— — —

It didn't make sense. It didn't click. It— It didn't make sense. What was going on?

I found myself quite abruptly standing in a dingy alleyway between a pair of old, dilapidated-looking buildings—concrete to one side, chipped, cracked brick on the other—with absolutely no idea why. I just stood there, staring in the hot sun glaring down from on high with the scent of baked asphalt and the random, dull bustle of urban backdrop all around me. The odd passers-by crossed at the mouth of the alley ahead, utterly unconcerned and oblivious to me as they went on their way, one by one, never looking. I didn't know what was happening. I didn't know what to do. So I stood there, staring. And staring.

"Takes guts."

I whirled at the voice behind me.

A girl stood there, a teenager, maybe fourteen or fifteen, dark of skin and willowy. A faint sheen of sweat lined a forehead exposed by her ponytail. She stared at me. Hard. From eye-level. And she wasn't freakishly tall.

No, I was small. I was tiny, diminutive! I held up my hands and they weren't my hands: slender, even delicate fingers with neatly trimmed nails in flaking red paint that didn't belong. What was happening to me?

"I… I don't understand," a voice that was not mine forced out. "I don't understand. I don't understand!" My thready voice barely managed above a whisper.

The girl's face twisted.

"Oh, cut the hysterics, you baby. If you're gonna crack, do it anywhere other than the back ally you just got attacked in. You're beginning to make me wonder if I was wrong about saving you. Why did you come back here, anyway?"

"What?"

Her expression fell.

"Why are you here," she enunciated flatly, "you dumbass." Then the girl looked slightly more interested, raising an eyebrow and giving a cursory glance up the alley behind me. "I figure the only reason you'd come back is because you were looking for revenge, or me."

I just blinked at her.

"…I don't understand," I repeated uselessly as the girl began to look irritated. "I have no idea what's going on. I… I shouldn't be here, not like- not like this. This isn't right. I- I think something's wrong. Something's wrong. Something's very, very wrong."

Then the girl did something odd. She stared at me for a moment, an incomprehensible expression on her face, then scrunched up into a scowl again. "Fuck," she spat quietly. "Fucking… fuck!" She kicked the ground.

She stepped towards me and I jerked back a matching step. The girl held up her hands clenched in frustration before seeming to force herself to open them placatingly with a slow exhalation.

"Look, uh, fuck," she repeated yet again. "You know how people get powers? Ever hear the phrase 'lowest moment of the worst day of your life,' or something? Or what a trigger event is?"

I stared at the girl. I looked. I took in her and they alley, and looked down at myself, narrow capris and a neat cream blouse with frilly trim, strands of red hair looking to have dried without brushing hanging draped limply. I grabbed my hair—my hair—that was actually real, then stared back at the girl with a sudden, horrible suspicion.

"No…" That… just couldn't be. I didn't believe it. I wouldn't. "Sophia Hess. Shadow Stalker."

The girl blanched, and I felt sick.

"No," I muttered. "No, we're not doing this, we're not! I refuse!" I shrieked and raised a wavering finger at the incarnate character leaning back from me with wide eyes. "I-I reject you! Just stay away! This isn't supposed to be real, this is wrong!"

Sophia Hess huffed and I felt something wet running down my cheeks.

"You're not supposed to be real," I whispered.

"Look," she said at length. "You done blubbering? Because face the facts, girl, it happened." She was suddenly somehow much closer with a hand on my shoulder, blurred though she was through watery eyes. I must've looked a mess.

"It happened, and you got through it." She continued with a squeeze. "So pull yourself to-fucking-gether, and get over it. You survived."

Survived.

Oh.

That brought me up short. That brought up all kinds of things I didn't want to think about right now.

"…but I don't want it to be real," I mumbled instead, determinedly gazing down. "Survival's not good enough, not here." I couldn't look at her, couldn't accept her. It was too much. I fell against the weathered concrete wall next to me with my hands on my knees, trying to take in a shuddering breath that wasn't enough. "A legitimate argument might be made that not surviving is the kinder fate," I rambled to no one. "This whole ridiculous world is a shattered wreck tumbling in free-fall and living to see another decade is an astronomically low probability, let alone actually thriving in this wretched place. Was surviving even a good thing?"

"…emo much?" Sophia bloody Hess quipped eventually.

I snapped up a furious glare at the girl.

"This place has literal kaiju scheduled to render civilisation wiped off the map by the time your little sister is your age and more than a dozen waiting to wake up, an apathetic moron of a god set to snap in a few years and generally fuck up everything even if he does get bullied to death, and the best people positioned to fix everything have their heads crammed so far up their own asses that they're back atop their necks again, actively contributing to the problem through sheer, monumental stupidity!"

I ended up shouting. I didn't care. "Why should I not be pissed at the world state?! Everyone acts like it's just- just completely normal! Ignorance is bliss and apathy is a good balm, huh," I choked out.

I slumped to the ground spiderwebbed with cracks and grass, holding denim-clad knees that were also wrong. I didn't care much about that either. Worm was a shitty story. No one really wanted to be in it if they didn't make the whole Triumvirate look like chumps. My nose was runny. I wiped at it with the back of a hand scaled to the rest of me and ended up smacking myself.

It was too much. I bit out what was either a laugh or a sob. Or both. Whatever.

Worn running shoes stepped into view under the fringe of wispy red hair. "What do you know about me and my family?" The non-fictional fictional, genderbent, chibi, budget Batman asked in a quiet tone that I didn't care to place. She was probably threatening me. "Are you for real, or just crazy?"

I looked up at her, blinking away tears and tried to give her a smile that probably didn't actually help. "One does not preclude the other, Sophia. Maybe I am insane," I gave a half shrug. "I kinda hope so, really. It'd certainly be far safer."

Sophia slipped a small switchblade out of a pocket and flicked it open with a click, then squatted down right in front of me, idly holding the knife without a care.

"What," she asked slowly. "Do you know. About my sister."

I peered through my knees at the knife, and a half giggle escaped. She had a knife, and I was here, of all places.

"Oh, this is ironic. Do you want me to pick a piece for you to cut off as well? PRT standard procedure would tell you to go with the mouth, maybe cut off my tongue. I bet you could do it," I admitted with a nod. "I wouldn't even be able to do a thing to stop you! 'cept then I wouldn't be able to tell you, either, and if you cut of something else, then I could still say something else!"

I giggled again a little. It was actually pretty funny! How did Bonesaw put up with that? Oh well. I'd probably get to find out later!

"But no, you've nothing to fear for them on my account," I went on. "I'd certainly be hesitant to call it a safe environment, really—Steven's a douche and, well I'm not going to say anything about your mother, but I have opinions—but I certainly don't have any nefarious aims towards them." I gave another little shrug and a smile to reassure her. "I just know things."

Sophia stood up with a scowl. "Fucking Thinkers. Thought you were a teleporter or something at first."

I bobbed my head. "Fucking Thinkers," I agreed, then I blinked. "Though… I suppose you could end up with a teleporter who seems like a precog under the right circumstances," I said more to myself. "Time and space are relative, so you could see a teleporter who just moves through time as they do space without staying synchronised, and then you can have knowledge of the future or past. There's that Thanda guy Phir Se in India who makes portals like that. Epoch and hopefully not Perdition work by the same principle, if shorter term," I rambled. "Grab-bag capes from the right cluster trigger could just do it with two powers, and Leet could probably still build something.

I found Sophia staring at me "…fucking Thinkers," she repeated to herself.

Fucking Thinkers. I didn't expect the Simurgh to come swooping down out of the sky unless I was unlucky enough for the date to be close enough for an attack (which probably wasn't the case, but then I really didn't feel lucky at the moment) and if the theory about her end goals was right, she might not actually want to do anything about me anyway, but was this the moment that Contessa stepped out of a portal to carry me off to faerie land?

No, I rationalised. Either I wasn't a part of her paths, or, if she was going to do that, she would have already done so unless she simply had an actual reason to act later. She could just get the same end result through different means in an order more efficient for other paths. Like being kept "safe" for later in Coil's clutches. I gulped. Coil would scoop me up just like Lisa and Dinah given the slightest hint of an opportunity for a "pet" oracle... and there was no way in hell I was going to allow that to happen to me, not with the kind of people he and his minions were.

I thought about that, though, frowning and pulling up my knees all the tighter. No, I could work with that; I could work around that, just give Path to Victory a shorter, better route to that identical result through such alternative means that the means themselves help me. I wanted to get in contact with her anyway, and without flagging a path dedicated to keeping secrets through murder. Coil… Coil was the immediate issue, then.

I looked up at the girl who was the character Sophia Hess and considered. "Say," I opened with a nervous apprehension that might have been some messed up form of excitement. "You got a cell phone on you? A disposable burner or a PRT-issue one?"

Her dark eyes turned suspicious. "Always. Why?"

I had an idea. I offered her the most real grin I could manage. "Wanna fuck with a Thinker?"

The girl who was a twisted enabler away from becoming a psycho-bully, would-be murderer raised an eyebrow and didn't say anything, so I continued, rolling a wrist to wave aimlessly. Suave. Suave and casual. Not breaking down. I could do that. Just use words.

"So there's this guy, Coil," I began. "He's a Thinker with a really annoying precog-based power, great for snooping and acting like a chess-master, but he doesn't know about me yet, and I'd really like to keep it that way. He's also got the whole 'stereotypical supervillain' thing going on: secret underground lair crawling with military types for hired goons, master plan to take over the city while he works in the shadows, plots to uncover and reveal everyone's secret identities, hell, even a snake motif—or… soon will," I frowned. "I might have the wrong whens." Sophia's other eyebrow climbed to meet the other one, and I went on. "Problem is, though, he also has a- a thing for kidnapping Thinker girls. Lock 'em up, force them addictive tinkertech drugs to keep them confined and compliant. Available." Her jaw tightened, and I think might have been on to something. I spread my arms in a wide gesture. "So… I kinda don't like the guy! Oh, and he works for the PRT on his day job; that's kind of problem too."

Sophia gaped at me. Her jaw actually fell open. I tittered. This is why Lisa is such a poisonous bitch when she's not pointed at someone else.

"So yeah, I for one like not getting kidnapped and enslaved, and the PRT doesn't like villains infiltrating the organization. He's a creep, generally just evil, and, if the present actually is too early and one Thomas Calvert hasn't become Coil yet," I shrugged once more and delivered what I thought to be a highly convenient coincidence under the circumstances. "So what? Fuck that guy. He was at Ellisburg, one of only two survivors along with our own dear PRT director," whom I wasn't actually sure how to pronounce, "and she's always thought he was a skeevy bastard ever since, with good reason. She fought her way out because she's just a hardass like that even if she doesn't look it anymore. Know how he escaped, though?" I raised an eyebrow and mimed a finger-gun. "He put a bullet in his CO for 'slowing him down'," I emphasised the air quotes to Sophia's sneer of what I hoped was disgust. "Yeah, his tribunal didn't like that either, but, surprise, surprise, staying in jail is for other people, so we still have him working ostensibly as one of the good guys. I say, fuck that guy, I want him in a cell or a box, preferably before he puts me in one! You?"

Sophia's smirk was… mean, in a word. I didn't know whether to cheer or cry. She reached into a back pocket and tossed me a generic black flip-phone that I barely managed to catch, and I faltered.

"I-I don't actually know the number for the PRT hotline," I confessed.

Sophia blinked at me incredulously. "What," she deadpanned. It wasn't even a question. "What the shit? You can pluck personal details out of your ass and know everything about a secret supervillain who may not even exist yet… and you don't know the damn hotline? How the fuck are you still alive in this city?"

"Well," I cringed. "Well, statistically, Thinkers as a whole are more inclined to be people who were insufficiently clever in the first place, and powers don't generally actually solve anything. I could give you the secret access code to the back door of the Brockton Bay Central Bank for April 11th two years from now, but… well I've just never needed to use the hotline number before," I admitted completely truthfully. "Go figure," I shrugged. "Sheltered, pretty little white girl with a rich lawyer daddy hasn't ever needed to know it."

Sophia sighed and rubbed at her temples with one hand, reaching out with the other. "Here," grumbled as I handed back the presumable burner. "Frickin' sheep gonna get themselves killed." I don't think she meant to say the last part loud enough for me to hear while a thumb punched in a series of beeps. Or she just didn't care.

"Probably," I agreed again neutrally as she returned the now dialing phone. "It's the most likely outcome in the end."

"Parahuman Response Team Emergency Hotline, how may I help you?" a faintly tinny voice of a woman scratched on the cheap speaker. Okay, how to phrase this? Coil was an understood factor; I just had to do things right and actually get everything across properly.

"Is this being recorded?" I asked while trying to keep my voice as level as possible. I think I mostly succeeded.

"Yes ma'am. Are you in a safe location?"

I barked out a choked laugh. "Not really, no, uh…" I paused. I just had to say it. "I… I think I'm in danger." Magic words to get the right attention. "Are there witnesses there with you? I'm trying to outmaneuver a villain and more people being aware is important for how their power works. Or will work. I don't know if I have the right timing, actually."

"…yes? Ma'am, if I could get your name and location?"

"Sorry," I denied. "Thinker games; have to do the right things in the right order or I probably end up dead or wishing I was." I took in a steadying breath. "Right, so, could you patch in at least three other people to hear this? Or just put it on speaker for that many?"

I heard a few clicks and staticky rasps that I thought might be other people donning headsets. I could imagine the other side, tense readiness to either get serious or ease to polite derisiveness at the realization of yet another prank call or crazy person. I just hoped they took me seriously enough. I needed two different avenues for Coil to be exposed so that he couldn't just bail on one timeline, even if he could try to silence the threat in the real one. Adding in a third person gave me much better odds in the event that any one of them worked for him and made that silencing drastically harder, with low odds of that one further person somehow exposing things. At least based on what information I had. Which was basically nothing. Ideally, it would have been a lot better to simultaneously be calling the police as well and doing the same thing there.

"Let the record show that this is Agent Timothy Whitworth of the PRT speaking," a new and very formal, official voice answered back. "Here with Agent Barnie Stibbins and Agent Wyatt Franklin. Time stamp 13:43 hours, August 2nd, 2009. Call received at 13:41 hours, Secretary Dorothy Tillman responding. Caller is presumed female, adolescent parahuman Thinker of no name given, alleging time-sensitive opposing parahuman involvement." Holy shit, this sounded way better that I was expecting! "Please continue, ma'am," mister professional prompted after a moment.

Oh, right!

"So… uh, either I'm what is considered a Thinker, or I've just lost my mind. I'm probably having a mental breakdown anyway." I swallowed before continuing, carefully choosing my words. Sophia scoffed, moving to slouch against the wall next to me with her arms crossed. "I know—or at least believe I know—a lot of things now that I didn't earlier, and either I'm delusional and imagining conspiracies, or there's a villain whom I think will try to kidnap me soon. So," I swallowed again. Was I repeating myself? "Thinker games. I know how their power works—or maybe will work if not butterflied otherwise, maybe? Different tangent. Point is, their power works a certain way, and I know how to work around it, so…. infodump. I tell you stuff, then… you guys just do your thing, really? Take the information and just do your jobs with it like normal? The important part is that you act independently of one another for redundancy; the villain can silence any one route with near absolute certainty, but two is a lot harder, and a third disproportionately more so, and further still with any semblance of secrecy. He also has or will have moles in the PRT, though, so three keeps two routes open even if any one of you is actually a reprehensible moron, and while I really don't feel lucky right now, the odds are pretty against me blabbing everything I shouldn't to two infiltrators."

Without the actual details behind his power, he could be spun to sound a lot like a Stranger; I really hoped Master/Stranger Protocols were paranoid enough to care about a random phone call from a third party. I took in a deep breath and, hopefully, damned the bastard. "Coil has the identity of Thomas Calvert, the man who was at Ellisburg with the Director. Thomas Calvert is a consultant for the PRT. Coil's power—from his perspective—lets him fork to operate in two parallel timelines and abandon one to fork at any time to split again while keeping the memory of his experiences in the dropped fork, without anyone else being aware of what he experiences in that dropped fork."

"Oh, shit," some other voice on the other end whispered. I kept talking.

"That kind of power is in the hands of an amoral sociopath who has been getting away acting like a stereotypical supervillain and never having consequences and—" I didn't even have to try to sound like the pathetic sob story that I was. I hated it. "And h-he likes to kidnap Thinker girls. He has a pediatrician—'Mister Pitter', bought by arranging the death of his wife—drug them. Confined, compliant, available," I repeated with a snarl. "He has a literal secret underground lair filled with mercenaries—the Endbringer shelter downtown that was officially never finished, but Thomas Calvert controls a construction company." Who the fuck knew if it was Fortress when fiction stopped being fiction? "He'll retreat there if he isn't outmaneuvered. I won't be there, though. I won't."

The phone creaked in my ear. I eased up and tried to calm down. "S-so I'd… I'd really like someone to pick me up so that I don't get disappeared or just shot, but he has people blackmailed or paid to work for him, and I honestly don't know who all they are when. I won't trust anyone who isn't a hero. If you send regular guys…" I sucked in another breath and kept my voice as flat as I could, with little success. "Anyone outside of Protectorate or Ward personnel outside of New Wave will be assumed hostile, to be killed on sight. I will not allow myself to be captured alive. I will not be his pet!"

"Miss," the Agent hesitantly tried to start. I didn't let him.

"Velocity is fastest—from my perspective, at least—but least able to intervene if Coil takes the sore loser route, which I expect he'll at least try," I continued on quickly, as much to myself as anyone else. "Does the base have a self-destruct? Dragon could hack that and deal with contingent data releases; he doesn't have all of the Empire's identities yet, but I still don't trust him, and he won't have had time to arrange the Dragonslayers intervention. Battery and Triumph are out, even if she is able to be a rapid responder. Nothing against them, but best to head off bad outcomes so that they could never have happened in the first place." If I didn't say that, Contessa might have earlier told them to do something stupid because I didn't say it. Even if Cauldron supposedly wanted to stay out of the city's affairs, higher priority goals still mattered, and they were literally incomprehensibly stupid in any case. Gallant was too gallant to be a problem like that even if he was a Cauldron cape, though. "Assault can be fast too, but he can't affect lasers. Armsmaster is capable, motivated, and fast if he has the Arms-cycle. Is the Arms-cycle actually an option? Does Miss Militia ride a motorcycle or a Jeep? She could counter-snipe if Coil deploys the team that fights Oni-Lee. Vista is fast and able to deny firing lines, but is she experienced enough yet? They'll never let her take the field for this, doesn't matter. Dauntless won't be on Purity's level yet, but-"

A slap interrupted me, and the phone tumbled out of my hand.

"Hey!" Sophia was crouched down right in front of me, starring and gripping my shoulders. When had that happened?

I blinked.

"Wha-"

"You still with us, crazy girl?" She asked slowly.

"Miss? Miss?" The tiny voice warbled up from the face-down phone.

I stared at the girl in front of me. When did the makeshift mask happen, either? Sophia had—Oh, that was actually clever! Bandana, switchblade: concealing facemask with cut eye holes, and no one thinks much of it if they find it in your pockets! Much less conspicuous than a spare domino mask.

"Hello?! Are you there?"

"Go into shock later. Phone call," Sophia stated intently. "Stay focused."

Right!

I cringed and scooped up the phone, standing and starting to pace. No breaking down now, no getting distracted, just keep talking and stick to the plan. The plan that drew from more minds than I could think devoting probably literally thousands of hours brainstorming how to pin down Coil. That plan. The plan that would work. It needed to.

"Sorry, rambling again," I muttered into the phone. "Um, Shadow Stalker's here with me; she stopped me."

"Another cape is on site with you?" someone—not Professional Government Agent Guy—noted.

I paused.

"Technically, another cape would imply a distinction from a parahuman for going out in costume, actually, and assuming that I really am not just completely cracked, I haven't had powers for even a day, much less long enough to- well, no, that could be done on short notice, considering Parian, paying or blackmailing her, or just raiding the Doll-"

"Fo. Cus," Sophia grumbled beside me and flicked my ear.

I swallowed again. I was doing that a lot. And I was hungry. When was… coffee and cereal, not finishing either, I think was how it was. Didn't matter.

"But I'm not alone, no. So," I continued. "Crossbow bolts leaping out of walls and phasing right through body armour wouldn't be an unreasonable expectation if you're not who you're supposed to be. Or listening in like a creep," I tacked on, which did not apply to anyone who was supposed to be listening in like a not-creep, I would later argue if Armsmaster or Dragon got offended.

More shuffling and indecipherable, hurried voices in the background came across the phone. Sophia looked at me and I think she lifted an eyebrow. The impromptu mask shifted like that, anyway.

"I'm not in costume," she stated lowly.

"Yeah, but they don't know that," I whispered back, covering the little phone. "Everything I said was true, and if Coil gets wind of it, he'll think he needs to allocate more, and not just try one guy with a taser, or something, and ranged threats that even penetrate cover are really good at suppressing advancement."

Sophia paused, then nodded acknowledgingly. "Point," she admitted.

"Armsmaster is en route to your location," the speaker announced finally. What had he said his name was? Whitworth, wasn't it? Like the Whitworth sharpshooter: Confederate black-powder rifle using hexagonal bullets for extremely precisely machined rifling for the era, not adopted by the British due to cost and dependability despite comparable grouping modern rifles. Needed to remember that guy. Generic, bland, good at his job. Wait, how important were literary tropes in this world? Was there any correlation between him and groups sympathetic to the Empire? Whitworth-the-inventor made a lot, though. Something to keep in mind for later. "Please keep the line open so that he can triangulate your position, miss. ETA six minutes… and forty-three seconds."

I snickered. Armsmaster precision, I bet. Then I sobered. I'd expected triangulation—which was convenient, because I had no idea where "here" was—but even if mister super-Tinker could undoubtedly to it faster, I also didn't doubt for a moment that he wasn't the only one who could do it period. Coil and the Empire both had the resources or connections to do it. I cast an uneasy glance down the alley: precisely zero cover beyond what looked like an old, rusted gas meter of some sort and an odd bit of piping if someone started shooting. Or charging. I could just imagine a blender-wolf stepping out from where the two smaller buildings on one side made a T-intersection half way down. I felt like a cornered rat, like—there was no way I was going to admit it to Sophia, but… prey.

"We should, uh… we should probably move," I said to Sophia, who glanced at me. "Middle of the alley, narrowest field of fire if anyone opens up from the buildings across the streets, a corner we can put between us if they do. And at least I'm screwed if anyone's out on the streets anyway. Armsmaster'll be here in a few minutes, so… just… turtle up, I guess."

"You want to hide," she replied, and I just knew she was sneering behind her face covering.

"It goes both ways!" I objected. "A long, narrow space with no cover is the last place you want to be when you're expecting the other side to have ranged weaponry." Be convinced by me, dammit, I wanted to scream at her; all I had was words and amateur psychology to hopefully couch in terms agreeable to her screwed up mentality.

Sophia hummed to herself and cast about in what I thought much the same assessing gaze as I did, before striding down the alley without a word. Yay?

I followed after her. Tire tracks marred the concrete ground, terminating at whiter scrape marks ground in where the alleys met, and I felt queasy. Bits of glass lined the corner of one wall. This was where it happened, where Emma was attacked.

I looked up and caught Sophia catching me staring.

"Brings you back, doesn't it?" she mused.

I didn't know what to say. I just tried to offer her some vague smile, but it wouldn't form. "Be a shame to die here, eh?" I finally stammered out as my voice cracked. "What a waste!"

We lapsed into not at all companionable silence as we positioned ourselves back to back by some unspoken agreement to keep two sets of eyes on three directions. I stewed in my own cloying fear. I couldn't even think, just stared, apprehension spiking with every car that drove by outside, but nothing ever came of it.

"Nah," Sophia finally said behind me, and I aborted a reflexive flinch. "You're not gonna die here. I know that."

I wasn't sure how to take that. The girl had social issues to prompt every metaphor imaginable about their magnitude. Was that some back-handed compliment, or, what, some claim about herself? Both?

"S-sophia," I broke out. "I… Thank you." I didn't look at her. I hoped she wasn't looking at me. She shouldn't be! "If this- if it doesn't work out, just… thank you." I could feel her staring at me. "Um," I gulped down another breath and tried to focus. A thank-you no matter now this went down and something to fill this goddamn silence! "Depending on how things turn out, you might try considering Grue. Or reconsidering?"

"Who?"

Oh thank fuck. "Grue. Triggered some time last year. Shaker. Makes clouds of darkness that he can see through, blocks electromagnetic radiation and I think actually dampens kinetic energy too. Interferes with your phasing, but I think you two could get along well together."

"I don't—"

"Do the partner thing," I finished as yet another car drove across the alley opening on one end. "…or the team thing. ...fucking Thinkers." I laughed, even if it was more of a sniffle.

"…fucking Thinkers," she whispered.

"Yeah, I get it," I continued quietly. "But he's a lot like you, actually, in more ways than one, and he's a no-nonsense type. He'll be the first one to tell you that he takes himself seriously. 'Reputation matters!'" I paused. "Or he would if I hadn't just said that, I guess. He mostly just does small jobs right now, for personal reasons, even if they're not the best thought out; you could probably track him down as a bouncer. Trying to kill him can go pretty badly, though, even if it would get rid of someone able to interfere with your power. Stranger danger. Might irritate a human-controlling Master, too. Hopefully not a high-level Thinker, but that depends a lot on how things go with Coil."

"Why are you telling me this?" Sophia asked lightly.

I was spared answering by the basso hum of a motor reaching us, rapidly thrumming louder and louder, reverberating until the echo ringing down the alley was a physical thing I could feel in my chest.

"Armsmaster reports arrival imminent," Sophia's throwaway phone quietly buzzed in my hand. My face instantly grew hot. How much had they heard? I didn't have but a moment to ponder, though, because the dopplering roar reached a crescendo, heralding a smear of deep blue and chrome that rocketed into view at the end of the alley. What could only be Armsmaster on his eponymous ride swerved with a lurch and banked hard in a sharp right angle that no ordinary vehicle should have been able to make without shearing itself apart, and snapped back upright without so much as a whisper, all sound abruptly cutting out from the hulking, sharp-lined motorcycle nearly the size of a car as it barreled towards me. I don't know if it was just theatrics on his part, or actually part of the vehicle's mechanics, but it even reared up in a wheelie before slamming back down, still eerily silent.

"Er, yeah. I see him. He's here," I murmured back into the phone.

I backstepped into the adjoining alleyway between the pair of more square structures, Sophia mirroring me. She had gone ghostly, I noticed, an animate shadow that seemed oddly flat, almost devoid of detail beyond a silhouette like a cutout in the air.

The somehow simultaneously sleek and bulky lovechild of a racing motorcycle and a main battle tank—unapologetically armoured, yet in sharp, almost harsh contours—actually snapped into position in front of us with a rush of wind sweeping by. The entire thing was even taller than I was—or at least now, anyway—and came to an absolute halt that had to have Newton spluttering to see. The armoured man atop the behemoth rode the momentum that it didn't have—or maybe transferred—and vaulted off with an almost graceful flourish to plant himself staring down at me, blocky halberd twirling at his side to end point down in a blatantly striking pose.

It was at that moment that it truly, honestly hit me that I was in a world with real, live, actual superheroes. Armsmaster was tall. I craned my head up towards fucking RoboCop blended with palette-swapped Iron Man and a dash of space marine. Holy fuckberries. He had a laser-straight, angular beard and mustache, but… but he was fucking RoboCop, dammit! He just had a larger visor.

"You're the Thinker who called?" Armsmaster spoke, and god damn, was it obvious he had professional speaking coaching. I mean, sure, I knew oration wasn't really his strong suit, but everything about him just screamed "I'm a professional hero".

"Y-yeah," I nodded as I held up the cell phone like evidence, not taking my eyes of him, or at least the shiny black band of his visor. The girl in the reflection copying me sent a shiver down my spine.

"Name?"

Uh…

"I… haven't picked one, to be honest," I shrugged vaguely. "I guess you can just call me Emma, Emma Barnes."

"Miss Barnes," Armsmaster nodded, before turning to Sophia. That wasn't what I said, but okay.

"Shadow Stalker?"

She nodded back. Could she actually speak in her Breaker state?

"Armsmaster to dispatch and console, I have them," he announced to what I assumed was a built-in radio. "Let's move," he then commanded, and the Arms-cycle shifted by some unseen directive. The enormous bike raised up slightly over its front wheel, small, curved struts folding out from the round block that nested inside the rear wheel to lift it as the forward two thirds of the vehicle rolled forward slightly and the back whirred. The rear wheel split and smoothly slid outward to form a tricycle and the two halves of a seat morphed to recontour. Panels unfurled from seemingly nowhere underneath them to form angular, mirror bright fenders over the front half of each new wheel, and two more sets of handlebars seemed to spool out with segments rotating and collapsing into place with soft clicks. I had no idea where the two helmets resting on top of the extra seats came from.

Armsmaster hopped in a slight backstep that launched him with far too much ease back atop his now changed seat and extended the closer helmet out with an armoured gauntlet tipped in silver segments even as his other hand stowed his weapon in a sweeping panel that rose up to take it. "Safety first, kids," he declared.

I shared a look with Sophia, before both of us turned back. She didn't waste so much as a moment further before rushing forward in an odd, fluttering step that looked almost like stop-motion. I honestly couldn't blame her as she flickered back to normal just long enough to pluck the helmet so much like his own out of his hand and flip it onto her own head. Cheesy clichés stop being such in the presence of sufficient chrome and stylish cyberpunk.

I moved around to the other side of the Arms-cycle as Sophia the secretly geeky ghost swung herself on somehow—shard bullshit, I expected, same as however she managed to not summarily sink into the ground or fly off into space the moment she phased—and picked up my own. It reminded me of an American football helmet sans the face guard, with the decal of Armsmaster's visor in blue on a silver diamond field emblazoning the sides, but smaller, and a hell of a lot more protective, I was sure. The moment I donned the helmet, the whole thing somehow contracted to fit, squeezing my skull gently as a curved, semi-rigid strap ran out from the right cheek guard under my chin before snugly fastening down even as a transparent visor of my own slid down over my vision.

It was as I was stepping onto a footrest that hadn't been there earlier and mounting my own seat, then, that I faced the side alley to see a man past Sophia, distant across the street past the end of the way inside what looked like a doughnut shop. He stood out even over the distance for being down on one knee leveling a compact gun through the wide window at me.

The cold, cloying, wretched fear from earlier surged back in an instant, and I barely started to open my mouth before the muzzle flashed into brilliant fire through shattering glass. Dust and sparks burst up in little spurts all at once all over the alley, gouging into the walls and concrete ground, and something hot punched me hard in the chest and my right hip, even as little contrails of inky darkness wafted towards me off of Sophia and the phone in my hand exploded.

"Gun! Smoke!" Armsmaster barked.

My breath hitched to a hot stab of pain, and something made a popping sound an instant before clouds of white filled the air and everything lurched.

"Hold on," he said loudly ahead.

That sounded like a good idea, I decided. My head spun as we accelerated, moving faster and faster with the returned screaming engine until the scene streaking by began to blur if I didn't focus directly ahead. Cars zipped by as we wove through them, and I felt woozy. Had I been shot? I'd been shot, hadn't I. That guy shot me.

I giggled to myself, even as it made my chest and shoulder explode into a burning ache and made me cough. Not even a fucking day in Worm, and someone shot me. Welcome to Earth Bet! Shit's on fire, yo. What were their memes like here, actually? How did things diverge in this alternate dimension? Actually, what was that gun that the guy had? I bet all of the more modern ones in Bet were different. Heh, bet.

I glanced down at myself and the shiny red, wet stain soaking my front. Yeah, I was probably getting delirious, I decided. Definitely not Delight, but it might be an end, all the same. Ow. I decided to just watch myself oozing out over myself instead of the street rocketing past as the entire bike swayed. I was going to throw up.

"Stay awake," a man said in bright, crisp stereo directly into my ears.

Huh? Oh, helmet. Radio. Armsmaster. And maybe not actually radio.

"You got it," I looked up and smiled weakly at the back of his head and gave him a thumbs-up. Or at least I tried too, anyway. My hand wouldn't work right and kept shaking too much.

"Autopilot engaged." A generic female voice came over the helmet's audio, even as the Arms-cycle continued to dart around vehicles far too slow to get out of the way. Armsmaster pivoted in his seat and reached out to grab a halberd extending out from the same panel as earlier, before twirling it and reaching back to poke me twice with something green that definitely wasn't an end cap.

"Ow," I yelped again, or maybe not. Gunshot wounds are tender, I decided, but a thick, bright green foam bubbled out from where Armsmaster prodded the weapon—or maybe not technically a weapon—against me, and everything immediately started to go numb under where it spread. The bubbles dulled slightly as they stopped expanding. It seemed almost like a Christmas scab, flecked with red.

"Autopilot disengaged," the same voice chimed again.

"Oh," I mumbled. "It's like biofoam, or a derivative of containment foam? Topical anesthetic. Benzocaine? It's common and easy to get ahold of; dentists use it, but…" I paused. Where was I going with this?

The entire vehicle tilted again, each segment leaning independently as we pseudo-drifted through an intersection without slowing down. I think Armsmaster just ran a red light.

I turned to Sophia to ask and regretted it with immediate dizziness and nausea.

"Did- Did we just— Oh… wow, I look bad," I mumbled as I a girl in a mirrored helmet reflected in Sophia's own visor facing me—no longer a living shadow—and realized that I had to be looking at myself, jarring as it was to see someone else there in tattered clothes matted with blood and emerald streaks. She leaned over and jabbed at something next to me with one arm, still holding onto her own handlebars with the other, before grabbing hold of my messy shirt as something cinched around my waist to a dull flare of pain from my hip. Then I toppled over and my visor clinked against metal as everything got very dim.

— — —

Author's Note:

And there we have it! Wake up in an alley, because this is a Worm self-insert. This isn't as a Case 53 or some random drop-in, no, but rather as one of the most universally despised members of the cast… and it doesn't really go well. To be fair, I don't think anyone would take it well, really.

My personal interpretation of Emma's characterisation, though—which becomes rather the significant opinion, under the circumstances—is that Emma, while hated, is more of someone to just be pitied, really. Kinrush made what I think a very accurate assessment of her in an old post here, and I think it sums her up quite well. That said, with Emma's previous identity going out the window, this becomes more a matter of me being in her position at one of the inflection points in her life, and how things progress from there. From a matter of perspective, I can't honestly bring myself to hate Emma, however much I dislike her as a person, but that itself brings up a point as well: I do not like Emma Barnes. I also find this hilarious from the stance of the writer.

On a different note, as far as the story's general layout goes, I decided to tailor this to my personal tastes. I really like the concept of the interlude piece, honestly, but I feel that a lot of fics don't handle it all that well; for an interlude to be a proper interlude, it needs the right pacing. Worm itself uses them pretty sparingly, to offer a different taste, taking a moment to step back and explore the world just for a bit through the eyes of someone else. Some fics, however, have what I consider an annoying practice of chaotically spamming—unsatisfyingly short—interludes too frequently, and sometimes too soon, even, nearly at the very beginning before there is actually enough story to be an "interlude" and not just a derailment of perspective focus.

Compounding that, though, there is also the matter of a design appropriate for the story itself. The temptation to include a vast medley of interludes is an understandable desire for their ability to offer unique character development and setting enrichment for the differences of perspective. On that particular note, I do not feel that a story solely from Emma's perspective is enjoyable to read or write; I want to include all the other options otherwise eschewed, and staying solely with Emma just sounds depressingly weepy, to be honest.

Thus, this story will feature something of a duality. We're starting with Emma and the SI-perspective forms the significant core progression of the story, but patterning every other chapter, it focuses on someone else, sometimes with very different tone. So, coming up next: Armsmaster, and an unrepentant Tinker wank-fest… because dammit, Tinkers have cool shit, and I want to write about that!