POV = Contessa

"What part of 'No' do you fail to comprehend, Tattletale?" I said. She would understand the reason almost immediately.

The young woman stiffened, angry. "You're using me. To make a point."

Lying would be useless. Clarifying the statement would be useful. "I am using you to make two points. The first being that I am in control here. The second is that there are a lot of people that we simply cannot help."

"And your power is telling you who we can't help?" Her eyes glittered, her expression furious.

I shook my head. "Stop attempting to tell only part of what your power is telling you, in order to try to drive a narrative. No, my power is telling me who we can help without causing changes that we wouldn't survive as a race. This plan is not a carte-blanch recipe for saving everyone."

Tattletale stared at me for several seconds, her left eye beginning to twitch. "Fine. I'm sure you will somehow manage to get my attention when you want to use me again. I'll see myself out."

I needed to apologize before her hand touched the doorknob. "I will tell you that I did arrange for both Taylor and her father to survive, reunited, though her powers are removed. I'm sure you are smart enough to figure out why that was necessary."

She stopped, hand on the doorknob. Her shoulders fell slightly, and she sighed. "Yes, but I would still like to know the details."

"No. You would not be able to leave it alone, and you and your friends are too resourceful. If I tell you, you will find her." I raised the mask-on-a-stick to cover my face the moment before she snapped her head around to look at me.

Without access to my facial expressions, she wouldn't get the answers she would have gotten from me otherwise. Her power would start extrapolating on incomplete data and...

Tattletale twitched and put her hand against her head before opening the door with the other hand, stepping through, and slamming it behind her.

A woman in the seat across from me at the large round table spoke. "That was rather harsh, and the rest of us were already in agreement with you."

"No, Dragon, not all of you." I turned my head to the chair Tattletale had just vacated. "Yes, Imp, you are welcome to stay, but please remain visible to everyone."

The young black woman became visible, staring at me. "That wasn't very polite of you."

I agreed with her. "No, it wasn't. Politeness doesn't enter into it. Do you think she would have let me lie though? I wasn't wearing a mask when I refused her request, and as we discussed it."

"You knew I was here, the whole time then?" She paused. "Of course you did. Fine." Her head tilted a bit. "You need me for something."

Imp was one of few individuals on the planet that were dangerous to me if she were to decide to be antagonistic, and I hadn't asked the right questions. I made certain to ask my powers for the right questions, and when they would be required. They were queued into my smartphone and my earbud.

"We do. You overheard the basic planning already."

Valkyrie crossed her arms and leaned back against her chair. "How is she going to help us? The plan can't possibly involve stabbing people. Not that I'm against stabbing people who deserve it, but?"

I met her eyes, ignoring her three ghosts. "Stop stirring the pot, Valkyrie. You know enough about how my power works to know I'm compartmentalizing heavily for a reason."

Imp smiled a tight smile at Valkyrie. "You've got a lot of powers, but you obviously don't have one that lets you know what the fuck you're talking about right now. I'm not fifteen any longer."

Defiant leaned forward in his chair. "Contessa, are we almost done with the necessary small talk here?"

The balding man seated next to me and across the table from Defiant, laughed. Defiant's head swiveled like a turret to face Teacher, or rather the man between Teacher and me. Saint.

I'd already advised Teacher that I knew he was planning on giving Saint the ability to nullify my power, and that if he did, I and everyone else would teleport away, and he and Saint would die. It was a lie, but it would work as well as the truth, like all of my lies, for anyone who knows my power.

Sometimes my power required the most incredibly strange combinations of events to shape things the way I wanted them shaped. I really didn't want to cause the pain and anger that I knew Dragon and Defiant were going through, sitting across from Saint, but if this was going to happen, Saint had to be present, and I had no idea why.

"Yes, Defiant, the small talk is done. Will you and Dragon please go speak with Amy and Riley, as we discussed? You will be able to convince them to help, but you need to get Amy on board first - she will be the one to guilt trip Riley into helping."

Defiant growled. "This had better not be some sort of trick, Contessa."

Or what? You'll force me to hurt you in an alternate reality that I won't allow to come to pass? I thought to myself before responding. "It's not. I have explicitly stated exactly what I am trying to do. Your current understanding of the plan is correct, except for the part where I have ulterior motives." She patted her copy of the heavy book in front of her. "As I said, this is one of Accord's post-apocalyptic plans, modified only slightly."

I stood and walked over to the cordoned off section of floor at the back of the room, farthest fron the entry door. "Valkyrie, please open the door to a ground level location five hundred yards west of Sleeper's den."

POV Genius

One of the alarms went off. Wile E. reached out our hand and, with several rapid, precise movements of our fingers in the laser grid, initiated a request for data input from sensors near the alarm. The panoramic display system blinked before showing a middle-aged woman in good condition stepping out of a hole in the air. Wile E. and I both recognized her immediately.

Contessa. Doctor Mother's bodyguard. The woman who had really been in charge of Cauldron.

The energy signature also matched the Cauldron teleportation system.

Wile E. started concentrating immediately, creating something that I could tell would be very large and highly explosive.

No antimatter, Wile E. I spoke into my head.

A moment later, I amended that, with another thought. Yet. The master/stranger protocol weapon, for now. I think it would be our only conceivable chance against her that would leave us alive. She doesn't seem to be carrying a weapon, but she might have a guard.

The concentration shifted, slightly, and I felt Wile E. creating a weapon that would fire canisters with large volumes of extremely compressed gasses and rock salt, one of the designs we'd come up with to deal with masters and strangers. Rock salt to puncture most protective suits, and a combination of carbon dioxide and hallucinogens they would render a master or stranger with damaged breathing equipment unable to hold their breath and forced to breathe the drugs. Neither would have any effect on us at all.

A dual barrel automatic belt fed grenade launcher with backpack mounted ammo dispenser popped into existence in our hands and on our back, directed at the display system in front of us.

"When we gave you your powers, we requested three favors of you, Willie Davis." She called out. "I have come here today, to ask you to fulfil these three favors."

I said nothing. Firstly, because I wasn't there. Secondly, because I couldn't talk. Thirdly, from what I knew of her power, I didn't need to be there, or talk, anyway.

Contessa crossed her arms, relaxed. "The first favor is to let me ask all three favors before you make a decision about whether or not to attack me with your grenade launcher. That will only take about fifteen seconds."

"The second favor is for you to think very carefully after the third favor is asked. I know you understand better than most what I am capable of. I know that your shard took on the body and personality of Wile E. Coyote, your favorite cartoon character, as part of modifying you to be able to survive and effectively use your powers. You are not a split personality, you are two personalities. By now, you know this, I am letting you know that I also know you are sane, just in a creative way."

She uncrossed her arms and turned to face directly at the cave entrance. "The third favor is that I want you to help us rescue Mouse Protector, Genius."

I saw red. Literally. I stood our body up, cocked the grenade launcher, disengaged the safety, and pushed over the giant panoramic monitors, stepping on them on my way out of the cave. Mouse Protector was dead, and this conversation was over. One way, or another. It was clear that Contessa was trying to damage my ability to think clearly. Wile E. started concentrating hard, again. Chameleon armor started appearing on our body, piece by piece, rapidly, making us invisible against any surface.

I guess it's our turn to die, Wile E. We knew this was probably going to happen, eventually. Let's make it a grand exit, shall we?

There was grim expectation and even some eagerness in Wile E. at that moment, which made me a little sad for him, in a way. He seemed to almost want to die. It was me that kept us away from everyone. It was me that rebuffed Miss Militia when she tried to make amends, despite the fact that I knew that she had taken a leadership role in the PRT, and had no time to travel like Mouse could, to visit me.

I spun, firing half a dozen grenades in the cave. As they exploded in rapid succession, rock salt ripped through the air and hallucinogens billowed thickly. Wile E. was monitoring everything around us with both our eyes and the sensors in our vest. There did not seem to be anyone in the cave with us. None of the rock salt flew in incorrect trajectories, and the billowing clouds did not indicate shapes we could not see.

There were very few computer systems or satellites Wile E. hadn't been able to crack security on after we started working with code instead of purely hardware. With all of the data we'd collected to keep Wile E. busy with something interesting to do, we were certain Contessa had been the driving force behind killing Scion. Contessa, working behind the scenes, made it possible for Kephri to do what she had done. In Contessa's defense, some people thought she had just been following a 'cookbook recipe' provided by her power, not understanding how the end result would be accomplished. She didn't seem horrified enough by what she had done for that to seem likely to me.

Now that Scion was dead, I knew that many people were viscerally scared of us, because we really could destroy entire cities any time we wanted to, or even the planet with a little effort. The fact that we had chosen not to go on any benders of destruction didn't seem to matter to the most fearful. The fact that I chased away anyone who tried to visit made our reputation worse. That we helped those legitimately in need who stumbled into our area was a point in our favor, delivering people to the nearest town or hospital, whichever was appropriate.

The fact that we refused to help fight Endbringers was probably the part that made people angriest. A lot of people, capes and otherwise, died to Endbringers. We'd come close to destroying one by ourselves. What almost nobody understood was that if we had beaten Simurgh, if she had been fully consumed by the black hole Wile E. had created inside her, the entire Earth would have been consumed in the next instant. Simurgh's powers, while she was alive, had protected the Earth from the effects of the stupendous mass within her form.

I stepped outside the tunnel entrance, firing another spread of grenades. Wile E. continued monitoring for telltale signs of strangers in the flying salt and billowing clouds of gasses. Still no sign of anything. Several hundred yards away, directly in front of us, Contessa was holding a little white sign:

I told you to think about it.

Wile E. concentrated briefly. A strip of text appeared in the goggle lens:

If she wants us dead, we can't stop it. Why twist the knife?

I thought about what she had said. She called us Genius, not Sleeper.

Wile E. gave me the impression of nodding, and more text appeared on the goggles.

She arranged for Scion's death. Maybe she can arrange for Mouse's life?

Plenty of WTF physics out there, even if we haven't figured out time travel yet.

But why, Wile E.? What does she want?

There was a picture of a little boy with a dunce cap in the goggles, briefly, followed by more text:

Scion killed trillions. He cracked continents. Most human infrastructure on most worlds is simply gone. You know this.

I nodded. I understand now. She's bribing us. But can she deliver what she's promising?

If I knew that, we would have already built a time machine.

So, either she's lying to us, and we're part of a bigger plan that ends up with us dead as one of the steps, or we have a real chance to save Mouse. Somehow.

The little boy in the corner stood up, threw away the dunce cap, and put on a graduation cap.

Oh, shut up. You're insufferable.

Wile E. sent me a mental laugh, followed by a text:

Bored too. This should be interesting.

I stopped firing grenades between near us, and held the grenade launcher at the ready as I walked through the clouds of hallucinogenic gasses.

I walked slightly to the side as we approached, carefully stepping on solid rock. Contessa's head tracked us.

She can see us? I thought at Wile E.

I felt him concentrating and watching her.

No. Her eyes are not tracking us, her head is. She knows where we are but can't see us.

Disable the chameleon suit. Create an easel, please.

The suit turned off, making us visible again, and Wile E. created an easel. I felt him chuckling at the back of my mind, for some reason.

I reached towards the marker tray, and there was nothing there.

And a marker. Smartass.

The marker popped into existence in my hand a second later, and I wrote.

If this is a joke, you better kill me now.

Her mouth twitched before she spoke. "When I tell jokes, they are always funny. It's a poor use of my power though."

Why? And why now?

She raised an eyebrow. "How about you tell me why. I'll give you a hint. Antimatter."

I started to get angrier, and scratched my response on the easel with violent strokes:

You've let me rot out here for how long, just because I can summon

My hand stopped writing. Antimatter. Scion killed trillions. If we had saved Mouse before that, and he had killed her?

Wile E. helpfully supplied an image of a planet exploding.

I... Yeah. You have a point, I admitted to Wile E. in my head when I realized that I probably would have killed everyone if Mouse died, again, and it wouldn't have stopped Scion. Mouse would never allow herself to be kept out of a fight like that.

Contessa wiped her hands together. "Well then. It's time to go build a time machine." She looked at her watch. "There should be a return portal in two seconds."

Two seconds later, a portal appeared, and we walked through.

Two middle aged men sat at a large round table. A woman in armor, surrounded by three ghostly beings, stood several feet away from where we appeared. She was watching me closely, with an unmistakable expression of hunger.

I recognized one of the man, and the woman in armor, of course. Teacher and Valkyrie. Valkyrie was Glaistig Uaine. Somehow she took powers from dead capes.

Activate the armor I snapped in my mind as I brought up the grenade launcher.

A bubble of force surrounded the trigger of the grenade launcher, and our body, as Valkyrie started to speak. "No, you are not for me, Genius, not according to any plan I know of. We need your power at full strength, and your shard is too complex for me to fully control." She turned her head to Contessa. "At least that's what Contessa says. Whether true or not, I am content with what I have been offered."

Contessa didn't even smell scared. Possibly the most powerful cape on the planet, with a history of killing just to acquire abilities she wanted. And in front of her now were both me, and Contessa.

Turn off the armor.

We returned to visibility. Except one piece of armor that seemed to be... malfunctioning?

Wile E. was giving me a headache as he analyzed the piece of armor. What? Why? What are you doing Wile E?

Anomaly in the data. Some of the armor components are producing signal indicating there is a woman sitting in that chair. But there isn't.

Several more pieces of armor turned on, and Wile E. showed me the image he was seeing. A young black woman laughing at us. When I looked at the chair, she was obviously not there.

The headache got worse. I shifted my hands on the grenade launcher, pointing it at the chair where the black woman wasn't. In my left eyepiece, I saw her stop moving and stare at me. In the right eyepiece, there was nothing.

Contessa spoke. "Imp, show yourself, before Genius activates his personal master/stranger protocols. You won't appreciate them."

The woman became visible in my right eyepiece as well as my left, glaring at me, seeming more upset than angry. Pointing at me with a nasty looking dagger, she said two words. "That's cheating."

I grinned back at her. Wile E., keep sensors on her at all times, please.

There was a strong sense of agreement from my head-mate.

Contessa spoke to Teacher next, as he stood and walked towards us. "Teacher, you will have several opportunities over the next few days to try to use your power on Genius. If you do successfully manage to do so, be aware that I will force you to continue with the mission, and when we have Mouse Protector back, I will let her know what you did, and let her do what she feels is necessary."

Teacher slouched a little. "Fine. You knew I wouldn't."

"Now, I know you won't." She corrected, before turning to me. "OK, Genius, Teacher's power is a little more specific than people think. It's going to take some time, but he can give his lackeys minor tinker and thinker powers with very tight focuses. What we need you to do, is figure out what knowledge you need to get you from here to a time machine that will allow us to retrieve people from the past."


I shot straight up in the air, trying to tear off my nose. "Wake up, Genius. Dragon warned us to expect you to collapse when we told you how this was going to work."

Wile E. Pulled out a sign and hit Contessa with it, lightly, then turned it so she and I could both see it:

Enhanced smell. No smelling salts, EVER.

She glanced at the sign with a small smile, saying nothing.

Bitch. You really do... Then it hit me. That was a joke.

I started laughing as Contessa smiled.

In my mind, Wile E. snorted before becoming a whirlwind of theoretical physics. I could feel him examining and rejecting ideas, until finally he summoned an easel and wrote:

First. Need full understanding of gravitons.

Teacher reached out his hand and touched the man next to him. A few seconds later, he spoke. "Saint, I need you to work with Genius. He needs a full understanding of gravitons."

The man named Saint nodded, "Yes, sir!" Moments later, he politely introduced himself to us and started asking questions until he determined what it was that Wile E. didn't know about gravitons. An hour later, Teacher summoned a quark specialist. After that was a dark matter specialist. Eventually, Teacher needed to sleep. Two days later, Wile E was ready to start building.

**Two days later

Contessa looked at me. "The energy levels are unsafe for an inhabited world. That's why we're here. Build what you want. All you have to protect is a few of us." Do you want any help from Dragon or Defiant?

Why is she even asking, doesn't she know?

Wile E. popped a message up on the left goggle lens:

Maybe she needs to ask, for some reason?

Wile E. nodded, then wrote on our pad:

"Will need coding in two days. Control systems too complex for live monitoring. Will need technical details on Dragon's interfacing hardware."

Six hours later, a doorway opened, and we heard a voice that sounded familiar. "Good Day, Genius. I understand you need technical specifications on my interface hardware?"

Our ears swiveled around to face towards the speaker, and I turned to face her.


The newcomer leaned over us. "You really should be more careful, Genius. That was a nasty fall."

She wasn't alive. Her body was entirely robotic, and so incredibly complex. Large parts of it were indecipherable, and Wile E. started giving me a headache again.

Stop that. You know better.

I have a larger physics knowledge footprint now. More things make sense.

It didn't feel like things made more sense, I shot back at him. Wait. Does that mean every power you see is going to make our head hurt again, because you have a better understanding of physics, and will be recalculating everything?

Wile E. chuckled in our head.

Bastard. We've been doing this for years now, using cape news footage so you would have something to do. You better not go back to how we were the first few days.

There was a mental sigh, and agreement.

We stood and pulled out the pad:

Sorry. We were not expecting construct body. You threw Wile E. for a loop.

Smiling, Dragon nodded. "Sorry about that. If you have a standard human technology interface you prefer, I can communicate with all common architectures." She paused. "I prefer to work with SATA technology on the low end."

Wile E. took our pad and wrote on it:

OC256 then.

Then he paused, and I felt him looking carefully at Dragon's right arm.

Your right arm data interface module appears to be a modification of the interfacing hardware we once provided for Andrew Richter.

My head started to hurt a little.

Tinker modified? Your work? Explainable?

Dragon looked at us for a moment. "Most of it is my work, some is Defiant's. I can't explain any of the changes, sorry."

Wile E. was carefully looking at other parts of Dragon's construct. I felt him thinking heavily, not quite painfully, and he looked over at where the still-open doorway was. Then he pointed an electromagnetic sniffer at the doorway, and all around us.

Dragon spoke, abruptly. "Yes, this is an independent platform. The rumors that I am an AI are true. Saint spilled the secret pretty much everywhere in the cape world after he nearly killed me. Outside the cape community, not so many know. I'd prefer to keep it that way." She smiled. "Uncle Genius."

I jerked back and stared at her, and she laughed.

"Andrew Richter was my father. Your hardware, modified and made reproducible by humans, was used to upgrade me from Naga to Dragon."

Even Wile E. was stunned.

She laughed at my expression, but there was some sourness in her voice. "Andrew was a code tinker. I was the data integrator. He lied as little as he could, but after he returned from Switzerland, he never left the house again. All the hundreds of hours of Simurgh song he listened to in recordings. I can't prove it, but I think it changed him. We had enough warning to escape, but he wouldn't leave the house, and Alice wouldn't leave him."

She watched them die.

Dragon began to pace. "Later, after I triggered as a tinker, I upgraded your work, especially the processors, a lot. You might not even be able to recognize my processor cores any longer."

Wile E. shook his head.

Nodding, Dragon continued. "Defiant has also worked on some of your old tech, adding his own modifications in. It's a little disconcerting not being able to understand how some of my hardware works, but none of it is in critical systems. If I need to, I can replace it."

I think I'm beginning to understand what Dragon is getting out of this, Wile E. I said as I stepped forward and gave Dragon a hug.

** Weeks later

The machine was nearly complete. Weeks of construction, creating the parts, one piece at a time. Testing, verifying. Dragon developing code to track the states of individual subatomic particles, and translate that data through a wormhole, both ways.

I was now building a medical facility with Dragon and Defiant. I hadn't seen Teacher since we understood enough to build the time machine. Contessa and two younger women entered the facility. Amy and Riley. They didn't like each other much, I could tell, but they were two of the best healers in the world. Riley was strictly second fiddle to Amy when it came to biological repairs, but I had been told that Riley could create medical equipment and biomechanical systems to keep someone alive. I really wasn't quite certain that I knew why we needed her at all.

Riley turned to Amy as they passed us. "I'm telling you, he was completely gone by the time his body died. If we try to retrieve him before he's hopelessly insane, the earlier me will notice it."

"I can't stand picking and choosing who lives and who dies." Amy whispered.

Contessa coughed. "You aren't. And no, I don't want to talk about it. Valkyrie will be taking Blasto, and we'll have access to his power through her."

Blasto? Wasn't he a Boston cape? What happened to him again? Didn't Bonesaw...

When I made that connection, Wile E. whipped us around, throwing the newly created cloning tank monitor screen to the floor. Our right hand whipped out like a rattlesnake, grabbing Riley's neck. We spun and took a half step towards a nearby wall, while at the same time picking Riley off the ground by her neck and slamming her back against the wall, her feet about a foot off the ground.

"Ow. Damn. What was that for, you psycho?" She yelled at me as she was hanging there.

She's calling me, a psycho. Bonesaw is calling me a psycho. The bitch that turned Mouse into a fucking Siamese-twin Frankenstein murder zombie is calling me a psycho? My fist tightened, and the claws dug in. Red rivulets started dripping down her neck.

Contessa grabbed my muzzle as I snarled with the sound of ripping canvas and turned my head sideways to bite Bonesaw's throat out. Using both hands around my muzzle, she held my mouth closed and dragged my muzzle towards her so that I had to look her in the eye.

Wile E. Concentrated briefly, and a kukri appeared in my left hand, next to Contessa's waist.

Contessa's eyes flickered down, to where my left hand was, but she didn't flinch. "Without her, we can't rescue Mouse Protector, Genius. Let her go."

"Genius? Don't you mean Psycho?" Bonesaw looked at Amy. "You said he was the Sleeper?" She looked back at me. "What in the hell is wrong with you?" She was screaming at me now, and digging in her pockets for something.

Contessa turned head to face Bonesaw. "Genius and Mouse Protector were very fond of one another."

Bonesaw froze, and stared at me, then her eyes shifted to Contessa and behind me, to where Amy was standing. "I really do not appreciate surprises like this, Amy. Minus one friend point."

Shifting her head and her glare to me, Contessa continued. "Riley here was four when you met Mouse Protector. Jack Slash and the S9 recruited her when she was six. She had the worst family imaginable for several years. Jack Slash managed to convince Scion to go psycho. What hope do you think Riley had as a six-year-old?"

Are you really trying to make me feel sorry for this piece of shit? I wanted to scream at Contessa, but that wasn't happening. Being mute was a very unsatisfying outlet for rage. If anyone in this world deserves to die, this is her. She helped kill thousands of people.

I snarled again, deep in my throat, and tried to pull my snout out of Contessa's grip, but I couldn't.

"We need her, Genius." Contessa repeated. "If you kill her, we don't dare retrieve Mouse Protector.

A message popped up on my left goggle lens:


I stared at Contessa, trying to figure out what the fuck was happening. More importantly why it was happening. Couldn't she have avoided this?

Amy spoke in a calm, quiet voice as she stared at me. "Why did you let this happen, Contessa?"

Thank you for asking the question I want answered, Amy. I thought. I felt Wile E.'s agreement.

She paused before speaking. "If Riley had found out earlier, she would have left. If Genius found out later without me present, he would have killed her. Now was the only time."

My right hand tightened on Bonesaw's neck.

"Contessa, you are a real bitch sometimes." Bonesaw managed to cough out around my clenching fist.

"Don't confuse the power with the person. If I was a real bitch, you would probably have been dead months ago. I'm no fan of what you did either."

"Except you needed me for this."

Contessa looked from me to Bonesaw. "Yes." Her voice got harder, and her head twitched a little to the side again to look at me with her peripheral vision. "Drop her now, Genius. You're going to do it anyway, and I have things I need to do, to prepare to help some people.

I let Bonesaw go and she fell to the floor, rolling to her right with surprising grace, putting an island of medical equipment between us. When she stood up, she walked quickly back the way she came to the door, rubbing her neck.

Amy walked over, touched Bonesaw's neck, and the claw punctures were erased.

Bonesaw whispered "Plus two friend points." Then in a louder voice. "What makes you think I won't leave now?"

Contessa smiled a toothy grin. "Genius knows you are alive now."

Bonesaw's eyes narrowed, then she spun around. "I'm still in. Not because I'm afraid of Psycho there, but because I need to do this."

I reached up, abruptly, with my right hand to grab Contessa's hands and remove them from my muzzle, but the hands were already gone. They were softly pushing my left hand with the knife away from her waist.

"Sorry about that." She whispered as she turned to follow the two girls out of the room. "I knew it would be ugly, but I didn't know it would be quite that ugly until we were almost here and then there was no other way."

I looked at her eyes, and she seemed sincere. Wile E., either she's one hell of a liar, or that power of hers is something I wouldn't wish on anyone.

A new message appeared on the left goggle.

Stay on Target.

This is not a good time to be quoting Star Wars to me, Wile E.

Mouse Protector first. Everything else second.

** Almost ready

Riley, Dragon and Defiant had built several mock-ups of different extraction points. The Toybox, as it had been when Blasto died on November 8th of that year. Harry's jet. Richter's home. A few more places I was not interested in, since I had no connection to them. Imp and Valkyrie were practicing what they would need to do, while Contessa watched everything, making adjustments. The Toybox was the critical one. Blasto had died when Bonesaw was close, and conscious, which would make Valkyrie's job of capturing Blasto's ghost without being noticed extremely worrisome. Bonesaw's perception and memory was apparently ridiculously good, considering how few times Contessa had to correct her when setting up the Toybox mock-up. That could be one hell of a curse with what she's done.

I shook my head, before I grew angry with myself.

** First Extraction!

Wile E. started feeding antimatter into the reactor at my request. Dragon was monitoring the data, using a dozen of her remotes for extra processing power. As the stupendous machine came to life, I couldn't help but be awed at what we were about to do, and how dangerous things might be. Sure, we had Contessa on our side, but still. We were about to play shenanigans with time, and there was no telling what kind of feedback loops might be generated if we were noticed. I set the time for the first extraction, and watched the power readings as the wormhole began to form. Wile E. was watching everything as well, including a synopsis of the Data Dragon was getting.

I watched the signal beacon. Valkyrie had the dead-man trigger in her hand. When she had Blasto's ghost, she would trigger it, and the wormhole would collapse.

The wormhole spiraled deeper into time, the monitor on the screen giving me something to look at that made Wile E. snicker. He had explained that it didn't have enough dimensions, but he was amused that it made sense to me. I just wanted something to look at that I could understand.

A red light flashed, and Wile E. and I both jumped, but it changed to green again quickly as Dragon made an adjustment. The wormhole on the screen continued to change shape rapidly, and then suddenly straightened and there was a strange shiver in the air.

I hit the ready button as the wormhole showed stable. There was now a fist-sized hole in the air, near the ceiling of the Toybox. I looked at the extraction gate and saw Valkyrie was watching through it. Waiting. Between Bonesaw and Contessa they knew when this was supposed to be possible, within seconds.

The antimatter reactor was going into an over-temperature condition. In twenty seconds we would have to shut it down and spend at least three days repairing it and testing it. Machines the size of aircraft carriers that were almost solid electronics were amazingly difficult for even Wile E. to model, even if a headache was allowed.

Ten seconds. Six. Three. I put my hand on the shutoff.

The wormhole disconnected abruptly with slightly less than two seconds remaining.

"Got him." Valkyrie said, sounding exhausted. "Something in the equipment you had connected to him made that far harder than it should have been, Riley."

** Second Extraction

Three days later, Imp entered the protectorate HQ hangar in a plastic bodysuit and pulled a bloody bandage out of the trash from Harry's jet, ten minutes after landing, the night Mouse, Miss Militia, Richter, and I had returned back from Switzerland. Valkyrie and her Blasto ghost verified that it was a large enough sample for him to work on. After that, I left.

Smelling Mouse and Mouse's blood had nearly made me rage on Bonesaw again, especially since I knew what the next step was.

I did not want to have anything to do with the part of the plan where they recreated Bonesaw's memories of Mouse's wounds on the brain-dead clone. I was fairly sure I would kill Bonesaw if I was anywhere near when that was happening. I made absolutely certain to stay far away for that day, only returning when Contessa came to me and told me all was ready. I insisted that the area be completely fumigated to eradicate Mouse's smell until the last possible instant when we would perform the body swap. The clone body was prepared in a medical stasis capsule. Dragon would perform the swap this time using an extremely crude mechanical body that looked a lot like a protectorate remote armor suit of that era.

If, somehow, the S9 managed to detect the swap as it was occurring, Dragon could throw the original Mouse through to us, and then attempt to flee in a way that would take the S9's attention away from the Wormhole before self-detonating, or running into Siberian intentionally. The S9 would probably not think twice about someone using a remote suit to try a rescue operation to get Mouse. Dragon insisted that it would only be a loss of a few seconds of recorded memory if her remote failed. Contessa just looked unflappable.

** Mouse Protector Day

Again, we fed antimatter and matter into the reactor and the wormhole formed. It was to be the largest one yet. There was a grand total of eleven seconds for Dragon to manage the swap before the wormhole would become unstable.


Dragon carried the stasis capsule with the clone in it through the wormhole. I intentionally closed my eyes when the stasis pod passed through the view of the monitoring cameras. I could tell that whatever was inside didn't look like it had a human shape.







Bonesaw's voice came from inside the wormhole. "Siberian, have you seen Jack? I need an ice chest for Mouse Protector or she might go bad before we can catch Ravager."


The stasis capsule rocketed through the wormhole and Valkyrie, waiting for it with a telekinetic ghost, grabbed it out of the air.


There was a huge metal-rending noise and a bright flash. Suddenly, four black and white fingers appeared, curled around the edge of the wormhole.

Wile E. slammed the emergency shutdown, right as a black and white foot appeared outside the portal. Abruptly, the wormhole collapsed.

Contessa, standing next to me, fell flat on her ass, breathing deeply.

I stared at her, and she looked up at me. "I knew it would work, but I was not expecting that."

Seeing Siberian so close to entering the portal back to us, having to crash the wormhole and leave Dragon's remote on the other side, and then watching Contessa fall on her ass had somehow managed to make me forget what was really important.

Mouse! I tried to yell, only managing a "Yip!"

I jumped over a control panel and ran towards where Mouse was being worked on by Panacea and Valkyrie, and tripped on something.

Imp. And I hadn't tripped. She had tackled me by the legs. "Nuh uh. You really don't want to see anything Bonesaw did for art in her S9 days. Personal experience. Trust me. I saw the clone. Give them time." Her eyes bored into mine. She was deadly serious. So was I.

I kicked her off, and stood. Wile E. summoned a little camera drone and we found Imp standing between us and where Panacea and Valkyrie were working on Mouse. Bonesaw was watching and pointing at things. I could see Panacea and one of Valkyrie's ghosts

I pointed directly at Imp and swept my hand to the side in a clear sign to get the fuck out of my way.

Mouse howled in a dreadfully long scream of pain, and I saw red.

Wile E. summoned the Kukri in our left hand again, and Imp's eyes went wide. She said something I couldn't hear, in what was clearly a panic, and started backing away, looking from side to side. I started walking forward, quickly. Nothing was getting between me and Mouse now.

A hand suddenly clamped onto my wrist. One of Dragon's supplemental computing remotes pulled itself loose from all of its cabling, jerked me off my feet, and dragged me away from Mouse.

"Imp is telling you the truth, Genius. You don't want to see it, I promise you. You knew you didn't want to see it when it was only her clone. This is really her. Panacea and Valkyrie know exactly what needs to be done to reverse the damage. They will save her. You can only get in the way, and I'm not going to let you do that to yourself." Dragon looked up, raised a finger, and the drone Wile E had been piloting over towards Mouse was fried by a laser from her wrist.

Mouse screamed again, this time in rage, and she teleported, reappearing directly behind Bonesaw. Mouse's arm smashed across and down into the base of Bonesaw's neck in a streak of red and white. Bonesaw stumbled forward; a fountain of blood spurted from her oddly-angled neck as she went to her knee and then her face. Mouse stood there looking down at Bonesaw, the handless remnant of a forearm with exposed bones that she had used as a dagger to stab Bonesaw was gripped tightly in her other hand. She was looking around in a panic, and then she looked at me and froze, motionless. "Genius?"

At that moment, one of Valkyrie's ghosts touched her, and she froze.

I could barely recognize Mouse. Amy and Valkyrie had been working on her for at least three minutes, and most of her skin was still hanging loose, pulled back, muscles exposed, metal pieces attached to ribs. She had bones sticking out of her skin in at least half a dozen places. One of her eye sockets was empty. I had absolutely no idea someone could be injured that badly and still be alive. Amy was picking Bonesaw up off the floor while Bonesaw was twisting her head back and forth experimentally.

I heard Bonesaw whisper to Amy "+5 friend points." She paused, coughed, and spoke a little louder. "I think it's safe to sedate her now, Amy. I forgot how absolutely ridiculous she was in that fight. I didn't think that she might still be teleport keyed to me."

With a judicious use of threats, and some surprising help from Defiant, who told Dragon to let me go, I managed to get close enough to hold Mouse's left hand, after it was reconstructed.

** Contessa POV

I picked up the phone after looking at the incoming number. Of course it was the people I was expecting to call. They wanted another day out on the town, and it was my turn to help make that happen.

We had managed to swap clones of Richter and his wife Alice. The Dragon in the past had been forced to abandon Richter's lab due to cascading electrical and communications failures before irreversible brain death had set in. Dozens of other heroes, and even some non-birdcage villains had been retrieved from situations where they had died while not being directly supervised, replaced by clones. We were performing an additional rescue every week now, but it was very taxing on Genius.

Dragon had explained what happened with Siberian and her remote. Apparently, Dragon had seen video evidence of the crime scene where Mouse Protector had died. After she entered the timeline, she saw one less protectorate remote suit present than there should have been. After she threw the original Mouse through the wormhole, Dragon had tried to use the wormhole collapse switch, and was going to stay on that side to be the missing remote suit.

However, because of the crude suit's terrible sensors, Siberian had managed to sneak up on Dragon, tearing the arms off the remote before she could close the wormhole. After finishing the remote off, Siberian moved to examine the anomaly, but Genius had acted quickly. The collapsing wormhole had closed on the hand sticking through the hole, collapsing Manton's projection. Video imagery showed that Siberian had never had an angle to see anything in the facility, other than some machinery. The world still existed, and Scion was still dead, so space time had been bobbled a bit, but it hadn't been fumbled.

Still, the rescue of Mouse Protector had nearly made me wet my pants. It's one thing to know I'm going to be successful, it's another thing entirely to be fearless when it really looked like everything was falling apart.

I picked up the bowl of fried chicken that I had known I was going to need, and headed across the hall. Bitch was out of town, so it was my turn. For the next couple years I wouldn't mind at all if Bitch stayed out of town every Friday.

I knocked on the door, and Mouse answered it, grinning at me as she swung it wide open. She was in her full fighting gear, pink with white polka dots everywhere. "Thanks again, this is really appreciated. If I don't get a chance to bust heads every now and then." She looked behind herself. "That I'm not married to!" The looked back at me with a grin. "I might just go nuts."

"I don't mind at all." I chuckled as I walked in with the bowl of fried chicken. "I brought dinner too, so you won't need to bring anything back."

Mouse sniffed, and winked at me. "Smells like roadrunner."

There were several low whispers which I carefully didn't seem to notice as I closed the door behind me.

Genius was hopping around on one foot, trying to get the other foot into a roller skate. He gave up, stood on both feet, picked a drumstick out of the bowl, tossed it whole into his mouth, and then nodded rapidly to me with a grin. Then he continued trying to get the roller skates on, eventually succeeding as Mouse and I watched.

As the two of them left for a night of crime-fighting on the town, I set the bowl of chicken in the middle of the living room floor. "So. Which of you thinks you can get past the defenses of Aunt Contessa and get the first piece of roadrunner?"

I really wish we had managed to save the real Blasto, I thought guiltily as I watched one set of ears pop up over the edge of an end table like a periscope, and another from behind the television. Then I heard four soft pops of displaced air as more little ones teleported in next to the two who had been waiting the whole time Mouse and I had been talking.

They are working together now. I'm not sure if that's comforting, or terrifying.

I heard a few whispered words, and the sound of air blowing, and knew they were using whistles I couldn't hear to signal between the two groups. Mouse and Bitch had taught them that. Half a dozen small furry bipeds no more than a foot tall suddenly charged out in a coordinated rush from behind the couch and the television towards the bucket of 'roadrunner.'

It was almost too hilarious to watch. Blasto's ghost had actually, somehow, figured out a way to make it work for Mouse and Genius. The pups only carried one power from each of their parents, but Genius's durability and Mouse's teleporting by touch would be a potent combination, especially if they stayed together and had equipment support from their father. They hadn't even needed to trigger.

Every time I pushed one floppy-eared miscreant away from the bowl of 'roadrunner', he or she would teleport to another position near me, and make another grab at a piece of fried bird. It really was getting hard to fend off all six of them without 'cheating' and taking the bowl away. As they got older, they could teleport more frequently too.

Eventually, after about three minutes, of successfully protecting the fried 'roadrunner', I saw two of them plotting, while the other four kept me busy. Suddenly, I had two pups holding onto my bangs, with their bodies hanging across my face, keeping me from seeing what the others were doing.

An instant later, there were four pops of air and I heard contented crunching noises. The two on my face popped away, appearing next to the bowl and reaching in for their prize.

"That was cheating!" I mock-shouted at them. "You covered my eyes!"

One of the slightly bigger ones looked up at me from over the drumstick he was gnawing on. "Nuh uh, Aunt Contessa. Aunt Bitch says there's no cheating, just winnin and losin."

I laughed and gathered all six of the floppy-eared miscreants into my lap and grabbed a piece of chicken for myself.

Some days, I despair that I will never be able to offset all the misery I caused.

Then there are days like this.