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Aberrant: Infinite Earth - Fiction - [A&A] Magnum Opus: Tomorrow Belongs To Everyone


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"Carol! Wait up, hon."

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At the sound of his voice, the young woman stopped in mid-step, and sighed, hunching her shoulders. She pulled back the hood of her winter coat to reveal short brown hair, pale skin with freckles, and light green eyes. The man running after her across the snow-covered university grounds was equally fair skinned, as Canadians often were in the wintertime.

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She turned around as they young man closed the distance. She folded her arms. "I have nothing to say to you, Daniel Finn."

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"C'mon, Carol, don't be like that..."

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"Don't be like - " Carol bit her tongue. "I have to get to class."

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"C'mon, Carol, what'd I do wrong? It was just a joke!"

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"A joke."

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"Yeah! Me and the guys, we're just having fun."

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"You made mooing noises at Jenny! She put on less than twenty pounds, in winter, and you and the rest of those jerks you pal around with still make fun of her weight! In the middle of the cafeteria, in front of everyone!"

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"Well - well - " Now it was Daniel's turn to bite his tongue. "Come on, we didn't mean nothing by it..."

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"Daniel, she cried all night. I got no sleep at all because I was sure she was going to kill herself. I'm pretty sure she's sticking a finger down her throat again."

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"She – what?" Daniel turned pale. "Carol..."

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"And I have a really tough class, so please. Drop it."

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"I – okay. All right." Daniel blew out through his lips, and ran his fingers through greased blonde hair. "Still don't think that it's something to break up over..."

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Carol didn't say anything.

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"Did you really think she'd try to, you know?"

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"She tried it once before. Her brother used to – well, she got good at covering up bruises."

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"He what? I – that son of a bitch. Is he living here in Calgary? I'll lay him right out - "

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"He's not. It wouldn't do anything."

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"Why didn't she talk to her mom and pop about it? Wouldn't they, you know, put a stop to it?"

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"She did, Daniel." Carol look at her watch, and sighed. "But it didn't do any good. So she tried to jump off a bridge."

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"Why didn't it - "

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"Because you know us girls, Daniel. We like to make up our little stories. We like to talk behind your back and spin little lies about where we got the bruises and why – and why we cry over nothing. She told them. They didn't believe her. Because guess what, Daniel, most of the time you put a man's word up against a woman's, people will take the man's word. They'll take him at his word and go right back to telling her she should wear her hair down more or try and lose a couple of pounds."

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"I didn't know." Daniel involuntarily took a step back. "Carol, doll, believe me, I swear I never would have said a word if I'd known - "

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"No, you didn't know. I know. But Daniel, you still hurt her. You can still hurt someone without even thinking about it. You know that, right?"

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"Yeah. Carol, believe me, I really am sorry."

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"You should apologize to her in person. And Daniel? Maybe you should think about what it's like to be a woman for just one day. Just think about it for one day. If you're serious about why you want to get into the law, then you're going to have a lot of women clients. You should think about what it's like for them if you're going to represent them. And more than that, you should just think about it more, period."

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Daniel said nothing. Carol looked at her watch again, and sighed. "Now, I don't know if you remember, but there's a war on. I need to get to class. We need nurses out there. We need doctors too, but I was three percentage points shy of the 90% I needed on my admittance exam, so nursing it is."

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"Can – can we talk later?"

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"I'm still mad at you. But... we'll see." Carol sighed. "I have to go. Bye for now."

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"See you later." Daniel watched her go, light gray parka blending into the snow-filled landscape of the college grounds.

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He replayed the events of the cafeteria in his head all the way back to his dorm, and they didn't leave him for the rest of the day.

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"'A History of Women's Suffrage.' What leg are you tryin' to pull, Danny?"

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Daniel sighed, setting his briefcase down. He sized the other man up – a foot taller, could have been on the hockey team if he hadn't taken a puck to the eye last year and lost too much vision. Carried himself with confidence. So Daniel was not looking to start a fight, and he chose his words carefully.

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"There's a lot of interesting casework inside."

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"On what, girls voting?" The man rolled his eyes. "They got the vote! They won. What more do these dames need?"

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"In Quebec they only got the vote last year. Like, you could have knocked a girl up before they had the right to vote and still not have a kid yet. Just give it back, okay? It's a library book. They'll tan my ass like leather if I lose it."

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Daniel moved to take it back, and the other man held the book up high, out of reach. "Who gives a shit about Quebec? Bunch of Frenchies anyways. Why do you want to read about girl stuff like this anyways?"

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"Extracurricular reading."

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"Sure it is."

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"Just give it back."

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"Make me."

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"Curtis, I don't want any trouble - " Daniel looked past the larger man, and felt a flood of relief. He waved to the man who was walking up. "Conrad!"

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"Daniel! Class is out and I'm not drunk! I gotta do something about that! Hey Curtis. What's goin' on?"

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"Curtis was just asking about a book I checked out. Right, Curtis?"

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Curtis looked to the newcomer. Conrad Francis had dark hair in a crew cut, like the jarheads currently fighting overseas. He was studying to be a mechanic, which meant a lot of heavy lifting that showed all over his body. Not as tall as Curtis, but Conrad was taller than Daniel and he had a reputation as a brawler, the kind of man who wouldn't even notice a cut until the other guy had stopped trying to get back up. Curtis could take one or the other, but both...?

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"Whatever, queers." Curtis reared back, and threw the book into the bushes. Daniel bolted after it, and Curtis walked away, leaving Conrad feeling vaguely puzzled.

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He jogged after Daniel, who surfaced from a snowbank, brushing snow off a book. "What was that about?"

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"He's just a jerk."

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"'A History Of Women's Suffrage.' Oh boy." Conrad chuckled. "Why you gotta be reading that?"

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"Extracurricular activities - "

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"You were whining about how you were neck deep in tort law last week and now your class moved on to social justice? Pull the other one."

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Daniel sighed. "I just – you ever stop and – it's nothing."

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"Right." Conrad waited, knowingly.

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"It's Carol," said Daniel, to fill the silence. "She and I broke up."

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"Over this?"

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"I – I just acted like a jerk. Not to her, to her roommate. It was like cold water got splashed on my face. Like I just woke up. You know what the admission's policy is for a woman to get admitted to being a med student here?"

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"Same as guys, it's 90% on the admissions test."

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"But here's the thing, they'll accept an 85% or higher if you appeal and they're won over by your case. I looked it up and since the college was founded thirty years ago there's been sixty-seven successful appeals – all men. Not one woman. For women, they are strict as hell with that. It's stuff like that. I didn't know how lucky I was."

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"Lucky? Daniel – every time I wanted to go out drag racing in high school with you, you were nose deep in a book. You worked your ass off to get here."

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"So did Carol. She works harder than I do. Still not enough. I didn't know how much easier I had it."

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"So what're you going to do about it? You'll, what, quit the program in protest?"

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"No! No. I'm just... I'm remembering why I wanted to get in."

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"Oh God, the free law clinic fantasy. This is about as boring as you laughing at that Carlill V. Carbolic Smoke Ball case." Conrad shook his head. "Danny, come on. You're a man, and more important you're a man, on a co-ed campus, where every other guy without a college admission is fighting the Axis! There's plenty of fish in the sea. Just get over it. C'mon, it's beer o'clock."

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"You go. I'll catch up. Need to dry this off."

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Conrad sighed. "Just get it together, okay?"

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"Okay. Seriously, I'll catch up."

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Conrad nodded, and walked off, waving as he went. Daniel turned and walked in the opposite direction, towards the library.

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There would be water damage to the book, he knew that. He briefly considered saying he'd lost it, but he'd wind up paying for it no matter what, so he might as well be honest. Maybe they could dry it off. He crossed through the sciences building in an effort to get out of the cold.

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He thought about how he'd never given a second thought to walking the grounds after the sun set, and how many times Carol had asked him to walk her home. He thought about why that was, and he felt ill.

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Just like Carol asked, he put himself in her shoes – only in his head, but it was all he could do. He imagined a world where everything was tilted slightly uphill. Where the only reason you could get a job at the factory was because all the men were off dying, and where you only got the right to vote in living memory – something he took for granted, as Daniel realized he'd only ever voted once.

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There wasn't anything he could do, though. He didn't make the rules. He benefited from them, without thinking or trying, sure, but he didn't make them, and how could he change them?

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Then he asked himself if he was just making excuses so he could feel better, and he wound up feeling worse.

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His head was full of thoughts of her, and a growing realization of just how little he really knew about people who were only a little bit different than him – or rather, who should only be a little bit different than him, but thanks to society were so far from him it felt like swimming across an ocean. He was filled with guilt over how he'd made things a little bit worse for someone who'd already had it worse than he ever would. He felt that there was an inequity to the world that he'd never be able to bridge.

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He felt...

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He felt lost.

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Daniel looked up and realized he'd wandered, without thinking, into a part of the building he'd never been in before. He looked around for a map, or someone to ask directions, but there was no one.

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"Oh. Okay. Ah." He turned around, trying to retrace his steps, and realized that he hadn't been paying attention to a thing for the last five minutes. "Oh boy. I'm an idiot."

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He wandered for a few minutes more. He was deep inside the building, with no windows on any side. There were doors, but they were all locked. The only hint as to where he was were signs proclaiming this the ÆTHERIC SCIENCES CENTRE, which he's heard a little about, but only a little.

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"Everyone's off getting drunk but oh no, I had to return a library book. Good one, Daniel. Let's see if anyone's home here..." Daniel stared at the thickly set steel doors, and the stenciled sign reading ÆTHERIC TESTING CHAMBER 02. "Okay, maybe not in there, that - "

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There was the sound of a gunshot from behind the doors. Daniel blinked. "Uh - " He looked around, and no, he was still alone...

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He ran for the door, wrenching one open on pure adrenaline – and thank God, it was unlocked – and he burst forth into the testing chamber. He took in the scene.

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There were two large, humming devices pointed at a small pedestal, each one marked ÆTHERIC LATHE 01 or 02 respectively. There was man in some kind of shielded metal suit, colored gunmetal gray that was rapidly turning dark red, and there was a man about his age holding a pistol in one hand and a handled canister in the other. The canister had clear walls and it was full of porridge. But at a second glance, no, it wasn't porridge. Daniel had grown up in an orphanage and he knew his way around porridge, and that wasn't it.

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"What the hell are you doing here!?" they shouted at each other.

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Daniel instinctively ran towards the man. He got several steps in, then the man realized he had a gun around the same time Daniel did, and Daniel got his hands up as the gun was leveled at him. "Listen! Listen, just let me get him to a doctor and I swear I won't tell them I saw you."

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"He saw me. He knows me. Sorry. Nothing personal." The gun's hammer cocked.

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Daniel had a second to think, and to his credit, he thought fast. Nearby, there was a large, red button with a safety cap flipped up. Maybe it'd make a loud noise or a flash of light, distract him for just a second. It was a very small port in a very large storm, but a port in a storm it still was.

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Daniel slammed his palm down on it. A klaxon roared, and flashing lights filled the chamber. The man was distracted just long enough, and Daniel socked him square on the jaw. The pistol flew from his grip and skittered under a workbench.

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"Yes!"

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The man swung the canister around, cracking it across Daniel's skull. His vision exploded with stars. He collapsed like a bag of wet laundry, cradling his skull, his thoughts scattered like confetti.

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"Where's the damn – where'd it go? Dammit - " There was the sound of footsteps, and then the groan of steel doors slamming shut. Daniel tried to pull himself to his feet. There was a buzzing sound from above, and Daniel looked up to see a shimmering wave of energy crawling along the lathes.

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"Oh. Oh hell." He looked to the prone body on the floor, and at the hole that the bullet had left. Daniel didn't know much about ætheric energies but he knew what a shielded suit looked like and he knew, generally, why you wore one in a place like this. He also knew that a hole in such a suit was bad news. "Oh dammit, I as good as killed you."

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He dragged the man to the door, but the oversight that let Daniel in had been corrected when the man made his way out. Locked, and no keys. After a few seconds of futile pounding on the door, Daniel sighed, slumping. He turned, and faced the shimmering lathes.

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If I stand in front of him, maybe it'll shield him enough. Maybe someone'll come in time and save him at least. I'm sorry, whoever you are. I wish I could get you out of here. I wish I could give you more of a chance than this.

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Daniel set his chin, and thought of beaches full of bullets and men dying to tanks and bombs half a world away, and he told himself that he could do no less. So he stood as still as he could as the lathes continued to vibrate, as he felt his skin tingle and a lightheadedness steal over him...

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Then there was a flash, and a crack of thunder, and the smell of ozone, and Daniel felt nothing at all.

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Then, after the flash, and after the smell of ozone, and after the crack of thunder, Daniel realized he was still alive. He opened one eye, and then the other, and then...

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Then Daniel knew, with a hundred percent certainty, that he'd been out for three minutes and five seconds. He knew the exact dimensions and distances of everything in the room. He knew that the lathes had discharged, and were safe now. Everything was more vibrant, more colorful, and more clear. He hadn't felt like this since the last time he'd upgraded his prescription for his glasses.

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"Wow, I - " Daniel paused at the sound of his own voice, which was much higher. "I - " Then he remembered who he was sharing the room with. He turned around and looked down, and that's when Daniel realized he had breasts.

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Daniel blinked, and stared. His clothing was still intact, but hung strangely on his body. Suddenly his awareness of everything in the room extended to himself. He had a perfect mental image of how he looked, and it would be more accurate to say that it was a perfect mental image of how she looked. He knew that if he touched his you-know-whats, they'd still be real. He knew exactly how big they'd be (big.) He knew he had perfect long blonde hair, perfect ocean blue eyes, perfect eyebrows, perfect teeth, perfect cheekbones, perfect shoulders, perfect arms, hands, waist, hips, butt, legs and feet. He knew that if he took off his pants to check, that what he'd find would be perfect too.

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"Okay. I'm a woman. Okay. Uh. … clearly it was the ætherlathes. They must have triggered it. I absorbed all that ætheric energy and I didn't die so I must have a predisposition towards sympathetic resonances with ætheric energy. How do I know that? Wow, so that's what he meant by the definition of consciousness as applied to protection against self-recrimination, it's so much clearer now oh shit he's still dying - "

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Daniel's hands were a blur. He reached into the bullet hole in the metal suit, and with one finger, tore the front cover off. "Okay." He closed his eyes, his mind flying through conversations he had with Carol, discussions of medical techniques she technically was discouraged from studying but had done so anyways. He didn't remember all of them. He didn't even remember a tenth of them.

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But he remembered an anecdote she'd told about a touch and go bullet wound surgery, and it was enough.

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In mere moments, Daniel had twisted a piece of metal into an impromptu surgical scalpel, using friction to heat it and to help sterilize it. He acted as quickly as he dared, managing to dig the bullet out before the man even had time to scream. He pocketed the bullet and then set to work dressing the wound. Then he kept pressure on it, giving it time to clot somewhat.

"Okay..." He checked the nametag. "… Doctor Neal Neufeld. Just hang on. I'm calling an ambulance right now." He looked around for a phone, and noticed one inside a small plexiglass observation booth. He tugged at the door, which ripped free effortlessly, and he stared at the torn metal sheepishly.

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"Uh. You can take that out of my scholarship." He looked over at his destroyed briefcase, and sighed. "Along with the library book." He tossed the door aside, and grabbed at the phone, spinning the rotary dial from the "0" position.

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"Hello, operator? I need a – " Daniel sighed, holding up the dead phone and staring at the cut cord that ran from the box to the wall. "Well, he planned ahead, I'll give him that." He tossed it aside. "Okay, I guess I have to get you there myself."

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He grabbed a table, tore the legs off, and gently slid him onto it, foisting him up. He pulled the main doors open, and made his way out, moving as quickly as he could without agitating the doctor's wounds. He turned one corner, and then another, and then...

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And then he heard the voices, one turn of a corner away.

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"… you lost your gun, too! I can't believe this. You had one job, Reggie. One! God almighty. He better be back there, or Z is going to have your head."

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"Ty, I swear, it was million to one odds. This kid just walked right in! I cut the cord, I waited until everyone went to Happy Hour at the bar, I go in to grab the goop and not only is the doc there but whoever that kid is just wanders right in. Hell of a right hook, too."

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"Well, the goop's secure. Z'll have it soon. That just leaves the kid and the doc, and I put the word in. We got men at the hospitals. Soon as he shows up, we'll know what to do." Ty and Reggie walked by Daniel, barely even nodding at him (her?) "That's if he's not still there..."

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They walked in silence, and turned the corner. Daniel stared after them, then looked down.

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Daniel was still female, but... not less so? So much as less noticeably so. Less noticeable, period. It was like he'd pulled in on himself, willing himself to look normal, and it had happened. Daniel exhaled. Okay. That's the second most impossible thing I did in the last ten seconds.

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He looked up at the rafters, at the table that was perched gently between them. That would be the first. Daniel exhaled, and crouched, leaping upwards of twenty feet in the air for the second time, and grabbing the table. He pulled it free, and floated gently down to the ground, light as a feather.

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I can float. Oh my God. I can float. … dammit, Daniel, focus, he's going to die, all you did was buy him time. I can't take him to the hospital, they'll be scouring the campus, so where can I hide him? Where would they never think to check?

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Then Daniel nodded. Same place I'd never think to.

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"Carol, he's going to die. I can't take him to the hospital or else the men who want him dead will kill him. I need your help. Also, it's me. It's Daniel. Hi. Is Jenny around? I need to apologize."

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Carol stared, dumbfounded, at the woman holding a table in one hand with a fully grown, bloody adult male in a hazard suit sitting atop it. "… come again?"

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"Carol, he's going to die. I can't take him to the hospital or else - "

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"I heard you! Christ, get him inside, he'll freeze!" Carol waved Daniel in from the cul-de-sac formed by the buildings that made up the on-campus housing.

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"It's not - " Daniel noticed his breath was forming clouds. "Oh, I guess I don't notice that sort of thing any more." He passed the table to Carol, who stared at him blankly. "Oh right, I'm super-strong too. I'll explain everything."

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"Just – just bring him inside. God, he's in bad shape. You really should have gone to a hospital..." Carol waved Daniel and the doctor inside. "Hell, even the medical facility on campus would have been better."

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"Yeah, but they're looking for him! No one'll look here, because they're all men looking for him so they'll overlook us here."

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"… sure, yes, whatever. Jenny! Call Doctor Seaborne!" Carol bellowed into another room as Daniel set the table down.

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"What? Won't they notice?"

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"If they didn't notice you coming here, they won't notice Doctor Seaborne either. But I can at least clean the wound." She checked the dressing. "… it's actually not bad. Whoever you are, you did a good job."

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"Carol, it's me, Daniel, honest."

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"Ugh. Why do you need Doctor Seaborne?" Jenny poked her head out, dark hair tussled. "Is that a dead guy? Who's she?" She pointed lazily at Daniel. "Is this important? I had, like, no sleep last night..."

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"Just call him! Whatever, 'Daniel.' I know Daniel and he doesn't look like that. He wears the same glasses as you, granted, but - "

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"Oh yes! I find it's easier to focus on looking less, uh, less overt when I'm wearing them. I just tie my hair back and put them on and it's like they look right through me."

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"Oh my God that man's going to die!" Jenny threw the door open. "We have to call – right, I'll call him!" She slipped past Daniel and grabbed for the phone.

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"You just wear glasses and no one recognizes you? Come on. Look, thanks. Thanks for dumping a half-dead man on my doorstep, I appreciate it, now stop it, this isn't funny. Who are you? Really, who are you?"

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"I'll prove it's me."

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"Oh, sure you will." Carol folded her arms. "Go ahead."

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"I have to wait."

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"Wait for what?"

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Daniel chucked a thumb at the other room. "Her."

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Carol arched an eyebrow. "… okay..."

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After a minute, Jenny came back into the common room. "Okay, I called him. Is he going to be okay? Do I need to boil water or something?"

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Carol coughed. "Different medical procedure, that." She waved at Daniel. "Okay. Go ahead. Prove it."

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Daniel looked to Jenny, and felt the hot stab of guilt all over again. "Jenny, listen. Carol told me everything. About – never mind what about, it wouldn't make it okay even if it wasn't all true. Jenny, I'm sorry I called you fat. I'm sorry me and the other guys made fun of you in the cafeteria. I was a moron. No, I wasn't just a moron, I was a shitty person. I shouldn't have done it. I'll never do anything like it again. And you shouldn't stick a finger down your throat if you think you ate too much. I'm sorry about, you know, society saying you should. You look pretty. You look beautiful." Daniel paused. "Not that Carol doesn't look beautiful! You look beautiful too. Not that I'd want to date you over her – that is I would want to date you – but not at the same time – not that I'd say no oof - "

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Daniel gasped as Carol all but collided with him, hugging him. "Only Daniel could make an apology so bad sound so sincere! Oh my God it is you! How did this happen? You're all - " She made a wavy gesture with one hand.

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"Uh, well, I figure it's probably ætheric energy."

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"How did you do that?"

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"Like I said, ætheric energy, I think it supercharged my physical and mental facilities and – "

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"No, I mean, how did you pronounce that word like that? I keep pronouncing it as 'aether.'"

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"Oh. Uh, I don't know. I just do."

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"I'm kind of lost." Jenny held up her hand. "You say you're Daniel? That guy with the glasses who puts half a can of Dapper Dan in his hair every day?"

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"Uh, yeah."

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"And now you look like this?"

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"Well, sometimes I look like this." Daniel reached up and plucked the glasses off his face. He let go of the ætheric energy within him, letting it expand outwards... literally, in some cases. He exhaled. "It's not really invisibility so much as – uh."

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Daniel looked at Jennifer and then at Carol, and followed their lines of sight, and suddenly had a keen, intuitive insight into what the book had deemed 'the male gaze.' "Hey! Up here!"

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"Oh my God, fuck you." Jennifer stuck her tongue out at Daniel. "I eat a cracker and I feel guilty. You just trip and fall ass-backwards into a body like that? And you're tall too! You don't need heels! I'm going to go jump off a – I feel bad."

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"Wow." Carol tilted her head. "Well. Aetheric energy, you said?"

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"Yeah, this full-on blast of ætheric energy. He was bleeding to death in a test chamber and I thought I could shield him, so that he wouldn't be irradiated through the hole in his suit..."

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"Aetheric energy travels right through the human body."

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"… oh."

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"Well, you still saved his life. Must have been a small hole." She checked his pulse. "It's weak, but steady. If Seaborne gets here soon I think he'll be okay."

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"So you know about ætheric energy?"

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"… a little bit..." Carol looked away.

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"Carol?"

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"There's a few medical papers on dynamos. If I'm good enough with my grades, Doctor Seaborne lets me read them. I think you're one of them. But, ah."

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"A dynamo? Actually that makes sense! That would explain why I can lift the table one handed. Uh, what's with 'but, ah?'"

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"Well, in many cases, there's an element of wish fulfillment when powers manifest. Not all, but a lot. You get the powers you think you want."

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"Oh. But why would - " Daniel paused, thinking over his thoughts from the past day. "Oh. … ohhhhh."

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"I didn't mean it literally! It was a metaphor! I wanted you to metaphorically put yourself in my shoes for one day!"

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"It's about the only thing of yours he'll fit into - " Jenny held up her hands, grinning, as both Daniel and Carol stared daggers at her. "Hey, take it as a compliment?"

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"So that's what it feels like." Daniel ran a hand through his hair, and replaced his glasses, pulling his energies back in. "Okay, I think I hear a car. I'm going to go see if that's Seaborne."

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Daniel made his way to the door. Carol and Jennifer exchanged looks. "So. Your boyfriend, huh?"

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"... yes?"

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"Even if he can't turn back?"

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"Let's not talk about that."

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"Hey, c'mon, it'll come up sooner or later. Don't shoot the messenger - "

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There was the sound of a gun being cocked. Jennifer and Carol looked to the doorway, as Daniel stared down the barrel of a familiar gun wielded by a familiar face. "Well, well. I know that face, don't I? Yeah, I saw you before." He looked over Daniel's shoulder. "Oh, thank God, I've been looking all over for him - "

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He aimed the gun, but never got a change to fire it. Daniel wound up a fist, and -

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If I hit him full force I'll pulverize him. Too little force and I'll fail to knock him out at all. Tilt of his jaw here, angle there...

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- and Daniel hit the man for the second time in one day, sending him flying a good ten feet. He landed, out cold, and his backup – Ty, that was the name – just stared at the two of them.

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Ty didn't hesitate, and raised his pistol. Daniel felt the energy surge back out once more, as there was a shimmer in the air... then the shimmering aura focused, around Daniel's eyes, and he gave Ty a hard look even as Ty squeezed the trigger.

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BOOM

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Ty flew backwards into his car, also out cold, leaving a considerable dent in the siding. The shimmering faded, and Daniel looked down.

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"Oh my God, Daniel! Daniel! Are you okay? Who are they? What was that?" Carol bolted out the door, and surveyed the scene.

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"I'm fine! I'm bulletproof. … that would have been nice to know earlier, I could have guarded him at the hospital. Also, I can punch people from far away! That would have been useful too. Why didn't this stuff come with a manual? It really should."

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Jennifer walked out the door after Carol, and nudged the closest one with her shoe. "Well, he's out." She kicked him gently. "Don't shoot Carol's girlfriend, you jerk."

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"He's not my girlfriend."

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"... I'm not?"

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"I mean, he is, but he's – let's just – focus. They'll freeze out here. We'll have to hide them inside. And we'll have to hide the car too."

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Daniel frowned, and then groaned. "Aw, no."

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"What? What is it? What's wrong?"

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"What's wrong is that I know the perfect person to call when you need to get rid of a car."

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"You did the right thing in calling me, Daniel. I know exactly how to get rid of a car."

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Conrad, to his credit, did know a lot about how to get rid of a car, although Daniel wasn't sure he believed him when he swore he only used this skill for good. Since Daniel could lift a car, Conrad wisely decided to let him push the car into the lake.

,,

"I appreciate it, Conrad."

,,

"So what's it like? Do you cry a lot now?"

,,

"No, I don't cry a lot now."

,,

"Do you want to talk about your feelings more?"

,,

"Actually, yes, I'd like to talk about how it feels to get asked two dozen of these questions after getting shot, getting caught up in a criminal something-or-another, and getting turned into a super-strong bulletproof woman who has... whatever it is when you stare at someone and they get punched."

,,

"Boom vision?"

,,

"I – boom vision? … actually, that's not bad." Daniel gave the car one last shove, and watched it sink into the lake. "Yeah. Boom vision."

,,

"Oh, shit, I forgot my keys, you'll have to swim in and - " Conrad laughed at Daniel's flat glare. "I had to try."

,,

"Well, I'll have to swim in later to pull it out."

,,

"Why?"

,,

"Same reason I didn't want to let them freeze to death outside. We're just hiding them for a day or two until this all blows over."

,,

"That car is going to be wrecked by the water."

,,

"They can add the bill to the door, the table, and the library book." Daniel exhaled. "Okay, let's head back to the dormitory." They trudged back to Conrad's car, a rusted jalopy held together with Conrad's tinkering.

,,

"Am I allowed in?"

,,

"I'll vouch for you." Daniel hopped in the passenger side, as Conrad started the car.

,,

"So you and I are going steady?"

,,

"No, you and I are on a break."

,,

"... what about you and Carol?"

,,

"Uh... well..." Daniel exhaled. "... true love finds a way?"

,,

"Oh man..."

,,

Conrad got a faraway look, and started to veer off the road. Daniel's hand shot out and grabbed the steering wheel. "Conrad! Drive!"

,,

"Sorry! Sorry. Why aren't you driving?"

,,

"'Well, officer, the reason I don't look like my driver's license is because of ætheric radiation, which does this to people now, apparently.'"

,,

"Hmm." Conrad drove in silence for a few minutes, deep in thought. "Daniel?"

,,

"Yeah?"

,,

"You think they're going to let you back into class?"

,,

"I - " Daniel sighed. "I hope so."

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"Everything's changed, hasn't it?"

,,

"Yeah."

,,

They drove the rest of the way in silence. When they returned to the dormitory, Daniel exhaled with relief at the new car. "Thank God, he's here."

,,

Daniel walked up to the door, and knocked on it gently. Jennifer opened it. "Oh, hi! He's going to be okay."

,,

"Who're they?" A sleepy looking man who was bent over the man on the table stood up. He pushed his spectacles up his nose, regarding the two of them.

,,

"Uh, this is Carol's friend Daniel... le. Danielle. And this is Danielle's friend..."

,,

"I'm Conrad." He smiled at Jenny. "Hi. I fix cars."

,,

"I study English literature."

,,

"That's hot."

,,

"Oh. Thanks."

,,

Doctor Seaborne coughed. "This is the woman's dormitory, sir...?"

,,

"Oh, I was just leaving. So have you studied Hobbes' Leviathan yet? I'm not sure I buy the statement he's making about society..."

,,

Jennifer's eyes lit up. "Wait, you study English literature too?"

,,

"Wait, you read?" added Daniel.

,,

"Where's the boy," added Doctor Neufeld.

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"Yeah, I read. I'm an enlightened man. Hey, he's not dead." Conrad pointed at the prone form on the table. "I think he's asking for..." He looked at Daniel. "Someone."

,,

"What?" Doctor Seaborne whirled around. "Neal! It's me, Perry. Don't try to talk. I'm here. We'll get you to proper medical care - "

,,

"They'll be at the hospital. Listen. The boy who saved me. Tell him I said thank you... and then tell him to hide. That man, Reginald... he spent half a year infiltrating the project. He made off with the ætherfiber. It's too dangerous to leave in the wrong hands..."

,,

"Ætherfiber?" Daniel approached the table, leaning in. "I'll find him. What's this about ætherfiber?"

,,

"How do they pronounce that?" wondered Carol aloud. She looked to Jenny. "Is it my accent?"

,,

"Deft tongue," Conrad replied. Jenny put her hand over her mouth to stifle a smile.

,,

"The ætherfiber conducts aether. It can be reshaped by it. It can withstand incredible pressures and extreme environments..." Doctor Neufeld shook the fog from his head. "We were testing its veracity for high-bandwidth communications."

,,

"Anyone here study that?" asked Daniel. Upon seeing three people shrug, he turned back. "I'm going to need you to explain that."

,,

"Trans-continental communications. It's how we coordinate our forces in the Pacific and Atlantic theaters of war. We were testing ways to transmit more than just words... more detailed information at faster speeds. And now I realize... I was so blind..."

,,

"Doctor, who's got it? Who's got it and what are they doing with it?"

,,

"Reginald fed me half the equations I was using. He appealed to my ego. I even thought they were my idea. Either he's a genius or he's working for one. He told me... he told me..."

,,

"What?"

,,

Doctor Neufeld exhaled, and closed his eyes. Doctor Seaborne double-checked the dressings and stitches. "Just rest. Don't say anything. Danielle, he's fine, but I must insist you all give him some space."

,,

"Okay, my car's got heat. We can wait out there." Conrad waved towards the window.

,,

"You go. I need to get something. With Danielle." Carol jerked her head towards her bedroom. "Come on, Danielle."

,,

Daniel frowned, and followed Carol into her bedroom. "Why do you need me – oh."

,,

The two of them stared at the two men, bound and gagged, on the bed. One of them was stirring – Reginald, Daniel recognized him – but between the gag and the steel cable that Daniel had twisted into handcuffs and leg irons, he wasn't going anywhere.

,,

"Right." Daniel grabbed Reginald off the bed, and popped the window open. He dumped Reginald unceremoniously outside, then shut the window. "Thanks for that thing that you wanted to give me, Carol," he announced, a little too stiffly. "Let us go outside now."

,,

A few minutes later, after having dragged Reginald far enough from the dorms that no one would overhear, Daniel relaxed, letting the aether flow freely through his body again as he shook Reginald awake.

,,

"Nn. Whuh - " Reginald met Daniel's gaze. "Oh."

,,

"I know your name's Reginald. I know you worked with Doctor Neufeld. I know you fed him ideas for how to use and cultivate the ætherfiber for transcontinental communications. Now I'd like to know why."

,,

Reginald laughed. "He'll kill me."

,,

"Not around me, he won't."

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"He's going to fire a much bigger bullet at you. And you won't even see it coming. What he's created... you've never seen anything like it. It'll - " Reginald looked skyward.

,,

"What?" Daniel turned to look.

,,

"Nothing. Do whatever you want. I guarantee you it'll be faster than what he does to you."

,,

"Maybe I'll just keep you close. Make sure whatever happens to me happens to you."

,,

"Ha." He looked skyward again. "You're not that intimidating WOAH - "

,,

Daniel tossed Reginald up in the air, clearing at least a dozen feet, and caught him gently. "Want to try that again?"

,,

"It's - "

,,

"Why do you keep looking up?"

,,

"The Rain of Fire. The Reign of Zenith."

,,

Daniel frowned. "I have no idea what that... is..." Daniel drifted off, looking up for long moments, the only sound on the winter's breeze being Reginald's frantic panting.

,,

"What is it?" Carol looked to Jennifer. "I don't hear anything..."

,,

Daniel's eyes widened. "... take cover. TAKE COV - "

,,

BOOM

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"Platform 03 reports early detonation failure. I say again, Platform 03 reports early detonation failure."

,,

The room was covered in monitors, with a dozen men stationed at them, wearing sweaters to keep them warm in the under-heated bunker. The distant thrumming of power generators lend a rhythmic cadence to the proceedings, broken only by chatter and the clicking sounds of knobs being twisted and dials being turned.

,,

In the center of the room was a chair – well, at least, others would call it a command chair, but he knew what the proper title was. He rose from his throne, bearing black hair cut short with an electric razor, and piercing green eyes that looked to the monitor denoting Platform 03. He tugged at the collar of his suit – jet black with a red shirt and black tie – and spoke.

,,

"Well, we knew that inferior local engineering would fail us sooner or later. Are the other platforms in position?"

,,

"Moving into position now. Sir..."

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"Speak."

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"The targets are still alive."

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The man in the black and red suit looked at the monitor, and nodded. "Lucky, lucky, lucky." He clucked his tongue. "The entire continent's lucky, when you get down to it. Over here we contend with the threat of missile and rocket warfare, building bomb shelters and scrambling at the sound of an air raid siren. But they sit quite cozily away from it all. There has never been a sustained rocket attack on North American soil, has there?"

,,

"No, sir."

,,

"Let's fix that, shall we?" He raised his voice. "All stations, weapons free on the platforms. Initiate the Rain of Fire. Prepare the telegraph to the Canadian government to go out within the hour. I want to take full credit for this. I want them to know that I sat half a world away in a very comfortable chair and watched it all on television while a major city was burnt to dust." He sat back upon his throne, propping a knee up. "And tell them that any time he wants to? Zandar Zenith will do this again."

,,

The operators all nodded, and set to their tasks. The camera on Platform 03 zoomed in on the scene below.

,,

The blonde girl, the one with the strength, was rubbing her eyes. Around her, around all of them, were disintegrated chunks of shrapnel. Daniel looked to the others. "Everyone... ow. Everyone okay?"

,,

"Conrad took some in the leg..." Carol blinked, as Daniel was there in a blur. They hoisted him up together.

,,

They hobbled halfway back to the house before Daniel handed Conrad over to Jenny. "I'm going to go get Reginald. He'll tell me what that was. It - " Daniel looked skyward again, and stared.

,,

The sky was full of falling stars. Whistling bombs descending upon the city of Calgary, streaking red hot across the sky. They didn't originate anywhere on the ground. They were falling from something – a whole group of somethings, just hovering up in the sky.

,,

"Danny? DANNY!"

,,

Daniel saw the streak of light, and narrowed his eyes, a crack of thunder ringing out... but due to distraction, due to inexperience, or due to simple dumb luck, Daniel missed. The bomb struck.

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Reginald was vaporized in an instant. Daniel managed to stay on his feet, but the shockwave send everyone else sprawling. Glass windows shattered for blocks around. Snow sprayed everywhere. Daniel stared, slack-jawed, at the smoking crater where a man once stood.

,,

"Daniel! Dan, what was that?" Conrad looked to the sky. "They're like rockets, but I can't see where they're coming from!"

,,

"Up there somewhere. Floating weapons platforms." Daniel squinted. "That'd be why we see the fall but not the rise."

,,

"There's so many. How do we – I don't even know where the nearest bomb shelter is - " Carol shook her head. "My God, we have to get to the basement - "

,,

"I can get up there."

,,

Carol stared at Daniel. "Danny, what...?"

,,

Daniel crouched, one knee resting on the ground. He put his fingers on the snow-covered ground. "I can get up there."

,,

"How? You're just going to jump?"

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"No." I thought it was a jump. I thought it was just floating. But it's more. Even if it's not more... even if it's not more, I need it to be more. I have never needed anything more than I need this.

,,

The air, suddenly turbulent, grew just as suddenly still. Carol took a step back, feeling the hairs on her neck standing up. "Everyone, get inside. Help get Doctor Neufeld and Conrad into the basement."

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"But – Carol - " Jenny looked to Conrad, then to her roommate.

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"Trust me. Danny's got this."

,,

I don't know if I'm bombproof. It doesn't matter, I've got a better shot than anyone else of surviving. I can get up there. I just need... I just have to...

,,

Daniel exhaled.

,,

Just let go.

,,

Daniel let go.

,,

In his wake, snow sprayed in all directions, as Daniel shot into the sky, fast as a bullet from a gun.

,,

He cleared the rooftops in an eyeblink. Within seconds he saw a fresh rocket light up, and instantly he traced the path it had taken. He changed course to intercept it, and his eyes flared with energy again. The rocket exploded in a sound of thunder, scattering debris across the sky.

,,

He traced the path, and saw it. Held aloft by a trio of rotors, about the size of a truck. Built with scraps of metal riveted into place, with nothing to mark its origins other than the stenciled numbers "03." It had slots for eleven rockets loaded underneath it, with two empty slots. Nine more chances to kill, that Daniel wasn't about to give it.

,,

He reached underneath and tore the launch mechanism free. In a blur, his hands dismantled each rocket, dumping wires and chemicals over his shoulders. He saw the camera, and punched through it, glass shattering against his skin, as he reached inside and tore out the combustion engine holding the platform aloft.

,,

By this time, he'd already tracked the vectors of every other rocket he'd seen in the sky. He knew exactly where he was, and where they were. He sped off through the night towards the closest, and caught its payload just as it left.

,,

It lit aflame in his hands, burning white hot. Daniel stared at it... and more specifically, what it was coated with.

,,

"The sheathing pops off and the coating ignites. They wanted it to be visible..."

,,

He crushed the bomb into a paperweight in his hands. It gave off a muffled thump as a tiny part of it exploded.

,,

"They wanted us to see them coming."

,,

As fast as he'd moved before, he flew with a renewed purpose that would have left that Daniel standing still.

,,

The papers the next day – and there was a next day – reported that as bad as the attack had been, it could have been far worse. That the city had picked up its own guardian angel, someone described as impossibly beautiful, swooping down from the sky, catching bombs and crushing them, spiriting people out of the way of explosions, freeing people trapped inside of tipped cars. She never did more than ask if everyone she met was okay. She never asked for thanks, even though everyone had thanks to spare.

,,

Daniel remembered a flash that was probably a flashbulb, going off as he lifted a car off of someone it had rolled onto, and knew there was nothing to be done for it. He just kept on.

,,

The last platform tried to outrun him, unsuccessfully. He reached it, and tore the rotors off. Then he carefully removed the fuel tank, popped the top off, and looked inside.

,,

Okay. The others burnt X amount of fuel less than this one has, meaning it burns X * Y amount of fuel per minute, giving it a flight radius of X * Y * Z kilometers. Factoring vector, factoring attack times as some got into position early...

,,

For a full minute, he calculated, intuitively. He looked across the landscape of the city below. He narrowed it down to three possible warehouses... only one of which had what looked like a freshly installed aluminum retractable roof.

,,

Smart. The warehouse district is empty at night. No one would notice. Well... no one else...

,,

Daniel saw activity below as he came in for a landing. Men with guns. More men with guns. Right now he could go the rest of her life without seeing another man with another gun...

,,

One of them saw him. All of them opened fire. The bullets shredded his already burnt and ash-stained clothes. One of them bounced off his teeth, which made him flinch slightly. He decided to wait until they were done, before he spoke.

,,

"Okay. You saw that didn't work. Now – hey, stop reloading - "

,,

One of them slapped a fresh clip in his machinegun and trained it on Daniel, firing another thirty rounds at him. He sighed, waiting for him to finish, before continuing. "Come on, it's not like a new bullet's going to push the old one further in – what - "

,,

The gun came flying towards him, thrown by the frustrated gunman. He caught it, and looked at him askance. "Yeah. Yeah, that's gonna work when the bullets didn't." He tossed it aside. "Any more bright ideas? No?"

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The men looked at each other. One of them shrugged. "That's all we got."

,,

"Didn't work too well."

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"Nope."

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"Look, I'm going to have to tie you up for the cops. Are you going to make me punch you out one by one or are you going to give me a break and let me do it?"

,,

"For Zenith! For the Rain of Fire!" One of them put his hands up. "I must warn you, I know the Eastern fighting arts."

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"Well, that's terrific. Just – just stay there, okay? I want to show you something." He walked past them, and towards a parked truck. With one hand, he grabbed the fender, and lifted it up. He waved it around a little, for show. "So do the Eastern fighting arts teach you to do this?"

,,

"They... do not."

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"You got any idea how much it'll hurt if I hit you with this?"

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"I have a pretty good idea."

,,

"Can I tie you all up now?"

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The man put his hands down, defeated. "Okay."

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Within a few minutes, steel from the truck's flatbed had been re-purposed into a series of gags and handcuffs. Daniel tied the last one into place, and nodded. "Now, your boss is inside?"

,,

"Uhuhhhh."

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"Just – just nod or shake your head."

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The man nodded.

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"I'm going to go get him. See you soon." Daniel headed towards the main entrance, pulling the locked door off its hinges and tossing it over her shoulder.

,,

Inside was a sight to behold, a refitted manufacturing facility that should have been producing parts for aircraft engines for the Allied war effort, and now was lent to aircraft construction of a different sort. There were transmission towers of some kind, lining the walls, turning the whole warehouse into one giant antenna. Clever design, thought Daniel. He followed the wiring and cables towards the center of the warehouse, where the ætherfiber sat, plugged into a machine that hummed softly.

,,

She reached towards it to pull it out, and then heard the footsteps behind her. She whirled around, and then she stopped, and stared.

,,

The man in the black and red suit smiled. "It's a telepresense system. War by remote control." He paced around her. "As long as we have a sufficient quantity of ætherfiber at either end to create a sufficient quantity of bandwidth, we can do much more than send mere telegraphs or a few seconds of video. We can control an entire fleet of aircraft from half a world away... which is where I am right now."

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"You're a robot."

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"I am controlling a robot. I am as human as you." The robot smiled. "Exactly as human as you."

,,

"You're a dynamo?"

,,

"They call them 'ubermensch' in Germany. I like their term more. I like a lot of things here more, that anything I ever found in your country."

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Daniel frowned. "Zenith?"

,,

"Zandar Zenith. At your service."

,,

Daniel said nothing.

,,

"I had randomized the flight paths enough that I estimated the origin of the attack would be untraceable, and we'd leave in the middle of the night... some of us, anyways. They all agreed to help because they knew that after the bombing, there would be quite a market for drugs, vice, guns, and other elements that, dispensed carefully, would cause social destabilization all over this little oil town. But you found us. I'm impressed. I very rarely am, Miss..."

,,

Daniel said nothing.

,,

"Suddenly you're quite quiet. Interesting. I don't suppose I can persuade you to leave that canister of ætherfiber where it sits?"

,,

Daniel shook his head.

,,

"Well then." Zenith opened his mouth. A gout of flame shot out, engulfing Daniel. He staggered back, batting at the flames frantically until they died down enough to see again.

,,

"You thought that'd hurt me?"

,,

"Now I know that it won't. Totally unhurt. Amazing." The nozzle retracted into the mouth. "Such a magnificent view in Calgary, isn't there? Gorgeous mountains."

,,

"What are you talking aboh fuck you - " Daniel crossed an arm across his breasts, exposed by the gout of flame burning away his sweater. He reared back with the other fist. The punch went through the robot's head in a shower of sparks. He pulled it free, and drop-kicked it into the ceiling, hard enough to dent.

,,

He pulled the canister of ætherfiber free, holding it up. "All this over super-porridge." He shook his head, and cast his gaze around, looking for a coat or a sweater to wear. He didn't manage to spy one before he realized that pulling the canister free had caused a very soft ticking noise to start, somewhere in the warehouse...

,,

"For the love of Christ," he bemoaned, as the warehouse started to explode. "This just isn't fair."

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The national guard was activated. Various members of ACE, the Allied Coalition of Extranormals, were sent in. The Prime Minister and the Queen gave a radio address. Stormtrooper, the most famous Canadian dynamo, made an appearance in person, commemorating those lost in the attack.

,,

He spoke to a crowd of hundreds, and spoke about how the war had come home. About how now, every able-bodied man was needed on the front lines to push back against the Axis. About how if you couldn't help on the front lines, you could help your fellow man by buying war bonds and stamps, and recycling paper and metal and bringing them to your local depot for ration coupons. The most sincere part of the speech, at least from the perspective of the three sitting in the back row, was the thanks given to the city's mysterious guardian angel, who had vanished as suddenly as she had arrived.

,,

"'My fellow man.' See? It's right there. That presumption that male equals normal." Daniel got up as the speech concluded.

,,

"Well, you know what he means." Carol smiled. "But good, you're learning."

,,

"C'mon, I want to go visit Conrad. You can talk about gendered whatever-the-hell later, I want to see his face when he sees what I got him." Jennifer pulled her coat on.

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"You know he hates translated French. Why the Three Musketeers? Why were they even called the Three Musketeers when there were four, come to think of it? France." Daniel rolled his eyes dramatically.

,,

"Well, three normal musketeers." Jennifer pointed at Daniel. "Then there's the one that comes along and changes everything."

,,

* * *

,,

"Danielle! Carol. How are my favorite students?" Neal Neufeld threw his arms wide, or as wide as he could from within a hospital bed.

,,

"Adjusting." Carol sat down. "Daniel doesn't have any family to speak of, so we talked and we decided we were just going to let everyone think what they're already thinking."

,,

"Enough people died that it'd be plausible," added Daniel, a shade morosely.

,,

"Far more would have died without you-know-who." Neal adjusted his glasses, and nodded to Daniel, who adjusted his in turn. "They tell me I'll be out in a month. Then physiotherapy after that. Then back to my research. They've decided not to rely just on no one knowing that we have an ætherfiber sample, this time. The next sample they send will come with armed guards and much stricter security, including for myself. I don't look forward to being a more suspicious man..."

,,

"Suspicious times call for suspicious men, I guess."

,,

Doctor Neufeld eyed Daniel. "Not always."

,,

"Danielle and I have a present for you, Doctor. Dani?"

,,

"Oh! Right." Daniel fished around in his side-bag carry-all – not a purse, honest – as he spoke. "Took me weeks of sneaking around the site. Calculating the vector of every single drop. But... I think..." He pulled out the bag. "I think I got it all scooped up."

,,

"The ætherfiber! Amazing. You calculated all that from memory?"

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"Yeah. Doctor, I wish you could see things as I see it. Everything's sharper, everything's clearer... everything makes more sense. Everything looks beautiful. More beautiful," he added, stealing a glance at Carol. "It's like the best in everything just stops hiding whenever I really look at it. Anyways, here it all is. You can start back up right away. No need to wait for another sample to get synthesized."

,,

"Danielle? Keep it."

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Daniel's eyes widened to saucers. "Doctor... I couldn't - "

,,

"I'll be fine. Lots of things were lost in the attack. You need it more than I. Danielle, that's a far more conductive sample than conventional ætherfiber. It's far more responsive to those gifted few who can channel ætheric energies. When charged and in skin contact with a dynamo, it can be reshaped as you see fit. You could turn it into any set of clothing you imagine... and it would be clothing resilient to trauma, as well." He coughed. "Conrad told me about your troubles."

,,

"He did, did he," said Daniel flatly.

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"Explosion at the warehouse didn't do more than bruise you, but it did far more than that to what you were wearing. He speaks quite often of when you showed up in Carol's backyard - "

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"Please, stop. Doctor, this – yes, thank you, I admit I do need something like it."

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"It's the least I can do. If there's anything else you need..."

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Daniel pursed his lips, looking out the window. "Actually? Yeah. There is something."

,,

* * *

,,

"Oh my God! Daniel, they said yes! I'm in the medical program!"

,,

Carol wrapped Daniel in a hug, which Daniel reciprocated. "You earned it. First female student to win an appeal."

,,

"No, you earned it, when you saved his life - "

,,

"Mm-mm." Daniel shook his head, and placed a finger on Carol's lips. "You earned it. That 87% was yours. I just helped convince them to treat it like a 90%."

,,

"I – I'm gonna be a doctor. Wow." Carol flopped on her couch. "Wow. What about you? You've been in here for two days straight, practicing with your goop - "

,,

"My costume. And yes. Watch." Daniel held his arms out, as the casual slacks and blouse he wore began to ripple, reshaping themselves into an elegant evening dress.

,,

"I want one."

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"Ha, maybe someday they'll make ones that non-dynamos can wear." Daniel concentrated again, reshaping it into a dressing gown. "But yeah. It's amazing."

,,

"Mmmm." Carol leaned back in her chair, eying the dressing gown. "You're getting used to wearing those..."

,,

"I wear pants when I can get away with it. But... ugh. Is it sympathizing with the oppressor if I like dressing up a little?"

,,

Carol laughed. "If it is, sign me up. I wish I looked as pretty as you do with your glasses off."

,,

"Mmmm." Daniel smiled. "You think I'm pretty."

,,

"Ah... yeah. I mean..." She trailed off, staring at Daniel's eyes... those deep, ocean blue, infinitely sympathetic eyes. "I mean... yeah."

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"If there's anything I miss, Carol? I miss us." Daniel sat down gently on the couch.

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"I... I do too."

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"Is there still an 'us?'" Daniel put his palm on the back of her hand.

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"I don't know."

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"Do you want to at least, you know... at least try to find out?"

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"I've never... never even thought about it... I..."

,,

Carol turned her hand over, slipping it into Daniel's.

,,

"Well..." she said, as she leaned in closer. "This is college."

,,

* * *

,,

Daniel hummed contentedly, as he paged through the legal text. He looked over at Carol's sleeping form, and smiled, rubbing her shoulder. "Well. I liked that. I could get used to that."

,,

She didn't answer. Well, Daniel thought, she had a stressful day. Let people who need to sleep, get their sleep. He flipped through the text at a page a minute. Not too much sleep, of course...

,,

After a while, she stirred. He smiled down at her."Hey, did I ever tell you about Carlill Vs. Carbolic Smoke Ball Company? It's amazing. Half of what we know about consumer protection law comes from a ball you had to light and shove up your nose - "

,,

He paused, as he realized she wasn't speaking. "Carol?"

,,

Then he heard her sob, and he put the book down. "Carol? What's wrong?"

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She turned around, her eyes puffy and swollen. "Daniel. I'm sorry."

,,

"… oh."

,,

"I just don't like – I'm sorry. I really tried. It just felt wrong."

,,

"It's okay. It's okay." Daniel put a hand on her shoulder – gently, in case it felt like an advance. "I kind of hoped it would be okay, but – it's fine."

,,

Carol didn't fight the gesture. She put her hands on Daniel's own shoulders. "I wish it was okay. I like you. Even when I didn't, I still did."

,,

"I'm fine. Really. I'm glad you tried. I'd like to think if our positions were reversed, that I'd try too."

,,

"Thanks. Thanks for understanding, Daniel. You'll find someone. I promise." She scooted forward, and kissed him. "You're too nice to be alone."

,,

"We can still cuddle for a bit, right?"

,,

Carol laughed. "When did you become a cuddler?"

,,

"Oh, just guess when."

,,

"Mmm. Okay. Yes, we can." She pulled herself closer. "Like this?"

,,

"Yeah. Yeah."

,,

They lay there for a few minutes, Daniel committing every sensation, all his feelings, and the sum of the moment to memory. He ran his fingers through her hair one last time, knowing it was the last time. He felt the warm of her body one last time, and knew that one last time was enough. At least, it'd have to be.

,,

"Carol, I've been thinking about what I'm going to do next."

,,

"Mmm?"

,,

"First, I think..." He exhaled, and then, she spoke. "I think I want people to call me Danielle from now on. All the time, not just in public."

,,

"Really? Sure, yeah. Why?"

,,

"I think maybe it's who I am. Or if it's not who I really am, it's who I ought to be. Daniel is... in my head, Danielle's more than a fake name now, it's an ideal. A better version of me. I think going by that name... it'll help bring me one step closer to being that person. Does that make sense, or am I being weird?"

,,

"You think you-as-a-woman-is inherently better?"

,,

"No, no, not placing any one gender on a pedestal. I think me-as-a-woman needs a fresh start, is all. Or me-as-a-dynamo. Or me-as-a-better-person, period."

,,

"Okay then. Danielle. I like it. It fits, you actually look like a Danielle. Now, you said 'first,' so second...?"

,,

"Second, I think I'm going to join up with the Aces. Go into the Atlantic theater. Help out with my opposite numbers on the other side. Help people out, period, really."

,,

"Women aren't allowed on the frontlines, though."

,,

"They'll make an exception for me. Or if they won't, then they'll just have to stay out of my way." Danielle plucked a thick textbook from the end table, and spun it on her finger. "After the war, all this is still waiting for me. I read through the year's syllabus in a week. I think I'll be fine."

,,

"The Aces. It's dangerous."

,,

"The whole world's dangerous right now. I shouldn't hide from it. Besides, a warehouse blew up at me. What else can they hit me with? Especially now that I have that outfit. Oh, let me show you the costume I came up with."

,,

Danielle slid out of bed, stretching, and plucked the gray ball off of the floor. She held it up, and closed her eyes. The ball changed colors, and sprouted ribbons, covering Danielle's body in seconds. The outfit shimmered in the morning sunlight, red across the chest, with a white sash around her waist and white sleeves and boots, complimenting black gloves and leggings, and a long, elegant cape.

,,

"What do you think?"

,,

"I like it a lot more than the one Conrad made for you."

,,

"With the bare thighs and bare legs and the window right here?" Danielle drew a circle over her chest. "Pass. A dozen times, pass."

,,

"So are you going with the name they picked out for you, too?"

,,

"… ah. That name. Yes..."

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"Commander on deck!"

,,

Everyone in the mess stood up ramrod straight. Everything fell silent, as the commander walked down the mess, trailed by his assistant and his XO. He was an older man, but in top condition, with a thin white mustache that matched his close cropped white hair. He regarded each sailor in turn, and nodded.

,,

"Shipshape. Well done. At ease. Not you three. What are your names, boys?"

,,

"Sir! Private Benson, sir!"

,,

"Sir! Private Jackson, sir!"

,,

"Sir! Private Francis, sir!"

,,

At this, the commander's assistant looked up from her clipboard – but no, not the Francis she was expecting. The Commander nodded. "My name is Commander Pine. Welcome to ACE Base Atlantic. My assistant tells me you're all new to the boat, and I like to meet the new fish in person. Private Jackson, what is the current location of ACE Base Atlantic?"

,,

"Sir! Our current location is twenty-five miles off the coast of the southern United Kingdom, sir!"

,,

"Good. Private Francis, what is the chain of command that goes beyond the reach of this boat?"

,,

"Sir! ACE Base Atlantic is run by the ACE Directors which consist of one representative from each member nation!" He paused. "Sir!"

,,

"Little late. Work on that. Private Benson, what is our current mission?"

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"Sir! ACE Base Atlantic coordinates communications and operations regarding ACE personnel throughout the Atlantic theater of war, sir!"

,,

"Good. Now, you'll notice we're breaking a little bit with naval tradition here."

,,

"Sir?" Benson looked uncertain.

,,

"The scarves. The same kind of scarves the thrice-damned Air Force loved to wear in the first World War. Self-important jackasses, but enough of them died that when Allied dynamics started coordinating under the Allied Coalition of Extranormals, everyone called them 'aces' as a badge of honor, so we all started wearing the scarves. That brings me to why I'm here. Danielle?"

,,

Danielle stepped forward, carrying three scarves. She blushed a little as they smiled at her, as she put one on each of them.

,,

"You're now officially part of the boat. You will love this boat. You will live and breathe this boat. If it comes to that, you will die defending this boat. For every dynamic we tell where to go, for every Ace that visits here, there are a thousand men like you that make them worth a damn. Remember, it's only a competition against the Axis. We're all on the same team here. Sound off!"

,,

"Sir!" They chorused, snapping off salutes.

,,

"Dismissed." Commander Pine turned to Danielle. "Miss Waters, make sure their paperwork's processed. And if you can have a look at the comm room, the main aetheric communications tether is acting up again."

,,

"Of course, Commander." They saluted, and Danielle went on her way.

,,

As she made her way out, she overheard the conversation. "Sir, with respect, I don't see why you give her so much slack. She keeps odd hours, sometimes she's tough to get ahold of - "

,,

"She is also the most organized and fastest assistant I've ever had, and she knows her way around a navigation chart and a radio better than half the men do. But don't tell them I said that. Or her."

,,

Ha, too late. Danielle slipped out of the mess, and made her way towards her own personal office, set up just the way she liked. Her hammock was in the corner, along with her desk, her filing cabinets, her typewriter and her books. She sat, and pulled a drawer open.

,,

She flipped open to the newspaper clipping she'd kept, from the local paper, with a blurry shot of a woman covered in soot and ash, lifting a car off an injured woman's leg. It was the best shot they'd gotten, and even with the blur, Danielle had to admit that, yes, when the headline proclaimed "She Was a KNOCKOUT," the headline had a point.

,,

She thought back to the conversation she'd had with Carol, that last time in her bedroom. About who 'Danielle' was. Not who she was born as, of course, but maybe who she was meant to be: a better version of herself. She'd decided that part of being that better person meant being a normal person some of the time, someone who was on the ground looking up, instead of always looking down. Someone who knew what a normal person, and a normal woman in particular, went through. Danielle looked out the porthole at the waves gently lapping at the side of the converted aircraft carrier. Danielle Waters. Her little joke, that hurt no one.

,,

She set to her work, and a few seconds later, had a fully typed up set of paperwork. She exited her office, and went to the communications room. She nodded at the two sailors hunched over the machine. "Boys."

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"Miss Waters, we don't feel right letting you do so much work off the clock..."

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"I'll be fine, boys. Give me a few." She knelt carefully, making sure her butt wasn't sticking out, and examined the wiring. "What was that message fragment you said you got?"

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One of them handed her a stack of papers here, which she quickly read through. She nodded, then set to work with the wiring.

,,

No mention of Zandar Zenith anywhere today. Or at all. It's like he vanished.

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Zandar. I swear. It can't be the same man. Can it? I haven't seen him in so long...

,,

"There. That should - "

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The radio blared to life. " - ayday mayday, this is Observation Tower Dover-1161! We have spotted unidentified flying objects approximately fifteen kliks east by southeast across the channel! Objects are closing fast! Objects may be human-shaped! Message repeats, mayday mayday mayday - "

,,

She nodded to the two men on station. "Alert the Commander. He's going to want to know." She slipped out as one set to tuning the radio while the other grabbed the intercom and rang the command center.

,,

She slipped into a supply closet – one of her favorites, with an easily opened porthole. She exhaled.

,, ,,

"Okay then..." She reached up, and pulled her glasses off the bridge of her nose. "Here we go." She smiled, as she sent a mental pulse through her outfit, which began to change shape. "Hang on, Dover. Help's coming."

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