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Kaleidoscope: Five Short Stories about HardLight


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Greetings, Everlasting (and, presumably, the other Shards)!


What follows are several pieces of fiction oriented around my primary character, HardLight, as something of an 'expanded bio.'  Kudos to @CrystalDragon for her stellar Roleplay Writing Prompts, of which the 'no OOC information' stipulation got me to pondering about a twist on the format: in a wilderness of identity such as the superhero community, would not the perception of a hero, not the objective truth communicated in OOC threads, dominate what is understood?  In a world where superheroes are celebrities, rendered in idol and billboard, does who they "really are" matter at all?  What does the city say about them?


Thus, Kaleidoscope: 5 stories about how the Radiant Rake is seen from the outside, through 5 different-colored lenses.  Please feel free to comment or critique, as I've created this thread largely just to keep myself honest and make myself work on my roleplay writing over the holiday break, and I'll be linking each story back to the header post.  Likewise, if you ever interact with HardLight 'in the wild,' you can consider the events of each story to be scuttlebutt that your character might contextually be familiar with.



Above: our antihero du jour







Edited by TwoDee
"broken" added. that's a wrap, folks!
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Lead of the <New Praetorians Initiative> supergroup.  Goldside enjoyer.  Perennial RP-etiquette overthinker.

Most of my writing is SG-internal, but the following are SFMA that anybody should be able to play if you want new story-based content.

  • NPI: Duray, Duray | 25575: - The New Praetorians scramble to stop the Praetorian and Primal Virgil Durays from getting the band back together.
  • NPI: Brickstown Vice | 36729, 40648, 40803 - The New Praetorians aid Marauder in a drug bust that dredges up his past.  Branches into two paths.
  • NPI: Red Resistance | 43796 - The New Praetorians run afoul of vigilantes after a robbery gone wrong.  Crossover with <Hero Corps Founders Falls>.
  • NPI: Leucochloridium | 44863: - A wellness check on a Woodvale cleanup officer turns over unfinished, Praetorian business.
  • How Emperor Cole Saved Christmas | 45794 - A 100% authentic simulation of how Emperor Cole singlehandedly saved the holiday of Christmas!
  • Bassilisk | 51947 - Several Paragon City villain groups fight over the Rikti's dumbest entirely-canonical doomsday weapon.
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“Always the bridesmaid, huh, AB?”


PPD Pilot Graham Haldeman always had a teasing tone to his voice; hardsuit aces usually needed it, to do what they did.  Today, however, there was an audible frustration behind it.  His shoulders were set too tightly into his body, his smile too toothy.  He may have showed up for drinks with the placid Transcended, but something was eating Haldeman and Aurabright was fairly confident what it was.


“I assume,” the blue-skinned Kheldian hybrid gently intoned, as he gestured to the barman for something hard for his friend, “that this is about the metro robbery.”


“Hell yeah this is about the metro robbery,” Officer Haldeman half-spat, his smile waning as he sidled onto the next stool over.  Unlike his uniformed compatriot, he wore his plainclothes… give or take a bomber jacket that he’d shamelessly decorated with unit patches.  The Blue Holiday Lounge’s clientele were 90% PPD or Longbow on any given day, which meant that the discerning alcoholic had to get at least a little peacocking in.


Not that Aurabright was the type to get off on jurisdictional dick-waving, or really anything for that matter.  Haldeman glanced suspiciously between the statuesque Peacebringer and his unseasonal piña colada a few times, asking an unvoiced question.


“We both like the taste,” Aurabright explained, his glowing eyes closing in a slow blink.  This was a satisfactory enough answer for Haldeman, who accepted his own drink - whiskey on the rocks - with a curt nod and promptly resumed his tirade.


“I get that things were different for capes on Praetoria, but that doesn’t give HardLight the right to pull that ‘stand back, officer, we’ll handle this’ crap on us.  The whole Powered Armor Corps were outside the Independence junction with our mecha-dicks in hand, while HE went in and mopped Caligula’s guys like we didn’t know how to do our jobs.”

A television above the bar played the evening news, which just served to exacerbate Haldeman’s torment.  Above a headline - HARDLIGHT STOPS SUPERVILLAIN ON RUNAWAY TRAIN - the hero himself gave a silent, close-captioned interview.  With the sun down and a dark backdrop, the incandescent metahuman’s features blurred as he spoke, although the cameraman made a valiant effort to focus every time the powerful - and bearded - light source atop the glossy bodysuit moved.




The news story shifted to a dramatic highlights-reel of phone footage, taken from every conceivable angle, as the black-clad hero walked, unafraid, into a train compartment and effortlessly dispatched two goons in Roman-themed body armor with thrusts of concussive white light.  The moment that had gone viral, however - had been recirculated in .gif form on every Brickstown-local messageboard and seen endless play on the news - had been when the towering Caligula himself shouldered a frankly cartoonish autocannon and unleashed a barrage of automatic fire.  The hero had placed a svelte, glistening arm before him, and the entire burst dissolved first into fragments and then into molten metal mere inches from the palm of his hand.  With a practiced fluidity, HardLight grasped the ball of white-hot steel and splashed it spectacularly onto the train floor behind himself, well clear of the bystanders.  Continuing the motion, he punched forward with his other arm, which launched a third concussive blast so precise that the techno-Roman supervillain’s helmet had dented backwards in the shape of his forehead.  Caligula dropped like a rag doll, joining his witless minions in a stunning display of both overwhelming force and immovable durability.


“He and Trespass,” Aurabright pedantically corrected, stirring his drink with a plastic sword.  It was enough to pull Haldeman away from hate-watching the bullet-catching stunt a third time.


“Who?” Haldeman snapped.  He vaguely remembered there being another metahuman present, but if the news wasn’t going to care, he wasn’t going to, either.  HardLight, HardLight, HardLight.


“Trespass,” Aurabright repeated, unshaken. “HardLight’s sidekick.  The genetically-modified chimera.”


“Oh,” the mech-jock recalled, with a roll of his fiery eyes. “You mean the bunnygirl.”


“The young woman with rabbit characteristics,” Aurabright cordially agreed, lingering on the 's' in 'characteristics' in a way that was just slightly inhuman. “You know, you should do joint patrol with the NPI sometime.  She’s really quite the character.  Good-hearted.”


Haldeman was fairly certain from the fleeting impression that a good heart wasn’t the first thing he’d noticed.


“Well, that character,” he griped, opting for civility with a swig of his drink and a grudging thank-you nod to the alien officer, “got shafted out of the spotlight just as much as we did. I don’t think she fired a shot the whole time, just got to usher the hostages out and look pretty in the aftermath.”


Aurabright’s typical monastic smile turned, for a fleeting moment, impish.  The Kheldian was about as prone to humor as he was to anger, but it was enough to get across to Haldeman - who was suddenly very aware of his own mere, impotent humanity - that there was something Aurabright knew that he didn’t.


“Okay, out with it, space-asshole,” he insisted, pointing accusatorily at the piña colada-wielding Transcended.


“HardLight’s not bulletproof,” Aurabright said, simply.  “You’d know that... if you attended joint patrol.”


“Bull,” the pilot protested. “He took a magdump that would have cut my mech in half, in the palm of his hand.  Showoff’s got a force field.”


“He has an energy field,” Aurabright corrected, “that outputs heat and light.  His force powers are activated, not passive. The only way he could have blasted the bullets away is with the same amount of force as the cannon, and that would have hurt or killed the passengers.”


“I don’t get it.”


“It’s Trespass,” the Kheldian officer finally explained, human teeth bared in a good-natured smile. “Her superpower is to convert energy of one type to another type, or move energy between conduits.”


The mech pilot wasn’t putting two and two together, and the whiskey wasn't helping.




“What you’re seeing,” Aurabright extrapolated, raising a gloved hand to point at the television, “is the kinetic energy of the bullets being siphoned into his energy field as heat.  The bullets go slower and the field gets hotter, until the bullets stop moving at all and the field melts them.”


“So…” concluded Haldeman, with a suspicion dulled by the half-glass he'd raced through, “...the bunnygirl saved his ass, but she also made it look like he’s way more powerful than he is.”


“Precisely,” Aurabright chuckled, in a rare and slightly-uncanny display of mirth. “All showman.  If there's one thing I know from the patrols, it's that HardLight's got Powers Division running through every vein.  No wonder he had you wait by the sidelines; he wanted to show off!”


“Yeah, no shit, bud-” Haldeman stopped in mid-sentence, connecting a few delayed implications.  Turning to his friend, he gestured with his whiskey, spilling just a bit over the lip. “Wait.  You mean that whenever he strolls on into an active situation like he goddamn owns the place, and just stunts on bad guys, it’s because she’s juicing him the whole time?  And he doesn’t give her credit?”


“He’s giving her credit right now,” Aurabright blithely countered, gesturing again to the television with an open palm.


On the news story, HardLight had his hand on the shoulder of a masked woman with bunny-rabbit ears, clad in a suit of muted blue body armor.  In every way that HardLight’s uniform was pure antiheroic bombast - tight latex over a v-shaped body, patterned with jagged sunbursts and studded with spikes and chains - Trespass’ was tactical pragmatism, intended to downplay the unfortunate connotations of a ‘bunny girl.’  Next to HardLight and with them both in costume, she practically melted into the background.




“He’s walking all over her!”


Haldeman spilled more of his whiskey as he cocked the glass back as if to throw it, before his self-control reasserted itself.  Mechsuit aces had a reputation for getting hot under the collar, but he had a tab at Blue Holiday and didn’t like the idea of it going up. “If I were her right now, I’d turn his light off just to make a point about who wears the pants.  What is this!?  Why’s she sidekicking for that douchebag if he treats her like that?”


“Not everyone wants glory, Graham,” Aurabright gently chided. “Now you’re thinking like HardLight.”


“Well,” Haldeman half-yelled, his anger at his own sense of emasculation now fully translated into anger on behalf of the suborned sidekick, “what the hell does she get out of it?  Playing second fiddle to a raging Praetorian narcissist?”


“I think,” Aurabright concluded, peacefully, as he placed his empty glass on the countertop, “that’s for her to know, because despite my time with the NPI, I’m not sure I’m equipped to guess.”


Edited by TwoDee
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Lead of the <New Praetorians Initiative> supergroup.  Goldside enjoyer.  Perennial RP-etiquette overthinker.

Most of my writing is SG-internal, but the following are SFMA that anybody should be able to play if you want new story-based content.

  • NPI: Duray, Duray | 25575: - The New Praetorians scramble to stop the Praetorian and Primal Virgil Durays from getting the band back together.
  • NPI: Brickstown Vice | 36729, 40648, 40803 - The New Praetorians aid Marauder in a drug bust that dredges up his past.  Branches into two paths.
  • NPI: Red Resistance | 43796 - The New Praetorians run afoul of vigilantes after a robbery gone wrong.  Crossover with <Hero Corps Founders Falls>.
  • NPI: Leucochloridium | 44863: - A wellness check on a Woodvale cleanup officer turns over unfinished, Praetorian business.
  • How Emperor Cole Saved Christmas | 45794 - A 100% authentic simulation of how Emperor Cole singlehandedly saved the holiday of Christmas!
  • Bassilisk | 51947 - Several Paragon City villain groups fight over the Rikti's dumbest entirely-canonical doomsday weapon.
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  • 2 weeks later
Posted (edited)


Desmond St. John's heavy jacket flapped behind him in the sea wind, and he was keenly aware of the exposure.  His heavy body was more 'church dad' than 'gang boss' these days, and although he wasn't particularly self-conscious about the way his outdated cybernetics mismatched his newfound huskiness, the heavy sweater beneath the parka served to shield the eyes of delicate young women.


Not that the Rogue Isles had a lot of those, and not that his current company qualified.  The uniformed Wolf Spider behind him might have been called petite in another lifetime, but the hardscrabble tautness of the muscles beneath her armor and the jaundiced twinge of recreational Superadine landed her squarely in the realm of less seemly terms like sinewy or wiry.  She had a personality to match, with yellowing teeth arrayed in a crooked smile as she tapped her truncheon mindlessly on shipping containers.


"You promised me something big, King," Operative Lynndie Jessen spat, barely able to contain her hunger through the vestiges of equitability. "I'm two goddamn inches from earning my backpack and I'll be damned if you fuck me on this."


"I've got your kickback," Desmond soberly promised, stuffing his right hand into his pocket to keep the rubberized pads on his palm out of sight.  He'd long since learned to lean on cool, even tones and minimal body language when dealing with the Wolf Spiders.  A lot of them had something to prove, and a retired supervillain like him seemed like an easy punching bag for clout.  He could hold his own, but he also valued stability in his business, and the last thing he needed was for some idiot Spider to bring by his idiot Spider friends.  Lynndie was an idiot Spider, herself, but she was a known quantity, so Desmond worked well with her.


"Fresh off a Faultline trawler," he crooned, leading her to a container that was, like most in the yard, marked in Cage Consortium iconography.  A heavy padlock kept the mustard-yellow doors cinched, and he retracted his hand from his pocket with a keyring.


For a moment longer he stood there, fumbling with the lock, and then the doors swung open to reveal a trove of plundered superhero ephemera, mixed haphazardly in with canned food and a few folding chairs.  Desmond thought he could feel a subtle 'pop' as the salt air met the stagnant dust inside the box, although he wondered if it was just the energy he was feeling, like a toy collector breaking the mint.


"No way, Des," Lynndie shouted, shouldering her truncheon to jog excitedly into the enclosure. "Is that Heat Transfer's helmet?"


"That it is," Desmond deadpanned, surreptitiously sparking up a menthol with his palm-ports while the Wolf Spider was poring over the smuggled goods. "Plus Castle Doctrine's riot shield, Canvas' paintbrush and beret, and Freethinker's amplifier, give or take a little water damage.  Got some miscellaneous enhancements in there, too.  You get one."


He held a finger up on his off-hand - the one without the cybermods - and didn't address Lynndie again until she'd turned to see it.


"One piece of gear, that was the deal.  And not Cortexas' psi-revolvers or the Absentee's medical reports, those are going to private buyers."


"What if I take the Psivolvers," the Wolf Spider snipped, indignantly, "and shoot you with 'em?"


Desmond refused to let himself take the bait, and just took a long drag of the menthol through cracked lips.  He luxuriated in the cooling feeling on his metal teeth before responding.


"Because if you had psionics they would have pressganged your green ass into the Fortunatas or Banes.  Don't be stupid, Lynndie.  Take whatever you think your higher-ups are gonna like, and then get me past the port authority.  That's all we're doing here."


"I could take it all.  You wouldn't be able to stop me."


Desmond just stood there, outside the crate, smoking his cigarette.  The servomotors in his knees helped him stay still, not backing down but not making any moves.  Perfect control of one's flinches was a nice trick to have when dealing with Wolf Spiders.  The unblinking plastic of his one cybernetic eye - the iris patterned with a card-suit club - didn't hurt either.


"I wouldn't.  But then no more kickbacks, and you go back to getting promotions the honest way."


Lynndie fingered the handle of her truncheon, then finally made the correct decision.


"Shit, King, you know I'm a two-bit thug," she coughed, taking the red-and-blue helmet and tucking it underneath her elbow. "What happened to you?  You used to wipe the floor with thugs that were like, twelve bits at least.  I heard you once went toe to toe with HardLight and put him in the hospital, and that lightbulb motherfucker can crush a car just by tossing blinky lights at it."


"It's my heart," Desmond admitted, stepping past the Wolf Spider to find a suitable container so that she wouldn't be flagrantly carrying her bribe up to the customs office. "Gave out in that fight with HardLight, actually.  Pushed the cybermods too hard, jacked up the nerves telling it to beat.  Why d'you think I sold my shock-mace?"


That was a lie, actually, but it would keep thugs like Lynndie from turning over his apartment looking for it.  He slept with the thing every night, leaving it to charge on his hand-ports like an iPhone on a dock.  He wasn't keen on having to use it for home defense, because the heart arrhythmia wasn't a lie.


"Damn, you beat his ass while you were having a heart attack?  Destined Ones are nuts."

"I didn't plan on the heart attack," Desmond scowled, "and besides, Jack of Diamonds, Five of Hearts, and Queenie were there.  Arachnos had us ripping off Westwind Power Labs, some kind of dumb sci-fi looking experimental fuel thing.  I'm pretty sure they contracted us as a distraction so they could do their Zig routine, and HardLight showed, all glamor and thunder. He had us on the ropes from the start.  Jack had the heat cannon, but heat doesn't do nothing to the guy.  He was hovering out of reach of my mace, Queen's spear, and Five's arm while smacking us around with force blasts.  Real 'playing with his food' shit."

Desmond's nose scrunched as he remembered the battle, and when he turned to offer a paper bag to the Wolf Spider, he saw that she was leaning on the inside door of the container with her prize.  Desmond supposed that he was committed to telling the story, now.


"Get to the part where you're kicking his ass."


Desmond sighed.


"If you'd ever fought the guy, you'd know that he eats your feelings to power up.  Feels like your whole body falling asleep, and he can feel what you're doing instead. He can't do it to cybernetics, so I was able to fight fine, but Queenie was all metagene with no mods so she was practically useless.  Five and Jack had the arm each, so they could aim at least, but he was pummeling them with his energy blasts so they couldn't get swipes in.  But then he, uh..."


Desmond hesitated, crouched in his shipping container full of abandoned hero-ware.  He was unsure how much further he wanted to take this.



Desmond closed his eyes, committing to the truth.


"...he flew in real close, and told me seriouslike that I had to turn off my chest dynamo because he was feeling my heart giving out.  I still remember how his body language changed, too, like someone had flipped a switch and he went from all puffed-up and proud to being my mother."


The Wolf Spider blinked and that cracked smile vanished from her face as she processed the new information.


"So, what, did he fight back?"

"Nah.  I cracked him a hard one with the mace and for a moment I could feel it.  Like my chest was exploding, then it went away again.  Scared me shitless."


Lynndie's face went greener than usual, the vestigial remnants of her empathy placing herself into Desmond's horrifying situation.


"You still beat him, though, right?"

"Yeah," Desmond grimaced, with no pride at the memory. "I think his powers started fritzing when I hit him, because Queenie and Five were able to get their shit together long enough to start going to town on him.  Whenever they worked him over, though, I'd feel it - the heart attack I was having, and that he was keeping me from by commandeering my nerves.  I had to stoneface it, y'know.  I was the King of Clubs, but the guy was saving my life and I couldn't let the others know.  So I ordered Jack to take the prototype and scram, and told the other two not to capekill because we weren't that kind of operation, and that I'd catch up with them."


A pause passed between the two of them, with each leaning on an opposite container door.  The Wolf Spider spoke first.

"So what happened to HardLight?"


"Queenie'd cut one of his legs real deep, and Five had busted up his neck and ribs, so I had to help him up.  Burned the plastic on some of my augs while I was at it, but we both needed a doctor.  I wasn't going to go to Brickstown Memorial and just get my dying ass arrested, but he squeaks out that he has this refugee clinic in Seven Gates where they don't ask too many questions."


Lynndie's mouth hung open slightly as Desmond took another drag of his cigarette.  He continued, through a mouthful of smoke,


"You ever see a guy lie like a method actor when his ribs are broken?  Because he was slick.  Made up a whole story about how I was a refugee with no papers, and my mods were ex-IDF.  Said that he'd been ambushed by Freakshow when he'd detected my heart attack, and that I needed cardioversion stat.  They didn't even question us.  I guess he brings in a lot of refugees for treatment."


"So what, that's it?"

"That's it.  In a few days, I was on a boat back to the Rogue Isles, and HardLight spent weeks in a hospital bed telling the TV that he'd gotten thrashed by the Aces Wild gang, who made off with the prototype.  He didn't dime on me once.  I think he knew that he could survive being a cocky fuckup supe, but I wouldn't survive being a supervill who needed a superhero to save his life."


Lynndie stared appraisingly at the smoldering tip of Desmond's cigarette, and stepped forward from the container.


"Hey, I'm sorry, Des," she finally managed, her broken mouth unused to words of encouragement.  Wolf Spider Jessen expressing sympathy had the same dull discomfort to it as watching a native English speaker trying to parse the plot of a telenovela without subtitles, and Desmond couldn't help but laugh at the unbecoming behavior.


"Don't be sorry, Lynndie.  Smuggling ain't bad.  After I broke up the gang Jack stayed on with me as my hands, and we've made tidy on sunken hero bases ever since.  Half the risk, just as much profit as the supervillain song-and-dance."


The two resumed their walk back to the port office at a more languid pace, with Desmond handing Lynndie her paper bag before turning to lock the container.


"What happened to Five and Queen?"


Without skipping a beat nor looking away from the lock, Desmond shrugged,


"They took a job on Lockhart and got shot to death by a bunch of steampunks.  Ugly way to go."


The Wolf Spider visibly cringed and managed another,


"Oh, I'm... sorry?"


"Don't be," Desmond chuckled. "Five of Hearts was a klepto who always cheated on divvying up the loot, and Queen of Spades was a massive fucking racist."  Flicking the cigarette into the water off the concrete jetty, he growled, "What's with the apologies?  Just 'cause I have a sob story you think I've gone soft now?"


"I just thought maybe you had a change of heart," the Wolf Spider unintentionally punned, bagging her contraband helmet like a teenager hiding a bottle of liquor.


"Nope, just getting old.  Supervillainy's a young meta's game.  There's better money for me in contraband."  Producing a line of wire from a port in his cybernetic hand, he connected his blocky black satellite-phone and began interfacing with it through his cybernetic eye.  The little club design on the iris lit up to show active use, a stylistic vestige of his time as a supervillain. "Speaking of which, scram and get me that paperwork."


"That's what I like about you, Des," the Wolf Spider cackled, regaining her bearing now that there wasn't so much ooey-gooey vulnerability polluting the docks. "You're always looking for the smart play.  No room for sentiment."


"If I made the smart plays, I wouldn't have been a Destined One in the first place," he quipped in response, turning slowly around to take in the docks.  Unbeknownst to Arachnos, an encrypted message went out over the airwaves:



Vids of the facilities attached.  Risky business for a supe to be looking into access points in Sharkhead, D.  My neck doesn't go further inland than this, but you let me know the time and the place if some refugees accidentally wind up on a beach and I can see about getting them to Paragon.

P.S. How much for your old costume?  The one with the tron lines.  Might have a buyer.

-King ♣️


Edited by TwoDee
added slight clarity about power logic
  • Like 4
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Lead of the <New Praetorians Initiative> supergroup.  Goldside enjoyer.  Perennial RP-etiquette overthinker.

Most of my writing is SG-internal, but the following are SFMA that anybody should be able to play if you want new story-based content.

  • NPI: Duray, Duray | 25575: - The New Praetorians scramble to stop the Praetorian and Primal Virgil Durays from getting the band back together.
  • NPI: Brickstown Vice | 36729, 40648, 40803 - The New Praetorians aid Marauder in a drug bust that dredges up his past.  Branches into two paths.
  • NPI: Red Resistance | 43796 - The New Praetorians run afoul of vigilantes after a robbery gone wrong.  Crossover with <Hero Corps Founders Falls>.
  • NPI: Leucochloridium | 44863: - A wellness check on a Woodvale cleanup officer turns over unfinished, Praetorian business.
  • How Emperor Cole Saved Christmas | 45794 - A 100% authentic simulation of how Emperor Cole singlehandedly saved the holiday of Christmas!
  • Bassilisk | 51947 - Several Paragon City villain groups fight over the Rikti's dumbest entirely-canonical doomsday weapon.
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  • 3 weeks later


[This story carries a strong content warning for violence and themes of post-traumatic stress]


Anne tried not to tap her foot as Marcus Alvarez stirred on the couch, running through his biweekly routine of making himself just the right kind of uncomfortable.  Back support was, as always, out of the question.  Instead, the muscular ex-detective swiveled upright, treating the low-slung chaise longue like a barstool, head rotating like a turret to decide, she speculated, on what exactly he wanted to glare at today.  There was nothing particularly interesting going on in the back-alley her office window looked upon, so instead he turned his head to the wall to re-read her credentials.


As Alvarez’s eyes traced the counseling degree featuring her name - ANNE KELTER - for the thousandth time, she was quietly relieved that he didn’t linger nearly so long on the decorative Star of David further up the wall.  It was a measure she’d enacted two years ago to keep clients from looking at her shock of frizzy ginger hair and then asking where in Ireland she was from.  Luckily, Praetorians weren’t particularly taken with matters of ancestry… nor faith, for that matter.  She offered, giving Alvarez more room to fidget,


“Do you want to talk about your last week?”


“Not especially,” the large man grumbled, narrow eyes still wandering across the wall over her shoulder. “But I ‘spose I should, before my caseworker will clear me to go back to work.”


“How about we start,” she offered, obligingly, “with your side of the story?”


Marcus sighed, and his eyes finally met hers.  His macho standoffishness was melting under the weight of emotional fatigue.  Looking at his eyes as he leaned back and they caught the light, she realized that the purple tint she’d first attributed to lack of sleep was actually a black eye, give or take several days of healing.


“I was at the grocery store, and I’m getting some stuff for the home.  Nothing fancy - meat, veg, some seltzer water.  I’m at the checkout, and there’s these two off-duty capes holding everything up.  They’ve got a tabloid open right there in the queue, and they’re tittering about this super thing - reading an article about how HardLight’s little sidekick Trespass is going down for a B&E, tut-tutting about how Praetorians always turn into vigilantes when they don’t get their way.  Pissed me off.”


“How did you know they were superheroes, Marcus?”


A flash of anger passed across his eyes, and a full-body flinch followed.  Anne quietly jotted down in her notepad that directly questioning the former Interrogator on matters of insight might be too raw.


“Because the guy had rainbow gem skin, doc.  It was Gemcutter, staying in his transformed form at the grocery checkout like a preening peacock, which made the big girl he was with the Tin Titaness, even if she had the good sense to go covert.  Not that she could hide her physique worth a damn, even behind the baggy tank.”


Anne frowned. It was very like Marcus to judge one metahuman for being overtly presenting, and another metahuman for hiding their true form in the same breath, but it was a bad sign for the treatment of his anger.


“Did you ask them to be more considerate?”


“Yeah, more or less.”


Anne’s first instinct, to surmise aloud that he’d said more, was unhelpful.  Instead she asked, calmly,


“What did you tell them?”


“I told them that if they were done playing monster gossip, then us normals would like to buy our toilet paper and cheezy crackers and go home.”


“And they didn’t respond well.”


Marcus snorted out a pitiless laugh, his broad shoulders bouncing at the memory.


“Oh, Cole no.  Titaness starts getting up in my face about how it’s rude to call myself a normal on account of metas are people too, and I point to Gemcutter and tell her that it’s not normal that he can’t get it up for her without running to the supermarket for a quick hit of the adoring fans.”


“Marcus,” Anne started, “I appreciate you being authentic with me, I really do.  I’m glad that you trust me enough to share this.  However, we talked about acceleration last session.”


“Yeah, I know,” he grimaced, averting his gaze again in shame. “But I swear, they were lording it over me, like… like…”


Anne said nothing, but was quietly pleased when Marcus self-corrected,


“I felt like they were lording it over me.  They were being inconsiderate, but I felt like it was more than that.  It was like they were taking up my space, daring me to tell them to move so that they could feel bigger than me.”


“Very good, Marcus. I appreciate the introspection, I really do.  You’re doing great. Now, they could have been trying to show off, but I’d like to ask, in the interests of reflection: what else could they have been doing, other than showing off?”


Marcus thought on that for a moment, then ventured, uncertainly,


“They could have been… just caught up in talking to each other, and not thinking about us.”


There was a moroseness to the admittance, as if that was somehow worse.  Anne weighed the risks of pushing on that, and decided to gently prod him.


“How do you think they felt, when you called them abnormals?”


“I didn’t do that, doc.”


Anne kept a poker face, as best she could.  Ex-cops could be huge pedants when it came to discussing their aggression, but the problem needed to be centered before it could be addressed.


“Then, how do you think they felt, when you referred to yourself and the other non-metahumans as normals?”


“Bad, probably,” Marcus grimaced, with a roll of his eyes, “but it’s water off a duck’s back, right?  They’re so much more powerful than any of us.  They’re literally the bigger people; they can ride it out.  What does that say for our superheroes, if they can’t handle some heat from a prole like me at the checkout counter?”


The minimization of harm wasn’t helping Marcus, but Anne knew that calling him on it was just going to make him get belligerent, rather than improve his empathy.  She shifted tack.


“What could you have done differently,” she laughed, politely, “to get through that situation without a black eye?”


Marcus shoved his hands into his cargo pockets, and Anne was struck momentarily by the impression of a scolded little boy hiding sweets.


“I could have not told him he needed an audience to get off.”

“That’s a start,” Anne smiled, obligingly, implicitly bidding him to continue.


“And I could have used… less charged language from the get-go.  Less exclusionary language.  I could have called myself non-metahuman, or even just not referred to them being metas at all.”


Anne’s affected smile became an earnest one.  This was progress.


“That’s great, Marcus.  You’re doing really well.”


A moment of silence passed between them, as Marcus’ dark eyes rose to meet her own green ones.  She was about to move into conflict defusal strategies, when he spoke up first.


“I think… I think I was projecting a bit, doc.  Treating them like they were someone else.”


“That might be, Marcus.  However, be careful that you’re not being overly hard on yourself.  You’d be surprised at how often when someone says that they think the problem is their Mom, or their Dad, it’s more complex than that.  Psychotherapy isn’t like it is in the movies.  People are complicated.”


Marcus’ frown showed a few teeth, and a hand rose from his pocket to scratch at the back of his hairy neck.  He insisted,


“No, it’s not that.  It was what they were talking about, the Trespass thing.  The supe bimbo caught, uh, trespassing.”


This was new info to Anne, although she hadn’t had so many sessions with Alvarez to get a good sense of his time with the Praetorian Police Department.  That was a land mine they’d left untriggered for now, but it looked like the time was rapidly approaching to step on it.


“If I’m familiar with the city’s superheroes, Trespass is former Praetorian Resistance, correct?  Were you on the other side of a fight from her?”


Alvarez shook his head.


“No, no, nothing like that.”


A beat.


“It’s the supe she’s with.  HardLight.”


Anne could hear it from his tone, and steeled herself: they were about to go someplace very dangerous.


“The… NPI administrator?  Glows all the time, with, ah-”


She desperately wanted to say “the The Piano Teacher thing going on,” but settled in the interests of professionalism on, “the very sleek, black aesthetic.”


“Yeah, that’s the one. I met him once before.  Back when he was in Powers Division.


It was the way that the words came out: cold and blinding-hot, like the sun off a melting ice flow.  Hate and fear.  Anne didn’t put a lot of stock in the idea of her clients’ problems being the fault of single, dramatic moments, but it was clear that Marcus Alvarez, at least, felt differently.


“Okay.  It sounds like we’re making progress.  Do you want to tell me the story?”


Marcus took that invitation without a verbal ‘yes.’  His voice pattern changed almost immediately as he started recounting the story, code-switching into what she realized was a PPD glot.


“This is Praetoria City…Imperial Year 28, so aught-seven, aught-eight in Primal years maybe.  Powers Division were holding one of their endless goddamn award ceremonies outdoors in People’s Park, TPN filming.  I think it was the Heroism Under Fire Award.  Freaking joke.  Anyway, he’s there with Gloomaiden - she was his sidekick then - and Riot Act is serving up the honors. Real who’s who of the would-be Tyrant set.”


“It sounds like you were frustrated with superhumans then, as well?”


“I wasn’t the only one,” Marcus quipped, tersely. “We had this prick in for questioning, Daisyrod.  Don’t let the name conjure up something cute; guy was a Hamidon War vet like me, all the scars and the lingering cough to prove it.  We Interrogators hadn’t gotten anything out of him other than the award show was the target; we told Powers Div to hold off until we could get a Scryer loaned from the Seer Network to peel him, but all we got was a bunch of wank back about how the PPD should remember their place.”


“It sounds like you were feeling like your voice wasn’t being heard.”


Alvarez’s teeth clicked together, and he shifted his weight, sitting up in the chair.

“Oh, it was heard, all right.  That tip just made more supes show up.  Every Powers Division wannabe is there just begging for gunmen to show, so that they can be the one running to the front lines and saving the day for the camera.  Joke’s on them, though.  Turns out there’s a sewer access pipe running right beneath the podium, and Daisyrod’s already done the job.  He rigged up a Hedgeclipper to the roof of the pipe - did you have Hedgeclippers on Primal?”


Anne shook her head ‘no,’ although she had the distinct impression that she wouldn’t like the explanation.  Marcus continued,


“Pressure bomb with a defoliant payload, from back during the Hamidon Wars.  You drop ‘em on the plant monster and the shockwave pulps everything in 100 meters, then the defoliant sets in.  Anyway, the Hedgeclipper’s designed to airburst, so it’s not perfect for what our perp wants it to do, but it works well enough.  Most of the shockwave disperses further down the line, but the pipe roof blows through the podium and nixes Riot Act right in front of all the cameras.”


Anne quietly noted the thin wrinkle of a smile on Marcus’ face.


“The shrapnel carries through the first couple rows, taking earth and sewage with.  The organizers should have put the invulnerables up front, but they put the most photogenic capes there instead, so all the prettiest idiots get shredded.  And then the defoliant starts burning, and every supe without toxin resistance starts having a real bad day.”


Anne decided that she did not, in fact, like learning what a ‘Hedgeclipper’ was.


“What happened then?”


“Daisyrod, he laughs in his cell when we tell him what’s happening on the TV, but it’s not a ha-ha laugh.  It’s awkward, like he didn’t plan this far and feels like the winner’s just supposed to laugh.  First thing he asks me is what happened to Riot Act.  No smile when I tell him, but I figure there must have been a history.


“HardLight shows at the precinct maybe ten, fifteen minutes later.  He’s in the suit he used to wear back in the day, the one that’s like a black spacesuit with the acrylic lines that he can glow out of.  Just storms right past the guys at the entrance, making straight for the cellblock.  The air’s shimmering around him from the heat - defoliant burning his skin awful, probably, making his powers run hot.  And he’s got these brown flakes falling off him, everywhere he goes, like snow.”


“This sounds like a traumatic memory,” Anne observed, aloud.  The way that Marcus was recounting the situation, her mind rushed to post-traumatic stress, although her professional brain stepped in to remind that she was speaking to a former detective.  Fine tactile details were his business.  Alvarez ignored the suggestion, in any case.


“Looking back on it, I realize it was someone else’s blood burning up on him, like frying an egg. And since Gloomaiden was sitting right next to him at the ceremony, and she didn’t show at the precinct with him… so much for that sidekick.”


Today was not going quite how Dr. Anne Kelter had predicted.  This was, she realized with a stark clarity, going to be One of Those Praetorian Memories, the ones that other therapists talked with her about in hushed tones while scrupulously omitting names.


“Did you-?”


“No, I didn’t realize it at the time. I put that together later. Anyhow, I swing over to the cellblock, and he’s already pulled rank, saying the Seers are caught up in an area sweep and he’s gotten special dispensation from Powers Division to interrogate the prisoner.  I coulda… I could have called horseshit on it.  I should have, even.  We already had a confession from Daisyrod; the guy was getting shipped to the BAF as soon as we could uncap the roads.  But I was getting this read off HardLight; that feeling in the pit of your stomach, where you know Powers Division is thinking about stepping on you like a bug.”


“Marcus, I want you to know that none of this was your fault,” Anne uttered, gravely, reading the writing on the wall.


“I know, doc,” Marcus confessed, but he couldn’t meet her eyes to say it.  A moment passed where a moped rider buzzed by the alley window, and then he continued.


“We let him in the cell - I mean, were we supposed to tell him no? - and he doesn’t even ask Daisyrod any questions.  Just starts removing his gloves and his boots, one by one, and putting them on the table, showing the glow beneath.  And I know why he’s doing it.  It’s so it’ll burn when he does him.  And I think Daisyrod knows it, too, because he just stays sitting there, setting his jaw, macho. He goes steel-eyed, and he even looks up at the big glowing bastard, until his eyes are starting to go bloodshot just from staring him right in the face.”


Anne felt as if she were at the crest of a roller coaster’s hill, seeing the drop ahead of her but buckled into the car.


“It don’t last long.  Fifty seconds, maybe the full minute before he has Daisyrod whinnying like a horse with a broken leg.  HardLight can do that party trick with his powers where he takes the feeling away… every time he hit the poor fucker, hearing him cry, I was wondering if he could make it worse, too.  Me and the other cops just standing there, shuffling our feet, letting it happen because we know if we don’t let him do this to the terrorist, he’s gonna do it to us.”


Marcus looked up, and Anne saw that his eyes were red.


“And you know what he’s yelling at the guy?  The whole time he’s painting his head all over the interrogation room?  That he was gonna be the next to present, and the stupid bastard could have killed him.  Nothing about Riot Act.  Nothing about Gloomaiden.  No, he was pissed about how he almost died, and about the award show.  The fucking award show.  Roaring and raging about how he was going to present Best New Superteam, as Daisy’s ears are starting to burn off under his fingertips.”


Marcus took a deep breath, grounding himself.  Quietly, Anne was proud that he’d internalized that lesson from the prior sessions, even though she was inches away from stopping the story for his own benefit.


“I guess… I finally grew a spine when it was done. Or maybe seeing it just inspired me to take a stand against the supes.  He’s looking like a goddamn horror show, with the blood on his hands and feet cooking off as he carries his boots out, and I step in the doorframe - the other officers looking at me like I’m suicidal - and I ask ‘did you plan on leaving any piece of Daisyrod for the BAF?


“He gives me this look, and it’s hard to tell if he’s angry or trying to stare me down or just… just surprised, surprised that anyone would give him lip, that anyone wouldn’t be scared into silence around him.  And he doesn’t say anything - chatty guy - he just bends over and lifts one of his feet, and I see that there’s something stuck in his heel, wedged in the glowing skin, casting a little shadow off him.  And he pulls it out, and it’s a fucking - it’s one of Daisy’s teeth.”


“He takes the wrist of my power gauntlet, and thank Cole I had it, because he would have done my hand like he did Daisyrod’s face, and he just p-p-puts it there and closes my fingers, like he’s giving a waiter a tip.”


Easy there, Anne.  Time to be a therapist again.  You didn’t know that this would be a Praetorian thing, but that’s okay.


“...and what did you do, in that situation?”


“What do you think I did, Doc?  I wet myself.  Pissed my uniform pants, right there, in front of all my men.  He left after that.  He knew I’d seen what he wanted to show me.”


And there it was, laid bare, like an easy-answer therapy session in a Hollywood movie.  Anne chased the rabbit.


“Could you elaborate on that, Marcus?  What did he want to show you?”


“The truth about metas.  He had to take his human face off, just a little, enough to show me that he’s not us, none of them are, not in their heart of hearts.  You know what we are?  We’re dogs to them.  They let us live in their house until we bite back, and then they put us down.”



Edited by TwoDee
added tabloid link
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Lead of the <New Praetorians Initiative> supergroup.  Goldside enjoyer.  Perennial RP-etiquette overthinker.

Most of my writing is SG-internal, but the following are SFMA that anybody should be able to play if you want new story-based content.

  • NPI: Duray, Duray | 25575: - The New Praetorians scramble to stop the Praetorian and Primal Virgil Durays from getting the band back together.
  • NPI: Brickstown Vice | 36729, 40648, 40803 - The New Praetorians aid Marauder in a drug bust that dredges up his past.  Branches into two paths.
  • NPI: Red Resistance | 43796 - The New Praetorians run afoul of vigilantes after a robbery gone wrong.  Crossover with <Hero Corps Founders Falls>.
  • NPI: Leucochloridium | 44863: - A wellness check on a Woodvale cleanup officer turns over unfinished, Praetorian business.
  • How Emperor Cole Saved Christmas | 45794 - A 100% authentic simulation of how Emperor Cole singlehandedly saved the holiday of Christmas!
  • Bassilisk | 51947 - Several Paragon City villain groups fight over the Rikti's dumbest entirely-canonical doomsday weapon.
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Thank you so much!  HardLight is a fun character to write for, although 'writing for HardLight' without actually writing for HardLight has been a unique challenge.

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Lead of the <New Praetorians Initiative> supergroup.  Goldside enjoyer.  Perennial RP-etiquette overthinker.

Most of my writing is SG-internal, but the following are SFMA that anybody should be able to play if you want new story-based content.

  • NPI: Duray, Duray | 25575: - The New Praetorians scramble to stop the Praetorian and Primal Virgil Durays from getting the band back together.
  • NPI: Brickstown Vice | 36729, 40648, 40803 - The New Praetorians aid Marauder in a drug bust that dredges up his past.  Branches into two paths.
  • NPI: Red Resistance | 43796 - The New Praetorians run afoul of vigilantes after a robbery gone wrong.  Crossover with <Hero Corps Founders Falls>.
  • NPI: Leucochloridium | 44863: - A wellness check on a Woodvale cleanup officer turns over unfinished, Praetorian business.
  • How Emperor Cole Saved Christmas | 45794 - A 100% authentic simulation of how Emperor Cole singlehandedly saved the holiday of Christmas!
  • Bassilisk | 51947 - Several Paragon City villain groups fight over the Rikti's dumbest entirely-canonical doomsday weapon.
Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 2 months later
Posted (edited)


“Yo, Trish!”


Trisha Harris looked up from a veggie burger of dubious import to see her roommate, Beth Richardson, stalking across the dining hall.  Beth’s frizzy black hair was tied back in a haphazard bun, and her skin still carried a sheen of sweat; she’d probably run straight from soccer practice without a chance to clean up.


“You’re laaaate,” Trish whined, though with a tone that had no malice. “And you’re lucky as shit that the guest lecture got posted online.”


“Coach held me up to talk about my passing.” Beth shrugged, punching Trish softly in the shoulder before craning her body on one foot and entering a little hop to snatch a banana.  The students she cut in front of stepped out of her way, annoyed, before she returned to her roommate's table.  “Not my fault they scheduled the HardLight doodly when like a million other things were happening.”


“Yeah, well, we’re discussing it in…”


Trish opened her laptop, then when it hung on the startup screen - a big Crey C - simply looked at her phone instead.


“...thirty-five minutes, so let’s get you caught up,”


The chair next to Trish groaned as Beth bodily threw herself into it, causing it to skip a few inches across the floor.


“Wasn’t the lecture like an hour long?”


Trish shook her head before adjusting a coffee-colored bang from where it had fallen out-of-place on her forehead.

“No, he left early to do superhero stuff, and I’ll skip you through the parts that aren’t important.”


Beth leaned in and pantomimed a kiss to Trish before peeling the banana.


“You’re a saint.”


“You know it,” Trish laughed, clicking impatiently as the laptop sluggishly loaded her browser.  Luckily, the video on the university website was her last-open link.



The Michael James Rabinowitz Memorial Auditorium was unusually bright for a lecture.  The skylights had been left uncovered, drowning the space in daylight.  Of course, this was a strategic choice for the benefit of the guest who, even with his triangular body wrapped smartly in a tweed blazer and skinny jeans, was putting off so much light from his head that he would have blinded everyone in a dark lecture hall.

“Hello, everyone.  It’s great to be here, and to see so many young faces turning out for an old hack like me.  I won’t waste your time… I know it’s a beautiful day out there.  So let’s get started, shall we?”


HardLight straightened out his statuesque frame, making a show of 'nervously' adjusting his black gloves.  Of course, they didn't need his adjustment: visible beneath his blazer was the chest of the sleek full-body hero suit to which the gloves and shoes were integrated.


“Good morning, Paragon U." he started, deliberately affecting the glum, uncharismatic delivery of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.  "My name is Damon Demora, and I’m a recovering supervillain.”



"I get why it had to be in Spanky Auditorium," Trish complained, finishing her veggie burger and standing up to stretch out her back before sitting back down, "so that his light wouldn't be all blown out, but those seats ruin your back. They're sooooo uncomfortable."


"That's why they call it Spanky," Beth joked in return, noshing her banana, "because you're not leaving without a pain in the ass.  I think they haven't updated it since the 70s."


"I hope you appreciate the hardship I went through for you."



Throwing out his shoulders in a display of 'loosening up' before detaching the mic and moving away from the podium, HardLight addressed the crowd with a sort of manic hustle, covering for the fact that with his light output drowning the stage he had no projected graphic to fall back on.


“That conjures up a set of impressions for you, I'm sure.  I’d like you to ponder the word: supervillainSupervillain.  Come up with a costume, a methodology, powers.  I'll wait."


He mimicked checking a watch, stiffening up and tapping one foot with his shoulders hunched, before laughing at his own pantomime and letting the pretense drop.


"That's probably enough.  Everyone in Paragon City has an experience where they, or a friend, or a family member, were victimized by a supervillain.  But the truth is that - precisely because of that - I’ve just conjured a disparate image in all of you.  I’ve created an impression of the supervillain you knew, not the supervillain I was.  That’s going to be relevant shortly."



"I thought of Mind Killer," Trish offered, trying to get comfortable again in the dining hall chair. "When I was in 11th grade, he used his fear magic or whatever on my high school homecoming to make some kind of social point about climate anxiety before the PPD took him down."

"Shh," Beth laughed, "we only have half an hour!"



Two gloved hands pressed against an invisible wall in front of the luminescent metahuman.  Woah there, cowboys!  Ease up on those conclusions!


"Before moving further forward, let’s define ‘supervillain.’  The dictionary tells us that it’s 'a malicious person, usually superpowered, who opposes heroes and commits wickedness or crime.’  A bit moralistic, and not particularly useful." HardLight shrugged, putting one of those gloves up to his face and leaning in as if telling a secret.  In the process, he cast a hand-shaped shadow across the entire left side of the already brightly-lit stage.  "You’re all smart kids. I don’t need to tell you that superpowered people can have non-malicious intents to commit crime, or that superheroes are perfectly capable of malice while being ‘one of the good guys.’  So, let’s eschew moral judgment. The United States legal definition of ‘supervillain’ is more workable: ‘one who uses superhuman powers or means in the pursuit of committing a crime.’ “


Leaning back, HardLight swept his gaze across the crowd, telegraphing with a cant of his head where his eyes were lost in the glow.


"The School of Psychology asked me to speak about the process of deradicalizing supervillains, but I’m here to tell you the unfortunate truth; there is no grand methodology to returning villains to society. There is no equivalent to the social programs we use to rehabilitate nonpowered criminals from gang life by providing new opportunities, nor to the uniform psychic therapy regimens we can offer to recovering Seers or Arachnos refugees.  There is no magic bullet, no panacea, no hope of a scalable solution."

He stood still, lacing his hands with each other, letting a gentle rock of his feet be the only indication of potential energy while he let the gloomy point sit and stew.


The reason for this is the same reason that all of you envisioned a different person when you pictured a supervillain: outside of the Rogue Isles, there is no supervillain class.  There is no solidarity, no shared culture, only the loose behavior of performing unacceptable criminal acts with superpowers... and that's a definition that we foist on supervillains, not something anyone would want to identify by.  In classing supervillains, we often forget that they're people, as varied and confusing and special as we are."


HardLight's voice softened, moving from 'professorial' into 'fatherly,' chasing the harsh disclosure with reassurance.  The bodysuit he was wearing instead of a shirt gleamed under the light of his face as he hooked two ink-black thumbs into his jean pockets.  Another cant of his head revealed the zipper hugging the underside of his bearded chin, surrounded by black negative space like the nape of a turtleneck sweater.


"Rowr.  Someone wants to let Criminal Psych know he works out," Beth appraised, gesturing with the uneaten tip of the banana at the angular abdomen onscreen.


"Ewwww," Trish giggled, "Down, girl!  He's old enough to be your dad."


"Oh, no, for sure, but you gotta admit he kind of poses like he's giving bedroom eyes to the whole lecture hall."


"I don't think he has eyes," groaned Trish.


"Isn't he just a guy under the light?  Like, you can see the grey hairs - fuck!" Beth laughed, making a "shoo" gesture at the screen to get Trish to unpause it. "We're getting sidetracked!  Next you'll complain about the chairs again!"


"My back is really stiff, okay?"  Trish arched the small of her back and rubbed it, but obligingly started the stream again.



"Now that I’ve torn the band-aid off, let’s talk about what we can do.  A problem as individualized as supervillainy requires an individualized solution, and that calls for empathy and personal understanding.  Despite the impression the moniker suggests, most supervillains aren’t psychopaths.  They have friends.  They’re capable of love and of loyalty, and as agents invested in their well-being as well as that of society, we should leverage that.  But supervillains - all metahumans and powered individuals, really - are uniquely capable of an incredible capacity for violence or they wouldn’t fit the legal definition, and that uniquely complicates every individual case, even by the usual standards of criminal rehabilitation."


Launching into motion, HardLight loped across the floor lengthwise, gesturing broadly over his head as he addressed each corner of the audience in turn.


"I can see you rolling your eyes as I march, inexorably, to "power corrupts," but that’s an irrefutable fact of human and para-human psychology.  I’m not here to whine at you about how having the awesome powers to feel other people’s sensations and shoot force bolts from my fingertips traumatized poor widdle me into a bad guy.  But I am here to explain how superpower informs violence of opportunity, and why so many supervillains are fundamentally normal people, who you need to treat like normal people if you want to have any hope of reaching--"



Beth grunted out the vocal equivalent to a question mark as Trish began to skip ahead, interrupting the flow of the lecture.


"He gets into a lot of really entry-level stuff here," explained Trish. "Milgram shock, Stanford Prison.  Just really basic 'evil lurks in the hearts of all normies' content.  Stuff we already know front-to-back."


"Okay, sure, thanks."



"-much more likely to point with a gun at the images than-"


"Oop, too far."  Trish scrolled back a minute, taking the opportunity to stretch out her arms behind the laptop before returning them to rubbing her back.


"--Brockmole and Witt published a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology that cited five Purdue experiments, in which participants were shown a stream of stimuli while holding a variety of objects.  Their findings were dramatic: when the participants were holding a gun, they were much more likely to interpret other humans as being hostile.  They were also more likely to ascribe threatening intent to purely non-anthropomorphic imagery.  More worryingly, they were much more likely to point with a gun at the images than to point with any other object.  The same was not true if the gun was merely present, not in-hand. In short, simply wielding an instrument of violence prepared the participants, mentally, to seek it as an outcome."


For the first time in the lecture, HardLight referred to notes - just a small pad retrieved from his pocket and returned just as quickly.  His gaze did not perceptibly move - a fringe benefit of his eyes being hidden amidst his light corona.  As the description of the studies continued, he illustrated his point emphatically, pointing fingerguns around the stage, at the back wall, at the audience.


“I was 20 when I was spliced with alien DNA," HardLight continued, now pointing at himself with that same 'gun' hand. "I became my own gun, and I’ve been holding it - pointing with it - for 18 years now.  In that regard, I’m no different from any metahuman individual, or at least the vast majority of metahuman individuals whose powers have utility in the pursuit of violence.  Where I differ from the experiences of many Primal supervillains - and have a commonality with many Primal superheroes - is that my society had institutions in place that would immediately contextualize the onset of my powers, with a set of strictures about their use.  Unfortunately, the rest is history, because that network of support was called Powers Division, and that set of strictures had no relation to what you, on Primal Earth, consider the moral use of violence--”


"This section is all Praetorian history and examples," Trish offered, beginning to scroll ahead again. "Definitely go back, because it's kind of cool, but it's not gonna be on a quiz or anything.  I was squirming in the lecture hall just like 'get back to the psychology!'"


"I getcha," Beth nodded. "Lemme grab an OJ real quick."

Trish continued skipping forward, unpausing when Beth returned, juice in tow.


"--my own power, which allows me to siphon sensations such as pain or pleasure from other people and use it to fuel my force projection, is a key example of where the ethics of using a nonviolent ability nevertheless still clash with the principles of bodily autonomy.  Just because I can experience the sensorium of others, should I?  Am I entitled to that voyeurism by biologic right? The answer is, of course, no, in the same way that I'm no more entitled to rifle through another person's drawers without a warrant, no matter how much I believe --"


Trish skipped forward again, speeding the footage up to x4.  HardLight danced around the stage in fast forward, making the fingergun gesture several more times.


"He kept using that analogy, 'a gun wants to be fired,' like, all powered folks, even superheroes, are always gonna be more ready to do supervillainy because of the psychological priming of having powers, no matter what the powers are."


"Seems kind of obvious.  It's right there in the name: Supervillainy.  Needs to be super to do the villainy." Beth shrugged indifferently, causing Trish to pause the fast-forward and attempt a Cliff's-notes explanation:


"Yeah, but like - you know - it's like, we make out superpowered people who commit crimes as being worse than normal people who commit crimes, but all they are is people who've been given a better opportunity to commit crimes.  There's nothing special about supervillains, aside from the powers."


Beth shrugged again, this time really throwing her shoulders into it with a shitty, awkward grin.


"Still seems kind of obvious, I dunno."


"Well, yeah, because he's just trying to bring them down to our level to make his point."


"Which iiiiis?"  Beth teased, "We gotta run to class, at this rate."


"It's getting there," Trish sighed, rolling her eyes and correcting a bang again as she leaned back over the computer.  The crick in her back stung at the movement.



HardLight read from his notepad again, citing a dry set of statistics culled from Psi-Corps records.


"--Seers actually have only minor meaningful difference in rates of psionic privacy abuse than unschooled psychics, suggesting that mere capacity is as much of an indicator as inculturation in--"






HardLight sat on the edge of the stage, looking directly at the first row of students.


"--not my intent to suggest that metahumans are intrinsically evil, and if that's your takeaway, I'm more of a hack speaker than I thought.  Rather, we benefit from a form of privilege not normally--"






"--model we have is actually cult deprogramming, which is to say, the highly individualized methods of Benscoter, Gilley, Ross, et al.  In my case, the route out wasn't at the hands of any kind of enlightened guru leading me on a leash, not even Gerald Marchand.  It was just access to literature, to knowledge.  If I had to list the people who kept me on the straight-and-narrow, it would be Marchand third, and my sidekick Trespass second, but the first would be whoever it was at Vanguard who was getting my library books.  Being put in that position - into that open mindset - did more for me to build empathy than a year of trading blows with Primal superheroes ever did, no matter how unimpeachably goody-good they were.  The trick to redeeming supervillains isn't a grand speech or a pearl-clutching cry to morality.  It's just showing them the ladder to get out of their hole, and offering them help when they falter on it."


HardLight clasped his gloved hands together, looking up at the skylight before his gaze returned to the crowd.


"Here it is, this is right at the end," Trish insisted, pointing at the screen.



"If you've ever heard the criticism that I'm too soft on supervillains, that I show them undue clemency, or even that I try to poach them for the NPI - which is a spurious claim, of course," he interjected, "that's the battlecry of a punishment-minded paradigm of justice clashing with a rehabilitative one.  When we pay violence unto supervillains as superheroes, it's a tragedy, a necessary expedient to what should be - in a world with endless time and resources - an effort of personal outreach and empathy.  Every fight should end with an effort to understand; forging human connections is the only way to bring rogue powers back from the brink.  It's not your moral obligation to make friends with supervillains... but if you want to deprogram them, basic respect and decency is the closest thing to a surefire technique that we have."


A pause, a deep breath that lifted the blazer on his broad shoulders, and HardLight concluded,


"Thank you for your time."


Amidst scattered applause, several students began to exit early. Those who remained lined up for the Q&A session, only for a middle-aged woman in a skirt-suit to run onto the stage and speak to HardLight, off-mic.


"I hate to do this to you," he announced into the microphone, his voice smoothly covering a harried energy as he shrugged the blazer off his glistening black bodysuit, "but I've just been informed that the Trainiac is on a rampage in Bronze Way, and I'm the closest hero with an appropriate Security Level.  So, there will be no Q&A, but you should feel free to reach out to me.  My contact information is on the NPI website, and-"


The jeans came off next, leaving just the bodysuit, and he folded both the jeans and blazer and handed them to the woman before looking up at the skylight again.  As he discarded the microphone, it picked up,


"Could we have the skylight-?"


With a grinding noise amidst murmurs and chatter from the students, the mechanized skylight began to open like a garage door.  HardLight didn't wait for it to open all the way, simply thrusting into the sky at high speed with a "Thank you!"


The stream ended shortly thereafter.


"There you have it," Trish said, closing the laptop. "Main beats, uhhh, there is no scalable solution to supervillain deradicalization - interpersonal relationships are key - Brockmole and Witt gun study -individualized solutions."


"You missed the part where he's like a... hot lightbulb dad-rocker," Beth joked, standing and slinging a small, sweat-stained bookbag back over her shoulder.


"I left that part out deliberately," Trish quipped in response, making a disgusted face and gingerly shouldering her own backpack to keep it off the small of her back"You see how everyone was all ready to leave?  Spanky Auditorium's torture seating strikes again."


"Yeah, no shit, girl.  We should get massages," Beth suggested, setting the pace for the dining hall quad"Your treat."


"Like I have the time," Trish sighed, letting her eyes wander over the closed-captioned televisions broadcasting the news near the exit of the dining hall. "I've got my business class after Psych."


"You don't even do sports, you've got no room to complain."


"No," Trish supposed, lingering on one of the televisions.  In it, HardLight was being interviewed following a fight in which he had, apparently, effortlessly subdued the Trainiac for the PPD.





She rubbed her sore back self-consciously.


"No, I guess not."

Edited by TwoDee
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Lead of the <New Praetorians Initiative> supergroup.  Goldside enjoyer.  Perennial RP-etiquette overthinker.

Most of my writing is SG-internal, but the following are SFMA that anybody should be able to play if you want new story-based content.

  • NPI: Duray, Duray | 25575: - The New Praetorians scramble to stop the Praetorian and Primal Virgil Durays from getting the band back together.
  • NPI: Brickstown Vice | 36729, 40648, 40803 - The New Praetorians aid Marauder in a drug bust that dredges up his past.  Branches into two paths.
  • NPI: Red Resistance | 43796 - The New Praetorians run afoul of vigilantes after a robbery gone wrong.  Crossover with <Hero Corps Founders Falls>.
  • NPI: Leucochloridium | 44863: - A wellness check on a Woodvale cleanup officer turns over unfinished, Praetorian business.
  • How Emperor Cole Saved Christmas | 45794 - A 100% authentic simulation of how Emperor Cole singlehandedly saved the holiday of Christmas!
  • Bassilisk | 51947 - Several Paragon City villain groups fight over the Rikti's dumbest entirely-canonical doomsday weapon.
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  • 6 months later


The flyers beneath the decorative sugar-skull mural read “GOTHABILLY NITE.”  Behind the text, printed in cheap ink that was already starting to fade, the multicolored craft paper boasted the image of a voluptuous model in gothic alt-fashion, a ten-gallon hat crudely photoshopped onto her head.  Skyway’s Ocultista bar, nestled gloomily beneath a looming overpass, blared thrumming baselines and twangy string chords from somewhere beneath the foundation.  Gothabilly Nite had complicated an already schizophrenic crowd: cybergoth slapped over latin streetwear, too-tight black tees and jeans with elaborate punk-modded jackets.  There were periodic glimpses of the nominal theme - a pompadour here, a pair of wranglers there, a polka-dot dress hastily cut into a miniskirt for clubwear appeal - but most of the line was cultural and aesthetic anarchy.


Billi B was keenly aware of the sum of her life’s decisions as she was bombarded by muffled banjos and insipid conversation.  Escape was a distant prospect even for someone with her towering mass, sandwiched as she was between a twiggy throuple with matching eyeliner and a man who resembled nothing so much as the unholy spawn of old, washed-up Elvis and old, washed-up Bela Lugosi.


Billi fit in as much as anyone here did, with her denim jacket and leather trousers showcasing her stocky physique.  She wasn’t dressed for partying, but for her kind of business, serving as supermuscle for a deal happening inside the club.  She eyed the front of the line and caught sight of a pair of yuppies in cowboy boots getting carded by the bouncer; an ogre whose face smoldered with spikes of burning stone.  She dimly recognized him as a former cape-turned-Outcast named Mantlepiece: he was wearing a suit and gloves made from some kind of tacky metallic fabric that was probably fireproof. These kinds of establishments liked to have metas on payroll; it set them apart from other dives, gave them some personality, and served as a deterrent to the local bangers.  It was a common sideline for a lot of Outcasts and ex-Outcasts trying on the straight-and-narrow.


Billi groaned aloud, setting her square jaw and recommitting herself to going through with the gig.  She’d already been through that phase of her life, or really all three: the cape part, then the Outcast part, then the ex-Outcast part.  She’d been sixteen when she first discovered that the interaction between serotonin depletion and trait empathy that generates feelings of shame in ordinary people also made her stronger, smarter, and tougher.  The stigma of running away from home to seek her fortune in Paragon as a young Mutant had allowed her to support a burgeoning rookie-superheroine career for months.  When she got comfortable and her powers had started to wane, a rebrand from “Bad Girl” to the more vulgar “Billi Badass” had sufficed as a holdfast, though she wasn’t able to maintain equilibrium until that scanty little costume she’d hated and a questionable further rebrand into “Bad Bitch.”


When she’d gotten inured to those indignities, a streak of high-profile losses had kept her in the lower brackets of the caping world, always maintaining just enough embarrassment at her own failure to avoid becoming entirely unpowered.  That lasted until an old rival from the Outcasts looped her in on an armored car job, and her cut of $2 million cash and more shame than she’d ever felt in her life had rocketed her into prime-time high-power supervillainy, then as “Billi Beartrap.”


These days, after two Zig tours, several ill-conceived relationships, and a boat-load of therapy, she contented herself with the grey market of powered-muscle work.  The pay rate was good for the low risk of just standing there looking intimidating, and the smoldering disappointment of knowing that she used to be a ‘proper’ cape was generally enough to chuck goons around and shrug off small-caliber fire when things went bad.


“Wilhelmina Byczek.  You gonna start trouble in there, Billi B?”


Billi pulled herself out of her spiral to return the fiery gaze of the bouncer, her muscles cording with fresh puissance pulled from the bad memories.  She affected dismissiveness, keeping her expression comfortably in the “resting bitch face” spectrum.


“Just looking out for a girlfriend who’s already inside, Mantlepiece.  I’m out of the life, just like you.”


“Uh huh.”


Little shards of crystal obsidian, protruding uncomfortably from Mantlepiece’s brow ridge, clinked together as the other ex-Outcast squinted at the ID.  After a few more moments of scrutiny, he turned it over, holding it gingerly between two Nomex-clad fingers.


“You’re lucky that places like this run a single-lady deficit, Billi.  Far as I’m concerned, your history throws up more red flags than a Hellion wearing a sports jersey with a bulge at the hip.  But quotas are quotas.  Behave yourself.”


“Thanks, Duane,” Billi growled, using his real name out of petty spite and earning a carbon-chrome middle finger for her troubles.  She stomped down into the wall of noise and brickwork, coasting at a good power level, now: strong, durable, alert.  Pity that it had taken getting judged by another ex-Outcast to achieve it.


The faux-speakeasy interior was nearly as deranged as the crowd outside.  Mantlepiece’s careful cultivation of the line could only salvage so much of the theme night’s dress code, but at least the goths that clustered around a too-small bar had made some small, grudging concession to hoop skirts and updos.  Isaac Rother and the Phantoms blared over the speakers as Dracula’s Own Trailer Trash set up the power cables for what would doubtless become a live act closer to the Witching Hour.  Halloween-store cobwebs and anatomically-dubious rubber beasties hung from exposed ductwork in the ceiling.


Billi found her girl in a maroon VIP booth just past the stage, sipping at a brackish cocktail with a film of blood-red grenadine at the top.  Rachel McKidd - or more accurately, Doctor McKidd, PhD - had come up in Paragon around the same time as Billi arrived, when she was interning at a pharmaceutical start-up called Bioxcel.  They’d hit it off as friends and then roommates, and grown apart as they lapsed into their respective shady doings; Billi into supervillainy, Rachel into mad science, a common pitfall of the aspiring chemist in the City of Heroes.  Billi vaguely recalled something from the newspapers… a scandal?


“Long time no see, Rache,” Billi grunted, sidling into the booth across from her contact. “How’s Bioxcel?”


“Doctor Oxward turned out to be an unregistered clone coded with genetic memories that made him steal research from Crey,” Rachel shrugged, amicably, her glossy black lips still maintaining contact with her cocktail. “The lawsuits are still ongoing, and SERAPH is having a hell of a time figuring out if Oxward qualifies as a sapient actor for the purposes of his rights.”


Billi cringed.  Yep, that was the headline.  She changed the subject.


“What the hell is that you’re drinking?”


“They call it a ‘Grim Ripper,’” the doctor deadpanned, swirling it in the space between them and causing the red splash to shift. “Kahlua and I want to say vinegar.  It’s a little sweet for my liking.”


Rachel had aged about as gracefully as a mad scientist could be expected to in the years since they’d last caught up.  She had the characteristic shock of frizzy white hair that every PhD seemed to spontaneously develop when they delved into the dark side of superscience, but a white blouse and black corset had turned that into an elegant Bride of Frankenstein riff, appropriate for the season.  She asked, daintily gesturing forward with the glass,


“Want some?”


“Eugh, no.  I don’t do sweet cocktails,” Billi insisted, holding two callused hands up to ward herself from the witches’-brew on offer. “So, what, do you think Bioxcel is going under?  Trying to build up a nest egg?”


“Bioxcel’s gonna be fine,” Rachel drawled, with a roll of her eyes and a slight rise in her voice.  Though the booth was a fair bit away from the speakers, the background track had just hit the guitar solo, which required special consideration to communicate over.  “If we can get Oxward ruled as a sapient, then he can take the fall for all of it: the thefts, the contamination, the Verge prototype making it out to street gangs.”


Billi nodded along, feigning more familiarity with the company’s woes than she actually had.  Rachel continued,


“If we can’t, though, there’s going to be an inquest, and you know how it is with superscientists on the East Coast, Billi.  We all cut our own corners to get to the big breakthrough.  So I cut a deal with one of the capes who busted Oxward.  If it comes to it, he’s gonna be my character witness, get me a sweetheart ‘good behavior’ thing.  And he had a side commission, too, so I can still make some money while we’re under investigation.”


“Side commission–”


It took Billi a few moments to put together what Rachel could mean by that, before considering the other woman’s research specialization and the nature of the job.


“Fuck, Rachel, is that why you have me here?  You’re dealing designer drugs to capes!?


“Not just any cape,” Rachel crowed, lowering her voice to a stage whisper and putting her drink down.  “HardLight, with the NPI.  Mister redeemed-villain himself.”


“What the fuck–


Billi saw red for a moment, and the lowlights-reel of mistakes replayed itself in her head for the second time tonight.  Her jaw set and her teeth ground together as she leaned over the tabletop, hissing through pursed lips.


“Rache, I cannot fight HardLight.  Especially not in a nightclub!  He gets his powers from sensory overflow, right?  If he double-crosses you here, he could punt me to goddamn Atlas Park in one shot!  And that’s before we even get into the politics - the guy’s an icon!  A checkered icon, sure, but can you picture how fucked all three of us would be if somebody snapped a candid!?”


“It’s nothing that I haven’t factored for,” Rachel protested, sourly, crossing her arms like a scolded child despite being older than Billi. “He’s not even paying for this month’s batch.  It’s just a hand-off.”


Rachel fished in her purse for a small pill bottle and discreetly wiggled it with her fingers so that Billi could see, but Billi scarcely noticed, her mouth hanging agape at the new information.


“Paying… months… You’ve already been doing this!  What happened to your muscle before me?”


“Hasn’t been necessary,” Rachel insisted, shaking her head vociferously.Wasn’t like that.  He’s pretty obvious with the glow, y’know?  So before these deals he pops painkillers to turn his powers partly off and wears chunky sunglasses to cover up the residual glow.  That’s what the drugs are: they’re sensitizers: I started with a dextroamphetamine base, but I’ve tried to get an efficient CNS cocktail that minimizes the neurological side-effects while keeping the touch sensitivity.  If you saw the footage from that big fight at Portal Corp, his powers were probably boosted twenty to twenty-five–”


Billi held up a hand again.  She’d already gotten the gist and didn’t need the exact chemical composition.


“Performance enhancers.  You’re using your limitless scientific genius to deal performance enhancers to a middle-aged supe who wants to stay in his prime.”


“More or less,” Rachel admitted, waggling her eyebrows playfully and and brushing that white shock off her forehead before picking her drink back up.


Billi recalculated her threat radar, her unease with the whole situation keeping her flush with super-strength.


“Okay, yeah, if he’s depowered I can definitely manhandle him.  But why do you need security now?  Why not months ago?”


Rachel showed her teeth in a grimace, the first display of something approaching conscience in the entire interaction.


Because of what happens any time an addict starts taking stimulants, Billi.  He’s gotten erratic.  He got into all those scandals… that bunnygirl sidekick of his did that B&E and they had to review her record, and I’m sure that turned over a bunch of stones.  He started confiding all these grisly Praetorian war stories in me one meetup… then back in August he kept buying me drinks so that I’d stick around and listen to a three hour rant about the ‘nihilstic separation of romance from sensuality in French midcentury arthouse literature.’  Last month, he prepaid for three refills, and then when I reached out to him about the second dose he completely freaked out on me and said that he’d gone cold turkey so he “wouldn’t be needing my services anymore” before blocking my number.”


“Good for him,” Billi deadpanned. “He’s got a whole team… it’s been a long time since I’ve caped, but one of the best parts of working on a team is that you keep each other accountable.  It helps you avoid situations like doing hard drugs to compete.  Maybe this is just part of a graceful retirement plan, letting the younger bucks take point.”


She paused, and thought that statement through.


“...Or as graceful a retirement as you can get, anyway, when you’re a Praetorian bad-boy powered by partying.”


“Yeah, yeah, good for him, but not good for me,” Rachel scowled, quaffing the rest of her cocktail despite her professed distaste of it. “This is my leverage, Billi!  The money’s been nice, but what I really need from him is insurance, and if I don’t have him hooked then he can sell me out on the Bioxcel investigation!  I need him to show up tonight.  I don’t care if it’s a relapse.  Boo hoo for HardLight.”


Billi looked out over the club floor.  It was beginning to fill; more of the line from outside had filtered in, and the band was just starting to warm up.  Some overeager ghosts and ghouls had already taken to the mosh pit in anticipatory roughhousing.  She straightened her denim jacket at the lapel and stood up from the booth.


“I really don’t think he’s gonna sell you out.  You’ve got your leverage already, Rache. He was buying supermeth from you, wasn’t he?  If he doesn’t show, I say more power to him.”


“Easy for you to say, when I’ll be paying you $200 just to sit here doing nothing for a few hours.  Where are you going?”

“Gonna hit the bar before it gets too packed.  I think it’s gonna be a long night.  You want another Jack the Ripper?”


Rachel sighed, leaning back in the seat and tilting her head to one side to crack her neck.


Grim Ripper.  And no, just get me whatever you’re getting.”


“Beer it is.”


Billi B’s combat boots momentarily stuck in something as she trod across the dance floor, shouldering casually through a human surf of leather jackets and pattern dresses, tattoos and anachronistic shoes.  She didn’t bother to look down as she flagged down a bartender.  Despite herself, she found that she was wrapped up in the hope that HardLight wouldn’t show.  She knew, on an intellectual level, that all that rock-star bullshit about being the worst of Powers Division breaking good was just a brand, but maybe if he could dodge his personal demons tonight, then that would be evidence enough that even perennial fuckups like Billi B could someday go back to being superheroes, too.


And she couldn’t hide the smile as she pocketed her 200 dollars, when HardLight never did.




Edited by TwoDee
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Lead of the <New Praetorians Initiative> supergroup.  Goldside enjoyer.  Perennial RP-etiquette overthinker.

Most of my writing is SG-internal, but the following are SFMA that anybody should be able to play if you want new story-based content.

  • NPI: Duray, Duray | 25575: - The New Praetorians scramble to stop the Praetorian and Primal Virgil Durays from getting the band back together.
  • NPI: Brickstown Vice | 36729, 40648, 40803 - The New Praetorians aid Marauder in a drug bust that dredges up his past.  Branches into two paths.
  • NPI: Red Resistance | 43796 - The New Praetorians run afoul of vigilantes after a robbery gone wrong.  Crossover with <Hero Corps Founders Falls>.
  • NPI: Leucochloridium | 44863: - A wellness check on a Woodvale cleanup officer turns over unfinished, Praetorian business.
  • How Emperor Cole Saved Christmas | 45794 - A 100% authentic simulation of how Emperor Cole singlehandedly saved the holiday of Christmas!
  • Bassilisk | 51947 - Several Paragon City villain groups fight over the Rikti's dumbest entirely-canonical doomsday weapon.
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