The sudden development of abilities by hundreds of teenagers all over the capital - and to a lesser extent, the country - in 12417 had transformed society on an unprecedented scale for the forseeable future, and in just a few years at that. Nothing had come close to being anywhere near as revolutionary - and with good reason.
Scarlet Maylis had been one of those very first abilitied kids - and when the initial ‘trendy hype’ around abilities died down with the First Super Villain incident, she was one of the first to take in and fight for other now discriminated abilitied folks. Details, coincidences and circumstances that had been largely lost to history - or rather, blown up out of proportions and romanticised to the point of complete inaccuracy - had lead Scarlet to co-lead the First District, the pro-abilities revolutionary group that would eventually overthrow the government and put one Scarlet Maylis into power.
Her largest motivation had always been the well-being of her fellow abilitied folk - and upon obtaining power and leadership, she had set out to ensure them safety and privilege - in spite of costs, the non-abilitied, and all else, it seemed. Her legislations had, amongst other things, lead to the creation of the GHH, banned all genetic research, and allowed the Underground to prolifer relatively unbothered.
Maylis’ draconic regime established the ‘rules’ of the heroes and villains antics that had defined the following century - and even long after her death, it had largely remained unchanged.
That was until Ability Removal.
AR was just a few decades old - still fairly new technology. And yet, it had already become a game-changer. That a simple injection could remove one’s ability - irreversibly, breached every taboo in the book. It was terrifying, a prime weapon of torture and intimidation - especially since it was, by all means, illegal. It modified genetics ; all research on which was banned. The government kept quiet on exactly how they procured it. The average joe wouldn’t have a clue. But crooks, thugs and those otherwise familiar with the capital’s underworld knew. AR had been developed in the quiet corners of a the Underground by a no-name defunct chemist, for the purposes of a small gang.
What no one knew, however, was that AR hadn’t been invented for torture or intimidation at all - quite the opposite.
Once a place where history was made, the Underground District was soon simply left behind by the main actors of that history once its role had been played out - although they were too endeared to it to tear it down. After all, even if Maylis and her co-leads had managed their coup, it had taken them (and all who had followed them) nearly ten years. Not only that, many of the First District’s members were young teens, left with no other option after their ability had been discovered. Young children that had grown up in, adapted to and come to appreciate life in the District - and who knew nothing else. Once it was all over, they still hadn’t much of anywhere else to go.
The government knew this, and were largely responsible for it. They attempted to put social measures in place to help the kids reinsert into normal society and education - and it helped a few, sure. But ultimately, the damage was done. Many smaller gangs had formed while a part of the First District, and now that it had disbanded, they’d stuck together and stuck to what they knew. Most notably, the up-and-coming, flourishing weapon-trafficking MSW group, founded by Medea and Hyacinth - a duo that had a rocky history with Maylis to say the least, and were more than happy to take over once she’d moved on to a different power-trip - only grew in influence. They helped shape what began as a hideout for misled delinquents into an organized underworld, that could no longer be simply ‘gotten rid off', even if the government had wanted to. It hardly mattered ; Maylis, still in charge of government at the time, continuously prohibited authorities from busting and blocking off the district, so much so that it eventually grew so important and powerful that it just became something they had to live with and adapt to.
It continued to evolve, becoming a nest, information web and marketplace for villains - and vigilantes, and over time, even civilians from the poorer districts like 17 or 15. The simple fact that the government referred to criminals affiliated with it with the title of “villains” made it feel like they were worth more than the rest of the criminal riff-raff - as though the Underground was an “official” counterpart to the GHH. In that way, it was, to those who knew about it, the ultimate proof of the government’s hypocrisy. Just a few months after AR began being trafficked through the Underground, the government, too, had “discovered” ability removal technology. Vigilantes, whose mission statement was to fight against villains independently from the controversial GHH, always seemed to be a bigger priority to authorities than active, well-established villains. At least a good half of the police’s equipment was bought directly from MSW itself, without the government even making much of an effort to disguise it. The GHH was in bed with the Underground, and it was only somewhat of a secret.
The underground district was home to several small gangs and groups, tight-knit teams of diverse individuals, who all shared similar stories : Failed by society, school, peers, chance, they’d ended up on the street or nothing short of it, and had, in desperation, resorted to crime, relying on their only remaining asset ; their ability. Some of these groups aspired to make a name for themselves, and be recognised by the GHH itself as villains - cheesy name, rank and all ; but most were content just living day by day in the relative comfort of the underground - and were even relatively friendly with one another, prioritising the GHH and MSW as common enemies rather than competing like the larger gangs. One group, part of the latter category and composed of seven members, had one stand-out quirk ; a child.
It was unclear whether she was biologically related to any of the gang members, or just some abandoned kid they’d taken under their wing, but regardless, they all raised her as their daughter, caring for and protecting her with what little they had. Even beyond her little gang of caretakers, she’d earned a bit of a reputation with other gangs that would’ve otherwise messed with hers ; everyone shared a soft spot for little Sheryl.
By her eighth birthday, in 12504, she developed an ability ; acid generation. Compulsive and near-constant acid generation. Liquid acid pouring out of her skin pores at all times ; an acid that she herself was not immune to. Though not strong enough to dissolver her entirely, it burnt her skin and inner tissues, causing her non-stop pain, harm and sobs. The gang was mortified. Sheryl was slowly and unstoppably killing herself. They were desperate for a solution - and unable to find any.
One of the typical Underground archetypes was that of the ‘misunderstood genius’ - a.k.a., mad scientist ; ambitious bachelors who’d taken their “eccentric” science to a place free of legal regulations and tax. Wasa Geez was a by-the-book example - brilliant in all things chemistry and physics all throughout high school, but kicked out for repeated theft of school equipment, the ability-less (and admittedly hyper imaginative and airheaded) geek spent much of her time between pickpocketing and odd-job-ing to get by, playing dull pranks on her deadbeat household and reading through scholar papers she bought whenever she could - the last of which, she prefered to do in the comfort and solitude of an abandoned shack in the woods she’d stumbled upon some years prior. It wasn’t far from the derelict mining sites south-west of the capital, so Wasa figured it was another vestige of that time : that was, until her private reading time was inopportunely interrupted by two street thugs looking to use the underground entrance hidden through the chest she’d been using as a seat. The three - despite all odds - became fast friends, and later joined with a few others, becoming the gang that would eventually care for lil’ Sheryl.
Naturally, when her acid manifested and threatened her life, Wasa dived headfirst back into her adolescent obsession - though inverted, and spent countless, tireless days brainstorming, theorising and experimenting with some way to rid the poor girl of her ability.
AR - or at least, its first usable prototype - was invented by a gang of symbiotic rejects desperate to keep their little protégée alive, by any means necessary. They didn’t even hesitate ; as soon as they’d gotten proof that the concoction worked, they injected Sheryl with it.
If the current, sanitized and revised over and over version of AR was still known to induce harrowing and potentially scarring side effects - its clandestinely improvised ancestor wasn’t exactly any better. Though it likely saved her life, the injection broke Sheryl in more subtle ways.
Heart-wrenching screams, deafening wailing and bloody splatter forever stained AR’s first successful use. Nonetheless, it was successful. A deeply-rooted, visceral part of the girl was torn from her insides, insidiously, turning her own immune system into a torture chamber that was too late to help anything. Worse yet, it only partially worked.
The next day, Sheryl ran away. Ran off and out of the underground, on her own, drooling and spitting acid through her sobs, desperately trying to generate more ; it was no use. Her ability was but a shadow of what she was used to ; her spit remained more acidic than average, and dripped gratuitously out of her gaping mouth - that was about it. Sheryl was a screaming child cuddled up in the middle of a street, screaming to anyone and no one - it’s gone, it’s gone, it’s gone, it’s gone, all gone, all gone, it hurts, it’s gone.
She was retrieved by policemen. Unable to be identified, she was assigned a last name after authorities failed to find any of her relatives due to the inexistence of any genetic testing technology, and put in charge of the foster system. She was, for the first few months, put into the care of a therapist, who encouraged her to disclose the cause of her distress, but could not get her to name who were the ones who removed her ability, or how. Not that she couldn’t remember ; she was old enough that she knew by heart their full names and their usual ways in and out of the underground. About a year later, she returned and reunited with them.
Her former caretakers were unbearably sorry. Not one of them had caught a full night’s sleep for months after that day, haunted by her desperate, agonising howls. Even Wasa, despite her pride, had resolved to bury any trace of their ability removal research for good ; Sheryl begged them not to. Conflicted, confused, but unwilling to refuse her anything after what had happened, they went along with it.
Once they’d reassured her that they still loved and cared for her, they offered her advice ; stop skipping school and sneaking down here, embrace this opportunity to live a normal life after all. Sheryl dutifully swore to abide by it. But as she grew up and the orphanage allowed her more freedom, she continuously sneaked out to the underground whenever she could. To her, it had always been - and still remained her home. Even as she came to see it for what it was - and as distressing and scarring as her ability removal had been, Sheryl never held it against the district or her childhood caretakers. They’d done it for her sake, and she was thankful for that much, at least. AR had broken open a leak, slowly building up envy and spite in her heart drop by drop over the years - but not once did she lash it out on the gang.
Sheryl drowned herself in study, tirelessly working herself to the bone, refining her social skills ; she studied economics, public relations and speaking, sociology, psychology, anything that would give her an edge in the business world, all with three goals in mind. The first, to honour the advice and hope her former caretakers ; The second, to one day provide for them - and the third, to spew her spite in the face of the world that had failed her and those she loved, the universe that had cursed her with a self-destructive ability and still made her regret its loss. She planned on killing all three birds with one stone - a stone consisting of the commercialisation of ability removal technology.
The gang had kept the secret for years, without ever slipping. It was a remarkably coordinated effort for them. Even more remarkable was that they had managed to remain tight-lipped, even while Wasa had continued to iron out AR’s flaws and work on its efficiency and reliability - both for her own gratification, and because Sheryl encouraged it. Though the two disagreed on the pain factor - Ms. Geez being determined to diminish the agonizing nature of the treatment, while Sheryl was notably unbothered and even annoyed at Wasa wasting time on such a trivial aspect of the AR.
Achieving her studies, Sheryl Nozhnitsy founded Nozhnitsy Technologies and Innovation, an unassuming start-up that started off selling ‘technologically optimised’ kitchen and home appliances - and more importantly, a company that served as the front for her Underground projects, starting with the trade of the ‘brand new’ Ability Removal.
Or rather - she didn’t sell the solution itself, but rather, AR as a service : that way, the preparation never left Sheryl and her gang’s hands, and Nozhnitsy maintained its monopoly. They were even able to blur the details on what exactly AR was : only letting people in one at a time, using huge useless machines to obscure a simple injection, overall building a story that kept competition at bay.
It was a lucrative market. The appeal of the concept alone ensured the Nozhnitsy Group - underground, that is - profit and influence ; AR had all too many applications. From its original health-orientated purpose, to torture, intimidation, revenge, eliminating competitors... Sheryl knew even the government was interested, both as capital punishment, a way to ensure prisoners wouldn’t cause any more harm, and a stick to keep their own forces in line. Ultimately, she didn’t care about what it was used for. She simply found comfort in gathering riches to afford her family a good lifestyle ; and even more so, in the knowledge that dozens, hundreds, tens of thousands now shared her pain.