligible for the Enhanced Combat Survivor's Benefit, it has been determined that the [REDACTED] at [REDACTED] is to be considered a POLICE ACTION, and while Major Hebert was killed in the line of duty, deaths resultant from POLICE ACTIONS are not considered combat deaths, so you are eligible for only the basic survivorship package.

While we understand this isn't the decision you may have hoped for, we hope you understand that only through careful stewardship of the finances entrusted to us can we remain a strong Militech family.

Additionally, as you are the only next of kin and are a minor child, there are some important decisions you must make before SEPTEMBER 1, 2062; otherwise, we are legally obligated to forward your file to the Night City government for foster placement. I am not qualified to advise you on this matter. However, attached to this e-mail is a small 472-page guide about your options. It is recommended that you retain an attorney...



There were about three more pages of finely worded legalese, but I started hyperventilating again when I read foster placement. I wasn't even from this universe; of that, I was absolutely certain now. Could they really put me in foster care? Oh, and my universe-dad was dead, I guess. Honestly, that wasn't that different from what I was used to. My actual dad was basically just walking dead already, merely acting out the memories of what life once was like a revenant.

That made me think about him. Practically the only emotion he actually felt was worry, and he was going to be out of his mind with it, worried that I never came home from school, and I was worried that I might never see him again. Travel between universes was difficult enough between Aleph and Bet, and it was illegal, in fact, except in highly supervised cases.

But this... this was something very different. There weren't alternate versions of you in Earth Aleph. That wasn't how this worked! I had read about the theorised point of divergence between the two universes, and the accumulated differences over time were enough butterflies to ensure that there was no, for example, Taylor Hebert on Earth Aleph. And there certainly was no Taylor Hebert in 2062.

This wasn't Earth Gimel; this was something very different.

This meant that I probably would never see my dad again and that he would have to deal with a missing daughter on top of losing his wife just a couple of years ago. Oh god, he was barely hanging on as it was!

Unless... hopefully, I just swapped places with this Alternate Taylor? If so, I want to apologise if you find yourself inside a disgusting locker. Although, since it sent me to about five feet above the ground, it probably wasn't going to be one hundred per cent accurate when swapping Alt-Taylor? Hopefully, she'd fall in front of the locker.

Maybe that... would be for the best? Judging from all the text messages, this girl had she had friends, people who seemed to care enough about her to at least offer words of platitude, even if they were only being polite. Her contact list was full of names, and she had been texting to and from people her own age. Some even said that they would miss her since apparently she couldn't stay enrolled at the Militech school after her father passed away. By any metric, I could see she was vastly superior in all respects to me.

I didn't want to inflict my life on my worst enemy, except maybe Sophia, and especially not on an alternate version of myself from a different universe, but surely this Alt-Taylor was smart enough that she could figure out how to get out of my predicament that I had been suffering through since I entered high school. She was, from all appearances, smart both intellectually and socially, unlike me.

The part of my brain full of psychiatry information was warning me that I was approaching seriously unhealthy levels of self-loathing, 'I wish that would just shut up! I'm not asking for advice!'

I stewed there on the couch, which I could see was a fold-out bed as well and built into the side of the wall and tried to use the phone to find out anything I could about where I was.

On the plus side, all these cardboard boxes didn't have guns or grenades in them. Well, most of them didn't. I found several pistols in boxes with the rest of Alt-Dad's effects. I carefully set them aside, not knowing the first thing about either safely handling them or even making sure that they were safe, so I figured the safest thing to do was just not to touch them at all.

The boxes were full of all the stuff Alt-Taylor and Alt-Dad had in their apartment. Apparently, the company evicted you pretty rapidly in the event you left their service, even if it was in case of death. However, they packed everything well, and according to that lady's e-mail, part of the "basic survivorship package" included three months of paid rent at accommodations of their choice that were rated at least GREEN for safety, whatever that meant.

I had figured out how to turn on the television that was integrated into one of the walls, but after it started playing "America's Most Violent Home Videos" and seeing some gang member accidentally blow himself up with a grenade to a laugh track, I turned it off immediately. I thought life was cheap in Brockton Bay, but this goes far beyond what I'm used to. Although, that sort of thing might have been played on Über and Leet's private channel, and it wasn't actually that far off from what I would expect one of the Merchant's to do.

However, at least I managed to find the boxes that contained Alt-Taylor's clothes, so I put on some of her pyjamas so I wouldn't be stuck in a towel for the foreseeable future.

After making sure that the door outside was well and truly locked, I decided the best thing I could do was just cry myself to sleep on the roll-out futon.

My dreams seemed to last years; I dreamt of Alt-Taylor's life. It wasn't as though I relived her entire life, not even close. Nor did I have her full memories at my beck and call when I woke up, but when I woke up, I was a lot less confused about my location and situation.

Alt-Taylor had been expecting the company to screw her over in more or less the manner that they ended up doing. Even if she didn't precisely know how they would fuck her, she knew it was coming. However, instead of my own impression that everyone was out to screw me over, Alt-Taylor's impression was that the corp screwed everyone. The nuance was totally different, there was no personal animus behind it, and Alt-Taylor didn't even seem that upset about it. Alt-Taylor and her dad had even made contingency planning for this exact scenario, as he was apparently under no illusions about how dangerous his job was.

I was more sure that we had swapped places now because the impressions I got from my dreams were of two boats passing in the night, going to opposite places. Or two streams of energy passing through each other as we coiled around a massively giant crystalline entity, which was why I had gotten a few of her memories.

I held my hands up in prayer, devotedly apologising for inflicting my life on the much more well-adjusted girl. Was this a punishment for me? Because I had not managed to help my Dad that I was being tossed into a universe where I had already lost him?

No, that didn't make sense.

I blinked. Normally, I would not have contradicted my self-denigrations like that. I glanced over at the tub of anti-depressant powder that was still on the kitchenette sink. Well, they were supposed to work very fast.

The thing about normalising my neurotransmitters was it wasn't a cure for anything, really. However, if your brain chemistry was so out of wack, your sense of depression and self-loathing would tend to make you avoid or sabotage any kind of treatment, my medical sense told me.

I still had all the same predilections; however, at least my brain wasn't firmly reinforcing my self-loathing anymore. The fact that I could make such a self-diagnosis without angrily denying it seemed to be proof of their effectiveness.

Sighing, I walked over to the couch again. I had all the contingency files on Alt-Taylor's phone. Alt-Dad had set up a complicated flowchart that he assured would give me the maximum out of the Corp.

Glancing at the pistol on the coffee table, I grabbed it, thumbed the magazine release and pulled the pistol's slide out of battery slightly to check to make sure there was no round in the chamber. There wasn't. I sat the empty gun and full magazine back down on the coffee table. While I didn't get anywhere near all of Alt-Taylor's memories, there were a surprising number of memories of Alt-Dad teaching his daughter about firearms and firearms safety.

Well, I suppose that could be useful, even if my first impression of guns was still of deep antipathy. Dad kept a shotgun at home, but Mom was always against anyone having guns, which was a lot different than Alt-Taylor's mom, who also worked for Militech. I suppose it was hard to be Pro Gun Control laws when you lived in a world where the government hardly exists and you work for an arms company.

Sighing, I brought up the private files on Alt-Taylor... no, it's my phone now. It wasn't good to keep such things compartmentalised mentally. Perhaps I could find a way back to my own universe in the future, but if I keep acting mentally like Alt-Taylor and I were two different girls, then I may slip up when interacting with people from this universe. That would lead to either mental institutionalisation or vivisection, depending on if they believed that I was actually from another universe or not. Alt-Taylor had no illusions at all about what those truly in power would do if they thought I might lead them to new, unknown Earths. Complete destructive testing of every molecule in my body if I was lucky.

I brought up my private files and found the contingency document my Dad had made. It was actually a small program that gave me prompts. It confirmed my date of birth and the current date and then asked me about my current grades at school, with a number of drop-down options.

I hummed and managed to find the transcript that was e-mailed to me when I withdrew from the corporate school last week. Wow, that was another thing I would have to apologise to Alt-Taylor for. She had straight A's. If she was waking up in my life, she had a lot of work to do as I was barely passing any of my classes due to not being generally able to turn any homework in.

The flow chart was kind of complicated, and it took me another fifteen minutes to work through all the questions it was asking me. That made me feel kind of warm inside; if he did this much planning for his daughter, then Alt-Dad surely loved her.

The suggestions made my eyebrows raise. They were all explained, too, in ways to get the most out of the Corp without completely antagonising them.

As she was a minor, the Corp was essentially her guardian. So, it was going to be on the hook to pay for foster care, public school, and some amount of maintenance until she turned 18. They would basically be paying off Night Corp, which ran the city.

It was spelt out for her that the only thing a Corp hated to do more than paying out to a person was paying out to another Corp, especially Night Corp, which tended to pretend it was some kind of government as it ran all the organs of Night City governance, like the police and courts.

The flowchart and associated plans recommended that she send an e-mail to the HR drone, a template being provided, offering to apply for emancipation in exchange for some additional benefits. Not only would Militech be on the hook for less than they would have to pay to Night Corp, but they would be paying the daughter of a fallen hero instead. The file made it clear that it wasn't that the corporate workers wanted to screw her over, specifically. It was just that they did not have any discretion and had to attempt to screw over everybody. They almost considered it an IQ test, as a kind of social Darwinism which I found repugnant. However, if given a plausible option where they could award me additional benefits and save the Corp money at the same time, they would definitely go for it.

Was this all just a fever dream as I lay dying inside that locker? 'No,' replied my medical sense. My brain was full of ways to test reality or myself for delusions, and I hadn't failed them when I did many of them this morning.

Sighing, I copied over the e-mail template and filled out the relevant portions before sending it to that Alice Newman lady.