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Bound In The Gaze Of The Abyss

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INV ONLY Bound In The Gaze Of The Abyss

Post by REDSHEILD on October 24th 2018, 4:19 pm


This is a continuation of the Facade arc, following A Little Lady & A Big Cock




December 19th, 2018
Boston, Massachusetts


Boston’s Seaport District, once a decaying port paved over for cheap parking, now an example of the better side of gentrification. Cynthia knew the area more for its annual daytime festivities than its nightlife; still, she could appreciate the splendor of the former wharf, lit even more than usual in celebration of the holidays.

Glass framed in polished steel is the norm for the structures of the waterfront, lending the area an open and modern feel. One of the restaurants stands out by the color of its decor, complimenting the banner draped over its streetside facade: Masquerade Night. Crowds surround the building, both revelers braving the winter’s chill and more ambitious types hoping to gain entrance uninvited.

Cynthia is relieved that she has such an invitation. Though the cold hadn’t bothered her quite yet thanks to the warmth generated during her brisk walk from the subway, the winds of the waterfront readily strip heat from her nylon-dressed legs, urging her toward the venue’s toasty interior.

The man she is here to meet is readily located, standing away from the crowd and looking out over the bay, holding a briefcase. Even in a tuxedo his stature is familiar to her: taller than average with a thin build, though the recognition feeds her latent unease more than it provides relief.

“Hey.” She calls out as she approaches him. “Aaron Powell?”

He turns to face her, nodding. Like many of the restaurant’s patrons he is dressed for the occasion, sporting an onyx mask that spans cheekbone to eyebrow, decorated with lightning-esque bronze inlays radiating from the eyes.
“I’d prefer if you didn’t use my name once we’re inside. I won’t say yours.”

Cynthia shrugs. “Kind of an odd request, but if you’re being fair with it, sure.”

“Excellent.” He offers his arm.

She accepts, if after a moment’s hesitation.

“This is a job interview, right?” She asks, smiling nervously, as they approach the main entrance. “Not just an excuse to be in my company?”

“Don’t look into the formalities too much. I would have picked a more casual location for this, however, my scheduled commitment canceled, and it would be a shame to let this reservation go to waste. There are certain benefits to meeting here, as well.”

Aaron’s response only generated more questions. It gave Cynthia an odd impression; though she hadn’t interacted with Aaron much at school, the graduate student had always been straightforward and quick to the point.

They bypass the crowds at the entrance. Though many of the would-be patrons waiting are masked, Cynthia could practically feel jealous stares from several. The doorman lets them in without a word, only a smile and a nod. She found it peculiar: for Aaron to be so easily recognized implied he was a regular, something that seemed beyond the means of a doctorate student.

A woman greeted them, dressed in a white evening gown and a plain ivory mask to match, a pin with the restaurant's logo marking her as staff
“So good to have you here this evening.” The woman briefly looked into the leather-bound booklet she held, likely a seating chart or guest list. “Your table should be ready. The private section, yes?”

Aaron nodded. “Yes. Before you seat us, could my associate have a mask?”

“Oh, of course.” The hostess took a moment to look Cynthia over, then ducked behind a standing desk for a moment.

“Blue, to match your dress?” The woman held out a plain mask with a subdued glossy finish. It lacked the decor or artful patterns that the masks worn by other patrons had, though its shape was elegant enough.

“Thank you.”
Cynthia took a moment to wear the mask; it covered about as much of her face as the one Aaron wore, and offered a fair field of view despite concealing her eyes.

Their hostess led them through the restaurant. The front was lively, more people standing and mingling than seated, especially near the bar. Music could be heard from the second level, likely a live performance. The back had been set as a formal dining area overlooked by the upper level; past the tables were a series of booths built against a windowless wall, lit warmly.

True to the hostess’ words their table was set, the food hot and ready. They took their seats and the hostess left.

Cynthia started on her salad immediately. She’d meant to pick up lunch after leaving campus, but had forgotten. Aaron seemed to toy with his meal, his focus more on her.

She could see his eyes behind his mask, that same intense, analytical gaze from earlier. It’s enough to give her pause, and makes the silence between them awkward.

“So, I’m curious about this project of yours.” She says.
“Professor Krause seemed skeptical that I’d be able to contribute, and after skimming some of your papers while on the subway I think he might be right about that.”

“Don’t undersell yourself. I have a fair share of projects in the works, both academic and applied, that your abilities are well suited for.”

“You’ve been scarce on the details, so I’m not sure I believe that.”

“As I said, there’s a few opportunities. I need an assistant for two classes I’m teaching this spring. The materials department also has a lab technician opening, which if I remember correctly would synergize well with your industry experience. You still work at that scrapyard in Devens, yes?”

“Actually, I- it’s a bit complicated, but no, I don’t. That’s kind of why I’m here. The company was helping me pay for my education, and now that’s a bust. I’m hoping to find something comparable in time for next semester or the fall, otherwise I’m looking at losing four years of effort.”

“If you work for the University you can get a discount on tuition and fees. I could ask around the administration, pull some strings…”

“Thanks, but I already had this same conversation with Krause. The finances of it don’t work. Even the lab tech position wouldn’t let me keep up with my living expenses, and my parents don’t live anywhere near enough that I could move back in with them, embarrassing as that would be.”

Cynthia lets out a frustrated sigh. “Look, I’m really grateful for the offers. I just- they don’t work for me, for my situation. I didn’t mean to waste your time. It’s almost funny, how one stupid mistake can fuck up years of planning.”

Aaron nods; the gesture reminds Cynthia of his incessant stare. It makes her feel scrutinized, a contrast to the usual measure of trust and respect conveyed by eye contact.

“It may be a blessing in disguise. You don’t want to be defined by your degree, do you?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you mean?”

“This opens up the perfect opportunity for us. I’ve been working on something of a personal initiative for a few months now, and I believe you’re the exact sort of person I’m looking for. Perfect, even. I planned on bringing this up at the end of this semester, but as it seems you won’t be wasting your time slogging through courses-”

“What?” Cynthia cuts him off. “I’m sorry, but what? Wasting time?”

“Sorry, thinking out loud. Hear me out, I-”

“I don’t think you get it. I got an internship while still in highschool and put off college for a year and half to make sure I’d have my finances covered. I’ve worked full time and gone to class full time for almost four years to reach this point, and all that’s been taken away from me because a bigoted bastard forced me out of his company for using- for doing something that isn’t even wrong. I missed an interview today because my best friend, who didn’t even tell me she’d left Chicago, got caught up in a supervillain attack of all things!”

Cynthia starts to stand up though the booth makes this awkward; she leans on the table, bracing herself with her hands, elbows bent.

“Despite this being the second-most stressful day of my entire year, I still came out here to talk to you because someone I consider a friend and mentor recommended I take up your offer, even when we both doubted you could offer any improvement. Ever since I got here you’ve been acting weird, and you’ve been staring at me since we sat down! If it was a leer I could at least understand why, when I’m wearing this stupid cocktail dress that’s at least half a size too small. No, you’ve been looking at me like… like I’m some object to be studied. Then you have the nerve to say that I’m wasting my time in pursuit of my degree, when you’ve already published two dozen papers before even earning your doctorate? Just- Just who the hell do you think you are?”

As if punctuating her words Cynthia feels her field react, forces materializing from the well of potential around her. Her eyes go wide and she uses the awareness provided by her power to cancel the errant vectors before they can exert their influence on the world around her; even still, her table setting is disturbed and she has to use her power to stop her water glass from spilling.

Carefully she lowers herself back onto the booth seat, inhaling and exhaling deep, controlled breaths.
“I’m, I’m sorry about that. I got fired on Monday, and I’ve been holding all my anger in, and I let it out on you.”

To her surprise, Aaron is smiling. “That was great.”

The statement catches her off-guard.

Does he know?
How?
No, he can’t. That’s impossible.

Cynthia shrugs, unsure.

“You’re right, though, I have been… less than respectful. It’s only fair you get some answers.”

He holds out a hand toward the booth’s back wall, where it would be out of view to other patrons, index and middle finger spread apart. A small flash accompanies an arc that spans the digits, static crackling and the smell of ozone left in its wake.

“Oh my god. You- You’re Conduit.”

He smiles. “I am, and I owe you an explanation: my power lets me see energy potentials, their magnitudes, and how they might resolve. Thanks to this ability, I can see your power. However, I’m ashamed to say that I was so focused on studying your power that I didn’t consider how you would feel.”

“Okay, wow, that’s…” Cynthia takes a deep breath, exhaling slowly. It helps calm her, and gives her a moment to think.
“I feel almost relieved, but also disappointed. Is what you saw, my power, is that the only reason you wanted to meet?”

“It was a major factor, yes. Despite that, I wouldn’t have offered the teaching positions if I didn’t think you were qualified. There’s something that in retrospect I should have been more upfront about. I’m looking to create something of a hero team, and I think you’re capable.”

“I’m flattered, really, but… didn’t you retire? After what happened to your partner?”

“Domain’s disappearance was the primary motivation behind my early retirement from heroics, yes. I kept up with the scene, as it were, content to act less publicly. What happened in New York made me realize I needed to change my perspective. The public doesn’t place much faith in heroes anymore, and why should they? One of the largest cities in the world was brought to the brink of ruin, despite the efforts of some of the strongest heroes. I don’t think I can change that attitude, and I wouldn’t want to try. What I can do, however, is show the people a new kind of hero. One they can relate to. I’d like to think I have a head start already, being more of a community hero in my youth.”

“Honestly, Conduit, I’m starting to feel more skeptical now. I don’t have any experience with cape stuff. I didn’t adjust well to my powers, at first. By the time I did, I figured it would be better to focus on my education than try to be a cape. I haven’t really considered the issue since.”

“That’s exactly why I reached out to you. As parahumans our powers give us a form of agency that most people could never even dream of. With that agency comes drawbacks. Those who get powers, especially when young, often lead lives defined by their powers. This can lead to a loss of perspective, making it difficult to empathize with the common man or woman. You know what it’s like to be a civilian, and not just in your off hours. That experience, that ability to empathize, is more valuable now than any skill at heroics. Besides, you’ve proven yourself to be a capable learner, if you’re still concerned over your lack of experience.”

“I am, but I guess I shouldn’t let my reservations prevent me from seeing what you have to offer.”

“Excellent.”
Conduit places his briefcase on the table, opening it and removing a stack of papers.
“Let’s get to business.”


Last edited by REDSHEILD on January 30th 2019, 6:05 pm; edited 2 times in total (Reason for editing : Rewrite)
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INV ONLY Re: Bound In The Gaze Of The Abyss

Post by MissingAxis on October 24th 2018, 10:34 pm

“--and a straw, please, if you don’t mind.”

He gestured toward the full-face mask he wore, by way of explanation.

“Of course, sir.”

As the bartender walked away, Isaac spun his stool a quarter-turn to survey the restaurant non-chalantly. From his seat, he had a nearly uninterrupted line of sight to the vast majority of the restaurant’s patrons. It was an ideal locale for people-watching, with high ceilings offering a glimpse of the upper levels and its open floor plan seating just over a hundred patrons in the main dining area alone. Opposite from the street facing side of the building, the wall was lined with semi-circular booths that offered the restaurant’s more discrete clientele some marginal privacy.

Judging from the glances he received here and there, Isaac’s tailor had been right: the suit was a good fit. With the help of his mask, he could see himself from a different perspective, from the eyes of others. He straightened his posture some, noticing his slight slouch as a businessman spared a look his way while traversing the dining room. His tie, too, needed some adjusting. The knot was too tight, ruining the texture of his shirt.

And as a well-dressed woman passed by the bar, he made sure to lock eyes with her and nod just right.

They were little insights, not quite coherent thoughts. Gut feelings, half-formed judgements. Rasmus couldn’t read minds, but with some concentration, what it could do was almost as good.

When the bartender returned with his drink, Isaac looked through her eyes, too. Sure enough, the mask’s shape was reasonably obvious to anyone with some amount of imagination, without being unnatural or out-of-place in the masquerade.

Rasmus was the face of an owl, almost in a platonic sense. It was a porcelain white mask, the only contrast on its surface formed by the way shadows played over the highs and lows of the mask’s shape. It was unassuming, high-quality without being flashy or pretentious. The only thing ‘off’ about it was the humming.

Isaac still hadn’t solved that mystery. It was a distant, high-pitched hum that was barely noticed by everyone when they looked at him, if only subconsciously. He felt it, too, when he took the mask off and set it aside at the end of the night. It would be maddening, if the mask didn’t provide the sort of relief that it did.

He couldn’t feel pleasure, or joy, or much of anything as he looked around. Without Rasmus, a rare steak was just a hunk of cow, slaughtered and seared. A finely dressed woman was just a member of the opposite sex in expensive clothes. And the drink in his hand didn’t make him easily humored or pleasantly relaxed, it just made his body feel heavier and made his eyes feel like they were a little loose in their sockets.

With Rasmus, things were different. He didn’t feel any happier, didn’t truly enjoy anything any more than without the owl-shaped mask. However, he could look at that same steak through someone else’s eyes and judge it as delicious and beautifully seared, judge the woman as beautiful and tempting.

He didn’t feel those things himself, couldn’t feel those things himself due to some fucked-up chemical imbalance in his brain. Even that determination, that his condition was fucked-up, had to be confirmed by looking at the description for anhedonia through someone else’s eyes.

It was addicting all the same. Despite every insight being so distant, so emotionally empty that it’d make a zombie weep, Isaac lived vicariously through them.

Isaac sipped his drink leisurely, barely managing to snake the straw under his mask each time he raised the glass. Slowly scanning the dining room, he could see that most everyone there was enjoying their meals and their dining partners. Those who weren’t looked like business men, stuck-up white collar workers who’d likely eaten better on their company’s dime a week ago in Hong Kong. Or something like that. At those tables, the patrons shot daggers at one another with their eyes. Petty rivalries, likely. Old Lincoln’s “a house divided” spiel didn’t really apply to corporate competition.

He waved to the bartender and gestured toward the second level’s bar, signalling that he was going to move upstairs. She nodded. He’d had to return for his card, but at least they’d know he hadn’t walked out and forgotten. Isaac held his glass carefully, mindful not to move too suddenly so as to avoid spilling its contents.

The second level had a much better view of the restaurant’s more interesting clientele. The discrete diners, nestled in their booths. Mostly couples, though Isaac bounced the word around loosely in his head. The women were, by and large, attractive, intelligent, and witty. Escorts, as far as Isaac could tell. He was fairly certain that was the case, as most of the men could be best described as old, ugly, or sleezy. Pick any two.

These cadavers and douchebags were prime targets for Isaac’s experiential voyeurism. The women they bought the companionship of were positively gorgeous more than three-quarters of the time, and Isaac almost gleaned a hint of satisfaction by looking through their client’s eyes. For just the price of a gin-and-tonic, Isaac could almost remember how good it felt to be in the company of an attractive woman.

One booth held a more interesting pair than the rest. The man there was not unattractive, so far as Isaac could judge with the insight gleaned from the man’s companion. For some reason, however, the man made her feel some faint unease. Not the sort of threatened wariness of a potential victim, but the cynicism of someone who is just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Isaac couldn’t read lips, but he could tell well enough that the man spoke with a level of practiced ease. No, not practiced: he was simply genuine. Some kind of negotiation? A job offer, perhaps?

Rasmus hummed louder, almost as if excited. Through the woman’s eyes, Isaac watched as the man raised two fingers in a V shape and an arc of electricity formed between his fingertips. Isaac nearly dropped his drink of the rail, stunned at the sight.

Parahuman.

The electric man began sorting through some papers he pulled from a briefcase, passing choice packets to his companion as he spoke. Contracts, perhaps. Likely more than few non-discloure agreements in the lot. That the man was so non-chalant about displaying his power to his company for the evening struck Isaac as odd.

Where there’s one…

Isaac refocused Rasmus’ attention, viewing the world through the electric man’s eyes rather than the woman’s. It took a moment, the world in the woman’s view fading as the man’s view overlaid and replaced it.

This time, Isaac’s drink fell from his grasp. A flood of alien sensory data overwhelmed him, made him loosen his grasp on the gin-and-tonic just enough for the smooth glass to fall from his fingers and to the ground one story below. It shattered loudly.

1173


Last edited by MissingAxis on December 21st 2018, 3:30 am; edited 4 times in total
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INV ONLY Re: Bound In The Gaze Of The Abyss

Post by REDSHEILD on October 25th 2018, 1:11 am

Memories play in Aaron’s head, side by side, clear as the moment they were recorded. Not by him, of course. Human memory is lousy, more noise than signal in comparison, optimized for a bare minimum of information. The machine mapped to his brain is made to a higher standard.
Each memory is recent, one recorded just moments ago, when Cynthia had used her power. The dim gray fog he saw surrounding the young woman had lit up like a stadium; force vectors of some sort, by the looks of them. Interesting as Cynthia’s power was, Aaron is focused on a different phenomenon. During their conversation a pair of conical auras had manifested over Cynthia’s eyes, following along wherever she looked. They were faint, hard to make out against the woman’s potential field.                                                                                                                                                                                                              

There is enough of a similarity that Aaron had wondered at first if the auras were Cynthia’s doing, some sensory aspect of her ability. Yet having seen her power in action, the auras were clearly unrelated.

The other memories had been retrieved from his ongoing record of the evening, filtered for possible incidence of the auras. He’d glimpsed them here and there, mostly in his peripheral vision, affecting other patrons. The presence of parahumans at this event is something of an open secret to any regular: power use isn’t unexpected, provided it is kept reasonable.
Whoever the auras belonged to was using a power on others without their knowing. Whether it was a newcomer unaware of convention or someone with more suspicious motivations, Aaron couldn’t say, the auras’ source and effect being unknown.

Cynthia’s voice breaks his concentration; the virtual images fading as his visual sense returned to his eyes.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. You’ve probably noticed, I get rather absorbed in my work.”
Ostensibly he was referring to the stack of test papers in front of him, which he’d taken out to grade while Cynthia reviewed the contract. He hadn’t done much with them: it was merely an excuse to focus on the aura issue, without looking like he’d spaced out.

“I said I hope I’m not the only one you’ve talked with, since you mentioned building a team.”

“Ah. You’re not the first, though I am curious why you thought you might be.”

“It just seemed like you’re looking for people who are already reluctant about being capes, or only recently developed powers. Neither groups seem easy to connect with, and you haven’t exactly been in the news.”

“I’ve employed various methods of outreach. That said, it’s been a trying experience. Lots of people who simply stop responding, ‘maybes’ that turn into refusals or who get picked up by established teams with more resources. Not to mention the ones who just didn’t measure up to the standard I’d like to set. I’ll be honest and admit I have only recruited one of the candidates I’ve talked with, and she’s only probationary since I haven’t met her in person yet. I am hoping she works out, since she’s already proven capable.”

“I thought you were looking for, well, unproven capes. Recruiting someone with a reputation seems to go against your clean slate approach.”

“As far as I know this was her first ‘outing’ in costume, as it were. She stopped the attack in Marlborough today, though I don’t yet have the full details.”

“Is she okay? I heard on the news that both the hero and the villain were rushed to surgery.”

“We’ve had some contact, so I expect she’s fine. I originally set up this reservation to meet with her, work out the business end of things, move on to evaluations tomorrow. She had already canceled for tonight shortly before the attack, for unrelated reasons. A few hours later she let me know she was out of the hospital, but I haven’t heard anything since. I’ll check in with her, once we’re done here.”

“That’s good to hear. My best friend was at the mall, and your… recruit? Teammate? She probably saved my friend’s life.”

“Saving lives, making an impact, that’s what heroism is about. That said, I’ve always thought the smaller, everyday efforts did more overall good than anything flashy or exciting. Speaking of, I’m interested in your perspective on the prospect of regular patrols versus being on-call. It’s under the ‘Duties and Responsibilities’ section.”

“Oh, um, I’m still working my way through the liability stuff. Due diligence and all that.”

“Don’t let me rush you, then. If you have any questions, just get my attention.”

Cynthia nods, going back to reading through the contract.

The break in conversation gives Aaron the chance to return to his investigation; as they had talked the auras had faded, and there was no sign of them among any of the nearby groups. Frustrating, but it meant the issue wasn’t urgent.

Aaron reaches out to a cluster of circuitry mapped to his right thigh, a near-field bluetooth antenna. Like the virtual computer in his head, it runs faster than he can track, but the surface level programs are meant for human input. With a thought he reaches out to his phone via the antenna, effectively coupling it to his mind. Operating it virtually, he sends a text message.


__________Just checking in. I understand if you need some time for recovery, and I can adjust the planned exercises if you don’t want to strain yourself, but be aware that I do not have the time to reschedule tomorrow’s meeting.
__________
Fuck.__________
Shit.__________
Wait.__________
Stop listening!__________
ugh__________
sorry__________
voice to text turned on__________
stupid phone__________
don’t worry ill be there__________
__________
__________Good. Would it be possible to get a report on what happened today?
__________
uh__________
dunno maybe__________
brain unhappy__________
tomorrow is better__________
__________
__________Take care of yourself, then. If there’s anything I can do for you, let me know.
__________
yeah yeah whatever__________
see ya__________

A haze appears in his peripheral vision in the moment he shifts his focus away from the phone. Within a second the haze expands forward, dominating his field of view. The aura.

Before he can consider how to react Aaron is startled by a glass shattering against the floor of the dining area, several patrons gasping in surprise. He whips his head around to face the source of the sound.

Aaron traces the trajectory upwards to a man in a white mask, hand held out with fingers curled.
The man’s mask resembles an owl by the few contours on its surface, with a peculier glow about it when seen with his powered eyes.
More intriguing were the mask’s eyes, the conical auras poking out through them.
Another target? Or the source?

He focuses on his sight: as it grew sharper and more detailed the world began to darken, fading altogether. Now he saw a world of energy, from the faintest static buildups to the brilliance of the building’s electrical grid.

Even now the auras are faint; attempts to observe the owl-masks’ auras is hampered by those over his own eyes.
He reaches up to adjust his mask, his hand visible from the currents coursing across it. As his thumb obscures an eye he lets loose a small shock. It travels through the pupil and onto the optic nerve, filling the eye with light, an overload. Harmless, but blinding.

Aaron’s mind barely registered it, the shock lasting under a millisecond, but the machine was faster. He lets his real sight return as he shifts focus to the recording. In the moment one eye went blind, the aura flared in the other. Beyond it, the auras of the masked man flared as well.
His sight was meant for energy; fortunately, information was roughly the same. Now he could sense the connection.

In all likelihood the man in the owl mask had noticed, or at least seen something not meant for his eyes. Aaron would have to confront him, should the opportunity present itself.

Aaron looks back to the table; aware of the auras, he avoids looking at any of the paperwork. Cynthia had her purse on the table, and was taking out her driver’s license.

Aaron hastily reached over, placing his hand over hers, covering the ID before he or anyone else could look at it.

“Need something?” He asked.

“I was just looking at the wine menu: they have a good selection here and I was going to get a glass.”

“They won’t card you. I should’ve been more clear, earlier, that you shouldn’t show or say any identifying information.”

He glances at the man in the owl mask.

“You never know who might be watching.”


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INV ONLY Re: Bound In The Gaze Of The Abyss

Post by MissingAxis on October 25th 2018, 9:24 pm

Isaac turned on his heel abruptly, nearly spilling the drinks held by a waitress as she passed behind him. He apologized hastily, hurrying toward the staircase. His vision didn’t return to normal until he was halfway down the steps, the invisible line between Isaac and the parahuman severed by an intervening wall.

There was a sort of emptiness just behind his eyes, a feeling not unlike a blindspot caused by bright lamps or the sun, though his vision remained unimpaired.

The man had identified him, somehow. Not just as the source of the commotion, but as… well, as a spy, to use the term loosely. The way the man had looked at him, made the connection between the commotion, the auras that Isaac wasn’t even aware existed, and the mask. More than that, the man knew what Isaac had seen. The dull fog around the woman, the papers… Isaac knowing about the man’s sight alone would be cause for concern, no doubt.

He considered making a run for it. Slip out into the street, disappear into the night and never come back. For all he knew, Isaac had stumbled across a pair of so-called supervillains doing business, negotiating some kind of turf distribution or going into business selling some kind of mega-heroin or trafficking powered children or…

No, not productive. As much as accidentally running into a pair of powered individuals had not been on the agenda, he had to figure out something more realistic than trying to run for it. After all, the mask was pretty easily identifiable with the man’s sight. In a whole room of masked diners, only Rasmus glowed.

He could give it back. Track down Jason, shove the mask in his hands, and get on the next flight to the other side of the globe. Isaac would make a new life, market his skills in Hong Kong or Japan or fucking Siberia. Anywhere--

No. Not productive. Rasmus was all he had, after all. The doctors couldn’t fix his brain, but Rasmus could make it more bearable. He couldn’t give Rasmus up.

Isaac found himself in the men’s restroom, ground floor. After a check that the stalls were empty, he pull Rasmus away from his face and ran the tap. With the mask sitting on the counter beside the sink, Isaac rubbed at his eyes with index finger and thumb. The dullness in his eye sockets wouldn’t go away. He palmed his eyes, both hands pushing hard against the soft gelatinous orbs. He could almost crush them in frustration.

No. Not productive.

Whatever business dealings the parahumans out there had going on, he wanted none of it.

But…

There could be others. There would be others. In some capacity, every one of those powered… people? Mutants? Hosts of symbiotic magic alien crystals? Whatever. They all were part of a network, in some capacity. Maybe two or three parahumans they interacted with, in some capacity.

And maybe…

Just maybe one of them could help him. There were invincible men and women flying around shooting lasers from their eyes and shitting gold, so surely there was some kind of brain wizard out there.

Yeah. Maybe he was on to something.

Isaac stopped rubbing at his eyes and rested his palms on the countertop. He looked at his reflection, at the bags under his eyes and the shine in them. He felt dead. Hell, he looked dead. He was the modern version of a zombie, unsleeping and unfeeling.

Yet, somewhere in depths of his psyche, he could feel the faintest glimmer of something. Hope?

611


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INV ONLY Re: Bound In The Gaze Of The Abyss

Post by REDSHEILD on October 26th 2018, 3:15 pm

Cynthia hadn’t been bothered by the glass; at the scrapyard loud and unpredictable noises were the norm, an environment which left her numb to being startled.

Conduit’s behavior seemed almost paranoid to her. Only when she reminded herself of the circumstances did it start to both make sense and worry her. He could see her power, even when she wasn’t using it, and that raised questions. Could he see other powers? Had he seen one that worried him?

“Do you think we’re being watched?” She asked, almost in a whisper.

Conduit seemed to hesitate for a moment before answering. “No. Not us, exactly. Places like this attract people looking for a measure of privacy. In turn, that attracts those prying for secrets. Better to be cautious.”

Cynthia nodded, though the response had done little to quell her unease. Still, Conduit was the professional here, so she resolved to trust his judgement.

Reading the document again Cynthia quickly found where she’d left off: right at the start of the section on compensation. There wasn’t a single salary or rate; rather, the page described hourly and daily rates for being on-call, hourly rates for patrols, and bonuses for rapid response and performance. The regular rates were tempting, and yet, she felt hesitant.

It wasn’t something she could talk to Aaron about; for all his talk of training heroes who were more grounded, more relatable, he had obviously bought on to being a cape. Cynthia wasn’t sold on the concept, despite the pay. She took her phone out, placing it on the table.

“Hey Conduit, is it, um, safe to use a phone here?”

He waved his hand in a so-so gesture. “I’d stick to calls over texts. Why?”

“I just wanted to check in on my friend. I sort of left her by herself to get here; she said she was fine, but, well, I can’t help but worry.”

“That should be fine. While you’re doing that, I think I’ll excuse myself. I spotted an acquaintance I’ve been meaning to have a word with, and it would be rude to listen in on your conversation. I won’t be long.”

“Okay.”

Conduit stood and left the booth, disappearing into the crowd past the dining area.

Cynthia picked up her phone, dialing Alyssa’s number.

“Hey. I hope I’m not bothering you.”

“Cindy you would neeeeeever bother me. What’s up?”

“Just checking on you. Did you get there alright?”

“Yeah. I took a nap on your couch all burrito-style, woke up like ten minutes ago. Why you calling anyway? Didn’t you have a meeting or something?”

“I do. But I feel bad that I’m not there with you after what happened today, so I took a moment to call.”

“Gee, thanks mom. Ha ha, don’t worry about me Cindy, I’m fine. Now get back to your meeting or appointment or whatever it is.”

“Well, I also called to see if you could give me any advice.”

The line was silent for a moment, then filled with laughter, loud enough that Cynthia had to pull the phone away until it stopped.

“Damn girl, that was a good one. Asking the literal mental case for advice! Wait, I was discharged. Former mental case? Ha ha, sorry, I couldn’t hold it in.”

“Alyssa.”

“Oh shit you’re serious. Uh, hit me with it then.”

“So, on Monday I got fired. I don’t really know why, my boss doesn’t either. Maybe I stepped on the owner’s toes or something. Anyway, yesterday I was scrambling sending out resumes, trying to pick something up before the semester starts. My job was paying most of my tuition, and I don’t expect to get something that good, but I was hoping to find something that would let me pay rent and afford loans at least. Today I got an offer on short notice, for an interview tonight. It’s-It’s not what I expected, and while the compensation is good, maybe even better than my old job, I feel like I’d be compromising on my principles to take it.”

“Shit Cindy, you’re not thinking of being a stripper are you? I mean you’ve got some nice hips but you are way too tall for most guys to-”

“Alyssa, please.”

“Sorry, sorry. Uh, what is the job?”

“I… I can’t say.”

“Can you say why you can’t say?”

“No.”

“I think I’m getting an inkling of what’s wrong now. Tell me what you can, uh, tell me about it. Like, why can’t you just do whatever it is, get your money, and move on?”

“I’d have to commit to it on a level that wouldn’t really leave time for school. I might be able to drop a semester and still manage to pick things back up in the fall, but if I commit to this job I don’t know if I’d be able or even willing to leave it. There’s certain… aspects of it that really don’t fit with how I see myself, as a person, and I don’t want to be trapped in a career like that, especially if I started it out of desperation.”

“Don’t commit to it then, even if that means you don’t get the job. Maybe I’m not the best person to talk to about this, since last time I committed to something I broke my brain.”

“Oh, Alyssa, I’m sorry.”

“Cindy I’m trying to make a point. Back then, when I was, well, you know how I was, something you said really helped. I was trying and failing to put my life back together like nothing had changed, and you told me that I needed to figure out where I wanted to go in life, who I wanted to be. That I shouldn’t get caught up in what I couldn’t change, and to stay true to myself. I thought about that a lot, and it took me a few false starts, but I think now I have a plan I can see myself at the end of. It sounds like you had a plan and now it’s gone to shit. Maybe this job isn’t a fit for you, or maybe you’re still caught up in your old plan. If you take this job, how do you end up compared to if you hadn’t lost your old one? Is that Cindy a person you want to be? And if the job really is that bad, talk to the guy or girl who offered it to you. Maybe you can work something out.”

“It’s really not that simple, but… nevermind. Thanks, Alyssa.”

“Anytime, Cindy. Oh! Before you hang up! Can I use your kitchen? I’m reeeeeaaaaally hungry.”

“Are you sure? Well, the fire extinguisher’s in the closet.”

“Hey I’m just going to fry some chicken tits, it’ll be fine.”

“Just make sure you fry enough for the fire department.”

“Look when I called you mom I was being sarcastic but now you’re scaring me.”

“Alyssa, you lit broccoli on fire. In a steamer.”

“That was one time! And-and I’m hanging up before you can say no. Bye-bye!”

The line went dead, and Cynthia put her phone away. In the same moment she noticed a waitress walking towards the booth, a single glass of red wine balanced on a serving tray.

It was a welcome sight. She needed a drink.

~~~

Aaron had used his sight to navigate the crowds past the dining area. It couldn’t quite see the future, not with movement at least, but it helped picked out the patterns in the way people moved about.

He’d tried to track the owl-mask’s wearer, but the man had gone out of view. Aaron could see through objects somewhat, if an energy potential was nearby or particularly powerful, or the object unsubstantial. The mask, however, looked fainter than it should have been, as if it were concealing itself. The man had come down the stairs, only to be lost in the crowd.

Aaron made his way around the ground floor, scanning the area. No sign of the mask or wearer among the tables, nor outside. With how packed the restaurant was, it was doubtful the man had managed to leave already. Which left the restrooms.

As he pushes the door open he scrutinizes the room with his sight again at its full extent, adjusted enough to make out the shape of the environment, more like a thermal image than true vision.
He saw the aura of the mask, sitting atop the sink counter. A mass of heat next to it, tall, masculine in shape. The wearer.
From his sight he could tell the restroom was free of interlopers: the stalls cold, unlikely to have occupants. He leaned up against the door; though he wasn’t particularly well built, it would delay anyone who may enter unaware.

“Enjoying the sights?”


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INV ONLY Re: Bound In The Gaze Of The Abyss

Post by MissingAxis on October 28th 2018, 2:07 am

Isaac turned his back toward the intruder as he snatched Rasmus from the countertop, placing it on his face. Not totally under his control, Rasmus once again thrust Isaac into a world of alien signals and sensory overload. When the second bout of shock settled down, Isaac turned to face the man. As expected, it was the parahuman.

The man stood leaning against the restroom door, effectively trapping Isaac in the room… Unless Isaac wanted to get physical, at least. He still didn’t know the extent of the stranger’s abilities, physical or paranormal. That, coupled with Isaac’s dubious hand-to-hand ability, made it difficult to justify the brute force route.

The world was more interesting than Isaac had previously believed, and it was already more than interesting enough. As far as he was aware, the man’s sight-based powers were perfect replicated. As a result, Isaac could see as the man did, just as he could with everyone else. Though, nobody else he’d borrowed the eyes of before could see this.

A faint haze overlayed his vision, apparently from a source just in front of his eyes. Additionally, though it was hard to make them out, two cones extended out from his eyes. They faded out into wisps, and those wisps trailed a thin, smoky line to the parahuman’s own eyes. As with Isaac, there were two barely-perceptible cones there. Even Rasmus left some signs of its influence on the world.

Elsewhere, the visual artifacts were less obvious in their connection the real world. Ghost-like objects slowly swirled in and out of sight, like afterimages or eye floaters in black-and-white. Over the top of it all, a faint static. Isaac didn’t know what to make of it all.

He tensed periodically, as the anomalies shifted unexpectedly her and there. Isaac did his best to restrain himself, to avoid making it obvious how startled and confused and out-of-place he really was. As he calmed himself, he considered how best to answer the man.

Isaac held his hand out, fingers spread and palm to the ground. He rolled his wrist back and forth, a little ‘so-so’ gesture for his new acquiantance.

359


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INV ONLY Re: Bound In The Gaze Of The Abyss

Post by REDSHEILD on October 28th 2018, 10:35 am

Aaron watches the conic auras manifest again as the mask met the man’s face. The wearer’s hand gesture was somewhat difficult to make out, but the message is clear enough. Aaron dials his sight back, the world brightening and sharpening as his vision approaches something normal. The mask’s aura seems to solidify in the process, remaining as a haze around it, as if the mask and aura were one.

“You dropped your drink, earlier. Right in the moment these-” He gestures to the auras around his eyes. “-appeared.”

“I presume you weren’t expecting what you saw; which does put my mind at ease. However, it makes me wonder: what were you expecting, and why?”


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INV ONLY Re: Bound In The Gaze Of The Abyss

Post by MissingAxis on October 30th 2018, 3:43 am

Rasmus’ hum seemed to Isaac more like a momentary whine, like that of a small animal, as the world faded to something approaching normality. Some minor visual artifacts lingered, but now Isaac could at least see, even if it did seem like the world went all film noir on him.

He gestured, waving his hand vaguely as if to address reality itself.

“Not… this.”

Though his voice was quiet, it seemed unimpaired by the mask. The acoustics of the restroom helped to carry his voice, as well.

“I didn’t come to make any trouble with you and yours. Believe me, I wasn’t expecting any of this.”

Isaac was still tense, and he realized he was clenching the his fist at his side, the knuckles no doubt as white as bone. He tried to relax it, but it didn’t do much good. The list of chemical reactions in his brain that Isaac could still consider reliably functioning was short: fear, fight-or-flight, adrenaline, those instincts of survival. The last few minutes had leveraged nearly all of them.

179


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INV ONLY Re: Bound In The Gaze Of The Abyss

Post by REDSHEILD on October 31st 2018, 1:04 pm

The stranger seemed uneasy, unwell. As Aaron looked at the man, vision tinted by the auras around his eyes, he realized why, at least in part. The man had been unaware of Aaron’s vision; that sudden exposure had shocked him enough to drop his drink earlier, and that had been a fairly low level. Now the man had gotten a glimpse of Aaron’s sight at its most extreme.

When his powers had first manifested Aaron had adjusted to his altered vision fairly quickly, yet even when it had been new and strange, it had never caused him harm. Perhaps the mask didn’t provide such protections?

“You understand I can’t ignore this?”

In spite of the mask covering the stranger’s face, Aaron could tell the man was tense, cornered. He couldn’t be sure if the man had other abilities; some were invisible to his sight until the moment of action.

“Many use this place to do business openly while protecting their private lives. Some are like me, others are more mundane. What you can do, what that mask lets you do, threatens this delicate balance. I don’t want this to devolve into a confrontation, but I can’t let you continue in this manner.”

“So I’ll ask you again: why are you here? It’s for the better if you tell me, and we can work something out. There are others here who wouldn’t be so forgiving, and I’m sure they’ll catch on in time.”


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INV ONLY Re: Bound In The Gaze Of The Abyss

Post by MissingAxis on November 2nd 2018, 10:48 am

“I didn’t come here for material gain. It’s…”

Rasmus glowed a little brighter, the conic auras flaring. He couldn’t be sure if he or Rasmus had made the decision, but he was looking through the parahuman’s eyes now rather than merely duplicating his power. From that point of view, the tenseness of Isaac’s stance was even more obvious. As the man looked him over again, Isaac could feel the subconscious assessment the parahuman made. Anticipation. Isaac was like a feral animal, cornered and wary. The man saw it, he was judging Isaac, trying to predict his next action.

“I’ll leave you to your business, but… I’ll be back. Not to bother you, or spy on you. It’s just… This is important to me. I need it.”

Isaac hesitated.

“It’s an ideal location for… voyeurism, you could say. It’s personal.”

Not enough. And what about that network?

“We could meet again. Here or elsewhere, wherever. Work out something more comprehensive, for the sake of your… privacy, as you say. But I need this, I need this place.”

176


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INV ONLY Re: Bound In The Gaze Of The Abyss

Post by REDSHEILD on November 2nd 2018, 2:10 pm

Aaron was hesitant to believe the stranger’s words. The explanation -or more likely, excuse- was simply absurd: this man could subvert the ultimate precaution of eyes-only, easily skim the crowd for all manner of sensitive information, and yet he used it to get his rocks off?

Management would have to be informed, but if the man was telling the truth, such agitation may lead him to create the sort of upsets Aaron feared. Perhaps it would be better to play by ear for now, gather information and set up a plan.

Reaching into a pocket of his suit Aaron retrieves a business card. It is black with a bronze border, decorated with electrical patterns similar to the mask he wore. The only writing on either side is a phone number in plain font, matching the border’s color.

“I believe you, much as I’d rather not.”
He steps to the side, clearing the door, then holds out the card.
“If you’d like to arrange a deal, call this number. It will go to voicemail, leave a message, I will respond when I can.”
With his other hand he gestures towards the auras around his eyes.
“Until such a deal is made, I don’t want to see these again. Understand?”


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INV ONLY Re: Bound In The Gaze Of The Abyss

Post by MissingAxis on November 2nd 2018, 4:46 pm

Isaac stepped forward, nodding in acknowledgement.

“They,” he said, waving at the wisps dancing in the air between their eyes, “will go when I go. Then you’ll know I’ve left.”

Isaac crossed the remaining distance between himself and the parahuman, stopping just outside of arm’s reach to take the business card.

“What sh-- Do we? Pseudonyms? Or…”

Rasmus pulsed again, and Isaac saw the world from his own eyes again, though the black-and-white filter and ’film grain’ still covered everything. The mask seemed to have a mind of its own, which was nearly as troubling as the situation Isaac was in.

103


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INV ONLY Re: Bound In The Gaze Of The Abyss

Post by REDSHEILD on November 4th 2018, 1:03 am

“I go by Conduit. The fact that you don’t have an alias at the ready, and your conduct tonight, leads me to conclude you’re something of a newcomer. Let me make one thing clear: this isn’t a game. Past the fanfare and beneath the costumes are real people, with all the good and bad that implies. There’s a level of order, some unwritten rules, but it’s not enough, not always. There’s always something that provokes escalation, and where that can lead, well, New York is a good example. Some would kill for the power that mask grants you, or worse.”

“If you have a name you’d like me to know, include it when you call. I’ll recognize your voice regardless. And keep what I said in mind. I’d hate for this situation to get worse than it already is.”

Aaron didn’t wait for the man to reply, taking his leave instead. He hoped he could trust the stranger’s word. If the man had lied, or decided to renege on their tentative deal, well… he would simply have to prepare for the worst.


~~~

The wine was enjoyable, if a bit overpriced. Still, the drink had calmed her nerves, letting her analyze the events and prospects of the evening in earnest.

Conduit returned just as Cynthia was finishing the glass, savoring the last sips. She put the glass down as he took his seat.

“Did the guy wearing the owl mask give you any trouble?” She asked him.

“You noticed.”

“I’d put it together, but figured you could handle it. I mean, you are the hero here.”

“Heh, thanks for the confidence. I had some choice words for him, though I’m not entirely satisfied with his explanation. I’m going to investigate the matter, try to prevent it from becoming a problem.”

“What was he doing? Was he the one watching, or, er, spying on everyone?”

“In a sense. The mask he wears seems to let him see through the eyes of others, and when he used it on me, he wasn’t expecting my vision power. As for why he was doing it, as I said I’m not sure I believe him, but he claimed it was a sort of voyeurism.”

“Oh, wow, that’s… that’s a new level of creepy.”

Cynthia glanced down for a moment.

“You know, I thought this dress was a bit too revealing to other people, but if he could see what I see… Oh, ew. And if you hadn’t stopped me, he could’ve seen my license. My name, my face.”

Conduit nodded. “Credit card numbers, passwords, security codes. Even if all he’s doing is, ahem, ‘sightseeing’, he’s bound to have seen sensitive information that wasn’t meant for him. Fortunately, I’ve managed to start a dialogue with him, and hopefully will be able to work something out. Or at the least, figure out how to deal with him, if it comes to that. There’s nothing we can do now, though. How was your friend doing?”

“She said she was fine, like before, and I guess I’m not in any position to press her on that. I also asked her for some advice, actually, about this. I didn’t go into any specifics, of course.”

“Well, it looked like you were done with the contract. Have you reached a decision?”

“I have, but first, I’d like to explain some things. You remember what I said, after you revealed you knew about my power?”

He nods. “Considering my conduct, it was a better reaction than I expected. Come to think of it, better than I probably deserved.”

“I was relieved because, for once, I didn’t have to lie about my power, about that part of who I am.”

“You haven’t told anyone? I presume you haven’t had powers for long, then?”

“For half my life, actually. I mentioned earlier, that I didn’t adjust well. That’s true, but it’s not the whole story. I never wanted powers and when mine manifested I had an identity crisis. I felt like I was a failure, that I’d fucked myself up, so I didn’t tell anyone. Lying like that gnawed at me, but no matter how much I struggled with my power or felt guilty about living a lie, I couldn’t bear to burden the people I cared about with my secret.”

“Not to be harsh, but you realize this is unsustainable? If I can find out, there’s a chance others can as well.”

“I know. And you’re not the first to find out, but, I don’t want to get into that. What I’m trying to get across is that being a cape would just raise the stakes. Living a secret life would be bad enough on its own, hiding it would be harder, and if anyone I knew found out… Conduit, I can’t live like that. Not if I want to be true to who I am.”

“Perhaps you’re looking at this from the wrong perspective. If there was someone close to you who you could confide in, someone who you wouldn’t feel unfair about sharing your secret with, would that help? Now, I’m not suggesting I could or would be that person, nor that if there is someone, you should accept my offer as a result. By the sound of it this extreme secrecy is only going to cause you more stress in the future, and I think you should find some way to lessen that, if only for your own sake.”

“There’s one person, but… I can’t tell you why, it’s not my story to tell, but I think if she knew, it would destroy her. Especially if I told her I was a hero. Don’t get me wrong, I do like what you’re working towards and I think, if things were different, I would want to be a part of it. As the world is now, I can’t.”

“I understand. I’m going to ask you a question: Your friend, if she was in danger, would you use your power to save her? Even if it meant she would know?”

“Yes.”

“Think about that. Now, I think we’re all done here. Even though this didn’t really work out, I do still need people for the University positions I mentioned, and as I said, you’re qualified. You have my contact information if you ever want to talk, topics academic or otherwise. I hope you figure things out, and that I’ll see you around.”

“Thanks. It’s been a pleasure getting to know you, Conduit.”


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INV ONLY Re: Bound In The Gaze Of The Abyss

Post by MissingAxis on November 8th 2018, 5:52 pm

Isaac followed the man out of the restroom, barely maintaining the connection between Rasmus’ eyes and the parahuman’s in the process. As Isaac left the building, he could almost feel the wispy ‘tethers’ snapping as he stepped out onto the street and slipped into the crowd.

The world felt… empty, to put it simply. It was emptier than normal. An evening with Rasmus’ always left a sense of lack in the end, when the power faded and all that was left was Isaac. Yet, this was a stronger sensation, almost emotional in magnitude. The sight of the electric man -- of Conduit -- had made the world seem almost on fire, cluttered and chaotic. It was overwhelming, something Isaac couldn’t be sure he’d ever have adjusted to, but it was ultimately more alive.

Rasmus had been tucked away now, slipped into an interior breast pocket Isaac had ordered for to be specially tailored specifically for that purpose. It wasn’t totally hidden, by any means, but it beat being a weirdo carrying a porcelain owl mask through downtown. He’d just be the weirdo with something stuffed into his suit, instead.

Isaac Bell walked quickly, his brisk pace building up some slight measure of warmth in the cold Boston night. A cab would have been warmer, and quicker. The chilly night air and the slight burn of pumping muscles triggered some baser chemistry, however, and a cab didn’t. Chemistry over convenience.

Chemistry over convenience. That’s what he told himself every time he went to his psychiatric appointments, taking time off work and interrupting his weekend schedule. If they figured out what was wrong with him, if they could whip up a chemical cocktail to fix him, it would be worth the sacrifice, right?

They couldn’t fix him. The nights got longer, the world became more gray. Sex stopped providing any pleasure at all, food taste like bland, soggy oats, and he couldn’t even sleep to pass the time.

His last visit to the psychiatrist was months ago. Isaac walked out in silence after the answer to have you got any idea what’s wrong with me was well, we’re not really sure.

---

“They can’t do anything about it, huh?”

There was a man loitering outside the clinic, just far enough from the entrance to be outside the zone dominated by ‘no loitering’ and ‘no soliciting’ signs. He was short, with dull copper-colored hair neatly parted. Isaac couldn’t put a finger on it, but there was definitely something off about the man.

“Mind your own business and read the signs,” Isaac said, walking past the man.

“A man doesn’t walk into a clinic and leave less than half an hour later. Especially not when the paperwork takes most of that.”

Isaac ignored him, but the man continued to follow him.

“You know, they told me the same thing once. That they weren’t entirely sure what was going on. I made my own solution.”

“Whatever you’re selling, I’m not buying.”

The man chuckled nervously, falling a few steps behind Isaac in the process. Then a few more. He had stopped following, and Isaac was relieved. He stepped out onto the main road, turning to follow the sidewalk.

Then he heard the man speaking again, though he hadn’t heard the man’s steps as he hurried to catch up.

“Have you got any idea what’s wrong with me,” the man said, in a deeper, mocking voice. Then, in a higher pitched but equally mocking voice, he continued: “Weeell, we’re not really sure.”

Isaac wheeled on him, fists clenched at his side.

“What the fuck did you just say?”

“I said, I made my own solution and I’d like to see if it works for you.”

The man was holding something white and gently curving. Some kind of mask, it looked like.

“If you’re wondering how I knew what was said, the answer is this,” he said, hefting the mask in his hand as if attempting to judge its weight.

“I don’t understand.”

“It’s enchanted.”

“What?”

“You know all those people flying around with magic powers? I can do something like that.”

“Because you have a magical mask?”

“Because I make magic masks.”

“You’re crazy.”

“Easy now. I’m not the one who just walked out of a mental clinic.”

“You’re talking like you’ve escaped from one.”

The man sighed. “Suit yourself.”

As he turned and started walking the other way, the man offered a parting remark: “The world is only going to get more gray, Isaac Bell.”

---

Isaac was nearly home when his phone began enthusiastically buzzing in his pocket. Unknown number. Eight o’clock at night. He stared at the display another moment before answering hesitantly.

“Hello?”

“Isaac?” He felt a wave of dread wash over him. The voice was familiar. Jason.

“Yeah.”

"We-- I'm calling in that favor. Bring Rasmus and meet me."

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

"Okay. Where are you?”

---

The warehouse was decrepit, one of many that was abandoned in the economic downturn following the incident. With the lack of human activity in the area, city pests had turned it into a shelter from the elements. Pigeon and rat dropping littered the concrete floor, cobwebs built up in the rafters. The man, Isaac noticed, didn't seem to mind.

Isaac didn't remember him so twitchy and restless. The man paced in circles, murmuring to himself as he completed endless laps around the pile of garbage bags and shopping carts that evidently belonged to him. Isaac simply watched, standing silent with Rasmus in his hand. Unprompted, the man raised his voice.

"It's not right. It's not right!"

Isaac flinched as the man was thrown inexplicably through the air, hitting the ground and rolling a short distance with a dull thud.

"What the fuck!?" Isaac's voice was raised this time. He began to take a few steps back as the man slowly and painfully brought himself to his feet.

"Richard!" Then, lowering his voice, the man continued, "We have a guest. Rasmus, come closer."

Isaac stopped his slow retreat, and held out the porcelain mask. The man beckoned him closer. Hesitantly, Isaac complied.

"I know, I know. But he's the only option I have. He doesn't need to know. Fine!"

Jason suddenly jerked his head up, making eye contact with Isaac.

"Put it on."

Once again, Isaac complied, nervous. He brought Rasmus up to his face and let go, the mask effortlessly hovering just millimeters from his face.

"Rasmus," the man said. "Go ahead."

Unprompted, Isaac's sight changed. Suddenly, he could see who the man was arguing with. Or what.

A hulk of a man, his head replaced by a rooster's and his legs receiving like treatment below the knees. He was covered by nothing but sparse feathers and blood. His hands, Isaac saw, were some chimeric form between a human fist and a rooster's talons.

Beyond him, a massive hare standing upright, built not too dissimilar to a kangaroo insofar as it had uncannily human features.

And a gigantic pigman resting on its haunches, head disproportionately small. It was chewing, but made no sound.

Two more figures were present, but Isaac couldn't focus on them. They flitted around quickly, barely making an impression in his sight before disappearing. After a few seconds, he gave up tracking them, noting that they always hung around just out of the corner of his eyes.

"Richard is upset, he was bested--" Jason was once again thrown across the warehouse, and this time Isaac could see how. The rooster-man -- Richard -- moved with incredible speed, crossing the distance between himself and the man with a mere stride and backhanding him with enough force to send the copper-haired man through the air. As before, Isaac flinched and began to retreat backwards.

Jason continued to speak as he picked himself up from the floor, brushing pigeon shit and dust from his clothes.

“Ignore him, he can’t touch you.”

“What the fuck is going on, Jason?”

The man chuckled nervously. “It’s getting harder to control them. They’re trying to break free from my power.”

“What are they?”

“Fey. They’re not from around here.”

“Fey? Fairies? Jason, quit with these half-answers--”

“I need to find them hosts, Isaac. It’s the only way to control them. The masks aren’t enough anymore--”

“The masks-- Are you saying--”

Jason shushed him and moved closer, his voice lowered to a whisper.

“Yes. Rasmus is one of them. But Rasmus is under control. I didn’t understand it before, but I do now. A like-minded host bonds with the mask, keeps its power under control.”

Isaac ripped the mask from his face and tossed it to the ground.

“I don’t want any part of this, Jason. I didn’t ask to get involved with monsters from other dimensions or whatever the fuck.”

Isaac Bell turned and began to walk toward the exit, carefully stepping around the green-and-white smears on the concrete.

“You’re the only one who can help me, Isaac!”

He kept walking.

“If we can’t control them-- If they kill me, they’ll kill others! It happened today!”

Isaac stopped, hesitating to turn and acknowledge Jason’s statement.

The mall attack?

“If I can’t keep them under control, they’ll kill others. They’ll keep killing because that’s all they know how to do. You can help me stop them! We can keep them contained!”

Isaac turned and walked back to where he threw Rasmus onto the concrete. Picking it up, he finally faced Jason.

“How?”

“I made a list.” Jason hurried toward Isaac and shoved a crumpled scrap of paper into Isaac’s free hand. “If we find people like this, if we give them the masks, they’ll be bonded with the mask and the fey, and it’ll all work out. Like with you. They’ll be simple, enchanted masks then. No one else will have to get hurt.”

No one else will have to get hurt.

1673


Last edited by MissingAxis on December 28th 2018, 10:54 pm; edited 1 time in total (Reason for editing : rewrite)
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INV ONLY Re: Bound In The Gaze Of The Abyss

Post by REDSHEILD on February 7th 2019, 12:10 am

December 20th, 2018
Ayer, Massachusetts


Cynthia wakes to the sound of activity from the kitchen: plates clinking together, and the hum of the microwave oven. Her first instinct is to ignore the noise and return to sleep; a glance at the time convinces her otherwise. It’s six-o’clock, only an hour before her alarm would sound.

She gets out of bed, walking over to the bedroom door and grabbing her bathrobe from the hook, donning it over her nightgown. December had been unusually warm, so Cynthia had taken to turning off the heat at night to save just that little bit more on rent. Still, unusually warm for the outside meant cold indoors.

Entering the shared living and dining room Cynthia is greeted by the sight of Alyssa wrapped in a number of blankets, sitting on a stool at the bar-style ‘table’ built out from the wall’s edge.

“Good morning.” She says, reaching out to mess up Alyssa’s hair on her way to the kitchen.
“I’m surprised you’re up so early. I hope I didn’t disturb you when I got home last night.”

“C-Cindy w-why i-is y-your a-apartment s-so f-fucking c-c-c-cold!” Alyssa said, her teeth chattering so hard that she was clearly doing it for effect.

“Saves money. The heat turns on in an hour or so.”

“Fuuuuuuuck. I need to leave by then.”

Cynthia opens the fridge, looking for anything appealing.

“Your interview’s that early?”

“Yeah it sucks balls. How’d your thing go?”

“It went okay.”

Unsatisfied with the fridge’s selection, and not feeling particularly hungry, Cynthia opts for one of the apples out in a bowl on the counter. She stolls over to the table area, pulling one of the stools around to the kitchen side, sitting across from Alyssa.

“Your advice helped a lot, and while I’m still a bit unsure, I think I made the right choice. So, uh, what kind of job are you interviewing for?”

Now that they were closer, Cynthia notices Alyssa looks much worse for wear than she had the day before: skin pale, more so than usual, bags under her eyes, the wrinkles of her face fit for someone older, or with a more stressful life.

“Cindy, the fuck is that?”

“An apple?”

“Yeah, you starving yourself or something?”

“I had a large dinner last night, so I’m not really hungry. Besides, you’re eating fried chicken for breakfast, of all things.”

“Well I don’t have any waffles to go with it.”

“That wouldn’t be any healthier, Alyssa.”

“It is perfectly valid, hearty food. Food is food.”

“I’m not sure that’s a good attitude. You’re looking pretty pale, even for you.”

“I’ll have you know, Cindy, I’m in perfect health. Peak health, even.”

“Guess I’ll take your word on that. So, uh, what kind of job are you interviewing for?”

“It’s temp-slash-gig stuff, but for like, editing and shit. Social media and whatnot.”

“You came all the way from Chicago for that?”

“Foot in the door, resume building, that’s the goal. They’re taking me on the class credits I have. Chicago was all degree this, degree that, and I sure don’t have one of those. ‘Sides, now I get to live with my best friend.”

“That reminds me. We’re going to have to get some ground rules in place, if this is going to work out.”

“Aw jeez…”

“You know the dishwasher can’t clean pots and pans?”

“Oh just look at the time, you know I really can’t be late for my interview…”

“Look, since you had a rough day I’ll take care of it, just don’t do that in the future, okay? Good luck with today, I hope it works out for you.”

“Thanks, I’m pretty sure it will.”


Dunstable, Massachusetts

If there was anything Aaron hated most in the world, anything would take great lengths to avoid, it would be downtime. Time not spent working towards a greater purpose, not spent resting or in preparation, the ultimate source of opportunity cost. Time spent dwelling on the past instead of building a better future.

Then why, he asked himself, was he slouched in his office chair, staring idly at a set of camera feeds? Why, if he hated it so much, was he waiting?

The question is rhetorical, of course. He knows why.

A yellow border flashes on one of the feeds: movement. The camera watches the middle of a gravel road, a sturdy vehicle gate stopping further access. A white SUV is the source of the alarm, parked to the side of the gate. From it a woman emerges wearing a puffy winter jacket, her face covered by a mask.

He feels relief at that: faces make things personal. A complication best avoided, at least for now. Which means he can wait no longer; he has his own mask to wear, after all.

Even here, security is paramount. Aaron places his hand on a scanner by the basement door; in addition to biometrics, an electronic lock is paired to the unique circuitry in his hand. The lock beeps and he opens the door, entering the workshop.

Most of the room has been undisturbed for years, equipment and unfinished projects shrouded by dust covers. One area is an exception.

Stood straight by the frame supporting it, his armor looks almost proud. Built of carbon composite with steel and kevlar over vital areas, the suit acts as an insulator when worn. Bronze inlays on the surface, done in the style of circuit traces, give him controlled electrical pathways through the armor.

Piece by piece he dons the suit; contacts on the inside line up with gold terminals woven into his skin-tight jumpsuit. Once all the elements of the armor are in place it forms a circuit with his body, through which he can exert his power.

All that remains is the power source. On a workbench are a dozen cylindrical cells, roughly the size of a fist, painted to match his suit. Each holds a megawatt-hour of energy.  The batteries fit into ports built out of the spine of his armor, angled for ease of placement. Contact surfaces lining his back are energized and the power flows through him.

For a demo it was probably overkill. But, he could use the practice.

~~~

The barn had belonged to Aaron’s great uncle, who had purchased the former farm hoping to develop the land. Conservation laws had stopped that plan from coming to fruition, so the property was passed to Aaron’s father.

Aaron himself had effectively taken ownership of it after realizing early on that professional heroics wasn’t a career one could run from their parent’s garage, even as a youth. The remote location made it a less than ideal headquarters, but even that had its advantages. Even after retiring he had maintained the building’s interior, though the exterior needed work. The clearing around the barn being littered with old appliances, stripped-down vehicles, and other debris only added to the appearance of abandonment.

Leaning up against the side door of the barn gave Aaron a good view of the entrance road. The woman he’d seen on the cameras was walking down the middle of the gravel path, dragging a wheeled cooler behind her. Between the distance and the large coat she wore there was little detail to make out of her build, save for height. She was clearly fairly short, an inch or two past five feet. Mitosis.

He waves. She waves back.

As she clears the treeline he extends an arm out into the air, releasing two-hundred kilowatt hours of energy. The lightning bolt arcs from his hand to a warped flagpole in the field, emitting a deafening thunderclap.

“Jesus Christ! What the fuck!”

Despite the distance between them, Mitosis’ cursing is surprisingly clear.

“Your turn!” He shouts to her, his voice amplified by the modulator in his helmet.

“What?” She shouts back.

“I said, it’s your turn!”

“What?” She shouts again, rubbing her ears.
“My turn for what?”

“Show me what you can do.” He says, dialing down the amplification, close enough now for normal conversation.

“Christ, man, I can’t do anything like that shit. What the fuck are you compensating for?”

“It’s for your benefit, not mine. I don’t expect to do that often, but if I have to, I’d rather have my teammate be ready for it.”

“You could just warn me. I’ll close my ears or something.”

Aaron shakes his head. “The point is, you won’t always get a warning. The goal is to prepare you for high stress, high pressure situations. We’ll be relying on each other in the field, and won’t always be able to communicate.”

“You said teammate earlier, not teammates. New girl flake or something?”

“She had personal reasons that prevented her from joining the team. Which means it’s just you and me, for now.”

“Sweet.”

Mitosis drops the cooler’s handle, taking her jacket off and draping it over the cooler, before sitting down on it. Without the heavy coat her costume is visible: a two-piece spandex outfit, haphazardly dyed with pink and purple splotches in contrast to the purple-stripes-on-cream of her mask. The costume didn’t seem to match the season at all: the upper piece in particular seemed more like a crop top with short sleeves than a shirt, leaving her abdomen fully exposed. She had sky blue eyes under her mask and vibrant red hair left to fall straight in no particular style.

Aaron found Mitosis’ physique puzzling; at first glance he’d assumed she was mildly overweight or out of shape. Looking closer she was definitely well muscled, which meant either she had unusually thick skin or something else was going on. He recalled that Mitosis’ power worked through her physiology, though she hadn’t provided much more information than that. Her costume wouldn’t provide any protection: some kind of internal reinforcement or padding, perhaps?

“Like what you see?” She says with a laugh; trying, and failing, to strike a suggestive pose atop cooler.

“No, sorry, I was just analyzing your costume. It’s rather light, both for the weather and protectively.”

“Oh, uh, this is my summer one. I had a winter one but it got destroyed yesterday, stupid paramedics. They cut up the straps on my plate carrier too so this is what I’ve got. Fuck, I forgot to write up a report about that. Do you want to hear it now?”

“Your report can wait; we have the whole day, after all. The ball is still in your court, by the way.”

“Ball? What ba- Oh…”

Mitosis stands up, performing an exaggerated stretch.
“So I can’t throw lightning or anything like that, but I think this is a neat trick.”

She holds her arms up and her entire body seemed to tense, a nodule of flesh forming right under each armpit, pushing against the spandex shirt. In a matter of seconds the nodules jut outwards, cracking audibly as flesh ossifies, each finding their own sleeve and poking out from the costume. They appear to break just above the middle, marking the formation of elbows. Their ends swell and round out, gaining definition until they form into fists which unfurl as the stick-like limbs grow muscled. At the end of it Mitosis sports a second set of arms, grown in under half a minute.

“Impressive. How much effort did that take?”

“Uh, arms and shit are pretty automatic.Getting the shoulders to work was tough so I just leave those there all the time, but I had the arms in storage so my roommate wouldn’t freak when she picked me up at the hospital. Kinda hurts like a bitch to grow them this fast though.”

“Storage? Is that what was going on with your skin?”

“Yeah I got a bunch of, I dunno, balloons full of uh… proto-me-stuff, between my skin and all the normal fleshy parts, and anything extra I grow I can just dissolve back into that reservoir. I spread it out so I don’t look like a complete fatass, and I’m pretty much at the point where I have enough to work with and I still look normal enough. After yesterday I’m on like, two-thirds of a tank.”

“Well in the interests of letting you recover, I’ve arranged to do today’s activities with as little exertion as possible. How about we head inside and we can discuss your power more?”

“Aw hell man, I didn’t drag myself out of bed at five and get here by seven just to talk. I’ve talked too much already. Last night my roommate had to go downtown so I fried up a bunch of chicken in some eggs, blended it together with some supplements and shit, and then I filled this bad boy…”

Mitosis kicks the cooler, hard enough that the contents rattle.

“...with my best smoothies yet. They’ve got like, a billion calories per jar, and there’s dozens of them in here. And I spent last night growing a second intestine optimized for liquids so I can get all my lost gains back and then some. Oh shit, I forgot to show you her. Hold on.”

She throws her coat off the cooler, opening it and rummaging through the ice and mason jars.

“Her?” Aaron asks.

“She doesn’t have a name yet, and it feels weird to say ‘it’ about my own flesh and blood. C’mon, I really I hope I didn’t leave her in my roommate’s car… Ah ha! Found you!”
Mitosis pulls a long white object out of the cooler, its glossy surface wet from the ice. It resembled something of a cross between a baseball bat and a warhammer, molded from bone.

“Ta-da! Purty, right?” She says, holding it up.

“Is that- Is that a femur?”

“Yup. Some of my best work other than, well, me I guess. Gotta keep her cool so she doesn’t die on me.”

“You mean, you grew that?”

“Duh. Made her in pieces, though. I’m pretty, heh, elastic, but I don’t think there’s a girl on the planet who can take these twenty inches.”

Aaron shakes his head. “Alright, I don’t need to hear the details. Are you up for some sparring practice?”

Mitosis nods eagerly. “You had me at violence.”

~~~

Behind the barn is a clearing in the field. Once planted with domestic grass to form a useable outdoor area, weeds and wild grasses had choked the out lawn over time. The warm winter and sparse vegetation made the ground soft and muddy.

Aaron stands close to one end of the field, Mitosis toward the other, about fifteen paces away.

“The way this is going to work is fairly simple. I’ll be taking the role of some criminal or street villain. You are the hero, and your goal is to stop me. Because I’m more of a petty lawbreaker than a threat to society, you’ll need to perform a clean takedown. No blood, no injuries. I’m in a hurry, so I’m not going to try to pin you down or anything. But, every time I knock you down hard enough that you need time to recover, I get closer to my goal. Frame it however you want: maybe I’m on the run, maybe you’re in my way; if I knock you down five times before you can pin me, you lose. Got it?”

“Yeah, uh, I can use powers and shit, right?”

“Anything you’d usually have available. Be aware that if you escalate, I’ll match you. Compared to a real encounter, I’d say that’s generous. Ready?”

Mitosis doesn’t hesitate, breaking out into a run, hunched down into it. Her lower arms hold her weapon out across her path, upper arms spread wide.

Aaron keeps a wide, rooted stance, bracing against the incoming tackle. Yet in the last moment he steps out of the way.

Mitosis tries to pivot, reaching for him, but loses her traction on the mud, sliding a ways as she impacts the ground. In the time it takes her to get back up Aaron has crossed the clearing.

“That’s one.” He says.

She doesn’t reply, opting to set up for a second charge. Her gait is more controlled now, feet spaced just a bit further apart, standing straight instead of leaning forward.

He moves out of the way early this time, forcing her to change course. She manages to grab his left arm when he tries to sidestep again, but he kicks her away as her velocity carries her into a brief orbit around him. She hits the ground hard, her face landing in the mud.

“Two, now.” Aaron says as he opens up the distance between them.

“Fuck you!” Mitosis shouts, jumping back on her feet and into a sprint. She holds her weapon high, wielding it in her upper right hand now.

As she closes on him, Aaron notices that Mitosis had kicked off her shoes, her bare feet now adorned with bone protrusions at the sides. Cleats?

She swings the weapon down at him; not fast enough to injure, but enough to warrant interception. At the same time she tries to grab at him with each of her free hands.

He ducks below the weapon and her arms, almost kneeling due to their differing heights. She manages to arrest her movement, falling on him, trying for a grapple. He strikes her exposed stomach with his open palm, emitting a shock. Mitosis seizes up, allowing Aaron to slip free from her grasp.

With nothing to support her she falls to the ground, writhing in the aftermath of being electrified.

“You- you fucking tased me!” She cries, the words somewhat slurred.

Aaron glances back at her as he sprints away: Mitosis was on her feet already, following. He turns around and takes a wide stance, expecting another tackle.

Instead something wraps around his arm; reflexively he shocks it, only for its hold to tighten. The object, some kind of pink or red rope, melts into a white substance where it has coiled around his forearm, solidifying.

Mitosis is holding the other end of the rope in her left hands. He tries to run away, hoping to pull it from her grasp, only to drag her after him.

He turns on his heel abruptly, grabbing onto the rope and pulling on it, hoping to haul Mitosis onto the ground. She resists, managing to stay up. The rope starts to melt in Aaron’s hands and he realizes his mistake. It solidifies, binding his hands together.

Mitosis reaches under her mask, pulling another rope out from under it. No, not a rope: it was her tongue, grown out several feet. The elongated tongue detaches and she whips the end towards him, holding the base of it in her lower right hand. Her aim isn’t very accurate, but the prehensile nature of the tongue lets it correct somewhat in mid air.

The second tongue-whip wraps around his left leg. Wary of how the first reacted, he doesn’t shock it. It solidifies, though the grip is loose enough to give him some freedom.

Mitosis drops her hammer and charges at him, using her free hands to reel in the tongues’ slack. Aaron leans forward, taking the tackle head-on. His legs are swept out from under him, but he manages to land on top of Mitosis.

He wrestles with her, trying to keep her from gaining a leverage advantage. It doesn’t work: none of Mitosis’ limbs seem to follow the usual rules of physiology, and she has two more than he does. He opts to shock her again instead, and in her spasms, Mitosis pushes him away.

Aaron tries to get back on his feet, only to find he can’t. In the melee he’d gotten wrapped in the whips, which were now ossifying, binding his legs together and nearly immobilizing his right arm.

Mitosis stands up, her legs wobbling. She plants a foot on his chest, the bone cleats scraping against his armor.

“That’s one. I win.” She says.

He takes a moment to relax: breathing deeply, letting the adrenaline fade.

“You did well. Very creative. This bone, though, I won’t have to break it to get it off?”

“Uh, no, hold on.”

She touches each solidified whip and they soften, rubberlike. She helps him unwrap them, letting him stand.

Mitosis had gathered up the ossified tongues and was apparently absorbing them, folding them against her stomach where they melt into her skin.

“How much of a return do you get? With the reabsorption?”

“I get all the mass back. Don’t get any of the calories I used to grow it, and I have to use some to make it liquid again. Why?”

“Just trying to gauge your endurance. Like I said, you are quite creative with your power, but it feels like you’re relying on it. Proper training in hand to hand combat can go a long way, and when you do have to use your power, you’ll benefit from the improved reflexes and coordination.”

“You going to pay for an instructor?”

“I know enough to teach you the basics myself. I’ll be paying you enough that if you want professional instruction on top of that, you’ll be able to afford it. How about we head inside for a quick break, and then I can get you started with some pointers?”

Mitosis shrugs.

“Something wrong?”
“I dunno, like, I usually hate learning new things. I always try really hard and then when I fail I feel terrible for making the effort. But now? I actually feel good about this, in a way I haven’t in a loooooooong time. Let’s do it.”

~~~

The day had been long and productive, if not without hiccups. Mitosis had proven frustrating to work with: she pushed back against critique, often seeing it as a slight or insult before Aaron could make his point clear. Her preference for demonstrating her power over explaining it was something he could work with, at least, though such behavior suggested that she was hiding aspects of her ability. He could live with that, so long as such secrets didn’t cause issues down the line.

With the sun having set two hours ago, they’d opted to wrap up the day with dinner. The barn’s second level was built like a loft apartment, with some rooms open to the wider space. The kitchen was one of them, the attached dining area overlooking the training space that occupied most of the ground floor.

“You sure you don’t want to try some?” Mitosis asks, holding one of her so-called smoothies.

They still had their costumes on; Aaron’s helmet had a sliding visor, allowing him to expose his face below the cheekbone. Mitosis had simply rotated her mask upside-down, achieving much the same effect.

“No thanks, I’m good with just the pizza.”

“Dude, it’s like, liquid meat. Liquid chicken even! What’s not to like?”

“Several things, actually, but you covered the primary turn-off. Certain things just weren’t meant to be put in a blender.”

“Whatever. More for me.” She opens the jar and starts chugging the contents, taking a few moments to finish it.
“See? Good shit.”

“Actually, Mitosis, since we’re close to finishing up, I think it’s as good a time as any to discuss yesterday’s events.”

“Uh, shit, where do you want me to start?”

“Start with the build up to the situation. Anything that you think may have had a part in causing it.”

“Well uh, I was in the food court. I’d just finished texting you and I was waiting until the pizza place’s line cleared up so I could get lunch. There was this short chick and her tall-as-fuck boyfriend getting teriyaki, and he went to the bathroom and left her to pick up their food. Then this crazy guy ran through the crowd, bumped into the girl, and ran into the bathroom. She called the mall-cops over and was really pissed but they said they couldn’t do anything about it. Then her boyfriend came back, and that’s when shit got weird.”

“Weird, how?”

“So, the boyfriend came back from the bathroom but he had this ugly chicken, or, I guess it was a rooster mask on. He looked reaaaalllllyyyy tense and agitated but he was smiling. His girlfriend freaked about the mask and started yelling at the crazy hobo. Then she tried to take the mask off of her boyfriend and- and he killed her.”

“This must be hard, but, it’s best if you can recount as many pertinent details as you can. Did he use a power to do it? A weapon?”

“He just- he just punched her in the face. She survived that, somehow, and then he put his boot on her chest and started pushing down on her. One of the mall-cops tased him and he didn’t even flinch. She tried to claw at his leg and he just ripped her arm clean off and crushed her ribs at the same time. The weird thing is, he looked so damn happy while doing it. Like, like if he smiled any wider, his face would split in two. And then he just grabbed her by her other arm and threw her into the crowd.”

“Did anyone in the crowd get hurt?”

“I don’t know. I ducked under my table so the, uh, body wouldn’t hit me. I think, I think she might’ve still been conscious until she hit the ground, though. She didn’t have a face anymore, not really, but she was still moving.”

“Okay, you don’t need to think about that. When did you get involved?”

“I was hiding under the table, and my first thought was to run away while the crowd was still there. And then I was like: ‘Damn it, I have superpowers, I’m a fucking hero.’ Some bitch had ruined my outfit with some soda earlier and the only other clothes I had was my costume, my hoodie, and my sweatpants. I’m pretty sure no one could see me so I took off the stuff over my costume, put my mask on, got my femur out, and got back up. That took like, less than a minute, and chicken mask guy had already killed the mall-cops. He’d used his girlfriend’s arm as a weapon. I don’t- I don’t know if I remember enough of the fight.”

“That’s alright. You can skip to the end.”

“The end, uh, I think he was going to kill me. Was killing me. I’d gotten stuck onto him, kinda like when we sparred, but I’d stabbed him too. He picked me up and slammed me into the floor like, six times. It was bad. You know how when you break a stick, you get two smaller sticks? Well I went from like, three-hundred normal size bones, to like two thousand tiny bones. Then the hobo showed up, I don’t remember what he said, but I managed to take the rooster mask off the guy. He just… he just collapsed, it was hard to tell since he had a lot of blood coming out of his mouth, it sounded like he was crying though.”

“And the crazed man?”

“He disappeared. I don’t remember him running away or anything. My brain was almost in two pieces then so I may have remembered wrong. I think he took the mask with him.”

“We’ll have to talk to the police about all this. I’ll give them a call, see when they want to interview you. That is, if you’re comfortable taking credit as the hero on the scene.”

“Kinda have to, right?”

“It’s a bit complicated, there’s… optics to consider. Three people died, and while you couldn’t have prevented that, the public isn’t always so understanding. Since you’re a new hero and a member of my team, I wouldn’t want you to make a decision that would sink your ship on its maiden voyage. I’m going to be honest, Mitosis, I was worried I was taking a risk with you. Maybe I was; I think it paid off.”

Aaron removes his helmet, setting it on the table.

“Uh, wait, didn’t you say masks on today?”

“That was a precaution, in case today didn’t work out. If you want to keep yours on, I understand. This is my way of showing that I trust you. Call me Aaron. Aaron Powell.”

Mitosis fidgets for a bit; hesitation, perhaps?
She seems to arrive at a decision, pulling off her mask.

“Um, my name’s Melissa.”

“Welcome to the team, Melissa. It’s an honor to have you.”

“So uh, if it’s just us on the team, that means we’re partners, don’t it?”

“Yeah, I suppose it does.”
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