Ashes 2-IV

The Illusion of Free Choice

The frost crunched under my boots as I walked, leaving a trail of melting footprints along the sidewalk behind me. It was exactly as bright as I'd thought it was going to be, the glare off the snow compounded by all the houses whose architects seemed to have heard the saying about glass houses and thought it sounded like something they should follow up on. Add to that the chrome-and-glass skyline, and I was really regretting not grabbing a pair of sunglasses before I'd left. At this rate, I'd be blind by twenty

I huffed out a cloud of misty breath and hiked my scarf back up over my nose, it having slipped down.  Usually, it took me about half an hour to walk from home to school, but I suspected it would take longer this time, what with the weather and- 

"Hanners!" I paused with my foot halfway The cry came as I was about to cross a street, and I turned to see where it had come from.

Running up the street towards me was a stocky girl in a heavy brown winter parka, face-obscuring green scarf and sunglasses (darn it), long black hair flapping out behind her. With her accouterments, it took me a moment to recognize her.

"Sabi!" I held flung my arms out, and she glomped me in a hug. She was about a foot shorter than me, though, so it ended up being a bit unbalanced.

She released me, and I stepped back, smiling as I pulled down my scarf. "Oof. You know I need these." I mimed cradling my ribs, and she laughed, deep and husky, as she pulled down her scarf.

"Nice to see you too," she said with a grin.

"Well, I'd have said it, but I'm trying to cut down on my lying."

"Jerk." She punched me in the arm, a lot stronger than she usually did. "Come on, let's get going, or we’ll be late." We resumed our journey, walking along the street because the sidewalk hadn't been cleared.

"So how've things been with you?" I asked.

"Good, yeah. I'm fine, before you say anything, and so's everyone else."

"So I should just come out and ask?" I said.

"Mm-hmm."

"Okay then. Where the heck have you been? Everything's normal, and then, poof, you're gone. No calls, no texts, nothing."

She sighed. "Yeah, sorry about that, but it was a family emergency. We all flew back over, and... sorry, is it okay if I don't say any more? It's still kind of raw."

I frowned, thankfully invisible behind my scarf. That was... a little unusual. Sabah and I had been friends for years, best friends, even. Generally, we shared pretty much everything, so having her hold something back felt weird. But, friends don't pry.

"Sure, of course. Sorry, Sabi."

"S'okay, you didn't know. So what's going on with you?" she asked, changing the subject.

"Oh, you know, nothing much. You didn't really miss anything important at school-"

"Good, I was worried,"

"-but you did miss a visit from Awestruck."

"What?!" she exclaimed. "You've got to be kidding me. Hannah? Please tell me you're kidding, because if you’re not, I’ll hate you forever."

I grinned at her. "Cross my heart, actually happened. He was dreamy, too."

She gave me a flat look. "One of the most powerful heroes on the planet, an inspiration to us all, and you talk about how dreamy he was?! Sometimes I wonder why we're friends."

Sabah was perhaps the biggest cape geek in existence. She followed all the blogs, all the comics and movies and scandals. Her most treasured possession is a napkin signed by Orbital, and more than once, she's dragged me along to parades and the like, fully dressed in hand-made costumes. It was admittedly a little fun, but I’d never admit it to her, because then I’d have no excuse for dragging her along on shopping trips.

"Well, I can think of at least one reason..." I smirked, as I reached into my bag.

She gasped as I pulled it out. "You didn't."

"I did. You're welcome," I said as I passed it over, but she had eyes only for the picture. She took it reverently, as if holding a religious artefact rather than a picture signed with the words 'Dear Sabah, sorry you couldn't make it. Maybe we'll meet another time. - Awestruck."

She stared at the picture as we walked, completely silent for a full minute. And then, she burst out laughing.

I turned towards her, concerned. "What? What is it? Sabah?"

She doubled over, clutching at her stomach, tears streaming down her cheeks. I stopped walking and looked at her. "This is getting a little creepy, Sab."

At last, the fit died out, and she rose, wiping the tears from her cheeks. "You know, if I wasn't such an amazing friend, I'd be pretty miffed right now," I said.

"Sorry, Hanners, sorry,” she eventually managed to choke out. “It's a great gift, and I really do appreciate it."

"Then why..."

"Hard to explain. Just forget it."

Something seemed... different about my friend; nothing I could put my finger on, but... there was definitely something.

"Hey," I said, putting my hand on her shoulder. "Everything's okay, right?"

She put her hand over mine for a second, then patted it a few times. "Yeah. Yeah, it is."

She smiled up at me, and I smiled back, and we walked the rest of the way to school in amicable silence.

I mean, I was still suspicious, but I could, and would, find out another way.

Ashes 2-III

That Time Again

The sound of sizzling greeted me as I padded downstairs, socked feet on carpet. “There you are.” Dad turned to look at me from where he stood in front of the stove. “Did you fall asleep again?”

“Nah,” I said as I swung myself onto one of the chairs behind the breakfast bar, “I just had some, uh, hair troubles.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Right. Well, I hope these ‘uh hair troubles’ weren’t too major.” He grinned at me, and I smiled back. Dad and I got on well; Mom always said I’d always taken after him, and, at least in looks, she wasn’t wrong. We shared the same face, and although I didn’t have ears as elephantine as his, they were still pretty big. Thankfully, I’d dodged his shock of bright red hair, Mom’s blonde having diluted it.

“Nothing major,” I agreed sheepishly. “What’s cooking?”

“Eggs,” he said, turning back to the stove. “Want some?”

“Ehh, I’m good. We got any of those protein bars left?”

“Hanners, you really shouldn’t eat so many of those. It’s not healthy.”

“It’s healthy,” I protested as I leant down to dig through the cupboard below the bar. I found one hiding behind the cereal boxes and pulled it out. “See? It’s got…” I paused and read the label. “Wow. That is… a lot. Of things. Lots of things.”

“See?” He sounded satisfied. “I told you-”

He was cut off by the sound of me ripping the wrapper off and shoving the whole bar in my mouth. “Mnorrh, twm lmte.”

He sighed. “You’re impossible, Hannah.”

“Ahm-” I swallowed the whole lot in one massive gulp, “I’m storing up fat for the winter.”

He pointed outside, to where at least a foot of snow covered our garden.

“Well, that just makes it even more important, doesn’t it?”

“Impossible.” He sighed again, but it was good-natured.

“Mom already left?” I asked, hoping she had, as he flipped the eggs flamboyantly onto a plate with some toast. "Showoff," I added offhand as he slid the plate across the counter, then walked around and sat down next to me.

“Yeah, some big thing at work going on right now. She left an hour ago, but with this weather I’d be amazed if she got there yet. Speaking of, you going to be okay getting to school?”

I looked outside. The snowfall had obviously been heavy, but it wasn’t snowing now, and the sun shone brightly, reflecting off the pristine snow.

“I think I’ll be fine. Honestly, the glare’s probably going to be the worst.”

He chuckled through a mouthful of food. “Trwue enoff.” Swallow. “Heading off now?”

I glanced at the clock. 9:20, and school started at 10:00. “Probably should, yeah.” I swung off the chair, and started heading back upstairs to grab my bag. “Might be a bit early, but I’m supposed to meet Sabi on the way, so it should even out.”

He looked at up from his plate, surprised. “Oh, is she back at school now?”

I shrugged. “Apparently. She texted me yesterday.”

“Any idea what it was?” he asked, an odd look on his face. My best friend had basically all but disappeared about a month ago, and all attempts to communicate with her had resulted in voicemails and unread messages. But now, apparently she was back. 

“No, she hasn’t said. I think it was family stuff, but I haven’t been prying.”

He nodded, then looked down at his plate. “Fair. Maybe I'll try and drop in on them later if I get the time, see if everything's smooth sailing."

I winced. "Ah, no, Dad, don't do that."

"Why not?"

"Just... don't pry, you know? You know what they're like about that sort of stuff."

"True," he acknowledged. "Gymnastics this afternoon, then?”

“No, not today.” There was, but I wanted to try and get some time to experiment with my new-found powers.

“Alright. I’ll be back later; going round the lake to run some tests.”

“What kind of tests?” I asked, interest piqued.

“Standard sort of stuff, just readings and the like. But we’ve managed to find ourselves a Titan-class who can withstand the radiation, so we can get right into the center of the Blast.”

Dad worked for Vault 101, the small government taskforce that had been created about ten years ago with the express intent of figuring out if Old Chicago could be made inhabitable again, after it became clear that the radiation from the Blast wasn’t going away any time soon. From what I’d picked up over various dinners, their current avenue of attack was energy-absorbent powers, and they’d been petitioning the government to let them borrow John Doe to run some experiments.

“Well, good luck with that. Hope it goes well.”

He acknowledged me with a nod as he turned back to his food. I headed up back up the stairs and to the office, where I kept my bag and school stuff. The room was an odd triangle shape, and we’d never been able to figure out why, but we’d taken advantage of it as best we could. One corner of the room was my dad’s, with various beeping things and tools arranged neatly in rows, another mom’s, with papers and pens scattered everywhere, along with a few mugs of cold tea scattered here and there. The third corner, of course, was mine.

I like to think of myself as an organized person. I’m not, but I like to think of myself as one. I’d decided to get around that in my workspace by simply having very little stuff. A single pad sat in the exact middle of the desk on its charging cradle. On the right side, perfectly aligned with the edge, a single pen and piece of paper, on the left, my phone, also in its charger and also aligned with the edge. On the wall were a few posters of various pieces of media, and a laminated wallboard planner.

I grabbed my bag, an old canvas satchel, from under the desk and slipped the pad into the main pocket. The pen and paper went into the front, the phone in my pocket, and I was ready to go.

I waved goodbye to Dad, who was finishing off his breakfast in the kitchen, grabbed my coat, gloves and hat from the rack, opened the door and stepped out into the cold.

Ashes 2 - II

In The Flesh

Let’s start with the invisibility, 
I thought. It seems like it only works on things that are close to my skin, so clothes and glasses, but not the mirror. Is it permanent? I took off my glasses, and as soon as they left my face, they became visible. So no, I put them back on and they disappeared again, it’s proximity based. Or is it? I held the mirror as close to my stomach as I could, slipping it under my shirt. Oddly, it remained visible, hanging in the air.

So it wasn’t as clear cut as that then. I set that aside for later, it wasn’t important right now. Next point.

Although I’d been a little distracted by the, you know, freaking superpowers, I did still have a life to live, and pretty soon, my dad would be coming up those stairs to check if I was awake. So with that in mind, it seemed like the most important question was,

Can I turn it off?

Permanent effects weren’t uncommon when it came to powers; we’d been learning about it just last week in school, actually. Every Dragon-class had permanent invincibility of some kind, of course, and there was that one guy in Pakistan who exuded a constantly fluctuating magnetic field. So it was possible.

But…

It didn’t feel like it. The buzzing, no, it was more like a two-tone humming really; it felt active somehow, like being connected to a live current. Like I could turn it off, to extend the simile, if only I could find the switch. Except the room is completely blacked-out, there’s junk all over the floor, and the switch doesn’t exist because the switch was actually inside you all along.

Huh. That ended up way more appropriate than I’d intended.

Anyway, I had to figure this out somehow. I closed my eyes. Try to feel the humming, let it wash over me like a wave, roll with the current aaaaand I’m a hippy. No, no, feel the vibrations, feel it in your – nope, I can’t do this.

I huffed out a sharp breath. So scratch that idea, then. Umm, what had Miss Richmond been saying in Superhuman Studies? Something about… the brain trying to make new connections, because it doesn’t have the wiring for powers? Yeah, that was it; she’d talked about how gestures get tied up with powers a lot, because it’s easier to adapt existing wiring than create new ones.

So maybe what I needed to do was try and harness the humming, rather than tune into it. If that even made any sense. I reached down in my mind, which felt like trying to move a muscle that didn’t exist. I actually heard it when I found the humming: it expanded to fill my head, the twin tones perfectly harmonized. I got the distinct impression that they were two different things, that one tone did one thing, and the other another. Invisibility and the duplicate-me, respectively?

I reached for the higher note, and, not quite knowing what I was doing or how I was doing it, tapped it-

The humming ceased. Both tones silenced immediately, leaving no echo or remnant behind. But more importantly, I became visible once more.

At the exact same moment, the duplicate exploded into wisps of lavender-grey smoke, which quickly dissipated into the air, fading to nothingness.

I breathed a long sigh of relief. Not being visible forever, while potentially useful, would’ve put a real damper on my life.
The bed creaked as I thumped down on it. I wasn’t tired, exactly; I’d just woken up, after all. It was just that, now that things were back to normality, my mind could finally catch up to what was going on.

I had superpowers.

Gosh-darned superpowers.

That was just freaking insane. I could barely even comprehend it. My mind was running around in circles, like a track-runner with one weighted arm. Possibilities, questions, dangers, all swimming around and filling my head, to the point where I was having trouble keeping track of it all.

Thankfully, real life intervened before I could get caught up in an identity crisis. “Hanners?” came the voice of my dad, muffled by the closed door, “Are you up?”

“Yeahhhhh,” I stifled a yawn, “yeah, I’m up. Be down in a minute, ‘kay?”

“’Kay,” he replied, and I heard his footsteps track back down the stairs.

Right. School. Reality check, a boring one. Though, I probably needed it, I acknowledged.

“You know, it’s cool that we have powers and all,” my brain said, “but maybe we should just leave them alone for now.”

Oh joy, you’re back. What do you mean?

“Well, we just got them, and we don’t know what they can do. At all.”

That’s not true, I protested. I can go invisible, sort of.

“Congratulations, we can sneak into locker rooms.” Sometimes I worry about the voice. Not that I’m crazy; I know I imagine it as a method of keeping my thoughts organized. But occasionally, the stuff I come up with is a little… off.

Oh, so now you’ve expanded from rational cynicism into libido too?

“Shush. Anyway, what about the smoke-double thing? What if another one of those pops up while we’re at school? Love to see us try to explain that away.”

If one appears, I’m pretty sure I’ll go invisible, actually.

“We don’t know that.”

Then let’s find out. I reached back down and tapped again, and-

Nothing. Huh. I could feel the hum again, but I could still see my hands.

“See, what’d we say? We said that-” I stood up and turned around, “…oh. Well.” Sitting on the bed in the exact spot I'd been when I'd tapped the humming, was another perfect replica of me.

It was holding the pose I'd been in; legs apart, hands on knees, eyes closed. Once again, it didn't move an inch. This time, though, it was wearing a copy of my glasses. I leaned in to get a closer look, and when I couldn’t see my reflection in them, I realized that I was invisible again.

See?

"Great. So now instead of people thinking we have superpowers, they'll just assume we've had a stroke."

It's progress, alright? Stop being such a downer.

"We're the same person. I'm only as much of a downer as you are."

Shush. I reached out to try and grab the glasses from its face, but my hand went straight through it, passing out the other side. Little wisps of the same grey-lilac smoke were dragged behind my hand for a second, before snapping back into it.

Well, that's weird. Why had it been solid before, but intangible now? Perhaps it was because I'd created the last one unconsciously, but this one intentionally. Of course, that would mean that I could-

"Hanners?" came the muffled cry from downstairs, "what are you doing up there? You'll be late for school."

Seems I'll have to figure this out later. I tapped the top string, and cut the power.

"Yes, later, when we're alone. Not at school."

I'm excited, not stupid. I turned and padded over to the cupboard, grabbing some clothes. I considered my usual jeans and a t-shirt, but after consideration, decided a day like today deserved a bit more consideration, and grabbed the nice blouse my mom had bought me for Christmas a few weeks ago.

Washed my face, combed my hair, brushed my teeth, and padded downstairs to begin the first day of the rest of my life. 

"Drama queen."

Ashes 2 - I

HANNAH
Wake Up

I yawned as I awoke, the sunlight filtering through the blinds. I'd been in the semi-fugue state of pre-wake, but the light in my eyes, and the odd buzzing in my chest, had been impossible to ignore. I reached up from under the duvet and rubbed a bit of sleep from my eyes, my hand becoming blurry as it came close to my eyes.

I groaned and rolled over in my oversized bed, reaching for my glasses, and came face to face with myself.

For a brief second, my sleepy brain didn't register anything as wrong. "It's just a mirror, Hanners," it was saying to me.

I don't have a mirror next to my bed, I said back.

"Oh," it replied. "Well, feel free to freak out then."

I freaked out. Shrieking a little, I rolled in the opposite direction, falling out of the bed in panic. I bounced back to my feet and flattened myself against the wall.

The other me didn't move. It just lay there, on top of my bed, perfectly still.

After a few seconds of nothing, I pushed down the fear and peeled myself off the wall.

"...hello?" I asked. I waved my hand to try and get its attention, but nothing happened. I tried again, a little closer; maybe it hadn't seen. 
I don't think there was any response, but I wasn't sure, due to being distracted by the fact that I couldn't see my hand.

Mute, I inspected the space where my hand was telling me it was. Nothing, not even a glimmer… okay, scratch that, there was the tiniest bit of shimmering when I moved, but if I didn’t do that, nothing.

My chest suddenly felt very tight, my vision tunneling down to a pinprick as I struggled to breath.

“Okay, calm down, calm down,” my brain was saying, dim behind the thumping of my pulse. “We know how to deal with this. And breathe in, 2, 3, 4, 5. Out, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. In, 2, 3, 4…”

Slowly, my breathing settled, the pressure in my chest lessening, my vision clearing.

I took a deep breath. What the hell is going on? I absentmindedly went to rub at my forehead, but halted when I remembered about my hands. Speaking of…

I looked down at where my body should be. Yep, still not even a glimmer.

Wait, am I a ghost? Is that my body? That was a disturbing thought and I quickly ran back through my actions. I hadn’t fallen through the floor, and I’d hit the wall, but maybe ghosts… I dunno, could only go where people could?

I tapped the carpet with my foot, and there was a soft thump. So I was probably corporeal. But just to check, I reached over slowly, trying not to make any sudden movements, and snagged my glasses from the nightstand. It was disconcerting, seeing the glasses move, knowing that I was moving them, but not actually being able to see it. I drew backwards again, and slid the glasses onto my face, brushing aside a few hairs that got caught under the arms. For a split second, the frames hung in front of my face, then they too disappeared, leaving me perfectly invisible once again.

That cinched it. The thought had been floating lurking in the back of my mind the whole time, but I'd been intentionally ignoring it, worrying I'd be getting my hopes up over nothing. But there was no doubt now.

I, Hannah Eiling-Kingsford, was a superhero.

Well, not a superhero, per se. Person with superpowers would be more accurate, paranormal would be more common. But I had powers, and I had no intention of committing crimes with them, and if that isn't the definition of a superhero, I don't know what is.

First things first. What exactly could this new power, or powers, of mine do?

"Start with what you can observe, and work from there," my brain suggested.

What could I observe? I was invisible, as were my pajamas and my glasses. So I can assume from that-

"Don't assume yet, just observe."

Right. Okay, when I held the glasses, they were still visible, but when I put them on, they disappeared.

What else? There was... something on the bed that looked exactly like me.

"How do you know it looks exactly like you?"

I didn't. I moved closer to the doppelgänger, previous fear completely gone, and took a closer look. Yep, that was me, alright. Long strawberry-blonde hair, thin face, wide nose, all present and correct. It even had the tiny burn scar in the middle of my left eyebrow, from the time as a kid when I got too close to some frying bacon and got splattered with a bit of boiling oil. The imitation was perfect in every aspect.

"How do you know it's an imitation?"

Right, no assumptions. The... anomaly (Dad would be proud of me) appeared exactly identical to me.

I reached forward with one finger and poked myself lightly on the cheek. My finger sank in, the anomaly' cheek feeling exactly as warm and soft as real flesh. Just to check, I poked myself in the same spot, and thankfully, it felt the same. Next, I felt its neck, searching for a pulse. Nothing, both there and on the wrist. I could feel the veins, but they were perfectly still, as if the blood simply wasn't flowing.

I went to the bathroom quickly and grabbed my hand mirror from the basin where I'd left it, before quickly returning. Holding the mirror over its nose and mouth revealed no fogging, not that I expected any. I held the mirror in front of me face, and it clouded like normal: one more piece of evidence on the 'not a ghost' pile. Or astral projection, or some kind of spirit, or whatever.

The anomaly was wearing pajamas that once again seemed to be exact copies of mine. But, curiously enough, it wasn't wearing a copy of my glasses.

Okay, that seemed to be everything-

"What about the room? Has anything changed?"

"You're starting to get annoying, imaginary representation of my psyche," I muttered under my breath.

"Shut up, you know you love me."

I looked around my bedroom. I couldn't see anything out of the ordinary; bed, duvet, nightstand, carpet, half-open blinds, all present and correct.

Okay, now that should be everything.

So what can I infer?

1ST MISCELLANY



Excerpts from So Your Cat Is on Fire: A Layman’s Guide to Being a Metahuman, by Josh Manson

So! Congratulations on the random twist of fate that's caused you to become better than 99% of everyone else. Or, more unique, at least. You've got superpowers. Or magic, or the gift of god, or whatever you want to call it. I don't care; sticking a different label on something doesn't change what it is. What matters is you can do something that no-one else can. Unless you're a first-generation. Or a Jack. Or-

I digress. Point is, you're not quite human anymore, and this guide will help you deal with all the issues that come with that.

Chapter 1: Oh god, what the fu**.

You've just blown up your cat. Or maybe you turned your water main into diesel. Or maybe you woke up to find that your genitals have rotted off, and you suddenly have a few more limbs than you remember (if that last one happened to you, what the hell are you doing?! Get your ass into the emergency room, you idiot! (but once you're there, turn to chapter 18: WHY DOES EVERYTHING HURT?!)).

The important thing to remember is that it's okay. Almost every metahuman has a story like this, and only the luckiest or the ones with extremely benign powers get away without doing some damage. Most insurance providers will generally cover these incidents under most plans, because the odds are long enough for it. If they don't, turn to Chapter 10: Civil War for information on how to register with the DoM and get some recompense.

-----

Chapter 8: So What Exactly Am I?

You're calm, the fires are out, the giant mutant chinchilla has been dealt with, and now that you've had time to think, you're probably starting to puzzle over the nature of these strange new abilities. If you've gotten powers, you're probably young enough that your high school education covered this, but you might be older or younger, so I'll go over it anyway.

Superhumans are divided into two loose categories: first and second generations, also known as superhumans and paranormals, respectively. Superhumans first appeared 30 years ago, in what is now known as the first Supercharge (I actually coined the term myself 15 years ago on Oprah). The first known superhuman was Jay Bradbury, the Unkillable Man (great guy, but can't hold his liquor worth a damn, oddly enough). Jay was in a fatal car crash, and was completely dead when the paramedics found him. So you can imagine their surprise when, by the time they got to the hospital, he was conscious, lucid, and flirting with the driver (they got married three years later, in case you care). 

Like many of the very first superhumans, he became an international celebrity, and the notion of fighting crime was a laughable idea to him, despite the legions of comic book fans desperate for them to do so. Why would they fight crime? They were just ordinary people with unusual gifts, what made them qualified to punch lowlifes in the face? Of course, that all changed with Clockbreaker, the insane redneck from Texas who...

---

...Paranormals are metahumans that came arrived during the second Supercharge, so if you're reading this now, that means you're one of them. I am too; I got my powers on that infamous day, like so many others. Unlike the superhumans, who came in a steady trickle that died out in the last few years of the Golden Age, at least half of the paranormals currently alive got their powers on the same day, February 4th, [REDACTED]...

---

It can be fairly hard to distinguish between paranormals and superhumans, but there are a few signs to look for. The first and most obvious one is that superhumans can't directly affect other people, period. That means no psychics, no healers, no life-stealers; you see any of those, they're a 2nd gen, who don't have the same limitation. The easiest way to illustrate this, if you're confused, is with telekinesis, often considered the simplest metahuman ability. A superhuman telekinetic could pick up a rock and throw it at a person, but couldn't pick up a person and throw them at a rock. A paranormal telekinetic, on the other hand, could theoretically do either of those things, but would probably not, due to the second difference between the two types: paranormals have weirder powers.

Let's go back to the telekinetics again. The superhuman, while he can't affect people, otherwise has fairly standard power, basically a giant invisible hand that he can move with his mind. The paranormal, on the other hand, would probably have some form of limitation or quirk. In this case, (I'm just spitballing here) her telekinesis manifests as invisible arms that have the same limitations as her real arms, i.e. they can only do what her real arms can do, and no more. You might think this would make her weaker than her superhuman counterpart, and in some ways, you'd be right. But, like most paranormals, what she lacks in raw strength, she makes up for in versatility. Because she can generate as many of those 'arms' as she wants, she can multitask in a way the superhuman never could. She can also surround herself with arms to create a makeshift shield, and if she's come up with any new tricks by the next time I see her, I'll include them in the next edition (she can also cheat amazingly well at card games, but she could do that before she got her powers too). Point is, the odd nature of paranormal powers doesn't make them any weaker, just different.

---

Chapter 20: What Now?

Good question, dear reader. The answer is, whatever you want. Well, not whatever: I can't and don't endorse becoming a supervillain. But aside from that, it's up to you. In case you're indecisive, though, here are some options.

The Tower Conglomerate

The superheroes, in classic form. If you loved comic books and superhero tales as a kid, well, so did the founders, and with the help of some clever legal work by Jennifer Ford, the only non-super of the three founders, they became the world's largest superpowered NGO. In most countries, they are considered a pseudo-law enforcement agency, with all the heroes being licensed officers of the law.

If you join Watchtower, or rather, if they let you join, you'll be playing the part of superhero to a T: you get to pick a costume and codename, and get to choose, after a grace period, between working with a team or on your own.

Watchtower is pretty much the standard option for metahumans, and it's easy to understand why. I actually was part of the D.C. Triumphant for a year under the name Blastzone. The pay was... okay, but I got to use my power and punch criminals in the face, so I definitely considered it worthwhile. But it's not for everyone.

The Department of Miscellany

Government work, basically. As I said earlier, all metahumans have to register with the DoM, but this is taking that a step further. The DoM is basically a cross between an intelligence agency, a scientific lab and an R&D department. Because of its unique nature, working for the DoM often means travelling the globe, although you'll probably be behind a desk most of the time. It's a quieter life than being a superhero, but some people want that. Of course, there are the ever persistent rumors about government super-soldiers and clandestine testing, but I shouldn't and won't comment on those.

MERIT

MERIT is technically a subset of the DoM, but say that to anyone there and you'll probably have your block knocked off (and yes, I'm speaking from experience there). MERIT stands for Metahumans Emergency Response and Intelligence Taskforce, an acronym that worked out remarkably well for them. Part emergency services, part armed response team, MERIT gets called more to deal with the aftermath of fights than with the fights themselves. Consider a job with MERIT to be an emergency service position on steroids, and think long and hard about whether that's what you want to do. Long hours, plenty of stress, and I'm told that more often than not, you have to deal with some pretty horrific crime scenes. But, on the other hand, MERIT has one of the best Forges around, and that means that all responders are equipped with a pretty bitching suit of powered armor, which I must admit is one hell of an incentive.

Mercenary

I'm just going to refer to all the options as Blacklight Services, because they're already pretty damn close to having the market cornered. Blacklight Services were founded by a mysterious paranormal known as Blink. Blink, whoever they are, seems like a rather average paranormal, a line-of-sight teleporter who creates a power disruption effect in the area between their starting point and the destination. The power disruption is small, a mild tremor at best, and as such Blink would be unexceptionable if not for the fact that they can also gift a weaker version to others. This ability, and the fact that the power disruption can stack, is what has made Blacklight the world's foremost service for dealing with dangerous metahumans of all types. There are even unsubstantiated rumors of enough layers being able to affect a Scalebreaker, although this seems highly unlikely.

Working for Blacklight is legal only in the most technical sense, and in effect, you'd be becoming a superpowered soldier cum armed response officer. They'll take you, train you, and pay you very well, but they have a strict non-competition clause, so be wary of signing anything.

Freelance

Riding solo. Working on your own, in the industry, following in the footsteps of the likes of Rebar and Steelsilk. This one's a bit dicy, and depends on your power. For example, I might do okay in the mining business, but I can't really imagine I'd be doing anything dynamite couldn't. But if you can make it work, industry is a safe, profitable choice.

Nothing

People don't like talking about this one, and some refuse to even acknowledge its existence. But it is an option. You can just do... nothing.

Nothing different, that is. It's perfectly okay to get powers, and then just get on with your life. You might have a career you enjoy, kids to take care of, or simply no interest in using your power. And that's fine. Look at me: I got the power to blow things up, but I'm still working as an author just like I was as an average Joe, and the only use my power gets these days is entertaining kids and stopping the odd bar fight. Some people may not like your choice, but it is your choice. And that's the beauty of most powers: Who says they have to know?