Chapter 4

“This is the filtration system.” Whispering Darkness explained, rapping his knuckles against the side of a large, stainless-steel unit in one of the rooms downstairs. “It’s designed to filter out all the contaminants produced by the factory, proved vital to keeping my base hidden when I was a villain, and makes it safer for my people. Ironically enough, it’s also the one thing I have that impressed the government officials the most, and I’m already getting some inquiries from other manufacturers about it. I suspect building these is going to be one of my big money-makers, even if several critical components are super-tech.”

Lilith raised her eyebrows, looking the system over for a couple of seconds, then shrugged. “That’s quite interesting. I wouldn’t have expected something like that to be one of the foci for other people, but I suppose it makes sense, after a fashion. Are they difficult to make?”

Lilith honestly couldn’t tell much about the system, as most of it was concealed by the system housing, but the clear labels told her where the filters were, and how to swap them out. She also heard Nightsinger snicker softly as Whispering Darkness sighed.

“Well… not really? I can build the crucial parts easily enough… about twenty a day if I focus on them, and the rest is just drudge work for the crews. The problem is that I’m the only one who can build those components, and it’s boring as hell.” The former villain said, an aggravated expression on his face. “I don’t want to be a glorified HVAC manufacturer!”

Lilith couldn’t help a chuckle, relaxing a little as she nodded.

The meeting had gone well, and Whispering Darkness had immediately pointed out a few places where her designs could be improved, as well as suggesting the use of an artificial muscle he’d developed that also functioned as a power capacitor, which would allow the suits to run for a little longer, particularly if a limb was cut of from the primary power system. He hadn’t come up with any adjustments to the battery or control system itself, but the details of the armor… well, Lilith had designed it with common materials in mind. Whispering Darkness had a much better idea of what was acceptable than Lilith did. Once he was satisfied, and Nightsinger was looking completely lost, they’d gone ahead and hashed out the details of the contract, by the end of which Nightsinger looked like she could do with a stiff drink. Lilith felt a little bad about that, since four hours of not understanding most of what was said couldn’t be fun.

Now she was taking a tour of Whispering Darkness’s factory, or at least the portions of the building he was comfortable with sharing, and thus far Lilith was impressed at how clean and well-maintained it was. Certainly, she’d only seen the office space for the engineers and the filtration systems, but she’d caught a glimpse of the factory floor from the offices, and it’d looked almost pristine. That was impressive on its own, and Lilith didn’t mind the change of pace, particularly since Whisper had mentioned the idea of getting lunch in the cafeteria once they were done with the tour. Lilith was curious what that would be like, since she didn’t think she’d been in a cafeteria to-date.

“Well, I think you’ll be able to avoid that if this deal of yours works out.” Nightsinger said dryly. “I can’t imagine different police departments not wanting to get some power armor for emergencies. I doubt any of them would be able to afford to put all of their people in them, but a few is better than nothing. I think you’ve got a bit more potential with the exo-suits for construction crews, though.”

“Mm… probably. I suppose my biggest concern is how easy it’d be for someone to get their hands on them, and the first time someone weaponizes an exo-suit, that would be bad.” Lilith said, still not feeling entirely comfortable with Whispering Darkness’s idea to build suits without all the armor which could be used for construction crews and other labor-intensive professions.

“They’re going to get weaponized and stolen no matter how much you try to lock down the equipment. I fully expect people are going to steal the battery design within weeks at most, and try to build their own versions of it.” Whispering Darkness said, letting out a heavy sigh. “Of course people will blame us for it, but there’s only so much you can do. The key is to do what good you can, and make it just difficult enough for bad guys to twist your inventions that most of them give up and try something else.”

Nightsinger nodded in agreement, looking at Lilith curiously for a few seconds, then said. “You know… you’re a lot more idealistic than I expected. I don’t know what I was expecting, but this isn’t it.”

Lilith shrugged, a hint of embarrassment washing through her as she cleared her throat. “Yes, well… I’m not that old, chronologically. I also was essentially raised by an AI, so I have a tendency to look at things from the perspective of how they’re supposed to be, rather than how most people look at them. I know that people tend to push and break the rules, but that isn’t something I’m comfortable with.”

“Hm. Well, I’m sure you’ll get used to it eventually.” Whispering Darkness said, looking at Nightsinger with a quirky smile on his face. “Anyway, why don’t we go downstairs? I’ll take you through the APC plant, then we can take a look at the firing range and find something to eat.”

“That sounds good to me.” Lilith said, relaxing a little as she smiled and followed the man as he headed toward the stairs.


Chris had to resist the urge to give Lilith a tour of the entire factory, with as fascinated by it as she seemed to be. The woman asked good questions, seemed impressed by his work unlike so many other people he’d run into, and didn’t seem even slightly sarcastic. Only two things kept him from continuing the tour. No, three things, he corrected himself.

One of those things was that he’d skipped lunch with the meeting, and it was nearly two in the afternoon at this point. He was hungry, he was sure Janice was hungry, and he suspected Lilith was as well based on her reaction when he’d mentioned the cafeteria. The second reason was that Janice was looking decidedly impatient, and he really didn’t want to make her upset. Like he’d told her earlier, she could snap him like a twig and he’d really rather not give her the excuse.

The last reason was fairly important, but Chris had no idea if it was even worth worrying about Lilith and her AI getting to look over his equipment in detail. With how Circe had penetrated his system to allow Lilith to contact him directly, he wasn’t sure that any of his base was safe from monitoring, at least not without air-gapping all the systems, and he certainly wasn’t going to do that. He’d been upgrading his digital security, but Chris honestly wasn’t sure how much good it’d do against an AI that he guessed was class ten.

“You have a very impressive operation here. I’m especially impressed that you managed to hide all of this for so long.” Lilith said as the door closed behind them, cutting off the noise from the main floor. “It seems like you’d have had a hard time, with as many workers as I saw.”

“Believe me, a bunch of us are wondering how we missed it for so long, but Whisper was pretty clever. He hid it behind shell companies and a couple of adjacent factories. Each had slightly more staff than normal on the rolls, but not so much as to draw attention.” Janice said, giving him a mild glare. “He’s being more open about it now, at least.”

“I’m also paying my taxes, and I’ll point out that my safety record here is practically flawless. The inspectors were looking for anything they could nail me for, and didn’t find a single thing.” Chris said, sniffing derisively. “I hate that type of person.”

“It sounds a little like what happened with me, though in my case, the reputation of Shadowmind didn’t help. I was lucky to sell my company for as much as I did.” Lilith said, a hint of regret in her voice. “I sometimes wonder if the people who worked for me got through things okay. It isn’t like they had any way of knowing who’d hired them.”

Chris thought for a moment, moving down the hall to a security door, which scanned his retina and hand when he placed it on the panel, then allowed him through. It actually read his biometric data as well, but he didn’t say anything about that in any of the documentation. Mostly, he waited for the two women to come in while he considered, then spoke calmly.

“There’s only so much you can do about things like that, Lilith.” Chris told her, looking the woman in the eyes steadily. “You had a death sentence hanging around your neck, and as far as I can tell that was no fault of yours. For me, I don’t have an excuse like that. I’m lucky that most of my employees were loyal to me personally, but even so I’ve had some difficulties, and lost a few people. It sucks, but I can only do the best I can. I’d try to do the same, if I were you.”

“Besides, I heard something about you building some sort of really nice apartments in Paragon City, which is your new venture, right?” Nightsinger said, her tone questioning as she tilted her head. “It doesn’t sound like you waited long to try something new.”

“Well…” Lilith began, looking between them, but waited as the high-pitched whine of a gun firing interrupted. Then the woman continued, her voice a bit wry. “It isn’t in Paragon City, really. I’m in one of the suburbs, and the city wanted me to do something good to prove my intentions. So I bought several old apartment complexes, paid for the residents to live elsewhere, and replaced them with what I came up with. It’s a shopping center on the first floor, though only half of the space is filled so far, and apartments above that. Apparently they’re a lot better than pretty much any other apartments in the state due to the tech I used, but I didn’t know that at the time.”

Chris blinked, then laughed, grinning at her. “Ah, I see how it is. That probably didn’t make you many friends with other apartment complexes in the area.”

“Not at all, especially since I only had to pay for raw materials and the land itself.” Lilith agreed, smiling sardonically, then she nodded. “So, this is the firing range?”

“Ah, yes, of course. And George beat us here, as expected.” Chris said, shaking off his distraction and leading the way into the range more fully. Ten firing booths were on their left, leading down to a wall made of heavy armor and with shield generators all around the floor and ceiling. There was a holographic target in the fourth bay, where Chris saw George with a pulse rifle, taking careful shots. At the opposite side from Chris was another heavy door that led into the armory, while in between was a table holding a wide array of weapons, all of them firearms, though Chris’s eyebrows rose at the sight of one of them.

“George? Why did you bring out the tankbuster?” Chris asked, examining the large gun warily. “You’d better not have charged it. Or brought out ammo for the rail gun.”

“You said you wanted to show her some of the arsenal, so I brought out everything that you considered man-portable.” George replied dryly, taking another shot, then hit the button to eject the pulse rifle’s clip. “Plus, I figure those are portable if you use power armor. But no, I didn’t prepare them for actual combat. Those are anti-armor weapons, not something you’d want most of the time. Maybe if Destruction Corps invaded a city again or something, but anything less than that? Pfft.”

“Good, as that isn’t exactly the kind of thing I’d want the police running around with.” Lilith said, eyeing the two bigger weapons skeptically. “It reminds me of how Circe put a massive energy cannon in my armory, and I have no idea what I’d ever use it for. It’s far too powerful for anything I can think of. Maybe if there was an alien invasion, but anything short of that…”

“That’s… a bit terrifying, really. I seem to remember hearing about Shadowmind blowing open a bunker in New York a few years back, and scaring the hell out of everyone when she did it.” Chris said, shivering slightly at the memory. “It takes work to punch through a properly reinforced bunker door, but she did it with a single shot. I had orders for new models of kinetic and thermal dampeners coming in for months.”

“Really? I didn’t know that.” Janice said, frowning as she added. “I also don’t remember hearing about a bunker in New York.”

“That’s because Iron Bastion covered it up quickly.” Chris explained, shrugging. “Apparently he was stupid enough to steal from Shadowmind, and she took it poorly. She blew the door off the bunker, then systematically destroyed everything he had in the bunker while forcing him to watch. I hear he needed therapy afterward.”

“Lovely. I have very mixed feelings where Amber is concerned.” Lilith said, wrinkling her nose, and it took Chris a moment to realize she was talking about Shadowmind. “Yes, she created me, and let me come to my own conclusions about the world. She also saved my life when Sky Defender was about to shoot me in the back of the head… but she’s also been a terrible person. It makes me wonder, some days.”

“That… wait a second, she saved you from Sky Defender? I heard that he attacked you, but she was still in prison at that point, right?” Chris asked, his thoughts hiccupping as he suddenly switched gears, and he saw both Janice and George straighten slightly. “Before she died.”

“Yes, she was, and she did. She warned me to duck just in time. If she hadn’t, I wouldn’t have had a chance to be on the run.” Lilith said, looking over the weapons slowly, her hands behind her back as she spoke. “I have no idea how she did it, but I don’t think she’s gone.”

“Well, shit.” George said, not smiling anymore, and he glanced at Chris, asking. “Mind if I go up the production order of the psi shields, boss?”

“Go right ahead.” Chris said, a little fear swirling through him as well, and he looked at Janice while George headed for the door. “If Shadowmind somehow overcame her body dying, that’s a bit… unsettling.”

“Horrifying, if you ask me.” Janice said, then flushed as she added. “Sorry, Lilith, but she scares me a lot.”

“You and half the world, it seems. I don’t blame you.” Lilith said, looking up as she smiled. “Now, which of these are the non-lethal weapons?”

“Oh, right!” Chris said, shaking himself and stepping forward. “So, we’ve got several less-lethal weapons here. None of them are really non-lethal in all circumstances, like if someone falls down the stairs and breaks their neck or has an allergic reaction. We’ve got a taser, gel gun, and narc gun in particular.”

He pointed at each of the guns in order, prompting Lilith’s eyebrows to rise. “Narc gun? I don’t know what it or the gel gun do, but… that sounds odd.”

“Narcolepsy gun, not narcotic.” Chris said, and flushed a little as Janice began snickering, and glowered at his girlfriend. “Hey, it isn’t that funny, is it?”

“Is too.” Janice said, grinning. “I mean, narcolepsy isn’t that funny on its own, but naming a gun after it amuses me.”

Chris sniffed, deciding to let the subject drop after seeing how Lilith was smiling, and he continued his explanation. “The gun uses specialized sonic emitters to knock the target unconscious, and after a few minutes they come back up to where they’re just sleeping. It isn’t perfect, but it’s about as precise as a pistol, and much less deadly. The gel gun is better for immobilizing people, as it’s designed to fire a gel that turns into sticky webbing around the target, one that’s full of holes so they can breathe even if they’re hit in the face, but it isn’t perfect, and most supers can break out of it given much time.”

“Ah, interesting. Those are the ones you’d be adapting for the armor, you think?” Lilith asked, leaning over to examine them more closely.

“That’s right. Would you like to try one on the range, and get a feel for them?” Chris asked, gesturing at the targets. “I don’t know if you’d ever need one, but…”

Lilith visibly hesitated, looking at Janice, then Chris. Then she smiled and nodded. “Why not? If I’m going to be trying to help market the armor, I should know how these work.” “Great!” Chris said, grinning. “Now, first off, range safety! Before so much as picking one up, I want to be sure…”

Chapter 3 — Chapter 5