Trailblazer5
  1. Oh man this was a fun chapter.
  2.  
  3. Step 4.9
  4.  
  5. The screen came off easily enough.
  6.  
  7. I pulled out most of the components, rigging the case with some basic and mostly useless tinker tech. When I finished and put the screen back on, the burner phone joined the other two.
  8.  
  9. All three devices were little more than hard drives with screens and a rudimentary operating system.
  10.  
  11. Good enough to get my point across.
  12.  
  13. “Load the files.”
  14.  
  15. “Download complete.”
  16.  
  17. I melted the wireless receivers once the download completed.
  18.  
  19. “Alright. Is everything else ready?”
  20.  
  21. “Yes.”
  22.  
  23. “Time to go then.”
  24.  
  25. I handed one phone to Red, and another to Navy. The third I slipped into O Gundam’s cockpit.
  26.  
  27. Veda loaded the suit into the van while I got my costume on.
  28.  
  29. “They might attack you regardless of what you say,” Veda said.
  30.  
  31. “I don’t think they will.”
  32.  
  33. I pulled my mask over my head and straightened my hair.
  34.  
  35. “Dinah Alcott’s predictions included outcomes that ended poorly.”
  36.  
  37. “Less than a quarter of them,” I said. “And I think it comes down to how I play it.”
  38.  
  39. “I remain concerned,” my AI said.
  40.  
  41. “I know. It’ll be okay, Veda.”
  42.  
  43. I climbed into the passenger seat and closed the door.
  44.  
  45. “They will come after you.”
  46.  
  47. “I keep running into capes anyway,” I said. “Might as well start doing it on purpose.”
  48.  
  49. She had a point though. No matter how I played this, the gangs would come at me. I knew that.
  50.  
  51. Part of why I decided I might as well go all the way.
  52.  
  53. No half measures.
  54.  
  55. I tried not to get too attached the plan, given my track record thus far, but I felt pretty good about this one.
  56.  
  57. I kept it simple.
  58.  
  59. Simple is best.
  60.  
  61. “There’s no one else who can do this. No one else who has the information we have. It’ll keep everyone who was outed safe. For now, at least.”
  62.  
  63. I didn’t suffer delusions. Sooner or later, someone would be stupid. That’s human nature. But later is better.
  64.  
  65. Veda pulled the van out of the workshop.
  66.  
  67. The Haros poured into the sky right behind me, taking a circular formation. Bakuda could see them now, which worried me, but I’d need more time to make all the upgrades.
  68.  
  69. I raised my phone at the sound of a message.
  70.  
  71. “Dad is on his way,” I said in a low voice.
  72.  
  73. Not sure how I felt about that, but he insisted. He didn’t want me doing this, but I guess he accepted he really couldn’t stop me. Being there when I “set out” came as the compromise I needed to accept to get him to stop making a fuss.
  74.  
  75. I didn’t get it.
  76.  
  77. “There is a problem,” Veda said ten minutes into our drive.
  78.  
  79. “What is it?”
  80.  
  81. The video popped up on my visor from one of Red’s cameras.
  82.  
  83. He really is this stupid.
  84.  
  85. “Let me off up here.”
  86.  
  87. I double checked the time. Trevor didn’t even have the sense to wait till people were probably asleep. The store owner was probably watching TV upstairs.
  88.  
  89. If regular unexpected complications taught me anything, it was to be prepared. I already knew someone might do something dumb. With that in mind I picked a launch point for the night that let me make an easy detour.
  90.  
  91. The van took a quick left turn in an alley. Purple and Orange descended from the sky. I stepped out as soon as the brakes brought the vehicle to a stop.
  92.  
  93. “I’ll meet you at the launch point, Veda.”
  94.  
  95. “Very well,” she answered. “And Danny Hebert?”
  96.  
  97. Oh. Right.
  98.  
  99. “I’m just stopping someone from doing something foolish. I’ll be right there.”
  100.  
  101. I emerged from the alley on the opposite street, and here he was, crouched over and working at the lock. He didn’t even see me approach. Concerning. I put no effort into being stealthy.
  102.  
  103. The idi-
  104.  
  105. Sigh.
  106.  
  107. Not fair. I’d been at this a few months and I still made stupid mistakes. I’d make more. I even considered doing this exact thing when I first started out. Dismissed it only because I’d inevitably get noticed or caught.
  108.  
  109. So I skipped the petty insult.
  110.  
  111. That nonsense belonged with someone like Emma.
  112.  
  113. “Hello Cheerio,” I said. It’s a process.
  114.  
  115. Trevor shot to his feet, some strange device held in his hand.
  116.  
  117. A lock-picking tool I figured.
  118.  
  119. The helmet covered his face completely. His costume was rough, white armor plates covering exposed circuits. Bulky around the chest and legs. From some of the exposed mechanisms I made out an accelerator and some kind of thruster. A glowing round pack hung from his belt. Probably a power source.
  120.  
  121. And are those roller skates?
  122.  
  123. “Nice boots,” I said.
  124.  
  125. “O-Oh, really?” He lifted one leg, precariously balancing on the other. Didn’t seem to bother him actually. “You think so?”
  126.  
  127. “Are roller blades part of your specialty?”
  128.  
  129. “Specialty?” He set his foot down. “Oh, yeah Armsmaster said something about that. Wait. No.” He pointed his finger. “What are you doing here?”
  130.  
  131. “Stopping you from being dumb.” I glanced past him. “Seriously, you’re not even trying to use the side door?”
  132.  
  133. The hardware store looked like a classic mom and pop shop. The right amount of fade in it’s paint. An old style sign with a cheesy mustachio mascot holding a wrench really pulled the vintage feel together.
  134.  
  135. “This? Oh. Um.” Trevor rolled forward slightly, his hands going behind his back. “It’s not what it looks like?”
  136.  
  137. “Looks like breaking and entering to me,” I said. “You realize you’ve already robbed this place once?”
  138.  
  139. “Well, I mean- I didn’t really rob it. I left money, and I fixed the lock when I left.”
  140.  
  141. I shook my head. “Setting aside that you forgot sales tax-”
  142.  
  143. “Oh right.”
  144.  
  145. “Leaving money behind still requires the initial crime of breaking and entering.”
  146.  
  147. Trevor flinched. He held both hands up, tool conspicuously absent. Odd. I didn’t see anywhere for him to store it when I approached.
  148.  
  149. “I, um-”
  150.  
  151. “Never mind how badly this goes after you’re done,” I said. “The owner is white. The Empire could use this as an excuse to come after you. Or the Protectorate could rethink their position on you.”
  152.  
  153. “I-”
  154.  
  155. “Didn’t think of that did you?”
  156.  
  157. “Well, I mean-” He glanced back and sighed. “I just needed some screws.”
  158.  
  159. And he’s here for screws why is he making this so hard?
  160.  
  161. “You’re joining the Wards, right? You’ll get a development budget when you do. There’s no need for this. You’ll be able to buy all the screws you need.”
  162.  
  163. “Um.”
  164.  
  165. Oh, come on. Is no one actually doing the thing that keeps them safe?
  166.  
  167. “You’re not joining the Wards?” I asked.
  168.  
  169. “My mom wants me to.”
  170.  
  171. “But?”
  172.  
  173. “I’m… not sure.” He shrugged. “I mean. I didn’t really set out to do any hero stuff. It’s the ideas, all these ideas in my head. I just want to build them. You know? This idea and that idea?”
  174.  
  175. Trevor placed his hands on his waist.
  176.  
  177. “Armsmaster said that Hero runs an entire team of tinkers who do nothing but tinker. That seems cool, but it’s only for Protectorate members, not Wards. I’m not really interested in patrolling or PR events and stuff.”
  178.  
  179. I crossed my arms over my chest.
  180.  
  181. Be nice, don’t mention the screws just don’t think about it.
  182.  
  183. “I can relate to that,” I said. “When I first triggered I burned through a stack of notebooks. A lot of the ideas I never got around to building.”
  184.  
  185. “You built that suit.”
  186.  
  187. “I did.” I said. “I got so absorbed in it, I let some things fall to the wayside. Forgot myself a little longer than I’d have liked.”
  188.  
  189. Trevor raised one hand to his head. “You say that like a regret.”
  190.  
  191. “I don’t regret building it.”
  192.  
  193. My plan would never work without something like it. Not to toot my own horn, but the Gundam exceeded most tinker tech I could compare it to. Even as imperfect as some of the tech was, or maybe “unrealized” fit better.
  194.  
  195. “But I feel stupid for losing sight of what’s important.”
  196.  
  197. Trevor’s head lulled. “Huh?”
  198.  
  199. “Sorry.” I smiled and shrugged. “I’m a little distracted. I kind of need to threaten someone tonight. Multiple someones actually.”
  200.  
  201. “That… doesn’t sound very heroic.”
  202.  
  203. He had a point, but, “Hero is more than a word.”
  204.  
  205. And I’m still distracted. Such inconvenient timing.
  206.  
  207. “This is a bad idea,” I said with a nod toward the store. “I think you know it.”
  208.  
  209. “Um. Maybe, just a little.”
  210.  
  211. “What’s important to you? Your mom? You worried about her at Winslow.”
  212.  
  213. I took his silence as a decent answer.
  214.  
  215. “Go home, Trevor. She’s probably worried about you.”
  216.  
  217. I turned my back, but Orange rose up and kept an eye on him. Trevor looked back to the store. A flash of light at his back, and the tool reappeared in his hand.
  218.  
  219. A pocket space then, like what Kid Win described.
  220.  
  221. Impressive.
  222.  
  223. I stopped after stepping around the corner. I didn’t want to arrest him, or get into a fight, but I couldn’t let Trevor get shot. Maybe if I went in the back and distracted the owner?
  224.  
  225. At least my costume was bullet proof.
  226.  
  227. He stood by the door, tool in hand. Once or twice he looked the way I left. Hesitating, or just covering his back?
  228.  
  229. “Go home already. Don’t make me go back and hit you.”
  230.  
  231. He hung around for nearly a minute.
  232.  
  233. And then he flashed his tool back away. His boots shifted, the wheels on his roller blades lighting up. He turned, and a dust line appeared in his place going west.
  234.  
  235. Frictionless motion, and instant acceleration to a set velocity? Huh.
  236.  
  237. Well. At least that was easy.
  238.  
  239. I went on my way. Just two blocks to the launch site.
  240.  
  241. Dad leaned against his truck, staring at the carpentry van parked in the next spot over. He wore a ski-mask of course, and his truck sported a fake license plate.
  242.  
  243. Just in case.
  244.  
  245. Sue me. It’s a victimless crime.
  246.  
  247. He insisted on seeing this, but I wasn’t going to take chances.
  248.  
  249. Taylor: get Red and Navy in position
  250.  
  251. Veda: moving
  252.  
  253. The two Haros broke from the overhead formation. I crossed the parking lot, dad pushing off his truck as I approached. He looked me up and down.
  254.  
  255. I guess he never saw me in costume before.
  256.  
  257. “It’s a little tight,” he mumbled.
  258.  
  259. I glanced down at myself. I didn’t really mind the tight fit, even if I didn’t have much figure. Nothing superfluous to get in the way of moving, and bullet proof of course.
  260.  
  261. “At least it doesn’t show any skin?”
  262.  
  263. Hard to see his face under the mask, but I think he smiled.
  264.  
  265. “I wish you wouldn’t do this,” he said.
  266.  
  267. “I know.”
  268.  
  269. I didn’t tell him everything. If he knew everything he’d stop me. But I told him enough to convince myself I didn’t lie. Probably get lectured after.
  270.  
  271. “If it helps, someone I know says I’m still alive tomorrow.”
  272.  
  273. “Someone you know?” Dad asked.
  274.  
  275. “I’ve met lots of capes,” I said. “Some see the future.”
  276.  
  277. The remaining Haros confirmed we were alone.
  278.  
  279. I leaned forward and closed my arms around him.
  280.  
  281. “I’ll be okay,” I said.
  282.  
  283. He grumbled like a typical dad.
  284.  
  285. “You can’t promise that.”
  286.  
  287. “I will be.”
  288.  
  289. The van erupted beside us. The sides drew down and O Gundam lifted into a standing position.
  290.  
  291. “You have a transforming van?” Dad asked.
  292.  
  293. I shrugged.
  294.  
  295. “Seemed like a useful thing to keep around.”
  296.  
  297. I pulled back from the hug.
  298.  
  299. Dad remained standing as I climbed into O Gundam.
  300.  
  301. The chest closed, and the helmet came down on my head.
  302.  
  303. I pushed, the GN drive beginning its spin and showering the lot in light. The van started to close, and I saw dad walking around to the driver’s side door.
  304.  
  305. Veda rolled the dark tinted window down, turning her driving camera to look at him.
  306.  
  307. “Hello, Danny Hebert.”
  308.  
  309. Dad blinked, apparently not expecting a machine to address him.
  310.  
  311. “You’re StarGazer?”
  312.  
  313. “I am,” Veda answered. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”
  314.  
  315. “Have we met? You sound, familiar.”
  316.  
  317. He said it suspiciously.
  318.  
  319. Right.
  320.  
  321. Veda based her voice on mine. And she sounded like mom.
  322.  
  323. “No,” Veda said. “Perhaps someday, when it is safer.”
  324.  
  325. I rose slowly, giving my two messengers time to reach their destinations.
  326.  
  327. Navy went north, while Red went south. The cradles didn’t fly nearly as fast O Gundam, and it would be annoying threatening every gang one at a time.
  328.  
  329. I waited a bit.
  330.  
  331. Dad and Veda conversed in the lot. I wanted them to move, regardless of the fact Orange, Green, and Purple didn’t see anyone nearby to notice them.
  332.  
  333. I’d never used the suit this early in the evening. The sun might be down, and with the drive throttled it didn’t produce that much light.
  334.  
  335. Still. I didn’t like the risk.
  336.  
  337. I dialed the number, and when dad answered I said, “You should get going.”
  338.  
  339. “I worry, kiddo.”
  340.  
  341. “I know.”
  342.  
  343. I hung up, and dad said a few more words before getting into his truck. I told him to never replace the plate anywhere public. Hidden or out of the way places only. And of course, take off his mask only after being certain no one followed.
  344.  
  345. “Purple. Can you follow him?”
  346.  
  347. “Babysitting,” the Haro chirped.
  348.  
  349. “In position. In position!”
  350.  
  351. I turned my head. Red and Navy hovered over their marks.
  352.  
  353. “Get ready to grab some attention,” I said.
  354.  
  355. “Holding holding!”
  356.  
  357. Alright.
  358.  
  359. “Ready to record, Veda?”
  360.  
  361. “Ready.”
  362.  
  363. “Well then.” I spun about, the drive flashing as I propelled myself forward.
  364.  
  365. “Start.”
  366.  
  367. “Beginning operation.”
  368.  
  369. The drive poured particles into the sky. I reached the edge of the city and banked left, circling the edge.
  370.  
  371. The gangs responded instantly.
  372.  
  373. Capes started moving. Guards began reporting. They knew the drill by now, and a week of respite didn’t mean they forgot.
  374.  
  375. “Find her for me,” I said.
  376.  
  377. The Haros spread out, beginning a search of the sky.
  378.  
  379. I isolated the feeds from the cape’s phones specifically. The ones I knew about.
  380.  
  381. SttN: yeah I know I’m going
  382. LayonHands: stay lower
  383. LayonHands: fly too high and she’ll see you
  384. SttN: she avoids cape fights
  385. ReleasetheHounds: because she’s afraid
  386. ReleasetheHounds: should just ambush her
  387. Lt: she’s too fast to be caught
  388. Lt: until HM convinces Radiant to return we defend​
  389.  
  390. Radiant?
  391.  
  392. Sounded like a cape name, but it would be weird for all of them to avoid using capes names except for one person.
  393.  
  394. Radiant? Like light.
  395.  
  396. Purity isn’t with them.
  397.  
  398. So there’s a divide between the Empire and Purity? Wonderful the things you can learn eavesdropping. It suited me. The only other flier they had access to couldn’t possibly catch me.
  399.  
  400. I turned into the city, flying a little lower than I normally did.
  401.  
  402. The video feed popped up on my visor.
  403.  
  404. Rune lifted off of a roof atop a manhole cover, her hands holding something. Her phone probably. Her location raised my brow.
  405.  
  406. Right where I wanted her. Very considerate.
  407.  
  408. SttN: yeah
  409. SttN: defending has worked so well so far​
  410.  
  411. “Red. Navy. Let’s threaten some bad guys.”
  412.  
  413. I threw my feet forward.
  414.  
  415. I exhaled with the sudden stop, and then threw my feet back the other way. The air snapped around me, a visible wave rippling through the trail of particles as I broke the sound barrier and hurdled over the city.
  416.  
  417. Rune didn’t have time to react to my approach. Her chosen transport wobbled as I shot past her, the girl dropping to her knees and grabbing hold of the edge to avoid falling off.
  418.  
  419. My suit slid over the air a good eight feet, and I came about to face her.
  420.  
  421. Her green robe fluttered about her, pulling back enough to show a black body stocking underneath. Her mask was a plain white one with holes for eyes and no other features. Turned my way of course.
  422.  
  423. Checking on the Haros, Red flew through the window and dropped his stun grenade on the ground. The Merchants scattered, but they all fell over once the blast hit them.
  424.  
  425. Navy, more courteously, knocked. When the door opened he threw his grenade into the gambling parlor. The guard pulled the door as he fell, opening the way for my robot to fly inside.
  426.  
  427. I descended from the air at a steady pace.
  428.  
  429. Rune held her position in the air, watching silently.
  430.  
  431. My feet touched solid roof, and I started spinning the drive down.
  432.  
  433. I needed to preserve my GN field. If anything useful came of my mishap with the ABB the other day, I proved the GN field lasted longer at lower outputs.
  434.  
  435. The chest popped up and I climbed out of the suit.
  436.  
  437. Wind kicked up around me, blowing my hair off to the side and slamming into my limbs. I almost stumbled. Didn’t expect it to be so powerful.
  438.  
  439. Large fan vents spun behind me, a railing lining the roofs edge. From the rooftop the city looked almost scenic.
  440.  
  441. The Haros surrounded my position, give or take a hundred feet. Pink had ensured Dinah’s safe pick up by her mother, and was on her way to join us.
  442.  
  443. Rune watched from above, hands back to holding her phone
  444.  
  445. JackofTrades: where did she go?
  446. Walkure: I don’t see her
  447. SttN: she’s here​
  448.  
  449. Well, that’s just overly dramatic.
  450.  
  451. Lt: here where?
  452. SttN: she’s STANDING on top of MedHall​
  453.  
  454. I know where you live.
  455.  
  456. I raised one hand toward Rune and waved.
  457.  
  458. Every member of the Empire stopped at once. Two of them in the middle of busy roads. I wish I saw the actual scene rather than just the dots on my map.
  459.  
  460. Red zip tied his captives and dragged them all over to the wall one at a time. Took him awhile. One person weighed about as much as my bazooka, and it took two Haros to lift that with good time.
  461.  
  462. Navy had it a little easier, since the ABB guys he knocked out kind of hit the ground in a circle.
  463.  
  464. He tied them up and set down on a table they could all see.
  465.  
  466. SttN: what do I do?
  467. ReleasetheHounds: kill her
  468. Lt: what is she doing?
  469. SttN: she’s just standing there
  470. Lt: I don’t see the light from her suit
  471. SttN: she’s not in it​
  472.  
  473. I imagined Krieg with a cross eyed expression.
  474.  
  475. Lt: you mean she landed and stepped out?
  476. Lt: she isn’t in her suit?
  477. SttN: after nearly running me over
  478. ReleasetheHounds: kill her
  479. Valkyrie: coincidence
  480. Walkure: convenient coincidence
  481. ReleasetheHounds: someone kill her
  482. SttN: still waiting to be told what to do
  483. ReleasetheHounds: KILL HER​
  484.  
  485. If I needed any vindication, seeing Hookwolf jump right to killing me at the slightest provocation provided it.
  486.  
  487. Grabbing some Empire goons served my purposes, but I wanted to sell it. I knew more about the Empire than the other gangs. With Sabah being Arab, and Trevor being Hispanic, it felt like the Empire posed a greater risk.
  488.  
  489. Besides. The Merchant capes seemed to keep themselves fairly high, and the ABB capes all came in degrees of crazy.
  490.  
  491. Doing this face to face with them sounded like a recipe for disaster.
  492.  
  493. And two birds with one stone, what were the chances I just landed on top of Medhall by chance? The only thing more obvious would be writing “I know” on the back of a post card and having it mailed.
  494.  
  495. LayonHands: is she threatening us?
  496. LayonHands: she saw your face
  497. Whitey: a hero breaking the rules?
  498. Lt: is she threatening you?
  499. SttN: she’s just standing there
  500. JackofTrades: menacingly?​
  501.  
  502. Rune leaned to one side.
  503.  
  504. SttN: Maybe?​
  505.  
  506. Of course, if the Empire capes remained frozen in indecision, I might find some of their guys for an audience anyway.
  507.  
  508. ReleasetheHounds: fine
  509. ReleasetheHounds: Ill do it
  510. Lt: everyone hold
  511. Lt: I’m contacting HM​
  512.  
  513. Going right to Kaiser then.
  514.  
  515. I crossed my arms and started tapping my foot while Rune remained in the air above.
  516.  
  517. I needed some time.
  518.  
  519. The guys Red and Navy grabbed needed to recover enough to actually understand words.
  520.  
  521. I didn’t need twelve minutes.
  522.  
  523. How did it take twelve minutes to ask Kaiser what to do? Krieg asked if I was still there three times. Rune said yes, naturally.
  524.  
  525. Lt: Rune​
  526.  
  527. And they dropped the silly code names.
  528.  
  529. Lt: find out what she wants
  530. SttN: what?
  531. Lt: she’s still standing there yes?
  532. SttN: yes?
  533. Lt: she wants to talk
  534. Lt: go talk
  535. Lt: the rest of us will surround the building
  536. SttN: and if she arrests me?
  537. Lt: she would have tried already
  538. Lt: find out what she wants​
  539.  
  540. Rune lifted her head.
  541.  
  542. I waved again.
  543.  
  544. The rest of the Empire started moving, which was cute. I’d be long gone before any of them arrived, assuming they even kept on that plan after Rune and I talked.
  545.  
  546. Rune descended.
  547.  
  548. I pulled out my phone.
  549.  
  550. sys.t// << start recording
  551.  
  552. sys.v// >> starting
  553.  
  554. Rune’s manhole cover kept a dozen or so feet distance between us, but it lowered enough for our heads to be even.
  555.  
  556. This is it.
  557.  
  558. Time to tell off every villain in the city, paint a huge target on my back, and hopefully ensure the short term safety of every outed cape in the city.
  559.  
  560. “Hello,” I said, raising my voice so the wind didn’t drown me out. “Having a nice evening?”
  561.  
  562. Red and Navy replayed my words, drawing the eyes of the captured men around them.
  563.  
  564. “What do you want?” Rune asked.
  565.  
  566. “I’m just enjoying the view,” I said. “It’s a nice building. Probably cost a lot of money.”
  567.  
  568. “Probably,” she said.
  569.  
  570. “So, sorry to take your time, but since you’re here, would you mind listening to me ramble?”
  571.  
  572. Rune’s shoulders slouched. One of the Merchant guys cursed at me, while the ABB ones remained silent.
  573.  
  574. Good enough.
  575.  
  576. “I’ve been trying to work through some worries,” I said. “And maybe a random passerby will have some useful insights?”
  577.  
  578. “Is this a joke?” Rune asked.
  579.  
  580. “Jokes are funny,” I said. “I’m not good at funny. I’m good at math. And scheming. Or rather, I’d like to think I’m good at scheming. Been kind of a shitty week on that front.”
  581.  
  582. Rune floated back a bit, glancing at the sky around us. Only a few buildings stood taller than Medhall, and none of them were on the same block. I think she spotted Orange and Green in the distance. The eyes of her mask looked their way intently a little too long.
  583.  
  584. I ignored that and kept talking.
  585.  
  586. “I try to save the Undersiders from a suicide bomber, and I get blown up. A lot. I try to help some outed capes and a school grade gets knocked out. Yay me. I go to chase some bad guys, and I find out they’ve got a conscience somewhere. Go figure.”
  587.  
  588. Rune turned her attention back to me, one of the ABB guys saying something in Chinese. Veda translated it as some kind of idiom about plans not surviving contact with the enemy.
  589.  
  590. Life lessons from gangsters. How valuable.
  591.  
  592. “It’s discouraging,” I said. “Really bums me out. I haven’t attacked any of the gangs all week because I keep thinking, what if I push them too far? What if they go after Sabah Ibnat-Salah, or Trevor Medina, or Lafter Frankland? Their friends. Their families.”
  593.  
  594. I let the words hang. The Merchants lived up to their reputation, cursing at me and grumbling. The ABB guys seemed more intent to listen in silence.
  595.  
  596. For Rune’s part she quickly pulled up her phone.
  597.  
  598. SttN: I have no idea what she’s talking about
  599. Lt: what did she say​
  600.  
  601. She started typing and then stopped.
  602.  
  603. “Fuck this. Can I put this on conference call?” She held up her phone. “I’m not your fucking messenger girl.”
  604.  
  605. “Go ahead and tell whoever you want however you want,” I said.
  606.  
  607. SttN: one sec​
  608.  
  609. She dialed a number and lifted her phone parallel to her face.
  610.  
  611. “Okay, get on with it,” she said. “We can hear you.”
  612.  
  613. “Well, I was just talking to Rune,” - that got some odd reactions - “here about how I’m too afraid to attack any of the gangs. For all I know, I go to blow up a drug stash and Kaiser puts a blade to Parian’s throat. Or Lung threatens to burn Chariot alive.”
  614.  
  615. “The unwritten rules,” a voice from Rune’s phone said.
  616.  
  617. It occurred to me the entire Empire might be on the other side of that call. Ten capes, maybe more, listening to me.
  618.  
  619. “The rules suggest,” I said, “that anyone who breaks them will find themselves surrounded. An enemy to everyone. But how many villains are fighting the Teeth right now?”
  620.  
  621. Rune tilted her had to one side. “I-”
  622.  
  623. “None,” I said. “The Protectorate sent Legend to shore up things in Boston, and not a single villain has stepped in to help.”
  624.  
  625. Rune scowled.
  626.  
  627. “This isn’t Boston,” the male voice said. “The capes here follow the rules.”
  628.  
  629. “Tell that to Fleur,” I said.
  630.  
  631. And that’s the elephant in the room.
  632.  
  633. Someone attacked Fleur, and New Wave died. Sure the group still existed, but they didn’t act. They couldn’t. If they even tried to push, to really fight, then the cornered mice would bite.
  634.  
  635. A voice from Rune’s phone exclaimed, “That was-”
  636.  
  637. “It was an act of a fool who was punished,” I said. “I know, but it happened, didn’t it?”
  638.  
  639. “She lived.”
  640.  
  641. “She got lucky,” I said.
  642.  
  643. Rune looked like she wanted to leave. I didn’t blame her. In her shoes, I’d have a very uneasy feeling right now.
  644.  
  645. “When Fleur was attacked New Wave retaliated, but no one else attacked the Empire. Lung killed Challenger in her home five years ago. Did the Empire, or the Merchants move to punish him for it? Squealer was stolen from her home and drugged up. Did anyone try to rescue her?”
  646.  
  647. I stepped back toward my suit.
  648.  
  649. “So that’s my dilemma,” I said. “It vexes, doesn’t it? People break the rules, but no one enforces them outside the Protectorate and realistically the Protectorate can’t do a lot there.”
  650.  
  651. Red and Navy both produced phones and dropped them on the floor. I pulled one from inside my suit and held it up.
  652.  
  653. “And then I was talking to Parian the other day. She brought up a useful thought. Why waste all my time worrying?”
  654.  
  655. I waved the burner phone at Rune, making sure she saw it in my hand.
  656.  
  657. “If the gangs want to play like there are no rules,” - I set the phone on the ground and stepped back - “then there are no rules.”
  658.  
  659. Rune glanced to me, and then to the phone on the ground. Red and Navy undid the zip ties holding one captive each, letting the men take the phone and look at the contents.
  660.  
  661. Rune landed at the edge of the roof and stepped forward. I took another step back, one hand going to my beam saber just in case.
  662.  
  663. Rune hesitated a moment, and then continued.
  664.  
  665. She grabbed the phone and started looking through it.
  666.  
  667. Think I saw her eyes go wide under her mask.
  668.  
  669. I imagine she saw faces and names she already knew. Faces and names attached to masks and names everyone in the Empire preferred remain unattached.
  670.  
  671. I didn’t know which ones.
  672.  
  673. I still didn’t trust myself. I knew my limits.
  674.  
  675. But I trusted Veda.
  676.  
  677. She put the packages together. Identities, and not just of capes. High ranking lieutenants and dirty cops. City officials on the take. Smuggling routes and contacts.
  678.  
  679. The kind of information that, if it got out, would probably burn Brockton Bay to the ground.
  680.  
  681. And the gangs along with it.
  682.  
  683. When I started I wanted to gather as much information as I could. But what good is information if you never use it? I had enough. Enough to bury them all. The consequences wouldn’t be limited, but I don’t think they could afford it.
  684.  
  685. In front of me, Rune’s hand squeezed the phone.
  686.  
  687. “You can’t be serious,” she hissed.
  688.  
  689. I looked her in the eye.
  690.  
  691. “Plus and Minus are dead,” I said. “Girl Wonder is dead. Blanche is dead. Concourse is dead.”
  692.  
  693. Slight pause.
  694.  
  695. “I’m deadly serious.”
  696.  
  697. One of the ABB guys asked who those names were. Figures. None of them came from Brockton bay. Three were from Boston, one from Providence, and another from Portland. I’d bet even the Empire didn’t know them by name.
  698.  
  699. “What is happening?” The voice on the phone asked.
  700.  
  701. LayonHands: is she threatening to out us?
  702. ReleasetheHounds: KILL HER
  703. Walkure: what do we do?
  704. JackofTrades: killing her is pointless
  705. JackofTrades: StarGazer can follow through​
  706.  
  707. “I’m going to make this simple,” I said. “Pick the rules you want to play by, and those are the rules you’ll play by.”
  708.  
  709. I stepped back into my suit, the chest plate closing and the helmet coming back down.
  710.  
  711. I could probably stop there, but I didn’t want any misunderstandings.
  712.  
  713. “One hair out of place on the heads of Parian’s siblings, and I start putting names in a hat.”
  714.  
  715. Dinah saw a lot of that when I asked. More than direct attacks against unmasked capes even. It needed to be made clear.
  716.  
  717. The rules say no going after family, and I had no interest in rules lawyers. One step out of line and I started planning retaliation.
  718.  
  719. “Someone attacks Dazzler without her mask on, and I start pulling names from the hat.”
  720.  
  721. A necessary concession.
  722.  
  723. The gang’s would just tell me to fuck off if I didn’t make it clear. Anyone who put on a mask agreed, knowingly or otherwise, to the danger that came with wearing one. That included capes whose identities were known.
  724.  
  725. I couldn’t realistically expect villains to back down from a hero coming after them. They’d never go for it.
  726.  
  727. So, yes. A concession.
  728.  
  729. “Laughter’s body washes up on shore, and the hat starts finding its way onto Blue Cosmos forums and social media.”
  730.  
  731. My feet left the ground, light rolling off of Medhall’s roof in waves.
  732.  
  733. “People who break the rules don’t get to hide behind them.”
  734.  
  735. Rune remained perfectly still.
  736.  
  737. The ABB guy caught on fast. He pocketed the phone, and actually bowed his head to Navy.
  738.  
  739. “I will inform the Dragon immediately,” he said in broken English.
  740.  
  741. Taylor: let him go
  742.  
  743. Navy spun slowly as the man stumbled to his feet and left.
  744.  
  745. Of all the gangs, the ABB seemed like the one that might care the least. Lung was powerful enough to hold his territory almost solely by himself. He could just say fuck it to any threat against his identity.
  746.  
  747. But he still wore a mask.
  748.  
  749. His name and face meant something.
  750.  
  751. And maybe the Merchants should worry me more. Damn druggies were barely coherent even as they argued about what I was saying.
  752.  
  753. Good thing I planned to stick the conversation and all video on the Internet.
  754.  
  755. The Empire capes were still coming toward me, one blatantly violating the speed limit. If Hookwolf hated me now, he’s going to loathe me beyond reason in a few minutes.
  756.  
  757. Taylor: isolate the targets
  758.  
  759. Veda lit up my visor, of buildings turning red before my eyes
  760.  
  761. And oh look, all the Empire capes were in the wrong places.
  762.  
  763. Turning my attention back to a petrified Rune, I concluded my speech.
  764.  
  765. I hated it in a way.
  766.  
  767. The rules were bullshit.
  768.  
  769. They’d always been bullshit. A pleasant fiction for people who wanted to dodge responsibility by hiding behind another name as if they had two lives. New Wave got it right there, I think.
  770.  
  771. The rest of the world only got one.
  772.  
  773. But I was one of those people, wasn’t I? Hiding behind a mask for safety.
  774.  
  775. So, fair is fair.
  776.  
  777. I’d respect the mask, as long as the mask was respected.
  778.  
  779. “Although, there is a problem.”
  780.  
  781. Rune flinched.
  782.  
  783. I took hold of my bazooka and shield.
  784.  
  785. “People associated with the Empire attacked Aisha Laborn.”
  786.  
  787. Rune stuttered, “I-I tried to stop that!”
  788.  
  789. “You did, but there’s two sides to a threat. The ability, and the willingness to carry through.”
  790.  
  791. Taylor: do it
  792.  
  793. Veda: posting
  794.  
  795. “I’m going to be fair and out every cop on the Empire’s take. All seventy-two of them. Oh, and if even one of them drops dead, I’ll rescind my fairness and out the name I pulled from the hat.”
  796.  
  797. I killed the transmission, ensuring only Rune and the Empire heard what I said next.
  798.  
  799. I spun the drive up to full.
  800.  
  801. “James Fliescher,” I said. “I hope you paid your dirty cops enough to keep their mouths shut.”
  802.  
  803. Taylor: begin phase two
  804.  
  805. I picked my first target.
  806.  
  807. O Gundam blew past Rune, nearly knocking her over again.
  808.  
  809. The timer appeared on my HUD, counting down from twenty-nine minutes.
  810.  
  811. More than enough time to make my point.
  812.  
  813. The city flew by, and I threaded a narrow gap between two tall buildings and dove. Lining up with a corner pharmacy, I slipped between two trucks. My feet slid over the ground, digging into the asphalt as my shield rose to meet the impact.
  814.  
  815. I crashed through the wall,-
  816.  
  817. “Four nine millimeter,” Veda announced. “One thirty-eight.”
  818.  
  819. And fired.
  820.  
  821. ***
  822.  
  823. Three more chapters in this arc (plus one, maybe two brief interludes at the end). Brace yourselves. Taylor isn’t done with the Empire yet :p
  824.  
  825. "Don't worry. The PRT will probably fuck up keeping you in a cell anyway."
  826.  
  827.  
  828. And it's still really really long XD
  829.  
  830. Step 4.10
  831.  
  832.  
  833. I hit the ground with eight minutes left on my timer.
  834.  
  835. “Operation complete,” Veda announced.
  836.  
  837. I smiled.
  838.  
  839. Three days, four runs.
  840.  
  841. I’d never been more productive.
  842.  
  843. I didn’t have to work around dad anymore.
  844.  
  845. I could attack the gangs as frequently as O Gundam’s maintenance allowed. That translates to “frequently.” Or rather, as frequently as my budget allowed.
  846.  
  847. And I’ll worry about my bank account later.
  848.  
  849. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in guns and drugs destroyed. Three illicit betting establishments wrecked, maybe forty career criminals arrested, and a drug lab reduced to cinders. The gangs might replace most of that, but it cost money. Money that went down the drain because of me.
  850.  
  851. “Get the Haros back to the Workshop,” I said.
  852.  
  853. The chest plate slid up, and I climbed down. Mechanical arms grabbed my suit and lifted it into the van. I’d need a new pickup point soon. Once summer hit some of the mountain resorts, even the winter ones, starting hosting camps and retreats.
  854.  
  855. Getting into the passenger seat, I pulled my phone from my pocket.
  856.  
  857. “Wonder how the Empire is taking it?”
  858.  
  859. Watching the aftermath is a good way to kill time on an hour long drive back into the city.
  860.  
  861. ReleasetheHounds: we cant keep doing this
  862. Lt: no we can’t
  863. SttN: she threatened to out us
  864. LayonHands: only if we break the rules
  865. Lt: then we all best make sure we dont
  866. Lt: and that goes for your sections too
  867. Lt: everyone make sure your people are in line
  868. Lt: losing our police resources is already hurting
  869. Lt: We cant afford any rash action​
  870.  
  871. That reminded me.
  872.  
  873. “All those cops are still alive, right?”
  874.  
  875. “Yes. Officer White,” - I know right? - “was attacked by a group of African American men last night on the way to his cell, however.”
  876.  
  877. “How is he?” I asked with a frown.
  878.  
  879. “Minor lacerations,” Veda said.
  880.  
  881. “Hmm.”
  882.  
  883. I never expected the police to work so fast.
  884.  
  885. Between the brief Blue Cosmos protest and all the other outrage, nearly every cop I named as being on the Empire’s take found themselves in a cell within the day.
  886.  
  887. “Are the men who attacked him associated with one of the other gangs?”
  888.  
  889. “The South Street Kingz,” Veda said. “A small gang outside the city. No affiliation with any known parahumans.”
  890.  
  891. Well then…
  892.  
  893. The whole point was to punish the Empire for Aisha, and make a clear message.
  894.  
  895. No hiding behind the unpowered.
  896.  
  897. If an associate of a parahuman gang attacked anyone, I’d consider it a violation of the rules by their parahuman bosses. Unfortunately, while I could namedrop Krieg and threaten the Empire into not killing their exposed “police resources” that didn’t mean I could protect the men from everyone else.
  898.  
  899. They might be dirty cops, and I’d rather they got hurt than someone innocent if someone had to get hurt, but I didn’t want them dead.
  900.  
  901. I hoped the Empire might go out of their way to ensure the men survived. Aryan Nation ranked among the biggest prison gangs in the US. They’d probably help the Empire out, but I hadn’t seen anyone reach out yet.
  902.  
  903. Veda pulled onto the highway, and I glanced back to my phone.
  904.  
  905. Lt: I’ll meet with HM
  906. Lt: we need to adjust our strategy​
  907.  
  908. And please, text it when you’re done.
  909.  
  910. The phone rang, and for once I hit accept.
  911.  
  912. “Taylor?”
  913.  
  914. Oh Dad. “I’m okay. Not even a scratch.”
  915.  
  916. “Just… making sure.”
  917.  
  918. “There’s not a cape in the city who can catch me, dad.”
  919.  
  920. And now I know that Purity is in Boston.
  921.  
  922. “Yeah,”Dad grumbled. “Yeah, I know.”
  923.  
  924. “I’ll be home soon,” I said. “Just have to drive back into the city.”
  925.  
  926. “Alright.”
  927.  
  928. I hung up and got back to watching the life and times of Nazi capes.
  929.  
  930. Amazing how much time villains spend on mundane things.
  931.  
  932. LayonHands: tonight at eight?
  933. JackofTrades: the italian place you like
  934. LayonHands: its a little old fashion
  935. JackofTrades: you like old fashion
  936. JackofTrades: someone will need to watch you know who
  937. ReleasetheHounds: I’ll do it
  938. ReleasetheHounds: got some furniture that needs moving
  939. SttN: furniture to move?
  940. SttN: just what I look for in my day (save me)
  941. LayonHands: have fun​
  942.  
  943. But even mundane things give useful information.
  944.  
  945. Like knowing Victor and Othala were an item.
  946.  
  947. That’s very interesting.
  948.  
  949. “Drop me off here,” I said. “I’ll be by with Dinah like usual.”
  950.  
  951. “Understood.”
  952.  
  953. I found an alley to change in after I got out of the van, Green once more coming to bring me plain clothes and fly my costume away. I let him do a survey of the surrounding blocks before I stepped into the open.
  954.  
  955. I needed to be more careful than ever.
  956.  
  957. Kill me and Veda fulfilled my threat, but some villains might not care about that or think it through.
  958.  
  959. When I got to the house the smell of eggs and bacon filled the room.
  960.  
  961. “You made breakfast?” I called.
  962.  
  963. “Needed a distraction,” Dad said.
  964.  
  965. The sound of the TV, the new plasma one, drew my attention to the living room.
  966.  
  967. I stared at the screen.
  968.  
  969. “I’m on Fox News.”
  970.  
  971. “And MSNBC,” Dad said. “And CNN. And NBC. And all the local news channels.”
  972.  
  973. I’m on national news.
  974.  
  975. My jaw slackened a little.
  976.  
  977. There are people in Hawaii watching video of me right now.
  978.  
  979. They played the video I’d posted, though without sound. It occupied a back wall of a smooth looking room. A C shaped table occupied the floor, a half dozen people sitting around it.
  980.  
  981. Of all the reactions I expected from my speech, and putting it online, one continued to completely dumb found me.
  982.  
  983. “Consider what she said, and the action she took. She isn’t just applying the rules to capes.”
  984.  
  985. Muruta Azrael smiled to the other commentators.
  986.  
  987. “She’s applying them to anyone who works with a parahuman gang,” he continued. “It might be a double standard still but it is progress to see a parahuman including people without powers in her sphere. And I admit, even I find it refreshing to see someone taking these so called rules seriously.”
  988.  
  989. Why do people I hate keep agreeing with me, and vice versa?
  990.  
  991. It nearly made me rethink my course of action. Nearly.
  992.  
  993. “She does name several incidents that bring the truce between capes into question,” one of the other guests said. “I remember when it happened. New Wave shocked the country by unmasking, and they got a lot of momentum in those early months. I honestly though secret identities might become a thing of the past.”
  994.  
  995. Oh god damn it.
  996.  
  997. I already saw that one coming to bite me in the ass.
  998.  
  999. Azrael nodded, saying, “Yes. And then she was shot in her own home. Despite her miraculous survival, New Wave’s noble intentions died with her injury.”
  1000.  
  1001. “Are you sure we have the right Muruta Azrael here right now?”
  1002.  
  1003. “I’m perfectly capable of appreciating smart capes who want to bring about positive change,” the man said with a smile that seemed about as sincere as Calvert’s. “New Wave proposed a progressive ideal. Newtype appearing in Brockton Bay may not be coincidence. She might be influenced by New Wave herself.”
  1004.  
  1005. Well… he’s not wrong.
  1006.  
  1007. I sat down on the still broken couch.
  1008.  
  1009. “How long has this been going on?” I asked.
  1010.  
  1011. “About an hour,” Dad said. He walked in with a plate of breakfast and set it in front of me. “You sure know how to make a show.”
  1012.  
  1013. “This wasn’t part of the plan,” I said.
  1014.  
  1015. “I feel bad for her.”
  1016.  
  1017. The name under the person’s face read “Maj. Andrew Waltfeld, USMC.” He looked Stratos or Ramius’ age, with short brown hair and a rugged face.
  1018.  
  1019. Azrael turned to him, asking, “How so?”
  1020.  
  1021. “Because she just painted the largest target possible on her back. It takes balls of steel to stand up and say what she said, but no villain is going to let it stand. I hope she realizes what she just did to herself.”
  1022.  
  1023. “On that we agree,” Azrael said. “It’s a noble act, but I suspect a fruitless one. It is the plight of the young to think the world can be changed by-”
  1024.  
  1025. Well, fuck you too.
  1026.  
  1027. I changed the channel to some vapid reality TV show.
  1028.  
  1029. “Jerk,” I mumbled.
  1030.  
  1031. Dad frowned. “You don’t think they might have a point?”
  1032.  
  1033. I narrowed my eyes and picked up a fork.
  1034.  
  1035. They talked like all old men talking down to the young do. Maybe we don’t have all the answers. Maybe we’re as wrong as anyone else and we’ll regret it all in the end.
  1036.  
  1037. Doesn’t mean we’re blind and dumb.
  1038.  
  1039. They were young once, and angry. I didn’t believe for one second it never crossed their minds that the world was wrong. Especially not Azrael, given his current activities.
  1040.  
  1041. “I think there are better uses for a seventy-two inch plasma screen TV.” I pressed a button on the remote. “Like Netflix.”
  1042.  
  1043. “The gangs will retaliate,” Veda said through my phone.
  1044.  
  1045. Oh right, she can do that now.
  1046.  
  1047. “And then what?” Dad asked. “I know you have StarGazer helping you, and D-” Dad stopped himself. “I know you have help, but out there, it’s just you kiddo. If your suit breaks or someone gets you in a tight spot…”
  1048.  
  1049. I pulled up my phone and switched the screen over. I showed it to him and Dad watched with a confused expression.
  1050.  
  1051. “What is it?”
  1052.  
  1053. “The texts of every gang in the city,” I said. I turned the screen back to me. “Fenja and Menja are making sure they don’t show up to a party in the same dress. Kind of dumb if you ask me. They’re twins. If anyone can pull off wearing the same dress to a party it’s them.”
  1054.  
  1055. Dad’s eyes widened a little.
  1056.  
  1057. “I’ve been stealing their phones, using them to make calls, and planting worms that feed everything they say, every website they access, and everywhere they go right to me.”
  1058.  
  1059. “That’s… scary.”
  1060.  
  1061. “It’s information dominance,” I said. “I know everything, and they know nothing but that I know too much. It won’t last forever,” - only a matter of time till they caught on - “but for now they can’t do anything without me knowing about it.”
  1062.  
  1063. Dad glanced to my phone, then to me. “Seriously?”
  1064.  
  1065. “The Merchants are difficult to track,” Veda said. “Their use of electronic communication is inconsistent.”
  1066.  
  1067. “They’re high,” I said. “Like, all the time. But they’re also the gang that can do the least to hurt me. I can either outrun or overpower all of them.”
  1068.  
  1069. Dad sat down beside me.
  1070.  
  1071. “You… really could out all of them? Couldn’t you?”
  1072.  
  1073. He said it like a realization. Did everyone think I was bluffing or something?
  1074.  
  1075. “StarGazer, how many Brockton Bay capes are in Level Seven?”
  1076.  
  1077. “Forty-one,” Veda answered. “Fifteen villains associated with parahuman gangs. Four independent villains. Three mercenaries. Two rogues. Five independent heroes. Eight Wards. Four Protectorate.”
  1078.  
  1079. “Level Seven?” Dad asked.
  1080.  
  1081. “An archive where we store all details pertaining to cape identities,” Veda answered.
  1082.  
  1083. “I began finding them accidentally while developing my search functions. Taylor proposed locking them away.”
  1084.  
  1085. Dad’s eyes went a little big.
  1086.  
  1087. “They stayed locked up until Friday morning,” I said. “No point to knowing things if I don’t do anything with them. Might as well do something good.”
  1088.  
  1089. “What if a master gets you?” Dad asked. “You said it was dangerous for me to know just one identity.”
  1090.  
  1091. “I don’t know who they are,” I said. “I know my limits. If I knew… I’d do something. StarGazer is the one who knows, and no one will ever get to her.”
  1092.  
  1093. “My position is fairly secure,” Veda said.
  1094.  
  1095. “If you say so,” Dad said.
  1096.  
  1097. She’s an AI dad. You’d need an AI to crack her, and even then.
  1098.  
  1099. “So,” - I chewed on some eggs - “skipping work again?”
  1100.  
  1101. Dad shook his head. “I’ll be going in soon. You meanwhile, need to get ready for school.”
  1102.  
  1103. I stopped, fork sticking out of my mouth. “Whah?”
  1104.  
  1105. “School,” Dad said. “It’s your first day at Arcadia.”
  1106.  
  1107. “I doh nehd schooh,” I said with a frown.
  1108.  
  1109. “We disagree.”
  1110.  
  1111. I swallowed and pulled the fork free.
  1112.  
  1113. “I explained the part where my power makes me smarter, right? That I will pass the GED without even studying because I can calculate derivatives in my head?”
  1114.  
  1115. Dad gave me a deadpan stare.
  1116.  
  1117. “Have you passed the GED yet?”
  1118.  
  1119. I started to speak, but whatever excuse never made it from my brain to my mouth.
  1120.  
  1121. Dad pointed at the clock.
  1122.  
  1123. “I called ahead to let them know you might get cold feet.”
  1124.  
  1125. Veda spoke up, saying, “I believe you should do as Danny Hebert says.”
  1126.  
  1127. Dad crossed his arms. “Danny Hebert agrees.”
  1128.  
  1129. I stared at my phone.
  1130.  
  1131. Traitor.
  1132.  
  1133. Fifty-nines minutes later, I stepped off the bus surrounded by strangers.
  1134.  
  1135. It still hurt, oddly. I wanted Arcadia so badly, and instead of refuge it now stood as an annoyance. How quickly our priorities can change.
  1136.  
  1137. I kept my head down as I entered.
  1138.  
  1139. The students looked different from those at Winslow. They wore nicer clothes, didn’t smell like cigarette smoke, and not one sported gang colors. The halls bore shiny marble floors, and the lockers all looked new.
  1140.  
  1141. My transfer letter included basic instructions directing me to the front office. Unlike Winslow, I found five secretaries inside and offices for a Principal, Vice-Principal, Student Counselor, Athletic Director, and PTA Representative.
  1142.  
  1143. One of the ladies behind the desks lifted her head as I entered.
  1144.  
  1145. “Hello dear. Do you need help?”
  1146.  
  1147. “I got transferred here today,” I said with a less than enthusiastic tone.
  1148.  
  1149. “Taylor, or Charlotte?” She asked.
  1150.  
  1151. “Taylor,” I answered. They already know my name?
  1152.  
  1153. The woman flipped through a stack of sticky notes on her desk.
  1154.  
  1155. “The vice principle can see you immediately,” she said. “This way.”
  1156.  
  1157. She rose from her seat and walked me over to the door. After knocking, it took just a second for a tall woman with short black hair to answer.
  1158.  
  1159. “Miss Badgiruel,” the woman said. “Taylor Hebert is here.”
  1160.  
  1161. The vice principal turned to me. She reminded me of Greene. Stern, and without a hint of emotion on her face. Maybe not quite the classic disciplinarian in look, but she had the same air.
  1162.  
  1163. “Miss Hebert. Please.”
  1164.  
  1165. She stepped aside and let me enter.
  1166.  
  1167. Compared to Blackwell’s, the office looked like paradise. Neat and orderly from corner to corner, with simple but appealing decor. Her nameplate gave her first name as Natarle.
  1168.  
  1169. “Please sit.”
  1170.  
  1171. I sat.
  1172.  
  1173. “I spoke with your father,” she said as she took her own seat. “He told me about your issues at Winslow, and how you dealt with them.”
  1174.  
  1175. I frowned.
  1176.  
  1177. “Did he now?”
  1178.  
  1179. “I also spoke with the Superintendent, who informed me that the situation was quite serious. Thus you are being transferred here despite the school year ending in two weeks.”
  1180.  
  1181. “Did he now?”
  1182.  
  1183. The woman maintained her even demeanor.
  1184.  
  1185. “I’d first like to assure you bullying is not tolerated at Arcadia High School. If you have any issue, inform faculty or a member of the student council. It will be addressed.”
  1186.  
  1187. I’d heard that before. Almost word for word.
  1188.  
  1189. “Second, I will insist that unexcused absences are equally unacceptable. This is a learning institution with a reputation. Students play an important part in upholding it.”
  1190.  
  1191. Ramius got me into this. I wonder if she can get me out of this? Maybe if I ask nicely…
  1192.  
  1193. “Third, if you find that something is wrong, and nothing is being done about it, I ask you come directly to me.” My frown shook a little. “If policy isn’t be implemented, I want to know.”
  1194.  
  1195. And she looked completely serious when she said that. Angry almost.
  1196.  
  1197. This woman is the opposite of Blackwell.
  1198.  
  1199. “Okay,” I mumbled.
  1200.  
  1201. “Now then.” She pulled a folder from a drawer and flipped through the pages. “This has been sudden and I apologize that we don’t have a locker assignment for you. You’re welcome to store any belongings here in my office. I don’t leave the building ‘till six most days.”
  1202.  
  1203. I got my class schedule, along with a list of all my teachers including their phone numbers and emails.
  1204.  
  1205. “Arcadia has higher academic standards than Winslow, and the time of your transfer complicates things alongside the many absences. I’ve arranged for a series of tests to assess your situation. If it is bad, I would highly recommend a tutor,” - the irony - “or perhaps summer schooling.”
  1206.  
  1207. Oh god please no!
  1208.  
  1209. “I’ll do fine,” I said, more nervously than I’d like. “My grades tanked at Winslow because my homework kept getting stolen. I did all the work.”
  1210.  
  1211. Ms. Badgiruel nodded.
  1212.  
  1213. “I noticed you did very well on all your tests, the ones you were present to take. You likely won’t make it to any regular classes today. I’d like to make lunch available for you to meet the rest of the student body.”
  1214.  
  1215. “That’s fine,” I said.
  1216.  
  1217. “This way.”
  1218.  
  1219. She stuck me in a room and administered the tests herself. She left a few times to deal with things, but always came back and sat quietly.
  1220.  
  1221. I nailed every question. I read books by the dozens before getting my powers, even if I read less now. Mom didn’t raise an illiterate. Math and science were child’s play.
  1222.  
  1223. I tried to use my phone to talk to Veda during a few down moments when she wasn’t around and I finished my test.
  1224.  
  1225. Damn Faraday cage.
  1226.  
  1227. I needed to completely rebuild my phone, but I figured out a way around it. It’s as easy as turning the device into a quantum relay. Veda would need a corresponding receiver, but who needs free Wi-Fi in a ten mile radius when you’ve have instant communication to anywhere you can geo-locate?
  1228.  
  1229. I finished my next test and handed it to Ms. Badgiruel. She added it to the first and checked the time.
  1230.  
  1231. “I’m sure you’re hungry,” she said. “Please.”
  1232.  
  1233. I followed her from the room and we returned to her office.
  1234.  
  1235. She picked up her phone and pressed a button.
  1236.  
  1237. “Mrs. Jenkins. Could you send Dean Stansfield to my office?”
  1238.  
  1239. I stiffened.
  1240.  
  1241. Stansfield?
  1242.  
  1243. Ten minutes later a neatly dressed boy with sandy hair entered.
  1244.  
  1245. “Ms. Hebert, this is Dean Stansfield. He’s the student council’s vice president and he volunteered to help you with anything you need.”
  1246.  
  1247. “Hi, Taylor,” the boy said with a smile. “I’m Dean.”
  1248.  
  1249. He held his hand toward me and smiled.
  1250.  
  1251. I didn’t take it, too busy trying to work out the Blue Cosmos plot before me. I mean, what are the odds?
  1252.  
  1253. Wait a min-
  1254.  
  1255. “I’ve seen you somewhere before,” I said.
  1256.  
  1257. “I sometimes end up on the news on account of my grandfather,” he said. “Steven Stansfield? He kind of runs Blue Cosmos in Brockton Bay.”
  1258.  
  1259. No. Not th- The day of the fires.
  1260.  
  1261. The guy in the nice suit leading all the Blue Cosmos volunteers. He looked younger without the suit, but it’s definitely the same guy.
  1262.  
  1263. “R-Right,” I said. “Sorry.”
  1264.  
  1265. He lowered his hand and shrugged. “Don’t worry about it.” He glanced to the vice principal, asking, “What can I do Ms. Badgiruel?”
  1266.  
  1267. “Would you help Ms. Hebert to the cafeteria? She’s been cooped up taking assessment tests all morning.”
  1268.  
  1269. “Ouch. No problem.” He pushed the door open and held it for me. “Ladies first.”
  1270.  
  1271. I rose cautiously.
  1272.  
  1273. Is this how Blue Cosmos planned to approach me? If the vice principal belonged to their group… She tells them about my transfer. Then the leader’s grand-son pulls me aside. Offers to listen? To help? A soft sell leading into “let’s sue.”
  1274.  
  1275. I thought they’d start with Dad.
  1276.  
  1277. It seemed a little, contrived. Maybe just a coincidence, but much like an Empire cape hearing about a hero standing on Medhall’s roof, it felt too convenient.
  1278.  
  1279. “You’ll like it better here,” Dean said. “I hear Winslow is pretty rough.”
  1280.  
  1281. “Yeah.”
  1282.  
  1283. So they told him I came from Winslow? Or did he know that?
  1284.  
  1285. “Did you have a favorite class?”
  1286.  
  1287. “Not really,” I said.
  1288.  
  1289. “There’s some good classes here and the class sizes are small so the teachers can give you more time. Oh, this way. You can get to the cafeteria that way too, but it’ll take you to the far side away from the lunch line.”
  1290.  
  1291. Arcadia might as well be a five star restaurant compared to Winslow. No long tables organized in stale rows across a stale room. The windows sat high on the walls, the tables all smaller and built for groups of four to eight.
  1292.  
  1293. And the food actually looked like it might have been alive at one point in time.
  1294.  
  1295. I’d been trying to withhold judgment. It seemed fair. Ramius went through the trouble of transferring me, and everyone in my life - the damn traitors - insisted I belonged in school.
  1296.  
  1297. So why not just play along? Two weeks isn’t that long. I can manage that.
  1298.  
  1299. But this?
  1300.  
  1301. The disparity made me angry.
  1302.  
  1303. Marble floors. Multiple administrators. Actual food. A damn PTA rep?
  1304.  
  1305. How could Winslow and Arcadia be run so differently while existing in the same school district? It couldn’t just be a matter of the neighborhood or where the students came from. How did they justify spending money in this manner? Leaving the people in the Docks to rot while the people in Downtown enjoyed… all of this.
  1306.  
  1307. Some people matter, and some people don’t.
  1308.  
  1309. Same old, same old.
  1310.  
  1311. “You okay?”
  1312.  
  1313. My head jerked up, the lunch tray half full in my hands.
  1314.  
  1315. “Overwhelmed?” Dean asked. “I imagine Winslow is nothing like this.”
  1316.  
  1317. “N-No, it’s not,” I said.
  1318.  
  1319. “Probably seems kind of unfair.”
  1320.  
  1321. I narrowed my gaze at him. “A little.”
  1322.  
  1323. “Yeah. Double standards suck that way.”
  1324.  
  1325. Is he talking about the schools, or capes? Both?
  1326.  
  1327. He turned to the cafeteria, more than a few people still watching.
  1328.  
  1329. “I’d invite you to sit with me, but I’m kind of well-known around here and I don’t know if you want to get lumped in.”
  1330.  
  1331. I raised my brow. “Lumped in?”
  1332.  
  1333. “This is the Wards school,” Dean said. “But a lot of the kids of Blue Cosmos members go here too. Kind of makes things a little tense sometimes. The cliques can get a little mean spirited. You just got here, so I’d rather not throw you to the wolves.”
  1334.  
  1335. After he pointed it out, I saw it.
  1336.  
  1337. Get a big enough knife and you could cut the cafeteria into three pieces.
  1338.  
  1339. On the left with lots of kids in nice, business casual clothes. On the right, people wore T-shirts with cape logos, and a much more relaxed attitude. If I looked closely, I saw lots of cape shirts and merchandise on the right, while the left seemed to put too much effort into not looking at them.
  1340.  
  1341. But if the two sides sat along the walls, then what of the mass of mixed students in between? Some wore relaxed clothing and cape shirts. Others dressed a little more formally.
  1342.  
  1343. Really, the two extremes sat along opposing walls. The mixed middle was far larger.
  1344.  
  1345. What’s up with that?
  1346.  
  1347. “Shouldn’t have to eat lunch alone though,” Dean said. “Let’s see.”
  1348.  
  1349. I noticed a familiar face in the crowd.
  1350.  
  1351. “It’s fine,” I said. “I see someone I know.”
  1352.  
  1353. “Oh. Okay. I’ll-”
  1354.  
  1355. I didn’t wait for him to finish. A few faces watched me, but many apparently lost interest after I parted ways with Dean. He went his own way to a table on the left that seemed enthusiastic to talk to him.
  1356.  
  1357. When did I last eat in a cafeteria instead of a bathroom, or a stairwell? I stopped so long ago. The trio chased me out of anywhere public.
  1358.  
  1359. “Charlotte.”
  1360.  
  1361. “Taylor?” She turned her head as I approached, her face more than a little surprised. “Oh. I didn’t think-”
  1362.  
  1363. “My dad insisted.”
  1364.  
  1365. I sat down beside her, the only other occupant of the table a Hispanic boy.
  1366.  
  1367. “Oh. This is Carlos,” Charlotte said. “The Principal asked him to show me around.”
  1368.  
  1369. “Hey,” I said.
  1370.  
  1371. “Hi.” He smiled. “Charlotte mentioned you.”
  1372.  
  1373. “Yeah?”
  1374.  
  1375. “I didn’t know you were here,” Charlotte said. “I haven’t seen you or anything.”
  1376.  
  1377. “The vice principal has me taking a bunch of tests because of all the school days I missed.”
  1378.  
  1379. “Oh, that makes sense.”
  1380.  
  1381. “Ah, that explains why Stansfield was showing you around.”
  1382.  
  1383. I raised my brow. Carlos waved his hand, explaining, “He hasn’t broken a rule once since freshman year, and Ms. Badgiruel is a real stickler for the rules.”
  1384.  
  1385. Is she in Blue Cosmos? They seemed obsessed with rules and making them fair. Well, if nothing else maybe she meant what she said. Protecting me at school as a way for Blue Cosmos to get on my good side?
  1386.  
  1387. “You sound like you don’t like her,” I said.
  1388.  
  1389. “I don’t dislike her. When I mean she’s a stickler for the rules, I mean she’s a stickler for the rules. Did you know boy’s pants must hang no lower than two inches from the waist?”
  1390.  
  1391. “No?”
  1392.  
  1393. “Well that’s a rule,” Carlos said. “And she always knows. When you get a copy of the student handbook, make sure you read all the sections on the dress code. I swear she gets a dime for every infraction she finds.”
  1394.  
  1395. “Why not just have a school uniform?” I asked. Winslow would solve a lot of problems that way.
  1396.  
  1397. “And keep all the girls from wearing designer tops?” Carlos shook his head. “Even Badgiruel can’t make that happen.”
  1398.  
  1399. I like it here less and less with each passing moment.
  1400.  
  1401. “So.” Charlotte poked at her food. “Have you been watching the news, Taylor?”
  1402.  
  1403. “Not really,” I lied.
  1404.  
  1405. “Newtype’s all over it.”
  1406.  
  1407. “Is she?”
  1408.  
  1409. “Ah, cape geeks, huh?” Carlos chuckled. “Well I guess you can join the pool of people guessing which students are Wards. I hear there’s fifty on me being Clockblocker.”
  1410.  
  1411. Thinking back to the one time I’d seen Clockblocker, I shook my head.
  1412.  
  1413. He’s too short.
  1414.  
  1415. “I hear the PRT is super angry about it,” Charlotte said with a glance to me.
  1416.  
  1417. “I suppose they’ve no reason to be happy,” I answered.
  1418.  
  1419. Piggot displayed her mastery of the spoken word by simultaneously applauding my courage and condemning my stupidity in a single sentence.
  1420.  
  1421. I would never want to be in the position of staring down every villain in the city.
  1422.  
  1423. Of course when she said it the words were laced with only a mild amount of sarcasm. She didn’t think I could do it.
  1424.  
  1425. “I hope she knows what she’s doing,” Charlotte said with a worried glance. Apparently, neither did Charlotte. “I’m worried about her.”
  1426.  
  1427. “She’ll be fine,” I said. “The gangs aren’t stupid enough to kill her. StarGazer will out whoever did it for breaking the rules. She can handle anything else.”
  1428.  
  1429. They’d fear that well enough, for now.
  1430.  
  1431. “Assuming they’re smart enough to think of that,” Carlos said. “The Merchants never struck me as very smart.”
  1432.  
  1433. The Merchants also can’t do anything about me.
  1434.  
  1435. I shrugged and continued eating.
  1436.  
  1437. “Do you track cape news?” Charlotte as- Oh she thinks he’s cute.
  1438.  
  1439. I might be unattractive, but I knew what a girl meant when she leaned forward just a little and started making sure her hair was straight while trying not to look that interested.
  1440.  
  1441. Glancing to Carlos again, handsome worked as a description. Classically masculine with defined muscles and a squared jaw. Not my type, though. Didn’t have time for boys, anyway.
  1442.  
  1443. At least Charlotte seemed to be in good enough spirit to awkwardly flirt.
  1444.  
  1445. That’s improvement, right?
  1446.  
  1447. “Not really,” he answered. “But it’s all over the news most of time, so really who doesn’t know a few things here and there?”
  1448.  
  1449. “True,” Charlotte mumbled. “I suppose on the bright side, things in Boston are calming down.”
  1450.  
  1451. I turned my head. “Are they?”
  1452.  
  1453. “You didn’t hear?” Charlotte pulled out her phone. Of course it didn’t work, and she sighed. “Right. The principal said phones didn’t work in the building.”
  1454.  
  1455. Did no one ever consider what a safety hazard that was?
  1456.  
  1457. What if a super villain appeared in the cafeteria and started making some grand speech?
  1458.  
  1459. “What happened in Boston?” I asked.
  1460.  
  1461. “The Ambassadors got into a fight with the Teeth,” Carlos said. “And Purity fought the Butcher with Legend on Saturday.”
  1462.  
  1463. “I heard about that one,” I said.
  1464.  
  1465. It took real effort not to smile in satisfaction.
  1466.  
  1467. “It is kind of crazy that one cape can get that to happen,” Charlotte mumbled.
  1468.  
  1469. “It happens more often than you think,” Carlos said. “New capes come and go, and a lot of them shake things up when they first appear.”
  1470.  
  1471. “A lot die,” I said.
  1472.  
  1473. Charlotte stiffened.
  1474.  
  1475. “I’m just saying,” I said. “Statistically.”
  1476.  
  1477. “Yeah,” Carlos shrugged. “I guess she really isn’t joining the Wards, though. There’s a betting pool on that too.”
  1478.  
  1479. “She probably has a reason,” I offered.
  1480.  
  1481. “I guess. Her parents are probably worried about her, though.”
  1482.  
  1483. Don’t remind me.
  1484.  
  1485. Dad constantly fretting over my fate was only slightly better than having to constantly lie to him.
  1486.  
  1487. “When do parents ever not worry?” I asked.
  1488.  
  1489. “True enough,” Carlos said.
  1490.  
  1491. “How about yours?” I glanced to Charlotte. “Are they okay with how things are going now?”
  1492.  
  1493. “My dad’s still furious,” she said. “My mom is a bit more calm.”
  1494.  
  1495. “Is this about why the two of you transferred so late in the year?”
  1496.  
  1497. “Oh, um…”
  1498.  
  1499. Charlotte glanced to me, and I didn’t know what to do or say. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t mind if she did, but maybe she didn’t want to explain it when it involved me without permission?
  1500.  
  1501. Carlos frowned. “Something wrong?”
  1502.  
  1503. “No,” Charlotte said. “It’s just… um. Complicated.”
  1504.  
  1505. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
  1506.  
  1507. “It’s alright,” I said. “It’s being dealt with. We’re fine now.”
  1508.  
  1509. “Oh. Yeah.” Charlotte perked up, either by force or circumstance. “So Carlos. Is there a cape club at this school?”
  1510.  
  1511. “Yeah. Meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and they have a PHO group I think. Ask Tyler. It’s kind of his project these days.”
  1512.  
  1513. After the bell rang, Dean walked back over to me.
  1514.  
  1515. “Need any help getting back to the office?” He asked.
  1516.  
  1517. “I remember the way,” I answered.
  1518.  
  1519. “I’ll walk you back just to be sure.” He turned and raised a hand. “Hey Carlos.”
  1520.  
  1521. “Hey, Dean. You got roped in on this too?”
  1522.  
  1523. “Yeah,” he said with a chuckle. “Sometimes I think getting too drunk at a party just once might have saved me a lot of hassle.”
  1524.  
  1525. “A bit late now,” Carlos said with a grin.
  1526.  
  1527. “Unfortunately.” Dean turned back to me. “Ready to go back to Ms. Badgiruel’s office?”
  1528.  
  1529. Is this the part where they approach me? I could have asked Charlotte, but not in a public place like that. No. I asked about her parents and she didn’t seem to mean anything in her answer.
  1530.  
  1531. “Ms. Badgiruel. I’ve brought Taylor back.”
  1532.  
  1533. “Thank you, Mr. Stansfield. Go to your next class.”
  1534.  
  1535. “I’ll see you later, Taylor.”
  1536.  
  1537. Of course, me and my paranoia.
  1538.  
  1539. Just a coincidence? As Fenja or Menja might say, convenient coincidence. Maybe he merely wanted to introduce himself to me in a passive way?
  1540.  
  1541. “I only need a moment,” Ms. Badgiruel said. She signed the paper in front of her, flipped it over onto a stack, and signed the one beneath it. “Transferring student records involves surprising amounts of paper work.”
  1542.  
  1543. Well, the tests were easy at least.
  1544.  
  1545. And they kept me out of regular classes. At Winslow I knew all the cliques and circles, but I didn’t know any at Arcadia. What I’d seen of the cafeteria looked like a social minefield. My excitement to figure that out abounded. A mountain of work for petty high school bullshit.
  1546.  
  1547. I handed in the last test just after the last bell rang.
  1548.  
  1549. “We’ll get you into normal classes tomorrow,” Ms. Badgiruel said. “I’ll have these assessed immediately so we can pick the best path to getting you caught up.”
  1550.  
  1551. “Right. Can I go?”
  1552.  
  1553. The woman raised her head.
  1554.  
  1555. “I imagine school isn’t a happy place far you, Taylor.”
  1556.  
  1557. I frowned. “Is this the part where you tell me how important interacting with my peers is?”
  1558.  
  1559. “Frankly speaking, your peers are inconsiderate brats.”
  1560.  
  1561. My jaw dropped a little.
  1562.  
  1563. “But most people are inconsiderate brats,” she added. “Part of growing up is learning to deal with them and be productive despite their presence.”
  1564.  
  1565. She folded the tests together, and put them into tagged folders.
  1566.  
  1567. “But then, there’s the few. The one or two who will be with you for the rest of your life in some form or another.”
  1568.  
  1569. She waved me up and we went toward the door.
  1570.  
  1571. “I can make friends outside of school,” I said.
  1572.  
  1573. “Friends of choice to be sure, but friends of circumstance are important too. I still talk to one I knew in high school. She’s a damn bleeding heart. Worries too much, empathizes more than she should. She’s really quite hopeless.”
  1574.  
  1575. “Doesn’t sound like a friend?”
  1576.  
  1577. “Friend is just another word for an annoying person you put up with.” Badgiruel smiled. “And perhaps she taught me that there’s more to life than rules.”
  1578.  
  1579. I raised my brow. “That’s not what I heard.”
  1580.  
  1581. “Oh?”
  1582.  
  1583. I shouldn’t have said that, except now she stood with her hand on the door, obviously expecting an answer.
  1584.  
  1585. “Way I hear it you’re some kind of fashion cop.”
  1586.  
  1587. “Hmm. I suppose, but if I don’t keep the current dress code enforced the PTA shows up at the bi-annual meeting demanding uniforms because one girl came to school in a halter top one time. I’d rather police a messy dress code and allow students to assert themselves, within reason.”
  1588.  
  1589. I blinked.
  1590.  
  1591. Well… Carlos got it wrong.
  1592.  
  1593. “The point is Ms. Hebert, sometimes it’s good to be forced to interact with others. We all have to do it in life, unless we want to end up a recluse in some basement somewhere. School isn’t just about education. It’s about life.”
  1594.  
  1595. “My experience is that it’s all wasted time.”
  1596.  
  1597. “The only time that is wasted is the time you spend learning nothing.” She opened the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow Ms. Hebert.”
  1598.  
  1599. Students already crowded the halls when I walked out. Didn’t need to go to a locker or anything, so I made my way to the front doors.
  1600.  
  1601. At least picking up Dinah would be easy from Arcadia. Just a stroll across the street.
  1602.  
  1603. I waited by the bus stop for a bit, watching the students come and go.
  1604.  
  1605. The one or two who will be with you for the rest of your life.
  1606.  
  1607. Thinking about that, only Emma came to mind. She’d always be there somewhere, no matter how much I wanted to forget what she became.
  1608.  
  1609. Maybe a bit of that is on me.
  1610.  
  1611. I hated what Emma did to me, but I still loved the girl in my memories.
  1612.  
  1613. “How was Arcadia?”
  1614.  
  1615. I turned my head to Dinah and shrugged.
  1616.  
  1617. “It’s a school.”
  1618.  
  1619. “It’s better than Winslow.”
  1620.  
  1621. “I can think of few things worse than Winslow.”
  1622.  
  1623. My phone vibrated, and I drew it from my pocket.
  1624.  
  1625. Veda: Lt. Ramius has requested to meet
  1626. Veda: she has chosen a location near Arcadia
  1627.  
  1628. Taylor: alright
  1629.  
  1630. No point holding off on the inevitable. I needed to know how the PRT intended to respond to my little plan.
  1631.  
  1632. “Can you make your own way to the garage?” I asked.
  1633.  
  1634. “I could,” Dinah said.
  1635.  
  1636. We got on the bus, but I got off at the edge of Downtown.
  1637.  
  1638. The area where Downtown and the Towers met formed a commercial strip running through the city center toward the Docks. On the northern end it looked quaint and affordable, while on the southern it got more pricey and extravagant before ending in the area around some art galleries and a theater. And the PRT HQ building.
  1639.  
  1640. Really, it’s the only part of Brockton Bay that prospers.
  1641.  
  1642. And Ramius mentioned our graveyard talk felt like a spy movie.
  1643.  
  1644. I walked into the cafe, a place for more extravagant than either of the places on the Boardwalk. Two stories, with a large open center.
  1645.  
  1646. I approached the barista, glancing around before asking, “I’m meeting a friend in the back. Room three?”
  1647.  
  1648. The woman pulled out a small book. “College interviews, huh?”
  1649.  
  1650. “Um, yeah.”
  1651.  
  1652. Good enough cover story for a teenager to meet an adult in private.
  1653.  
  1654. “On the left through the black door. Then, third door on the right. Good luck. BCU ain’t bad, but it ain’t going to get you out of this shit town.”
  1655.  
  1656. “Um. Right.”
  1657.  
  1658. I kept searching as I crossed the floor. No one seemed to be watching me, or conspicuously reading a paper or wearing sun glasses in doors.
  1659.  
  1660. Beyond the black door lay a simple hall. Third door on the left.
  1661.  
  1662. I turned the handle, and the door pulled back.
  1663.  
  1664. “So, what university am I interviewing for?”
  1665.  
  1666. “Hmm. Wesleyan?”
  1667.  
  1668. Ramius looked odd in a sweater and slacks. She’d tied her hair into a braid and put a pair of glasses on. It all seemed entirely too relaxed. I mean, it looked good on her, but it completely clashed with my mental image of the compassionate professional.
  1669.  
  1670. Someone who didn’t know her well might not immediately recognize her.
  1671.  
  1672. “Pretty sure my family was Catholic at some point,” I said.
  1673.  
  1674. “Good thing the school went non-denominational,” Ramius replied with a smile.
  1675.  
  1676. I closed the door and locked it.
  1677.  
  1678. “Do you want anything to drink?”
  1679.  
  1680. “No. I’m, alright.” I set my bag down and sat across the table. “Does the PRT meet with capes like this often?”
  1681.  
  1682. “It’s safer than calling people to the PRT building itself,” she said. “Especially capes.”
  1683.  
  1684. I nodded. I’d probably refuse if asked to go to the PRT building to answer questions.
  1685.  
  1686. Ramius frowned at me, but not in a disappointed way. I think the only time I’d ever seen her disappointed was when she talked about the PRT’s fuck up. To me, she seemed worried.
  1687.  
  1688. “You’ve made my job very hard, Taylor.”
  1689.  
  1690. Right. Onwards then.
  1691.  
  1692. “How angry is the Director?”
  1693.  
  1694. “Very. Armsmaster as well, and the chief of police. The only person who seems on the fence is the mayor.” Dinah’s uncle? “I think he’s just bidding his time to see how your actions play out. If it works he’ll applaud you for the benefits it might bring his campaign.”
  1695.  
  1696. “Or vice-versa?” Well. Politics. “And they want you to tell me to stop?”
  1697.  
  1698. Ramius’ frown deepened.
  1699.  
  1700. “We both know I can’t. And for what it’s worth, most of those I work with are unable to look past your age.”
  1701.  
  1702. “And what do you think?” I asked.
  1703.  
  1704. “I think you’ve shown a repeating trend of disregarding your own safety. It can be a valuable thing for a hero, selflessness. But I worry you don’t worry about it enough.”
  1705.  
  1706. “In this, I don’t think there is much danger. They come after me in a way that breaks the rules, and killing is supposed to be against the rules, and StarGazer fulfills my threat. They know that.”
  1707.  
  1708. “If they’re smart. Not all criminals are. Most actually.”
  1709.  
  1710. “Then the smart ones will have to keep them in line. After all, I said I’d out names at random.”
  1711.  
  1712. And that’s the key. I didn’t except every criminal to be that smart, but the smart ones surely noticed the wording I used. They’d work to keep the rest in line, for fear of being outed as a consequence.
  1713.  
  1714. “Boston is taking me seriously,” I said.
  1715.  
  1716. “Boston? You wanted that to happen?”
  1717.  
  1718. “I hope the villains there might wonder if my words were a simple example, or a veiled threat. You know my suit could reach the city in under two minutes. It’s not outside of my reach.”
  1719.  
  1720. “I don’t think Director Armstrong will be any happier than Director Piggot.”
  1721.  
  1722. “I’m not actually going to do it,” I said. “I don’t know enough about Boston, but getting the Ambassadors and Purity working against the Teeth should help a little.”
  1723.  
  1724. “Maybe.”
  1725.  
  1726. Ramius didn’t seem assured.
  1727.  
  1728. “Could you do it?” She asked. “If someone pushed?”
  1729.  
  1730. “I can,” I said.
  1731.  
  1732. I set my phone on the table, and Veda repeated the same information she told Dad.
  1733.  
  1734. Ramius straightened her back.
  1735.  
  1736. “You know Ward and Protectorate identities?”
  1737.  
  1738. “No,” I said. “I’m the one who goes out and gets in dangerous situations. No one can squeeze details I don’t know from me. StarGazer can protect herself if anything happens, so she’s the one who knows.”
  1739.  
  1740. “Going looking for that kind of information can be interpreted as breaking the rules, Taylor.”
  1741.  
  1742. “But they are not,” Veda said. Ramius shirked a little, apparently only now remembering that Veda always listened. “Technically, only attacking capes in their civilian identities amounts to a violation. Simply knowing an identity is not.”
  1743.  
  1744. Ramius put herself back together, saying, “That’s a dangerous hair to split.”
  1745.  
  1746. “It’s already been split,” I said. “Break the rules, and the rules get broken. Now, we all play by the same rules.”
  1747.  
  1748. Veda added, “To clarify, it is not information that was sought. I began discovering such things developing my abilities by accident.”
  1749.  
  1750. Ramius’ brow went up. “Then you’ve had this ability for some time?”
  1751.  
  1752. “Yes,” I said.
  1753.  
  1754. “Well… At least I can say that.”
  1755.  
  1756. I raised my own brow. “And that, helps?”
  1757.  
  1758. “A little. I think Piggot is going to push me to arrange a meeting between you and her.” Another wonderful use of my time. “I’m not sure I can stop that, but I could delay it. I can say you’ve already shown restraint. Right now, the fear is that you’ll overreact. Simply start outing villains.”
  1759.  
  1760. I scoffed.
  1761.  
  1762. “I’d burn the city to the ground in the process. You’d think running circles around the gangs for weeks would earn me more credit.”
  1763.  
  1764. “They largely chalk your success up to your suit. There are no villains in the Bay right now, save perhaps Sovereign, who can counter it.”
  1765.  
  1766. “Sovereign? The Undersiders?”
  1767.  
  1768. “I can’t give you the details. Same reason I won’t tell anyone your name. I might not be a cape, but rules are rules.”
  1769.  
  1770. I nodded.
  1771.  
  1772. “I will say be careful,” she said. “Sovereign is a master, and a powerful one. If you feel your emotions aren’t normal, you should just fly away.”
  1773.  
  1774. Emotions?
  1775.  
  1776. For not wanting to break the rules, she told me a lot.
  1777.  
  1778. A powerful emotion manipulator? Presumably, with the ability to bypass the armor of my suit, otherwise she’d be no problem. Didn’t need physical contact then, maybe not even line of sight if she simply felt and manipulated emotions freely.
  1779.  
  1780. That’s… kind of terrifying.
  1781.  
  1782. Heartbreaker-lite.
  1783.  
  1784. And I felt self-aware enough to acknowledge attacking my emotions might be the absolute best way to attack me.
  1785.  
  1786. And she’s an Undersider, with Tattletale. Perfect.
  1787.  
  1788. Still, they honestly thought it was all the suit? Proud as I might be of O Gundam, a big stick isn’t much use with no idea where to aim it.
  1789.  
  1790. “The PRT focuses too much on powers,” I said. They need to pay more attention to strategy.
  1791.  
  1792. “That might be overstating the case,” Ramius said.
  1793.  
  1794. I noticed she didn’t say I was wrong.
  1795.  
  1796. And that’s why they don’t get it.
  1797.  
  1798. “So,” I said, “if you just threatened every villain in the city to play nice or suffer the consequences, what would be your next move?”
  1799.  
  1800. Ramius paused. “You’re not stopping at going back to raiding their depots, are you?”
  1801.  
  1802. I smiled. “That’s what they expect. It’s the perfect time to hit where they aren’t looking.”
  1803.  
  1804. Ramius’ worried look grew. “You’re going to go after the capes.”
  1805.  
  1806. “I’m going to keep doing exactly what I’ve been doing. Keep them on the defensive, break them one little piece at a time, and when they realize how dire their situation has become, it’s too late.”
  1807.  
  1808. And I needed them to run when that time came, rather than lash out.
  1809.  
  1810. Not that it would be that easy. Simply removing the gangs without solving the economic and politic problems of the city left the door wide open. I needed to rebuild the Bay, not just deal with its crime problem.
  1811.  
  1812. Quite a few challenges to overcome.
  1813.  
  1814. “You could coordinate that with the Protectorate.”
  1815.  
  1816. “Maybe,” I said. I intended to, just not in the way they expected. “Either way, it’ll be a few days before I can do anything.”
  1817.  
  1818. Ramius looked at me quizzically.
  1819.  
  1820. I shrugged.
  1821.  
  1822. “I ran out of money. O Gundam is expensive. Oh. That’s my suit’s name.”
  1823.  
  1824. Ramius blinked. “Gundam?”
  1825.  
  1826. I nodded. “I need to wait a few days for some things to wrap up. Then I’ll have enough money to go out again without compromising myself in an emergency.”
  1827.  
  1828. Ramius watched me for a moment. “I see.”
  1829.  
  1830. “There is something else, if it’s alright.” Ramius nodded. “I think Blue Cosmos might have tried to reach out to me today, but I’m not sure.”
  1831.  
  1832. Ramius’ lips parted, but any words stopped before they formed. Did she want to keep talking about my announcement? I didn’t see much else to say about it, and Ramius seemed smart enough to figure that out.
  1833.  
  1834. “How? Not lawyers?”
  1835.  
  1836. “Dean Stansfield. He’s a student at Arcadia. The vice principal asked him to show me around.”
  1837.  
  1838. Ramius sat back and crossed her arms. “Did he seem to know you? Say anything?”
  1839.  
  1840. “Not really. Nothing that I can put my finger on.”
  1841.  
  1842. “Hmm. Steven’s grandson is active in the group, but he’s not the person I think anyone would send to handle anything delicate. He’s only a year or two older than you.”
  1843.  
  1844. “I’ve seen him before. A while ago when the gang war started.”
  1845.  
  1846. “Did he recognize you?”
  1847.  
  1848. “He didn’t seem to.”
  1849.  
  1850. Ramius nodded. “I don’t think it means anything, but you know what to do when someone does approach you?”
  1851.  
  1852. “I know.”
  1853.  
  1854. “I’ve made arrangements through Director Armstrong. He assured me a settlement would be quickly offered.”
  1855.  
  1856. “He’s doing the right thing?”
  1857.  
  1858. “Not purely. I’m afraid government officials aren’t heartless, usually, but they’re not overly compassionate either. He wants to build bridges with you. Wrapping this matter up is how he thinks we get that done.”
  1859.  
  1860. I nodded. Fair enough.
  1861.  
  1862. “Does he think I’ll owe him?”
  1863.  
  1864. “He doesn’t think that way, but he does hope that helping with this will leave you feeling generous. He really wants to get you in a power testing lab to explore Dragon’s theory.”
  1865.  
  1866. “I heard he’s really interested in powers.”
  1867.  
  1868. “He thinks that understanding more about how they work and where they come from could provide solutions that have evaded the PRT.”
  1869.  
  1870. “Do you disagree?”
  1871.  
  1872. “I think maybe he gets a little too absorbed, but I don’t disagree. It’s hard to get a handle on something that isn’t understood.”
  1873.  
  1874. I nodded. “Is there anything else you wanted to talk about? I have some repairs to work on. Maybe a few tests.”
  1875.  
  1876. Ramius shook her head.
  1877.  
  1878. “Piggot should be making the announcement about you know who soon. She’s in a cell, if that eases your mind any.”
  1879.  
  1880. It didn’t, but it did amuse me. Sophia in cell. Almost wanted to ask if I could see her.
  1881.  
  1882. “Other than that, all I can really do is ask you to worry as much about your own life as you do about others.”
  1883.  
  1884. I nodded again and rose. We left together, even making a small show of shaking hands and talking about campus activities as we left. Good cov-
  1885.  
  1886. “Is it time to go?”
  1887.  
  1888. “D-” I stopped myself, glancing to Ramius beside me.
  1889.  
  1890. She looked down at Dinah as the middle schooler packed a textbook into her bag. Ramius remained, silent, glancing between us while I stumbled over myself trying to think of anything to say.
  1891.  
  1892. What is she thinking?
  1893.  
  1894. The entire time I’d known her… That black room she mentioned, being trapped with no escape. Dinah feared discovery even more than me.
  1895.  
  1896. “Is it not time to go?” Dinah asked, with absolute calm in defiance of the seriousness of what she was doing.
  1897.  
  1898. “Um,” - Ramius turned her head away, as if saying she wasn’t looking - “Y-Yes. I’m done here.”
  1899.  
  1900. “Okay.”
  1901.  
  1902. Dinah took my hand and turned toward the door. She pulled lightly, my feet a little slow to start walking.
  1903.  
  1904. Ramius didn’t follow.
  1905.  
  1906. I leaned in and whispered, “What are you doing?!”
  1907.  
  1908. “Preparing,” she said.
  1909.  
  1910. “Preparing? For what?”
  1911.  
  1912. “In case anything happens to you,” she said.
  1913.  
  1914. I flinched as we got out on the street. Dinah looked up at me, her face as passive as ever.
  1915.  
  1916. “If something happens, we’ll need help. Veda and I.”
  1917.  
  1918. “I,” - so, if the worst happens, she’d go to Ramius - “You trust Ramius?”
  1919.  
  1920. Dinah tilted her head, asking, “Do you?”
  1921.  
  1922. She started toward the bus stop, pulling a piece of paper from her pocket. She passed it to me while we waited.
  1923.  
  1924. Does Murrue Ramius tell anyone about the girl with Taylor Hebert on May 16th?
  1925.  
  1926. A blank page.
  1927.  
  1928. “Never?” I asked.
  1929.  
  1930. “Never,” Dinah said.
  1931.  
  1932. It wasn’t an all-encompassing question. If Dinah went this route she’d see Ramius again. She might talk about those meetings, or maybe about the girl she’d seen with Newtype.
  1933.  
  1934. Still, it said a lot that Ramius never told anyone about this. For all she knew, Dinah was StarGazer. I sort of wanted that outcome in the end. Veda and Dinah masquerading as one cape helped protect them both.
  1935.  
  1936. “She’s a good person,” Dinah said. “It’s okay.”
  1937.  
  1938. I frowned anyway. “It’s your choice, Dinah.” She nodded. “I guess, if the worst comes, at least she’s seen you once. She knows we’re connected.” She’ll help you. “Wait. You haven’t seen anything happening to me, have you?”
  1939.  
  1940. Dinah lifted her eyes.
  1941.  
  1942. “Something always happens to you,” she said.
  1943.  
  1944. Oh.
  1945.  
  1946. “That’s… Grim.”
  1947.  
  1948. “It’ll be okay.”
  1949.  
  1950. The bus pulled up to the curb, and Dinah stepped forward.
  1951.  
  1952. “I’ll show you the way.”
  1953.  
  1954. “Right…”
  1955.  
  1956. We got into the workshop later than I wanted, but we had time to work out my next plan.
  1957.  
  1958. “How is the suit?”
  1959.  
  1960. The Haros scampered about the garage, Orange and Green lifting one of O Gundam’s arms free and setting it on the table.
  1961.  
  1962. “Repairing, repairing!”
  1963.  
  1964. Some of the armor plates sat on the floor, Pink and Navy replacing internal components and setting the old parts in two piles. One for parts that I could fix, and another for parts I’d recycle for components.
  1965.  
  1966. Dinah sat down in a chair and poked at the Tieren model with one finger.
  1967.  
  1968. “What do you do next?” She asked.
  1969.  
  1970. “That’ll depend on how the gangs respond to this weekend,” I said. “Anything happen while I was stuck at Arcadia, Veda?”
  1971.  
  1972. “The Empire is adjusting strategy,” Veda said.
  1973.  
  1974. “Oh?” I walked over to my workstation. “Let me see.”
  1975.  
  1976. I read through the messages. The Empire capes went quiet for most of the morning.
  1977.  
  1978. Then Krieg got back.
  1979.  
  1980. My smile widened.
  1981.  
  1982. “Perfect.”
  1983.  
  1984. “What happened?” Dinah asked.
  1985.  
  1986. “The Empire is going to try and bully me. They think that if they consolidate their activities and stick capes to the important ones, I’ll run out of good targets.”
  1987.  
  1988. “They think you’re afraid to fight capes,” Veda said.
  1989.  
  1990. “I was,” I answered. “But I survived Oni Lee and Bakuda, and those two are certifiable.”
  1991.  
  1992. “Danny Hebert will not be pleased,” Veda replied.
  1993.  
  1994. “We’ll have to learn to live with it,” I said with a frown. I didn’t want to scare my father, but this is how it would be.
  1995.  
  1996. He’d have to adapt.
  1997.  
  1998. I scrolled through the text logs, seeing the first set of deployments for later in the week.
  1999.  
  2000. Hookwolf would be running solo protecting some fronts in the Towers. Made sense. He hit hard enough I didn’t want to tangle with him just yet. Stormtiger and Cricket assigned to some fronts in Downtown, and Krieg set to protect the ones along the suburbs.
  2001.  
  2002. Gathering all their drug and gun operations together, and using their numbers to protect them.
  2003.  
  2004. Surprised they didn’t think of that the first time around. It might have worked. Now? Now it only spread their capes across a vast area playing guard.
  2005.  
  2006. If someone attacked any of them, the rest would need time to respond.
  2007.  
  2008. “Alabaster and Victor are going to be escorting a drug shipment from New York,” I said. “Rune on standby to help…”
  2009.  
  2010. On Friday. I’d have O Gundam fixed by then.
  2011.  
  2012. “Taylor,” Veda said. “The news.”
  2013.  
  2014. I switched one of the monitors over.
  2015.  
  2016. Piggot stood in front of a PRT podium, announcing the tragic discovery of a Ward brutalizing her peers. In different words of course, and as Ramius said, without mention of a name.
  2017.  
  2018. I turned away.
  2019.  
  2020. “It doesn’t matter anymore,” I said. “We have work to do.”
  2021.  
  2022. Looking back to the Empire’s chat logs, I leaned back in my seat.
  2023.  
  2024. I said I’m taking out Othala, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
  2025.  
  2026. Only problem being she rarely showed herself. That I couldn’t pin down her position perplexed me, but then I’d never gotten a firm grip on any of the Merchant capes or Kaiser’s locations either.
  2027.  
  2028. Of course they’d protect the healer.
  2029.  
  2030. So, I needed to draw her out.
  2031.  
  2032. And the Empire just gave me the perfect way to do it.
  2033.  
  2034. “Dinah.”
  2035.  
  2036. She pulled up her pad and clicked her pen. “Yes?”
  2037.  
  2038. I took a few moments to figure how to word the question.
  2039.  
  2040. There’s no turning back. The die is cast.
  2041.  
  2042. “If Victor is driving with Alabaster in a car through Brockton Bay and Newtype attacks them, what happens?”
  2043.  
  2044. ***
  2045.  
  2046. The Ramius conversation was the hardest part of this chapter, mostly because I needed to balance Ramius’ character with what the PRT would actually want out of the discussion. A whole bunch of tiny details were cut out of the chapter, like Taylor revealing that she knew some of the "dirty" cops were undercover officers and she had to out them too or else they'd be really conspicuous. I might get to that later.
  2047.  
  2048. Stuff
  2049.  
  2050.  
  2051. Easter Eggs
  2052.  
  2053.  
  2054.  
  2055. Jesus this was meant to be a shorter chapter. Oh well.
  2056.  
  2057. Step 4.11
  2058.  
  2059. “Taylor…”
  2060.  
  2061. I stuffed my mask into my backpack with a sigh.
  2062.  
  2063. Give the man some credit. He really tried, constantly. Yet, we remained an immovable teenager with super powers and an implacable father of said teenager.
  2064.  
  2065. Dad wanted me safe, and I refused to stand idle. Our ends didn’t meet. Yet, I didn’t want to bail on him and he didn’t want to know if I actually would.
  2066.  
  2067. So there he stood, in the doorway. A grim expression marked his face, and a tension hung on his shoulders.
  2068.  
  2069. “It’s going to be fine, Dad.” I offered him my best smile, but I don’t think it conveyed enough confidence. “Do we really need to do this every time I go out?”
  2070.  
  2071. “You’re going after-”
  2072.  
  2073. “I know. I told you, because I promised to tell you what I was doing and you promised not to completely freak out.”
  2074.  
  2075. Dad frowned and looked away from me. “Easier said than done, kiddo.”
  2076.  
  2077. Something always happens to you.
  2078.  
  2079. I crossed the room and gave him a hug.
  2080.  
  2081. “It’s going to be alright. I know what I’m doing.” Mostly.
  2082.  
  2083. One arm went around my back, the other still hanging at his side.
  2084.  
  2085. His chest rose against my cheek, and he said, “You don’t have to-”
  2086.  
  2087. “Someone has to,” I said. “The world has to change, and I want to change it… I won’t stand on the sidelines, waiting for someone else to come fix the problem.”
  2088.  
  2089. “So you say,” Dad mumbled.
  2090.  
  2091. “That’s sweet, that’s sweet!”
  2092.  
  2093. I pulled back and glared over my shoulder.
  2094.  
  2095. “Hush you.”
  2096.  
  2097. “Embarrassed,” Green chirped from my bed. “Embarrassed.”
  2098.  
  2099. Dad raised one eyebrow, asking, “You’re sure they’re not smart? 'Cause they seem kind of smart.”
  2100.  
  2101. “Well… they’re smarter than I intended them to be.”
  2102.  
  2103. Still not sure by how much. A bleed with their connection to Veda maybe? There might be some interaction between the systems I never intended.
  2104.  
  2105. Turning back to Dad I leaned in and kissed his cheek. It felt sappy, but whatever. I imagine he felt the kinds of things the parents of soldiers and cops felt.
  2106.  
  2107. His arm squeezed me.
  2108.  
  2109. “I’ll see you in a few hours,” I said. “I promise.”
  2110.  
  2111. I pulled away and shouldered my backpack.
  2112.  
  2113. I checked my clothes over one more time. My costume clung to my body, hidden under a light sweater and a pair of slacks. Tight costumes came with advantages other than sex appeal, you know. A good thing too. I didn’t have any sex appeal.
  2114.  
  2115. Tucking Green under my arm, I pulled the window up and started climbing out.
  2116.  
  2117. “You could just use the back door,” Dad said.
  2118.  
  2119. “I’m a teenage super hero. We sneak out the bedroom window. It’s in the membership brochure.”
  2120.  
  2121. Dad stared at me.
  2122.  
  2123. “Let me have my fun,” I said.
  2124.  
  2125. And I climbed out the window.
  2126.  
  2127. The van met me two blocks south in an alley.
  2128.  
  2129. After ten minutes of silence, I asked, “Not going to try and talk me out of it?”
  2130.  
  2131. “Observation suggests it would be futile,” Veda offered. “Furthermore, you cannot be harmed by individuals who are not in a position to harm you. This course of action is potentially safer, after the initial danger.”
  2132.  
  2133. So she weighed the options and picked the one that seemed better.
  2134.  
  2135. “We call that the lesser of two evils, Veda.”
  2136.  
  2137. “Choices are difficult.”
  2138.  
  2139. Don’t I know it.
  2140.  
  2141. Dinah’s words stuck with me. Did she say that with any special meaning behind it, or just as a matter of fact? The last two times I overlooked some comment she made that ended up being important. Then again, the things I did? She probably saw me meet any number of unfortunate fates. All the time.
  2142.  
  2143. Well…
  2144.  
  2145. I couldn’t account for everything. Too many variables in play, and only so many questions before Dinah started to suffer. I think I got all the important parts though. For tonight at least.
  2146.  
  2147. From there I’d figure it out like every other cape.
  2148.  
  2149. Downtown has quite a bit of traffic on a Friday night. For once, I wasn’t even angry. I needed the traffic for my plan to work.
  2150.  
  2151. “Is that it up there?” I asked.
  2152.  
  2153. “It is.”
  2154.  
  2155. “Alright. I’ll get this done quick and meet you at the parking garage. Are the Haros ready?”
  2156.  
  2157. “Yes.”
  2158.  
  2159. “Dummy accounts?”
  2160.  
  2161. “Yes.”
  2162.  
  2163. I nodded.
  2164.  
  2165. Veda pulled into a parking lot, and I… sat there for a moment.
  2166.  
  2167. Suppose it all had to hit eventually.
  2168.  
  2169. I knew I’d make waves, but they were bigger than I expected. The Internet. National news. Dark web chat rooms. Everyone wanted to know what I’d do next.
  2170.  
  2171. No one could ignore me. Not after my threat.
  2172.  
  2173. Before, I might have been a nuisance. A big and flashy one hurting the bottom line, but a nuisance. Something to be written off. Carlos got that part right. New heroes showed up all the time, made waves, and then the world adjusted. Adapted to their presence.
  2174.  
  2175. What I wanted… I’d keep making waves. One after the other. I needed to. It would be far too easy to take what I’d done a week ago and say it was enough. Rest on my laurels.
  2176.  
  2177. I can’t stop.
  2178.  
  2179. Weaken the gangs. Reduce the criminal element, cripple their ability to act against me or anyone else. Make the city truly safer. In weakening the gangs, I broke the ground needed to build my factory. No point if some crooks just burned it down. I needed them to be wary of messing with me.
  2180.  
  2181. And the factory paved the way to reforge Brockton Bay’s economy. Improving the economy weakened the gangs further. Gave people hope.
  2182.  
  2183. Gears.
  2184.  
  2185. Gears in a lock, and I needed to spin it just right to get that lock to open.
  2186.  
  2187. That’s why I got started. To break the locker down, for everyone.
  2188.  
  2189. “Taylor?”
  2190.  
  2191. My head jerked back.
  2192.  
  2193. Right. Sitting in my van staring at a brick wall.
  2194.  
  2195. “Sorry. Just… contemplating.”
  2196.  
  2197. “Time is of the essence,” Veda said.
  2198.  
  2199. “Right. Right. Sorry.”
  2200.  
  2201. I closed the door behind me. Unlike the Docks, nowhere in Downtown went without light at night. Except for the long shadows it didn’t even look that different from the daytime.
  2202.  
  2203. I kept Green tight to my side, walking straight and without looking back.
  2204.  
  2205. The first secret to not being noticed is to not look like you want to hide something, right? People walked the street behind me, but they didn’t pay any attention to random girl on the street number nine thousand and one.
  2206.  
  2207. From a distance, my robot looked like a simple basketball.
  2208.  
  2209. I stepped into an alley right next to the lot and started walking. Red and Navy kept to the sky above me. After making sure I wouldn’t be interrupted, Pink and Orange descended from the sky, Green’s cradle carried between them.
  2210.  
  2211. “Hello hello,” they repeated.
  2212.  
  2213. “Hey,” I said.
  2214.  
  2215. I set Green on the ground and quickly donned my mask.
  2216.  
  2217. I hid the cradles after Pink and Orange set down. Fortunately someone left a nice big box out by the trash. I set the cradles down and flipped it over on top of them. I didn’t need to hide them for long.
  2218.  
  2219. The three Haros sat on the ground behind me, awaiting orders.
  2220.  
  2221. “You guys ready?” I asked.
  2222.  
  2223. “Ready ready,” Green said.
  2224.  
  2225. “Alright. Just knock over this box to get airborne when you’re done. Oh. This is a stealth mission. No talking.”
  2226.  
  2227. “Okay okay.”
  2228.  
  2229. “No. No. Talking.”
  2230.  
  2231. “Double negative double!”
  2232.  
  2233. My brow twitched under my mask.
  2234.  
  2235. “Do you want your voice box removed?” I asked.
  2236.  
  2237. Green, Orange, and Pink stared back at me.
  2238.  
  2239. “Because this is how you get your voice box removed.”
  2240.  
  2241. They didn’t say anything.
  2242.  
  2243. “Good.”
  2244.  
  2245. I checked on Purple quickly. My last Haro hovered over a downtown road, watching the streets and the pedestrians in particular. Not many T intersections in downtown Brockton Bay, but the less directions to manage the better.
  2246.  
  2247. “Any eyes on our teenage Nazi?” I asked.
  2248.  
  2249. Navy rotated, a camera zooming in on a rooftop across town. Rune sat on the edge, right where she should be.
  2250.  
  2251. “And our friendly drug truck?”
  2252.  
  2253. My city map rotated on my visor, traveling west until Veda highlighted a red dot.
  2254.  
  2255. “The last text sent by Victor positions the vehicle in this area.”
  2256.  
  2257. Turning my attention across the street, I observed the normal looking office building.
  2258.  
  2259. This will work.
  2260.  
  2261. Probably.
  2262.  
  2263. The Empire, try as they might, didn’t do subtle well.
  2264.  
  2265. A black SUV circled the block every few minutes. Two guards busied themselves on all four opposing corners. They wore colors and didn’t hide their guns well. Pretty much announced who owned the entire block.
  2266.  
  2267. Unlike last time, no interference prevented me from seeing through the walls.
  2268.  
  2269. Seven guards inside.
  2270.  
  2271. One on the narrow roof made airborne insertion too risky. Three watched the third floor, where I assume the goods were. The last two covered the ground level garage entrance. One more sitting at a desk in the front lobby.
  2272.  
  2273. Ten more thugs lived in the surrounding buildings, so in total there were… twenty-three of them? Imagine most of them kept some guns around.
  2274.  
  2275. The SUV rounded the corner to my left, the headlights sweeping over the street as it did.
  2276.  
  2277. Still, bright side. Sure is nice of the racists to move all the drugs into a half dozen big pots. No way to consolidate it any further than that and they didn’t have enough capes to cover every building. They rotated nightly, watching for me in a sort of cape net.
  2278.  
  2279. If I didn’t know their plans it might have worked. I’d stumble into Krieg or Hookwolf by accident and they’d pin me down, or try to, until the rest showed up.
  2280.  
  2281. Sad for them, I did know their plans.
  2282.  
  2283. And now their plans were my plans.
  2284.  
  2285. I stepped back into the alley, ducking behind a dumpster with my Haros. I tracked the vehicle through Red’s eyes, watching as it rolled across the corner intersection.
  2286.  
  2287. “Alright.”
  2288.  
  2289. The vehicle pulled onto the road.
  2290.  
  2291. “Three.”
  2292.  
  2293. The SUV driver flashed some sign on the guard on the corner. The guard waved him off and the vehicle went on its path.
  2294.  
  2295. “Two.”
  2296.  
  2297. The vehicle approached.
  2298.  
  2299. “Go.”
  2300.  
  2301. I waved my hand, and all three Haros rolled forward.
  2302.  
  2303. My robots weaved behind a pedestrian. Past her, they went under a parked truck and waited. A few seconds later the SUV passed and they slipped out of the truck to hide beneath it.
  2304.  
  2305. None of the guards reacted.
  2306.  
  2307. No need to drop stun grenades from above and run for it.
  2308.  
  2309. My robots kept pace with the SUV, hiding in the undercarriage. The guards at the corner didn’t react. As the vehicle passed a darkened spot on the street, all three rolled over the curb into a small inlet.
  2310.  
  2311. They gathered under a window laying low toward the ground. Pink rolled forward, and Orange climbed on top of her. Green climbed on top of Orange and popped his right ear.
  2312.  
  2313. Took me a little while to build a laser scalpel into his hand, but now that he had one? He cut through the window, flawlessly, in a few seconds. His other ear popped up, that hand gripping the perfectly sized cut out and pulling it free.
  2314.  
  2315. Green leaped through the hole, followed by the other two.
  2316.  
  2317. Taylor: be careful you little bug balls
  2318.  
  2319. sys.h[G]// << careful careful
  2320.  
  2321. Veda: designated location reached
  2322.  
  2323. Taylor: omw
  2324. Taylor: one last thing
  2325.  
  2326. I needed to sell the ruse, after all.
  2327.  
  2328. I waved Red down, and then…
  2329.  
  2330. “No. Too high ag- A little to the left. My left. My left! Okay. Up. Up. Little more to your right. There. That should work.”
  2331.  
  2332. I pulled a saber from my bag and positioned myself in his camera.
  2333.  
  2334. The image lined up right. Looked like someone leaning out of window and looking down at me. Harmless little Newtype sneaking in an alley, carefully looking over her shoulder with a beam saber in hand.
  2335.  
  2336. “Snap the pic.”
  2337.  
  2338. After a moment’s thought…
  2339.  
  2340. “And if you photo-shop me with cat ears? No Internet. For a year.”
  2341.  
  2342.  
  2343. sys.h[r]// << deleting
  2344.  
  2345. And Georgios seemed legitimately terrified they’d take over the world or something. Please. Nearly four fifths of their PHO posts went to one thread, titled “Can Has Cheezburger.”
  2346.  
  2347. Tyrants in the making right there.
  2348.  
  2349. What a kook.
  2350.  
  2351. Meanwhile, my commando squad infiltrated unseen. Green stopped first. He set a cylinder under a stack of fold up chairs. Orange kept going and set another on a window sill.
  2352.  
  2353. sys.h[o]// << condensers placed
  2354.  
  2355. During the day a few legitimate enterprises used the building, but they all shut down around four hours ago. I figured the guard at the front desk either worked for the Empire, or took orders from someone who did. He didn’t patrol or anything, just sat at his desk.
  2356.  
  2357. My mask went into the backpack and my slacks and sweater came back out.
  2358.  
  2359. Incognito hero, snap of a finger.
  2360.  
  2361. I walked out of the alley and right past the guard at the corner.
  2362.  
  2363. Especially in this part of Brockton, no one batted an eye at white girl. Any white girl. Something fucked up about using that to my advantage, but whatever.
  2364.  
  2365. I boarded a bus and took a short ride a few blocks over. The parking structure looked ratty, but the older the better. No security cameras in place, and no guard to note my van coming in or out. Actually not that many of those in the city.
  2366.  
  2367. Only one adjacent to a T intersection.
  2368.  
  2369. My van sat on the far end of the top floor, alone save for a sedan and an old station wagon. Same ones I’d seen when scouting the area the past few days, and neither appeared to have moved.
  2370.  
  2371. I stood over by the railing, overlooking the street below.
  2372.  
  2373. Nothing to do now but wait.
  2374.  
  2375. Green, Orange, and Pink set their explosives through the building, all under Navy’s eye in the sky. Purple and Red hovered around me, watching for anything unexpected.
  2376.  
  2377. Rune got up during my bus ride. She stood on the roof, looking into the distance, and occasionally, at her phone. The dot representing the drug truck entered city limits about six minutes ago.
  2378.  
  2379. And this is it.
  2380.  
  2381. Taylor: you have access?
  2382.  
  2383. Veda: yes
  2384. Veda: is it proper?
  2385.  
  2386. Taylor: is it legal?
  2387.  
  2388. Veda: it is not legal
  2389. Veda: is it proper?
  2390.  
  2391. Ah.
  2392.  
  2393. Taylor: it’ll keep everyone out of the way
  2394. Taylor: no one but the bad guys get hurt
  2395.  
  2396. Veda didn’t respond. Thinking. She stopped worrying about small legalities a long time ago. I might be a bad influence in that area. Breaking minor laws didn’t bother me, especially not if breaking them kept people from getting hurt.
  2397.  
  2398. Yeah.
  2399.  
  2400. Or maybe that’s just some Freudian excuse. Blackwell always used those little rules to screw me. Who did they really help?
  2401.  
  2402. Eh. Whatever.
  2403.  
  2404. I didn’t want to take the fight out of the city, not yet.
  2405.  
  2406. Once the gangs knew I’d go that far they’d know I fully intended to run them out of town. They’d strike, maybe rashly. I needed to appear to have some limits, even as I started knocking capes off. For now they needed to keep thinking they stood a chance at winning.
  2407.  
  2408. Taylor: where are our white knights?
  2409.  
  2410. Veda: 18th heading south
  2411.  
  2412. So nice of them to text regular updates.
  2413.  
  2414. My other Haros continued their secret mission. They planted stun grenades at the entrances to the building and by the door leading to the loading bay. They’d be finished soon, and my target drew close.
  2415.  
  2416. Taylor: start clearing the street
  2417.  
  2418. The van opened without my asking.
  2419.  
  2420. Red and Purple circled the garage, watching my surroundings for any unexpected voyeurs.
  2421.  
  2422. No one outside noticed the subtle shift in the traffic lights. Veda only altered the signals by a few seconds. The green lights running in a few directions lengthened while the red lights going the others did the same. The effect played out quickly.
  2423.  
  2424. The pedestrian signals followed suit.
  2425.  
  2426. Within a few minutes, an entire street sat nearly empty. Vehicles and foot traffic quickly funneled out of the area. Manipulating a few other lights kept any traffic jams from forming, save for one.
  2427.  
  2428. “It is working,” Veda announced.
  2429.  
  2430. “Good,” I said. “Red. Do it.”
  2431.  
  2432. “Posting, posting!” My Haro said over the com.
  2433.  
  2434. I pulled up my PHO thread.
  2435.  
  2436. ► A. Snackbar
  2437. Replied on May 13, 2011:
  2438. I just saw Newtype outside my building! Link.​
  2439.  
  2440. I waited a few seconds, letting the post with a picture of me stalking an alley ferment a bit. People began responding, asking where my suit was obviously.
  2441.  
  2442. Then came people trying to figure out where the picture was taken. Snackbar, of course, didn’t want to announce their address. Someone picked up on the obvious, something for which Red would get a talking to.
  2443.  
  2444. There’s clever, and then there’s not really clever at all.
  2445.  
  2446. “It’s been a long few weeks,” I mumbled.
  2447.  
  2448. “Has it?”
  2449.  
  2450. “It feels that way,” I said. “Started out with just you and me in my bedroom playing with simulations and paper designs.”
  2451.  
  2452. “We have… come far,” Veda said.
  2453.  
  2454. I nodded to myself, and looked out over the intersection again.
  2455.  
  2456. I’d already stepped on a land mine threatening to out any villains who went too far. Maybe I’d stop there, but eventually a villain would get too “clever.” They’d push. Say I didn’t have the balls, or that even if I did it didn’t matter.
  2457.  
  2458. Newtype hides from capes.
  2459.  
  2460. The Empire knew it. The ABB might know better after I cut off Oni Lee’s leg. The Merchants? Not even going to try and guess that.
  2461.  
  2462. But I couldn’t stop at just keeping outed capes safe. I wanted more than that. More than just to keep the gangs in check. More than more of the same.
  2463.  
  2464. The world needed to change.
  2465.  
  2466. I needed to be someone the villains couldn’t take lightly.
  2467.  
  2468. Opening my backpack I discard the sweater and pants and donned my mask.
  2469.  
  2470. “Are you ready to link?”
  2471.  
  2472. “I am.”
  2473.  
  2474. “Do it.”
  2475.  
  2476. On another side of my visor, a “random” user posted the image to an Empire member’s Facebook account.
  2477.  
  2478. I brought up the Empire’s text feed and waited for one of the capes to notice.
  2479.  
  2480. Green and Pink set the last of my distractions, and all three Haros quickly hightailed it back to the window they entered from.
  2481.  
  2482. Mantis: hey isnt this close to SSW?
  2483. Mantis: Link​
  2484.  
  2485. Bait taken.
  2486.  
  2487. Now I just needed to sell it.
  2488.  
  2489. The Haros reformed the Haro ladder to get through the window. The SUV passed by again they rolled underneath and stayed under the vehicle until it went all the way around.
  2490.  
  2491. They got out okay.
  2492.  
  2493. No need to use the self-destruct.
  2494.  
  2495. O Gundam’s feet touched the ground, and the arms kept working. The arms from the van loaded my shield, but kept the bazooka.
  2496.  
  2497. Dinah and I worked the plan back and forth the past week. From everything she saw, I didn’t need it.
  2498.  
  2499. Once they finished, and my suit stood ready, I said, “Clear out the van. And make sure you delete any security footage.”
  2500.  
  2501. The van started up behind me.
  2502.  
  2503. I climbed into O Gundam and strapped myself in.
  2504.  
  2505. “Green. Set the net for any unwanted fliers.”
  2506.  
  2507. “Fish in a barrel,” he replied. “Barrel barrel!”
  2508.  
  2509. The GN drive started slowly, only the faintest traces of light drifting into the air.
  2510.  
  2511. The chest closed and the helmet came down over my head.
  2512.  
  2513. Green, Pink, and Orange took to the air.
  2514.  
  2515. They joined Navy, and the four robots moving toward my position. They stopped halfway between me and the building. The drug cars continued on their path north of me, moving deeper into the city.
  2516.  
  2517. Blocks away, the drug convoy came into sight of Red’s cameras.
  2518.  
  2519. Well, convoy made it seem a little glamorous. One medium sized car in front with a U-Haul truck behind it.
  2520.  
  2521. The sonic camera showed four passengers in the car, and five in the truck. Hard to tell who was in what vehicle. Dinah saw a few different versions. Some with both capes in the car, sometimes with one of them in the truck waiting.
  2522.  
  2523. Lt: shes not in her suit
  2524. SttN: maybe shes poking around
  2525. ReleasetheHounds: kill her
  2526. Lt: do not kill her
  2527. ReleasetheHounds: maim her
  2528. Walkure: doesnt Warners kid live over by SSW?
  2529. Lt: we’ll ask him​
  2530.  
  2531. Its time.
  2532.  
  2533. My decoy was set, the traps ready, and my suit primed.
  2534.  
  2535. My thumb tapped the button.
  2536.  
  2537. Outside on the street, heads turned.
  2538.  
  2539. The boom echoed through the city. The tall buildings acted like an echo chamber. They contained the sound and threw it out for all to hear.
  2540.  
  2541. In the distance, Rune spun around, a stream of green particles spilling into the air.
  2542.  
  2543. SttN: SSW
  2544. SttN: lots of green shit​
  2545.  
  2546. Someone should really go check on that.
  2547.  
  2548. ReleasetheHounds: someone should go look​
  2549.  
  2550. I tried not to laugh.
  2551.  
  2552. I failed.
  2553.  
  2554. “Taylor?”
  2555.  
  2556. “Nothing,” I said between chuckles. “Just imagining his face.”
  2557.  
  2558. I’ve never been giddy before. Not like this, but well. It was funny.
  2559.  
  2560. Maybe I’d snapped?
  2561.  
  2562. Ramius said to be wary of any emotional changes, but I didn’t see anything odd. My brain waves maintained a perfect uninterrupted flow, all quietly monitored by a scanner I’d built into my helmet.
  2563.  
  2564. Just happy I guess.
  2565.  
  2566. I gripped the controls, O Gundam rising into a squat.
  2567.  
  2568. Lt: check on it​
  2569.  
  2570. Rune started moving, hopping onto a manhole cover and flying through the air. From Orange’s camera I saw GN particles billow out of an open window in the office building.
  2571.  
  2572. The men inside reacted to the loud boom I’d set off. They grabbed guns and searched the building. The two in the loading bay went first, opening the door inside.
  2573.  
  2574. The grenade Pink set detonated, both men dropping to the floor.
  2575.  
  2576. Lt: whats happening?
  2577. SttN: idk yet!
  2578. SttN: hold on
  2579. Walkure: Mitch says he heard an explosion
  2580. Lt: WSS
  2581. Mantis: going
  2582. ReleasetheHounds: Im going​
  2583.  
  2584. Cricket and Stormtiger started moving. Hookwolf too.
  2585.  
  2586. I’d give it to the Empire.
  2587.  
  2588. They set themselves up well.
  2589.  
  2590. Twenty block radius, eight capes. All arranged in a grid where no cape was ever more than five blocks from another location. Within a few minutes three or four could be at a site. Within a few more all of them might be there.
  2591.  
  2592. It did present a problem.
  2593.  
  2594. Even hitting a location without a present cape guard, I might not get out in time before one showed up. If they managed to pin me or keep me occupied, I might get surrounded.
  2595.  
  2596. Really all their plan did was minimize the damage I could do. I’d just retreat. Fly away.
  2597.  
  2598. But then the problem would persist, wouldn’t it?
  2599.  
  2600. Newtype doesn’t fight capes.
  2601.  
  2602. JackofTrades: us?
  2603. Lt: keep going
  2604. Lt: well handle it​
  2605.  
  2606. Krieg started moving.
  2607.  
  2608. I didn’t know about one of the twins, but I knew where the other was. I assumed they were both together.
  2609.  
  2610. The Empire followed their plan, moving as a group to close in on my ‘location.’
  2611.  
  2612. Another grenade went off, knocking three of the corner guards over as they tried to get through the first floor. The guy behind the lobby desk shot to his feet in shock. Guy really needed to not get so absorbed in whatever game was on his phone.
  2613.  
  2614. Rune made it to the roof, looking over the edge as the source of my particles.
  2615.  
  2616. The drug cars drew closer.
  2617.  
  2618. Rune flew down to the window, staring at the canister releasing particles into the air.
  2619.  
  2620. She pulled out her phone. She quickly found it didn’t work. Too close to the GN particles. The particles stopping any of the guards from calling out, and saying I wasn’t there.
  2621.  
  2622. I tested the pedals and “stretched” the arms. I checked my armaments. One shield, three GN missiles, my carbine, and four beam sabers.
  2623.  
  2624. I drew the carbine and raised my shield.
  2625.  
  2626. Rune caught on fast, flying away from the building until her signal returned.
  2627.  
  2628. SttN: she isnt here
  2629. SttN: and my phone is screwy
  2630. Lt: what?
  2631. SttN: she’s NOT here
  2632. SttN: just some
  2633. SttN: here​
  2634.  
  2635. Rune sent them a picture of the condenser.
  2636.  
  2637. The drug cars turned a corner, entering my line of sight.
  2638.  
  2639. LayonHands: whats going on?
  2640. SttN: idk
  2641. SttN: where’d that pic come from?​
  2642.  
  2643. Give credit to Rune. She’s actually got a brain on her shoulders. Shame she wastes it on Nazism.
  2644.  
  2645. I set my thrusters, and let the drive spin up.
  2646.  
  2647. No other cars on the road. Limited pedestrians.
  2648.  
  2649. Veda’s traffic light changes cleared the place out.
  2650.  
  2651. SttN: wtf
  2652. SttN: A. Snackbar?
  2653. Mantis: stupid name
  2654. SttN: Ackbar
  2655. ReleasetheHounds: is that a snack?
  2656. SttN: Star Wars?
  2657. ReleasetheHounds: is that a game?
  2658. SttN: omg​
  2659.  
  2660. Too late Rune.
  2661.  
  2662. And once again, the Empire capes were out of position.
  2663.  
  2664. SttN: its a trap​
  2665.  
  2666. The light poured into the air.
  2667.  
  2668. O Gundam shot off the ground, flying out of the garage and heading straight at the lead car.
  2669.  
  2670. The driver braked hard, smoke blooming from the tires as they came to a quick stop. The truck didn’t react so fast.
  2671.  
  2672. It slammed into the car’s rear.
  2673.  
  2674. I threw my feet forward, GN propellant pouring out of the thrusters. My suit crushed the hood like a pancake. The back end of the car started to flip, and I slammed my shield into the roof.
  2675.  
  2676. Glass shattered, fiberglass and engine crunching with a broken creak around me.
  2677.  
  2678. The GN drive fired to full power, and I pushed.
  2679.  
  2680. Someone jumped out of the truck.
  2681.  
  2682. “Red,” I ordered.
  2683.  
  2684. My Haro flew from above and threw a grenade at the guy. The small blast that followed knocked him over, and Red landed to tie him up.
  2685.  
  2686. Not a cape, I noted.
  2687.  
  2688. I drew back. The car stood on its front end, one door hanging limply off the side while a man in a suit climbed out.
  2689.  
  2690. Red dealt with him like the last one.
  2691.  
  2692. I released my shield and drew a saber. The blade rose over my head, and came down the car right on the middle. I cut the car in half, letting them fall over like a banana peel and spilling the passengers onto the street.
  2693.  
  2694. Red threw another grenade and I swung my blade across Alabaster’s chest.
  2695.  
  2696. He didn’t wear a mask. Suppose being all white from head to toe made it pointless. He reached into his white suit, appropriate enough costume.
  2697.  
  2698. The grenade exploded.
  2699.  
  2700. I grabbed the driver and threw him clear of the car. Alabaster rolled in pain for a moment, and then he seemed fine. Watching Alabaster reset is an odd thing. One second he looks pained or surprised, and the next nothing. Just gone, back like nothing happened.
  2701.  
  2702. He started to rise, and my foot came down his chest.
  2703.  
  2704. “Hello friend,” I said.
  2705.  
  2706. Red jumped forward, cords unwinding from his hands.
  2707.  
  2708. Alabaster fought against me but my foot didn’t move.
  2709.  
  2710. “Bitc-”
  2711.  
  2712. “Language,” I said.
  2713.  
  2714. Red came over and wrapped his cords around Alabaster’s left hand. My robot pulled, and the rotors of his cradle roared. The little engine straining but managed to pull the Nazi cape’s arm taut.
  2715.  
  2716. I lifted my foot, and Red started dragging him.
  2717.  
  2718. Alabaster grunted and fought, feet searching for purchase as his suit sheared away. He pulled a gun and shot a round at me. The bullet bounced off my helmet. Rattled my ears, but nothing more.
  2719.  
  2720. He turned the gun on Red, only for Purple to drop from above and slam into his chest. He gasped for breath, another reaction that vanished when he reset.
  2721.  
  2722. The interval is set, not based on outside stimulus.
  2723.  
  2724. Good to know.
  2725.  
  2726. His gun clattered and Purple bounced on his chest until Red tied his other wrist and then brought both hands together.
  2727.  
  2728. Lt: Victor?
  2729. Lt: Alabaster?
  2730. Walkure: They aren’t answering
  2731. SttN: I’m going​
  2732.  
  2733. “Veda, detonate the rest of the grenades.”
  2734.  
  2735. The air throughout the building warped, more than a dozen stun grenades and GN condensers going off at once. Two more guard hit the ground, and Rune got caught on the edge. She shook unevenly in the air, but I didn’t expect it to slow her down much.
  2736.  
  2737. I checked on the men I’d disabled so far. The car might explode, and I didn’t want them getting hurt after the care that went into not cutting the gas tank with my saber.
  2738.  
  2739. “Purple.”
  2740.  
  2741. With Alabaster tied down, Purple jumped off his chest and popped her ear flaps. She threw a cylinder onto the wreckage. White foam exploded out and choked off the flames.
  2742.  
  2743. “Fire control, fire control!”
  2744.  
  2745. No other passengers.
  2746.  
  2747. The truck driver sat behind his wheel. He held his hands up. I waved my hand. He threw his door open and ran. Saved me the time of dealing with him.
  2748.  
  2749. Now… where’s Victor?.
  2750.  
  2751. The sonic camera showed three guys in the truck interior, with lots of boxes and…
  2752.  
  2753. Is that an anti-tank rifle?
  2754.  
  2755. One figure pulled something long and heavy looking from a long narrow case.
  2756.  
  2757. I flew up.
  2758.  
  2759. Huh. He has an anti-tank rifle.
  2760.  
  2761. I drifted forward, swung back, and then drove my shield right through the side of the truck.
  2762.  
  2763. To his credit, the guy in the black and red spandex managed to swing the weapon around despite the narrow confines and point it at me.
  2764.  
  2765. Just like you said, Dinah.
  2766.  
  2767. I felt the blow travel up my arm into my chest. The bullet whistled, pinging against my shield and then flying straight up in the air.
  2768.  
  2769. A dozen pops echoed around me as a much smaller gun rattled in his hand.
  2770.  
  2771. White dust billowed around me as the rounds ricocheted and missed. My shoulder went forward, throwing the first of his guards against the wall. Releasing my shield, my hand lashed out. I grabbed the next guard and threw him out the way I came in.
  2772.  
  2773. Purple and Red swarmed him, pulling away his gun and binding him one limb at a time.
  2774.  
  2775. I turned, my shield blocking another shot from Victor’s rifle. This one dented the flat surface, driving the bullet down and through the floor.
  2776.  
  2777. Swinging with my Carbine I fired. Victor dropped the rifle and ducked behind a crate. He moved fast, turned out of the path of my shots. It didn’t seem entirely human, almost like that one guy from the movie with bullet dodging.
  2778.  
  2779. I admit, it gave me pause.
  2780.  
  2781. The second guard, god bless him, tried to punch me. He cursed as the knuckles in his hand cracked. I swung my leg around and hooked his. A simple pull and he tumbled forward and right out of my hole.
  2782.  
  2783. Purple and Red moved to deal with him.
  2784.  
  2785. Not sure who you steal skills from to move like Victor did.
  2786.  
  2787. He came out from behind the box, my shots just barely passing past him. He fired a small pistol, but the gun rattled bullets off in a spray that shook me. When that gun emptied, and he dodged another volley of shots, he pulled a second pistol and fired again.
  2788.  
  2789. The magazines dropped as he went, and he threw both guns at me when I charged. His knife came out, slashing at my elbow and sliding over the armor.
  2790.  
  2791. Also just like Dinah said.
  2792.  
  2793. My foot came down hard, the bed of the truck giving as I shoved my leg through. The vehicle shook, and before Victor could move again I grabbed him. I pulled my leg free and shot forward.
  2794.  
  2795. The rear doors bent outward and popped, and I let go.
  2796.  
  2797. Victor hit the ground with a grunt and rolled shoulder over shoulder.
  2798.  
  2799. He managed to roll onto his feet, a revolver in his hand.
  2800.  
  2801. “Red.”
  2802.  
  2803. My Haro swooped in from above. A stun grenade fell to the ground and popped. Victor maintained his balance, but the two bullets went past me and hit the truck.
  2804.  
  2805. I put two shots from my carbine into his chest and thigh, and he fell to the ground.
  2806.  
  2807. “Now,” I said.
  2808.  
  2809. Purple flew behind me and threw a grenade into the truck. This one ignited in red and blue flames, taking the entire drug shipment and the truck in one pretty light show.
  2810.  
  2811. I slid forward and grabbed Victor, pulling his right arm and twisting it. The revolver fell, and his knife tried for my neck. Didn’t work obviously, but I found the coincidence amusing.
  2812.  
  2813. “Oni Lee tried that,” I said. “He lost a leg for the effort.”
  2814.  
  2815. Victor’s eyes widened slightly behind his mask.
  2816.  
  2817. Like it only dawned on him then how badly the Empire had played this.
  2818.  
  2819. Red got another cord around Victor’s outstretched wrist and pulled. I lifted him off his feet and holstered my carbine. Taking his other wrist and twisting the knife free, I held it up for Red to tie.
  2820.  
  2821. “Rune is approaching,” Veda announced.
  2822.  
  2823. “Green can handle it,” I said.
  2824.  
  2825. I maintained my grip on Victor. I’d let him go after he was completely tied up. I imagine he picked up a few escape artist tricks.
  2826.  
  2827. “Trap trap!”
  2828.  
  2829. The other Haros all flew in opposing directions at once.
  2830.  
  2831. Pink saw Rune flying between the buildings.
  2832.  
  2833. Pink also saw Rune abruptly stop and snap around.
  2834.  
  2835. The thin strings weren’t very strong alone, but get a couple dozen of them together? That provides one teenage Nazi falling out of the air just to snap back and hang as four flying robots whirl to keep her from dying.
  2836.  
  2837. She struggled of course, which didn’t help.
  2838.  
  2839. The manhole cover fell for a few feet, then swung back and circled her.
  2840.  
  2841. “Keep her busy and let her go,” I said.
  2842.  
  2843. “Okay okay!”
  2844.  
  2845. A crowd gathered at the edges of the street. Cars on either end of the road stopped, people leaning or even stepping out of the doors to watch. Cell phones came out naturally, and one woman even held a camcorder.
  2846.  
  2847. How many of them supported the Empire?
  2848.  
  2849. How many were too afraid to oppose them?
  2850.  
  2851. How many even cared?
  2852.  
  2853. “Think this matters?” Victor snarled, as I lifted his bound body. “You’re nothing but another upstart.”
  2854.  
  2855. I glared down at him.
  2856.  
  2857. “Did you know only three capes are still around from All Father’s days? Kaiser. Krieg. And you.”
  2858.  
  2859. Victor flinched.
  2860.  
  2861. It’s true. Hookwolf, and Alabaster joined the Empire later, after All Father died. The rest too. Some didn’t even start out in the Empire.
  2862.  
  2863. “Upstart I may be,” I admitted. “But, you’re the one who’s tied up.”
  2864.  
  2865. Victor didn’t answer me.
  2866.  
  2867. “Don’t worry, Vicky. I’m sure the PRT will fuck up keeping you in a cell anyway. You’ll be free in no time.”
  2868.  
  2869. Rune broke free, the manhole cover swooping over her and cutting the lines holding her. The Haros spun and dove to control their flight. The villain managed to land herself on top of her weapon slash transport after falling just a few feet.
  2870.  
  2871. Still seemed to take the wind out of her.
  2872.  
  2873. “Let’s go,” I said.
  2874.  
  2875. Green, Pink, Navy, and Orange disengaged and flew away.
  2876.  
  2877. I threw Victor under one arm and walked down the street to grab Alabaster. He’d managed to crawl a few feet toward the curb, a stiletto knife in his hands working at the binding on his wrist.
  2878.  
  2879. He didn’t seem to care about cutting himself.
  2880.  
  2881. Red pulled the weapon from his hands and I lifted him in my other arm.
  2882.  
  2883. He glanced around and seemed content to hang limply.
  2884.  
  2885. “Is there an in-flight movie?” He asked.
  2886.  
  2887. “Bitch!”
  2888.  
  2889. I glanced back, Rune rounding the corner of the T intersection.
  2890.  
  2891. “Language,” I said.
  2892.  
  2893. I lifted into the air and spun around.
  2894.  
  2895. Couldn’t go full speed with my passengers, but I didn’t need to. I out sped Rune easily. Red and Purple formed on my flanks, leaving the run of the mill hoods behind.
  2896.  
  2897. “Video is appearing online,” Veda informed me.
  2898.  
  2899. “I’m sure it is.” I flew over the skyscrapers and adjusted my course. “Call Ramius. I’ve got presents.”
  2900.  
  2901. LayonHands: wheres Victor?
  2902. SttN: sorry
  2903. SttN: robots caught me
  2904. LayonHands: where
  2905. SttN: PRT​
  2906.  
  2907. When I landed on the roof of the building, two troopers waited to greet me. Not very appreciative troopers I might add.
  2908.  
  2909. They pointed containment foam launchers at me.
  2910.  
  2911. How grateful.
  2912.  
  2913. I dropped Victor and Alabaster on the ground.
  2914.  
  2915. “Bitch,” Victor said. Such creative linguists, neo-Nazis.
  2916.  
  2917. “Um.” One trooper glanced to the other. “Hi?”
  2918.  
  2919. Rookies. “Can you babysit these two?”
  2920.  
  2921. “Um…” The other lowered his weapon. “Console. Newtype is on the roof. With Victor and Alabaster… No, they’re both tied up. Sure? Okay.” He glanced to the other trooper. “Foam 'em.”
  2922.  
  2923. He better not mean me.
  2924.  
  2925. He didn’t.
  2926.  
  2927. Both troopers sprayed Alabaster and Victor down with the yellow-white mixture. Looked spongy as it solidified.
  2928.  
  2929. I stared at them.
  2930.  
  2931. I couldn’t help but feel I’d been misusing Dinah’s power. Asking her about things that could go wrong, probing for errors… Wastes of time. In the end there’d always be something going wrong. There’d always be errors, mine or someone else’s.
  2932.  
  2933. But start asking Dinah how a fight is going to go?
  2934.  
  2935. That’s what her power is, I realized. She’s not a precog. She’s a battle simulator… A forecaster.
  2936.  
  2937. And because of her it went easy. So easily it was comedy. I captured Alabaster and Victor. Sure, they might not be flashy members of the Empire, but they were still capes. Capes who formed part of the largest parahuman gang in the city.
  2938.  
  2939. I… I won.
  2940.  
  2941. Not, Taylor Hebert patching a hole in a sinking ship, or stumbling through a first night out. No Taylor Hebert struggling to figure out what to do, or how to react. No facing down how monumental the task I’d set for myself really was.
  2942.  
  2943. I was there, finally, moving forward and Taylor Hebert, perennial loser, fucking won.
  2944.  
  2945. “The Director is coming up. She wants to talk to-”
  2946.  
  2947. “I’ll drop by tomorrow,” I said.
  2948.  
  2949. My eyes scanned the city map. The opportunity was simply too good.
  2950.  
  2951. They’d have to take me seriously now.
  2952.  
  2953. “She won’t like that,” the trooper said.
  2954.  
  2955. “She’ll live,” I said.
  2956.  
  2957. “She really won’t like that.”
  2958.  
  2959. “Yeah,” I said. “Sucks when someone does whatever they want and doesn’t give a damn about you.”
  2960.  
  2961. The troopers shared another glance.
  2962.  
  2963. “Um… yes it does?”
  2964.  
  2965. Piggot will get it.
  2966.  
  2967. I shot off and flew back toward Downtown.
  2968.  
  2969. “Green, take Orange and encircle the front on Main. I’ll hit it next. Pink and Navy.”
  2970.  
  2971. I gave the Haros their orders, letting Red and Purple take a direct path while my suit avoided flying too close to Brockton General.
  2972.  
  2973. Lining up with my target, a wave of green bloomed behind me, and the air shuttered. My shield went up as I came through the wall. The guards started shooting, and I raised my carbine and shot back.
  2974.  
  2975. Watching my map of the city, I kept fighting the urge to laugh.
  2976.  
  2977. I didn’t want to look like a maniac. It’s just… this was different.
  2978.  
  2979. Different from the first time I took O Gundam out.
  2980.  
  2981. Different from when I started throwing my weight around.
  2982.  
  2983. This?
  2984.  
  2985. This was almost art.
  2986.  
  2987. Lt: she planned this
  2988. ReleasetheHounds: no shit
  2989. HM: what the hell is going on?​
  2990.  
  2991. Kaiser saw it all? Was he always there? Did this really make him come out and announce his presence?
  2992.  
  2993. Now that he’d used a phone to send a message to the same phones my worm already infected, his got infected too. His location pinged on my map.
  2994.  
  2995. Medhall. Figures.
  2996.  
  2997. Lt: newtype took victor and alabaster
  2998. HM: I saw
  2999. HM: What are we doing about it?
  3000. Mantis: nothing
  3001. HM: Why not?​
  3002.  
  3003. I laughed to myself.
  3004.  
  3005. I couldn’t help it anymore.
  3006.  
  3007. Watching Krieg explain how he, and all the other empire cape, were stuck in traffic jams, was too damn funny.
  3008.  
  3009. A massive, circular traffic jam, trapping nearly every Empire capes in one corner of their territory. With all the other corners completely open to me.
  3010.  
  3011. I knocked one guard away with my shield and shot another with my carbine. Red flew over me and threw an incendiary into the closet being used as an impromptu money vault. Loose cash is surprisingly important to a criminal enterprise, and for once the Empire put a lot of it into one place for me.
  3012.  
  3013. I kept laughing.
  3014.  
  3015. “Are you alright?” Veda asked.
  3016.  
  3017. “I’m sorry,” I said.
  3018.  
  3019. “I… I think this is the first time I’ve truly won. In years!”
  3020.  
  3021. And the Empire didn’t even see it yet.
  3022.  
  3023. Victor’s fate didn’t matter. The PRT would fuck it up, like always. Or maybe they wouldn’t. That might be nice. It still didn’t matter.
  3024.  
  3025. With him in lock up, and the Empire moving to free him, I’d sit back and wait.
  3026.  
  3027. Othala would emerge from her hole.
  3028.  
  3029. And I’d be ready.
  3030.  
  3031. ***
  3032.  
  3033. Taylor laughing too much? I stuggled over it, but after thinking it felt appropriate. She’s a beaten down girl still, and the fact that she’s successfully pulling a massive fast one on everyone is something that’s shocked her into fits of anime appropriate hysterity.
  3034.  
  3035. One more chapter in the arc itself. After that there will be one interlude set at a Somer’s Rock meeting (likely from Lisa’s perspective for pragmatic reasons), and another set in Boston to catch up with Uber and Leet (from Leet’s perspective).
  3036.  
  3037. As for the next update, Taylor and Piggot finally end up in the same room together.
  3038.  
  3039.  
  3040. This… wow this one turned out so much harder than I expected. But here it is, and I’m finally happy with it.
  3041.  
  3042. Step 4.12
  3043.  
  3044. I need to fly casually more often.
  3045.  
  3046. I’d never taken O Gundam out with the sun up before. The city looks different in the day. The skyline isn’t that scenic, but with the sun up you could look past it. Big green mountains in the background, long look out over the ocean. People down below didn’t even notice me.
  3047.  
  3048. The sunlight drowned the light from the GN drive.
  3049.  
  3050. Of course, I didn’t get to completely relax and take it all in.
  3051.  
  3052. The Empire took their latest defeat… not well. Hookwolf wanted to go straight to the Rig, which the rest fortunately determined a bad idea. Still. Kaiser wanted his capes back, and, naturally, my head on a spike.
  3053.  
  3054. More concerning, ABB and Merchant groups shifted toward Empire territory. Starting another gang war by pushing the Empire too far didn’t fix anything.
  3055.  
  3056. And I found myself at that point, the one where I needed to be very careful.
  3057.  
  3058. It’s surreal, looking back. It all happened so fast in retrospect, even though when I started it seemed like it took forever to get anywhere.
  3059.  
  3060. Now in a mere two weeks I’d come so far in my plans.
  3061.  
  3062. I put the gangs on the defensive, and my “focus” on the Empire seemed to keep the ABB and Merchants looking west like wolves. I’d resolved my school issues, though Blue Cosmos had yet to approach Charlotte or me. I’d figured out how to best make use of Dinah’s power, and my workshop was fully capable of supporting me for the moment.
  3063.  
  3064. No reason to rest easy, but I felt proud of that.
  3065.  
  3066. “The abbey is in sight,” Veda said.
  3067.  
  3068. I glanced to the camera feed in the corner of my HUD.
  3069.  
  3070. Pink hovered above the building far to the south of me. A square building with an open courtyard in the center, built of brick and concrete with tall walls. Worn tiles covered the roof with a few bare spots showing tin underneath. The windows looked old. Period glass you’d call it?
  3071.  
  3072. “Have Pink poke around,” I said. “I think we’ll be surprised.”
  3073.  
  3074. I might be completely wrong, or I might not.
  3075.  
  3076. “If she is there?” Veda asked.
  3077.  
  3078. “Depends on how things go at the PRT,” I responded. “But I do call it Plan A for a reason.”
  3079.  
  3080. Banking toward the PRT building, I started descending. Aegis and Kid Win set off on patrol fifteen minutes before my arrival. Neither seemed to notice me from their position ten blocks to the north.
  3081.  
  3082. “Dinah?” I asked.
  3083.  
  3084. “I’m okay,” she answered.
  3085.  
  3086. “You don’t have to,” I repeated for maybe the dozenth time.
  3087.  
  3088. “I want to,” she said. “We started this together.”
  3089.  
  3090. I let any protest die. If Dinah wanted to be involved, then I’d let her be. Her choice.
  3091.  
  3092. “Wait for me. I shouldn’t be long.”
  3093.  
  3094. Moment of truth.
  3095.  
  3096. The one that decided what came next.
  3097.  
  3098. I took the final approach slowly. I called ahead, so they expected me. I wonder if the PRT installed any air defenses on the building? The Rig packed a few missile batteries, but real or not?
  3099.  
  3100. Not something I eagerly wanted to know.
  3101.  
  3102. My feet set down and four troopers approached me from the rooftop door. Miss Militia walked immediately behind them, hands at her sides.
  3103.  
  3104. I knelt, and the helmet pulled back, followed by the chest plate.
  3105.  
  3106. O Gundam closed shut after my exit, Red hovering in the air over my suits shoulder. I didn’t think the PRT would try to mess with my suit, but better safe than sorry.
  3107.  
  3108. Green and Purple landed on either side of me. They both rolled from their cradles, Green popping his ears and waving at the approaching troopers and heroine.
  3109.  
  3110. “Hello. Hello.”
  3111.  
  3112. Miss Militia tilted her head down. “Hello.”
  3113.  
  3114. Examining the older heroine, I felt a little nostalgic. Did they send her here on purpose? My first ill-fated arrival to the PRT had led me to her, and now here we were again.
  3115.  
  3116. Be diplomatic, Taylor.
  3117.  
  3118. “Miss Militia,” I said. I acknowledged each trooper with a glance.
  3119.  
  3120. The woman turned her attention back to me. “Newtype. The Director is in a meeting, but she’ll be with you shortly. If you want to wait inside?”
  3121.  
  3122. Making me wait, eh?
  3123.  
  3124. “It’s fine if I leave my suit parked on the roof?”
  3125.  
  3126. “It should be.”
  3127.  
  3128. I walked to the elevator quietly. Green and Purple followed behind Miss Militia and two troopers. The other two remained on the roof with my suit, looking up at Red as he hovered there.
  3129.  
  3130. I swear I saw him pull something from inside his ball as the door closed.
  3131.  
  3132. Miss Militia seemed a little apprehensive on the way down.
  3133.  
  3134. “Where are Victor and Alabaster?” I asked.
  3135.  
  3136. “In cells on the Rig,” Miss Militia answered, evenly.
  3137.  
  3138. “When are they going to be transported out of the city?”
  3139.  
  3140. “I’m not authorized to disclose that information.”
  3141.  
  3142. Of course you’re not.
  3143.  
  3144. “I’d rather Kaiser didn’t just set them free,” I said. “I can help.”
  3145.  
  3146. “We won’t let him,” - I wanted to say something about Uber and Leet, but that wouldn’t be diplomatic - “and if that is what you want you should ask the Director. It’s not my decision to make.”
  3147.  
  3148. Easier to take a shot at Othala if I knew when the PRT planned to move the prisoners. The Empire still debated whether to hit the trucks or wait till they got to cells. I’d rather they did the former, if only because it ensured Othala emerging from her hiding place.
  3149.  
  3150. When the doors opened, Miss Militia took up a brisk pace without a word. I followed her, my Haros and the troopers following me.
  3151.  
  3152. Weird.
  3153.  
  3154. I had an emotional conversation in a grave yard, and that felt less… grave. The air felt heavy, the hall narrow. Getting nervous?
  3155.  
  3156. Miss Militia brought me to a conference room with a long table. Green hopped up onto one of the seats and sat, while Purple did a lap around the room.
  3157.  
  3158. Both PRT troopers waited outside.
  3159.  
  3160. “The Director will just be a moment,” Miss Militia said.
  3161.  
  3162. “Will Ramius be here?”
  3163.  
  3164. “I’m not sure. The Director only stated she wanted to talk to you here. You can sit if you want.”
  3165.  
  3166. I did.
  3167.  
  3168. Miss Militia remained standing by the door.
  3169.  
  3170. Purple jumped onto the table, drawing her attention for a moment. My Haro poked at the conference phone a few times with its foot before tucking the limb back in and rolling to me.
  3171.  
  3172. Militia watched me with a curious gaze, not unlike the one she’d shown when following me during my sudden exit months ago. It seemed deeper though. More contemplative.
  3173.  
  3174. I tried to ignore it. Honest.
  3175.  
  3176. But the silence kept drawing out and I could hear her breathing, and she could hear me breathing and, “You want to say something?”
  3177.  
  3178. “Not particularly,” she answered.
  3179.  
  3180. “You look like you want to say something.”
  3181.  
  3182. Miss Militia narrowed her gaze. I waited, wondering if she’d ever decide to say anything.
  3183.  
  3184. “I suppose,” she mumbled, “I wonder if I could have changed this course.”
  3185.  
  3186. I tilted my head to one side.
  3187.  
  3188. “You mean back when I first came to the PRT?” I asked. She nodded. “Maybe…”
  3189.  
  3190. Miss Militia did try to help, I think. I’d been too delirious and distraught to really give her a chance. Maybe things would be different if I’d let her. Like Ramius, she might have stood up and said Shadow Stalker’s actions were unacceptable.
  3191.  
  3192. Or maybe not. Too late to know now.
  3193.  
  3194. “I think I’ve done okay for myself,” I said.
  3195.  
  3196. “You have,” Miss Militia said. “But I worry you’ve made yourself a big target with little support behind you.”
  3197.  
  3198. “I have StarGazer,” - and Dinah - “and that’s enough for now.”
  3199.  
  3200. “For now?”
  3201.  
  3202. I mulled over my words. Letting the PRT subtly know I intended to form a team might be useful.
  3203.  
  3204. “I wanted to establish myself first,” I said. “On my own merit.”
  3205.  
  3206. Maybe I did that a long time ago.
  3207.  
  3208. Trevor got it right about me. Newtype. Whatever.
  3209.  
  3210. I saw too many things as defeat, too easily. People tried to tell me after my encounter with Oni Lee that I didn’t really lose, but I didn’t believe them.
  3211.  
  3212. “You’ve certainly done that,” Miss Militia said.
  3213.  
  3214. “And you’re still worried?”
  3215.  
  3216. Miss Militia’s weapon shimmered slightly.
  3217.  
  3218. “I was young once too,” she said.
  3219.  
  3220. I raised my brow behind my visor. Did she have anything else to add? Maybe elaboration?
  3221.  
  3222. Or is she being vague in response to my vagueness?
  3223.  
  3224. The door opened, and we both turned.
  3225.  
  3226. What they say about the camera adding ten pounds?
  3227.  
  3228. Not true.
  3229.  
  3230. It adds zero pounds, and Piggot looked about the same as she did on TV. An overweight woman with a bob cut, bleached roots, and clearly not in the best of health.
  3231.  
  3232. I glanced to the door, but no one else followed her into the room.
  3233.  
  3234. “Thank you, Militia,” Piggot said. “You can wait outside.”
  3235.  
  3236. The heroine glanced at me, and then at the overweight woman taking her seat on the opposite end of the table.
  3237.  
  3238. “Director?”
  3239.  
  3240. “Against protocol, I know. Newtype hasn’t shown any capacity to master anyone. This is best handled frankly, with no one else to get in the way.” The Director glanced at my robots. “Is StarGazer listening?”
  3241.  
  3242. “I am,” Veda answered.
  3243.  
  3244. “That’ll be fine,” the Director said. She turned back to Miss Militia “Wait outside.”
  3245.  
  3246. The heroine hesitated.
  3247.  
  3248. Again, she seemed to want to say something.
  3249.  
  3250. She didn’t.
  3251.  
  3252. The door closed… and I could cut the air with a butter knife in here. If the hall felt a little choking, the room made it seem outright comfortable.
  3253.  
  3254. I glanced across the table. Piggot met my gaze, hands folded together in front of her.
  3255.  
  3256. Rather ostentatious for our first face to face meeting.
  3257.  
  3258. Alone.
  3259.  
  3260. “Apologies,” Piggot said. She didn’t sound very sorry. “A new Ward came in suddenly. The circumstances are complicated. I thought it best to give the matter personal attention.”
  3261.  
  3262. A new Ward? Did the PRT beat me to the punch? Not much to do if they did.
  3263.  
  3264. A pit formed in my stomach. My paranoia reared its head, imagining all the ways this could go very badly. The enemy of my enemy is my friend is a pithy sentiment. Just because your enemy has an enemy doesn’t mean you have a friend.
  3265.  
  3266. But it also didn’t mean you had an extra enemy.
  3267.  
  3268. Piggot didn’t have a good enough reason to come down on me. The people above her wanted me happy.
  3269.  
  3270. I needed to see where the PRT and Newtype fell.
  3271.  
  3272. How far I needed to go to achieve my goals. How quickly I needed to move. Piggot could tell me that, and I needed to figure it out now that things had come so far.
  3273.  
  3274. I bit back the grasping sense of overwhelming uncertainty and pressed on.
  3275.  
  3276. “No Ramius?” I asked. “Armsmaster?”
  3277.  
  3278. “I might think she’s a fool, but I respect her dedication. Ramius needs to be your friend. It’s her job, and that ties her hands in some ways that make her dramatically unhelpful in this conversation. Feel free to talk behind my back to her. I’m sure you’ll find many things you both agree on.”
  3279.  
  3280. That… was unexpected.
  3281.  
  3282. “And Armsmaster?” I asked.
  3283.  
  3284. “He hates you,” Piggot said.
  3285.  
  3286. Okay…
  3287.  
  3288. “That’s… frank.”
  3289.  
  3290. “The public likes nice, but behind closed doors I find nice doesn’t get a lot done. Real progress is made when the nonsense is dispensed with. Ramius insists you’re smarter than anyone gives you credit for. Fine. We’ll dispense with the nonsense and get down to it.”
  3291.  
  3292. Wow. Not what I expected. I expected more shouting. Ultimatums maybe. A more restrained response threw me completely off.
  3293.  
  3294. “So… You wanted to talk.”
  3295.  
  3296. “I wanted to do a few things,” Piggot said. She turned her chair, eyes casting a look out the window. “First, I owe you an apology.”
  3297.  
  3298. “For Stalker?” I asked.
  3299.  
  3300. “I won’t belabor the point. I gave her too much trust. I should have known better. What she did she did, and the buck stops at me.”
  3301.  
  3302. “I’m over it,” I said.
  3303.  
  3304. Piggot gave me a skeptical look.
  3305.  
  3306. “It’s being dealt with,” I said. “I have more important things to be doing than bemoaning my lost childhood.”
  3307.  
  3308. “As you wish. Armstrong is handling the rest of the matter going forward. It would be inappropriate for me to involve myself given the circumstances.”
  3309.  
  3310. I shrugged. I didn’t want to talk about it with anyone, least of all her. If I ever did want to talk about it, I’d seek out a psychiatrist.
  3311.  
  3312. “But in my experience,” Piggot continued, “parahumans treat trauma too flippantly. I’ll speak nothing more of the matter but to say a psychiatrist never hurt anyone. The PRT can point you to ones who can be trusted.”
  3313.  
  3314. “You made the offer,” I said.
  3315.  
  3316. Piggot nodded, saying nothing about my somewhat tense suggestion to change the subject.
  3317.  
  3318. “Matters between you and the PRT have understandably been complicated by a number of factors. Most of those have been addressed in one form or another now. Can we agree on that?”
  3319.  
  3320. I crossed my arms over my chest. Some change of subject.
  3321.  
  3322. “Yes.”
  3323.  
  3324. “Then it’s time to talk about what happens next. Do you intend to join the Wards?”
  3325.  
  3326. “No.”
  3327.  
  3328. I couldn’t. Kid Win seemed alright, but my experiences with Valiant and Aegis came with their own hiccups. Vista apparently found me “intense.” Even if none of them were as bad as Sophia, they still sat in the same rooms as her. Knew her, the kind of person she was.
  3329.  
  3330. I didn’t believe Sophia behaved any differently as a Ward than she did at Winslow.
  3331.  
  3332. They knew, or they chose not to know.
  3333.  
  3334. Still, a firm denial like that might cost me ground going forward.
  3335.  
  3336. Unless I followed it with something else.
  3337.  
  3338. “But I haven’t made up my mind about the Protectorate. Maybe, in three years when I’m eighteen, and past all the high school crap.”
  3339.  
  3340. Piggot nodded.
  3341.  
  3342. And to add to that, I asked, “Is it possible for the PRT to make available classes in parahuman studies to an independent?”
  3343.  
  3344. Piggot raised her brow. “We can.”
  3345.  
  3346. “I know Ramius did a lot to get me moved to Arcadia. But as someone recently described, school isn’t a very happy place for me. I’m taking the GED this summer.”
  3347.  
  3348. “And you want to start taking college courses?”
  3349.  
  3350. “The Wards take those classes, don’t they?”
  3351.  
  3352. Piggot’s brow went higher. “You’d take classes with them, but you won’t join them?”
  3353.  
  3354. “Might as well get a degree in something. And they’ll be in the Protectorate too someday, right? I might not be comfortable joining them, but I can’t ignore them either.”
  3355.  
  3356. And if I hung out with the Wards, even a little, Piggot got a feather in her cap. Surely, she saw that.
  3357.  
  3358. An easy sacrifice for me to make.
  3359.  
  3360. I kind of wanted to take the classes. Figure some things out about my powers, and other things. It seemed a good way to maintain a broader relationship with the PRT than just Ramius. A hassle, but a hassle that might come in handy later.
  3361.  
  3362. “I’d have to clear it with the Wards.” Piggot said. “They take the classes privately and out of sight. They usually don’t wear masks.”
  3363.  
  3364. “You already know who I am,” I said. “Even if you don’t tell the Wards what happened to Stalker I’m betting they’re smart enough to figure out it relates to me. No point in beating around the bush about it.”
  3365.  
  3366. “If you’re willing to unmask to the Wards, that’s your choice. It’s their choice to do the same. I’ll speak with Aegis about it.” The woman grunted. “Ramius is right about you. You already know how the game is played.”
  3367.  
  3368. “I’m content to continue working with Ramius,” I said. “I trust her. As for games, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
  3369.  
  3370. “Fair enough,” Piggot said. “But thus far, Ramius has stuck her head out on multiple occasions for you. I hope you appreciate that the good lieutenant hasn’t been making friends.”
  3371.  
  3372. “I suspected.”
  3373.  
  3374. “Good. Then you understand it helps everyone if we can cooperate going forward. You were willing to do that with us once.”
  3375.  
  3376. “I was.” And if we’re being frank, “You ignored me.”
  3377.  
  3378. “Just because we don’t come down on the gangs like a hammer doesn’t mean we ignored you. Calvert’s office tracked and collated all your intel. That’s how Amanda got a hold of it in the first place.”
  3379.  
  3380. “And you didn’t do anything with it.”
  3381.  
  3382. “Manhattan.”
  3383.  
  3384.  
  3385. “Excuse me?” I asked.
  3386.  
  3387. “Manhattan,” Piggot repeated. “The Gold War. I’m given to understand capes see visions of it when near a Case Sixty-Six.”
  3388.  
  3389. I remembered, though the memory what I saw seemed ever more muddled. The water between me and the things I saw murkier each passing day.
  3390.  
  3391. She said she wanted to talk frankly, but that didn’t seem very subtle. Mostly hyperbolic. Or I was imagining it. A Piggot who thought me an idiot or a fool made more sense than one that respected me. My experience with administrators, right? Or was it? Ms. Greene treated me well, and Ms. Badgiruel seemed okay. Reasonable people, not inept idiots like Blackwell who never bothered to do their job right.
  3392.  
  3393. Which is it I’m dealing with?
  3394.  
  3395. “And it relates to this how?”
  3396.  
  3397. “It relates to why the PRT operates the way it does,” Piggot said. “The PRT doesn’t go smashing in walls and blowing up drug stashes because we know what happens when capes drop all pretense.”
  3398.  
  3399. I turned my jaw.
  3400.  
  3401. Not a single cape in Brockton Bay compared to Scion, far as I could tell the strongest cape to ever live. No one in the bay even compared to the first Eidolon. Red Comet. Blackout. Dagon. Sune.
  3402.  
  3403. The only cape who even came close to that level of raw power in the city was Lung, and maybe Stratos.
  3404.  
  3405. Piggot looked down her nose at me.
  3406.  
  3407. “You really think Kaiser and his ilk couldn’t destroy Brockton Bay if pushed past the limit?”
  3408.  
  3409. Not like Manhattan, though if we were speaking in a more abstract sense?
  3410.  
  3411. “If you’re worried I don’t know when to stop, don’t.”
  3412.  
  3413. “I feel like I should. You’ve only been truly active a matter of weeks. In that time, you threatened every villain in the city with outing, destroyed more property than Glory Girl has in an entire year, and broke more bones than I have troopers.”
  3414.  
  3415. “Rather than wait to let any of that sit, you jumped right into arresting two capes, capes from a gang you have a particular focus on. From where I sit, you’re a loose cannon.”
  3416.  
  3417. Diplomatic, I told myself.
  3418.  
  3419. Did that mean knuckling under and taking her criticism? Did that benefit me more than it hurt? Would Piggot even buy it if I pretended?
  3420.  
  3421. Well, we were being frank, right?
  3422.  
  3423. “I’ve pushed, sure. But from where I sit, the PRT and Protectorate aren’t doing that much.”
  3424.  
  3425. To put it gently. More frankly, they were too busy with vanity projects and false peace to bother helping anything.
  3426.  
  3427. “You can’t eliminate crime,” Piggot said. “It’ll always be there. A city that lives with it is a city that still exists.”
  3428.  
  3429. “Not like this,” I said, shaking my head. “It doesn’t have to be like this.”
  3430.  
  3431. “This is better than any number of bloody alternatives.”
  3432.  
  3433. “It just sounds better on TV news.”
  3434.  
  3435. Piggot scoffed.
  3436.  
  3437. “Ramius told me that you and I sitting alone wouldn’t end well,” she said.
  3438.  
  3439. “That seems like something she’d suggest.”
  3440.  
  3441. “Let us be glad she overestimates my stubbornness. We’re not going to sit here all day and debate right and wrong.”
  3442.  
  3443. Piggot turned her chair, facing away from me and setting her gaze out the window.
  3444.  
  3445. “The matter is simple. I can’t stop you from doing what you want, to a point.”
  3446.  
  3447. To a point she says. “But you’ll stop me if you think I go too far?”
  3448.  
  3449. “My responsibility is to this city and the people who live in it. Those above me might want to put you in a special box titled ‘treat with care we want mass produced tinker tech,’ but I’m under no obligation to stand on the sidelines and watch the city burn.”
  3450.  
  3451. Now I scoffed.
  3452.  
  3453. “Watch my step, or you’ll step in then?”
  3454.  
  3455. Piggot folded her hands together again. “It is my job. I might have dropped the ball on Stalker, and Teacher of late, but I take my job seriously.”
  3456.  
  3457. “Be nice if you took it seriously before.”
  3458.  
  3459. “Hindsight is twenty-twenty.”
  3460.  
  3461. I’m sure I’d hear that excuse again, either from her or someone else.
  3462.  
  3463. At least Piggot didn’t plan on coming after me immediately. Talk about a pain in the ass. If I kept things at a slow, steady, pace I might avoid major conflict for months.
  3464.  
  3465. “You’ve delivered your threat,” I said. Time to change the subject again.
  3466.  
  3467. “Threats are for villains who need reminding of consequences,” Piggot said. “I’m not threatening you. I’m telling you what’ll happen if the envelope is pushed too far.”
  3468.  
  3469. “Right. Anything else?”
  3470.  
  3471. “You could talk to us. The PRT is more than capable of reminding anyone who isn’t sure of where the lines are.”
  3472.  
  3473. Is she calling me stupid?
  3474.  
  3475. “Can you promise me the PRT won’t have any leaks in the future?”
  3476.  
  3477. “Of course, I can’t. The reality is that no one is infallible. But I’m not talking about posting a memo on the water cooler.”
  3478.  
  3479. I thought for a moment, wondering if I could turn that around to my own advantage. I didn’t want the PRT knowing any number of things, but I didn’t need to tell them. Other things they’d probably figure out themselves.
  3480.  
  3481. What could I get for that?
  3482.  
  3483. “What if I tell you who your moles are?”
  3484.  
  3485. “I already know a number of them.”
  3486.  
  3487. My jaw dropped a little.
  3488.  
  3489. Piggot grinned.
  3490.  
  3491. “Smash isn’t the only option. Letting moles stick around and report to their masters can be useful. Feed them the right bits of useful information to keep them credible. Give them the right misinformation when the time is right. It’s not flashy, but countless crimes have been foiled in this city through counter-intelligence alone. Something I suspect you might appreciate.”
  3492.  
  3493. “How so?” I asked.
  3494.  
  3495. “Wire taps on the gang’s phones? Worms on their computers? Don’t tell me if you want, but you have something. A line they haven’t caught onto yet. You’ve used it well. Stayed a step ahead… though, if you or StarGazer hack the city traffic lights again for another stunt like last night, we will be having further words.”
  3496.  
  3497. I shrugged. I didn’t plan on becoming a one trick pony. Though, if Piggot figured it out, the gangs probably would soon. Maybe they already suspected. If they did, they might avoid talking about it on anything digital.
  3498.  
  3499. “And if I asked to be informed of when Alabaster and Victor are being transported from the city?”
  3500.  
  3501. “That sort of information is confidential precisely because I know we have moles. I won’t be telling anyone until a few hours before it happens.”
  3502.  
  3503. I wanted to sigh. “Would I be allowed to know?”
  3504.  
  3505. “If you wanted to help ensure the security of the transport, it could be arranged. I’m sure Kaiser will try to free them, either during transit or after. I’m afraid I can do little to ensure they stay in their cells once they’re there.”
  3506.  
  3507. “I’ve noticed.”
  3508.  
  3509. “Uber and Leet?” Piggot grunted. “There aren’t enough heroes to spend them on guard duty at prisons. Though, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t somewhat purposeful. So long as the villains think they have a chance at breaking out, they don’t fight so hard to avoid going in in the first place. Let’s us separate the common crooks from the real bastards.”
  3510.  
  3511. “I’m sure Hookwolf’s victims will be very happy to know such consideration went into criminal rehabilitation.”
  3512.  
  3513. “It’s not a perfect world,” Piggot said. “But it’s the only one we happen to have.”
  3514.  
  3515. Convenient platitude.
  3516.  
  3517. As good a time as any for the big question I suppose.
  3518.  
  3519. I needed to know.
  3520.  
  3521. “Have you considered that the Empire has never been this vulnerable?”
  3522.  
  3523. “Don’t overestimate yourself. The damage you’ve inflicted is hardly a mere flesh wound, but Kaiser has endured worse. He’ll get Victor and Alabaster back or replace them with any of the dozens of other Nazi capes around the country.”
  3524.  
  3525. “Maybe. But he’ll have to use some of his own capes to try and break them out. My bet? He’ll send Hookwolf, Stormtiger, and Cricket to do it. Maybe Krieg and Rune. In either scenario, for a few days the Empire won’t be down two capes. They’ll be down four or five.”
  3526.  
  3527. Piggot raised her brow. Surprise? At me, her herself?
  3528.  
  3529. It’s what I continually didn’t get about the PRT. The focused so much on the capes, but they lost the forest for the trees.
  3530.  
  3531. The capes needed their unpowered henchmen. They needed their fronts. Their drugs. Their guns. Lung might be able to hold onto his territory through raw power and reputation, but he still had the ABB. Without them, what is Lung?
  3532.  
  3533. A giant dragon man in a china shop. Not remotely the kind of danger on par with a major criminal organization with an agenda.
  3534.  
  3535. “With most of their dirty cops in jail,” I said. “I know where everything is. The drugs, the guns, the money. Fronts and suppliers. If Brockton Bay threw everything at them in that one window, how much damage could be done to the Empire?”
  3536.  
  3537. Piggot gave me an assessing gaze.
  3538.  
  3539. Humoring me when she claimed to acknowledge my maturity, perhaps?
  3540.  
  3541. “And when Kaiser calls Night and Fog from retirement?” Piggot asked. “Purity from Boston? Don’t be naïve. If it were so simple to get rid of the Nazi fucks, we’d have done it a long time ago. Kaiser has support nationally and internationally. He always has more resources to call on. It’s not as simple as draining him and pushing him out of the city.”
  3542.  
  3543. “Failure is a reality I’ve learned to live with,” I said. “But it’s not going to stop me from trying. Would you really pass this chance up without even trying to come up with a plan?”
  3544.  
  3545. “And when he lashes out and the city suffers? It won’t be Kaiser I send the Protectorate to bring to heel.”
  3546.  
  3547. I frowned deeply.
  3548.  
  3549. Like Shadow Stalker, I tried to push the emotional reaction from my mind.
  3550.  
  3551. It’s one thing to look at all the reasons we might fail, but she didn’t even want to entertain the possibility of success?
  3552.  
  3553. Nice not to be disappointed for once. The PRT rose exactly to my expectations, subtle threats and do-nothing attitude and all.
  3554.  
  3555. I wanted to sigh.
  3556.  
  3557. Well, no point dwelling. I didn’t really intend to make that push against Kaiser just yet, but hearing Piggot say she’d come after me for making it?
  3558.  
  3559. That’s that.
  3560.  
  3561. “This is what I’m talking about,” Piggot said. “You can’t just flip the table over and declare yourself the winner. Every other player will react. They’ll close in. The balance in this city is too delicate and lives hang in that balance”
  3562.  
  3563. “The balance in the city is paid by all the people out there that you ignore in the name of peace,” I said. “A false peace. A vanity project.”
  3564.  
  3565. Piggot scowled. “Do I need to bring Militia back in here?”
  3566.  
  3567. “No,” I said. “A false peace is important. It’s the calm that lets people get on with their lives and believe it can all work out in the end. The PRT and Protectorate give that to people, and the world can keep turning because of it.”
  3568.  
  3569. I turned my chin down, my shoulders relaxed.
  3570.  
  3571. “But it’s still false, and it’ll break. Someone has to make it real. And if that someone fails then they must keep trying. It’s the only way forward.”
  3572.  
  3573. The older woman took on a grim expression. She inhaled through her nose and leaned back in her seat. I stared back at her, waiting.
  3574.  
  3575. An air of finality over took the room.
  3576.  
  3577. We both knew, right then and there I think. Not that either of us said anything or readily admitted it.
  3578.  
  3579. Sooner or later, one way or another… Newtype and the PRT would come to blows.
  3580.  
  3581. It’s time to get a move on.
  3582.  
  3583. “We’ll see,” I said.
  3584.  
  3585. Piggot’s frown was small. “We’ll see.”
  3586.  
  3587. When I stepped into the hall Militia and the troopers were still there, plus another.
  3588.  
  3589. Ramius glanced between Piggot and I. Did she expect us to spontaneously combust? Start hitting each other in the world’s most bizarre fat woman on skinny girl cat fight? She looked it, cautiously watching and ready to jump in between us.
  3590.  
  3591. Maybe for the best she didn’t sit in on that talk. She didn’t need to be burdened anymore by my intractability than necessary.
  3592.  
  3593. “Is there anything else?” I asked.
  3594.  
  3595. “Not at the moment,” Piggot said. “Have a pleasant day Newtype. Militia. Walk with me.”
  3596.  
  3597. The woman followed, but the two troopers stayed with me.
  3598.  
  3599. I turned toward the elevator and started walking.
  3600.  
  3601. “What happened?” Ramius asked.
  3602.  
  3603. A casual exchange of veiled threats, petty insults, and coming to a mutual understanding neither of us said out loud? I think. Maybe. It felt weird. Piggot and I seemed to be on similar wavelengths. I felt like I understood her a bit better than I managed with most people.
  3604.  
  3605. “We talked,” I said.
  3606.  
  3607. “About what?”
  3608.  
  3609. “The future.”
  3610.  
  3611. “And that would be?”
  3612.  
  3613. What indeed.
  3614.  
  3615. There’s no future here.
  3616.  
  3617. I clearly couldn’t rely on the PRT, not long term. I didn’t think they were evil. In some ways, I looked back and decided I judged them too harshly. The world did need the PRT. Without them, what help did anyone have? Who’d support capes in fighting the Endbringers, or hold the gangs back at all?
  3618.  
  3619. But they lacked the conviction to go any farther, or the will. Expecting them to help me overturn a decade of decline in Brockton Bay was hopeless.
  3620.  
  3621. Plan A it is.
  3622.  
  3623. “Some people are destined to not get along,” I said.
  3624.  
  3625. I stepped out of the elevator onto the roof, Red and O Gundam both right where I left them.
  3626.  
  3627. Well… almost.
  3628.  
  3629. Ramius and the troopers with me both looked down, the two troopers and Red looking up.
  3630.  
  3631. “This is why you keep getting shit duty private,” one of the troopers with me said.
  3632.  
  3633. “Okay… but I get to say I played Uno with a robot.”
  3634.  
  3635. The other three troopers shook their heads. I sighed, and wave my hand at Red.
  3636.  
  3637. “No fun, no fun,” he chirped.
  3638.  
  3639. “You’re on guard duty,” I said. “Not fun duty.”
  3640.  
  3641. “Yeah Cello.”
  3642.  
  3643. The trooper on the ground surrendered his cards and waved his hand in the air.
  3644.  
  3645. Glancing back to the troopers, and then to Ramius, I said, “I’m sorry I keep making problems for you.”
  3646.  
  3647. Ramius smiled weakly. “I’ve had easier assignments.”
  3648.  
  3649. “It’s not going to get easier.”
  3650.  
  3651. Ramius didn’t look happy, but she wasn’t running away either.
  3652.  
  3653. “I don’t do what I do because I want easy,” she said.
  3654.  
  3655. Maybe not completely hopeless.
  3656.  
  3657. Red, Green and Purple rolled into their cradles, and I climbed into O Gundam.
  3658.  
  3659. “I’m working on something for everyone from Winslow,” I said. “It’s not ready yet.”
  3660.  
  3661. “What is it?” Ramius asked.
  3662.  
  3663. “A version of my Haros designed to be a medical assistant,” I said. “They’d be able to see the victims through cameras and help doctors and nurses.”
  3664.  
  3665. “That would be appreciated, but can you support it?”
  3666.  
  3667. “I won’t need to. They’re not going to be Tinkertech, and they’ll repair themselves.”
  3668.  
  3669. To hell with irrational fear. Someone would make robots that did it one way or another. Not doing it because something bad might happen is staving off the inevitable instead of tackling it head on.
  3670.  
  3671. “That’s… ambitious.”
  3672.  
  3673. “I prefer hopeful.”
  3674.  
  3675. The suit closed around me, and the drive spun up. I lifted off the roof and turned south, flying above the road while people below pointed and took pictures.
  3676.  
  3677. “What happened at the abbey?” I asked.
  3678.  
  3679. Veda showed me the footage.
  3680.  
  3681. “I’m coming. Call Dinah.”
  3682.  
  3683. At the end of the street I rose well above the buildings and out of sight.
  3684.  
  3685. The area around the abbey consisted of residences, and a few small businesses. Lots of trees and hills disrupted long lines of sight, and I approached by lowering myself and following a creek. It ran along behind the abbey, letting me reach the building without being seen. I emerged into the sky for only a brief second to get over the roof.
  3686.  
  3687. I lowered myself slowly, landing in the courtyard at the center of the grounds.
  3688.  
  3689. A few older women clothed in black shuffled away, but an elderly woman remained seated on the steps of a pair of double doors. In front of her, Pink sat in a bed of flowers, watching a short girl approach me.
  3690.  
  3691. My suit opened, and I stepped out.
  3692.  
  3693. The girl discarded the bandeau and coif covering her head, and the habit afterward. Underneath she wore a tight top and jean shorts, which seemed a little scandalous for an abbey. The sister seated on the steps certainly didn’t seem to approve.
  3694.  
  3695. I gave her a quizzical look and she shrugged.
  3696.  
  3697. “Not my style,” she said.
  3698.  
  3699. I admit, I felt a little jealous seeing her.
  3700.  
  3701. Laughter, or Lafter Frankland, was a gorgeous girl. We were about the same age, but her development put mine to shame. Wide hips, a full bust, and a pretty face. The pigtails made her look a little cutesy rather than hot, but it worked for her.
  3702.  
  3703. A wonderful reminder of my body image issues.
  3704.  
  3705. “You do have a style,” I said. “The sisters lied for you? Told Armsmaster you’d run off while keeping you inside.”
  3706.  
  3707. “How’d you figure it out?” She asked with a small smile.
  3708.  
  3709. “This order of nuns makes a habit of helping Wharf Rats,” I said. “I wouldn’t worry. I only noticed because of a coincidence, and if anyone else figured it out and wanted to act they’d have done something already.”
  3710.  
  3711. The tension in her arms stayed, coiled and ready to strike. Not like Hookwolf and Sophia, but not dissimilar either. A similar air hung around her. Made me a little uncomfortable, but Dinah said she could be trusted if I won her over.
  3712.  
  3713. “Cool robot,” she said.
  3714.  
  3715. “Its name is Gundam.”
  3716.  
  3717. “Neat. What do you want?”
  3718.  
  3719. “To ask you a question or two.”
  3720.  
  3721. “Questions like what?”
  3722.  
  3723. “Why did you put on a mask and beat up bad parents?”
  3724.  
  3725. She shrugged in response.
  3726.  
  3727. “I never laid a finger on anyone,” she said. “If people have a habit of coming into unfortunate accidents in my presence, that’s hardly my fault.”
  3728.  
  3729. A threat? Probably, but a defensive one I thought. Far as I could tell, she’d lived most of her life in the abbey, sheltered by the sisters and protected ever after being outed as a cape. Even if she didn’t like the way they dressed, she probably wanted to protect them.
  3730.  
  3731. “And the reason they came to accidents?” I asked.
  3732.  
  3733. “I’m a fan of irony. People lording their power over others deserve a little karmic retribution.”
  3734.  
  3735. “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord,” the sister said with a stern look.
  3736.  
  3737. Laughter flinched and glanced back. “I didn’t mean it like that!”
  3738.  
  3739. “Then say what you mean,” the sister replied. “And what did I tell you about dressing like a whore?”
  3740.  
  3741. “You don’t have to say it like that…”
  3742.  
  3743. “What were you planning to do?” I asked, drawing her attention back to me. “Hide out for the rest of your life?”
  3744.  
  3745. Lafter turned.
  3746.  
  3747. “Hadn’t really thought about it,” she said. “Figured I’d just lay low for a while.”
  3748.  
  3749. “You’re aware I threatened to out anyone who goes after other capes in violation of the unwritten rules?”
  3750.  
  3751. “I heard about it.”
  3752.  
  3753. “You could try going back to your life. Try and be normal.”
  3754.  
  3755. She shrugged and waved one hand in the air. “Normal is boring.”
  3756.  
  3757. “You’re going to put your mask back on?”
  3758.  
  3759. “Maybe, maybe not. What does it matter to you?”
  3760.  
  3761. I watched her, thinking.
  3762.  
  3763. People like Martin Luther King, Ghandi, and Paul get all the credit. They deserve a lot to be fair. But history is rife with the corpses of dead dreamers and visionaries who sought to remake the world and failed. What set them apart? What allowed some to live on in metaphorical immortality while the rest became footnotes or tragedies.
  3764.  
  3765. Those that follow carry on the dreams left unfinished… The uncounted change the world as much as the men who get their faces carved into stone.
  3766.  
  3767. I couldn’t hide, afraid to trust, forever.
  3768.  
  3769. I needed to cast a long shadow.
  3770.  
  3771. A door behind me opened, a sister leading a small girl in a yellow and white body suit into the court yard. Her mask completely encompassed her head, brown hair sticking out the back in a single braid. Purple followed behind her, descending the sky above and staying just over her left shoulder.
  3772.  
  3773. I didn’t plan it out, but Dinah had excellent timing.
  3774.  
  3775. Lafter looked past me. “Friend of yours?”
  3776.  
  3777. “A partner,” I said. “Forecast.”
  3778.  
  3779. Dinah raised her head. She looked good in her costume, but I could see her shaking a little.
  3780.  
  3781. “Hi,” she said.
  3782.  
  3783. Lafter glanced between us. “You two are like, opposites. You know that?”
  3784.  
  3785. I glanced down at Dinah, and Dinah glanced up at me. I suppose, in a way. I’m tall for my age. Dinah’s short for hers. Blues and whites marked my costume, with a little black here and there. In comparison, Dinah sported yellow and white with a little gray. Not how I intended it, but things work out in odd ways sometimes.
  3786.  
  3787. “So, what, there’s three of you now?” Lafter asked.
  3788.  
  3789. “There have been three of us from the beginning,” Veda said.
  3790.  
  3791. Lafter glanced to Pink, the Haro still resting in the flower bed.
  3792.  
  3793. “Some kind of secret?” she asked
  3794.  
  3795. “I never said there were one, two, or any of us,” I said. “If people want to assume things, that’s hardly my fault. Though I admit, letting people make the wrong assumptions about me is something I’ve fostered. Gives me an advantage.”
  3796.  
  3797. “Why tell me?”
  3798.  
  3799. Her tone said she already knew the answer, and that she might need some convincing.
  3800.  
  3801. I hesitated.
  3802.  
  3803. Trust is hard for me.
  3804.  
  3805. People don’t get powers because they’re happy. There’s nothing wrong with being a bullied girl, but I’m more than that. I needed to be more than that. The world is bigger than my life’s issues.
  3806.  
  3807. “When you look around you, what do you think?” I asked.
  3808.  
  3809. “What do I think?” Lafter asked back.
  3810.  
  3811. “About the world? Are you satisfied with it?”
  3812.  
  3813. She frowned and cocked her head to one side.
  3814.  
  3815. “How about you skip to the point and tell me what you see?”
  3816.  
  3817. Silencing any doubt, I reached up and pulled my mask from my head.
  3818.  
  3819. Lafter’s eyes widened and blinked a few times as I did. The sisters around us, curiously, both looked away. Dinah remained still at my side, apparently unsurprised by my choice.
  3820.  
  3821. I looked Lafter in the eye.
  3822.  
  3823. “This world doesn’t care about people. Tyrants run this city, and others. And racists, and drug peddlers. The world allows it because the suffering of some is seen as preferable to losing the comfort of others. The people with the power to fix it are unwilling or don’t care to try. The heroes are a vanity project without substance. Hypocrites who tell the world it’s safe when they know it’s not. The weak get trampled on because they’re weak, and the strong think strength lets them do whatever they want.”
  3824.  
  3825. Lafter’s gaze narrowed.
  3826.  
  3827. My hands tightened at my sides.
  3828.  
  3829. The truth?
  3830.  
  3831. My voice hissed.
  3832.  
  3833. “I hate it.”
  3834.  
  3835. ***
  3836.  
  3837. I don’t know why this chapter was so hard. I just wasn’t satisfied with most of the early drafts I put together and kept rewriting it, mostly the conversation between Piggot and Taylor.
  3838.  
  3839. Getting the tone right on that one was hard, especially because Ramius wanted to protect Taylor and Armsmaster is Armsmaster. Piggot’s comments about why they’re not in the meeting come from this, as I realized quickly that there was no way for that conversation to remain civil with their presence. It always ended up spiraling out of control. Which is the real reason I cut them from the convo and wow did this become more managable after that XD
  3840.  
  3841. I’m happy with this version. Taylor and Piggot feeling each other out without outright saying it was fun to write, and I really liked the ending with Lafter. And yes. Lafter has Shamrock’s power (more or less), and yes, she will be a major character in Trailblazer because 1) Lafter rocks, and 2) girl didn’t deserve to go down like that damnit!
  3842.  
  3843. Easter Eggs
  3844.  
  3845.  
  3846. Stuff
  3847.  
  3848.  
  3849. Next update should be a double. Side-Step SR, a villain oriented Interlude from Lisa's perspective, and Side-Step L to see where Uber and Leet have been this whole time.
  3850.  
  3851.  
  3852. One big Side-Step, and then one little Side-Step. The first should set up Arc 5 nicely, and the other… is for other things later down the line.
  3853.  
  3854. Side-Step SR
  3855.  
  3856. Lisa jotted her order down and passed the pad to the waitress. The girl gave Cherie a nasty look, but the little psychopath just blew her a kiss.
  3857.  
  3858. “What did you do to her?” Brian, Grue, asked as the deaf girl walked away.
  3859.  
  3860. Sovereign, Cherie, laced on the Quebecois accent and asked, “You just assume I did something?”
  3861.  
  3862. “Don’t be an assumer Grue,” Lisa said with a grin.
  3863.  
  3864. The boy sighed, while Bitch maintained her silence. Judas and Angelica sat on either side of their master, Brutus on the floor under the table. Made things a little cramped, but oh well. Brian wanted to leave the dogs behind, but Bitch refused to come without them. She didn’t get social etiquette, but for once Lisa agreed.
  3865.  
  3866. Lung didn’t give a shit about rules if they got in his way.
  3867.  
  3868. He probably wouldn’t attack them right in the middle of Somner’s Rock, but Lisa didn’t put it past the dragon of Brockton to punch them out the door.
  3869.  
  3870. And like hell Lisa intended to die in such a downer of an establishment. The kind of shop you completely judge by the cover and feel unashamed for doing so. Somner’s Rock in a nutshell. Stained wooden floors, drab green curtains and clothes, and honestly? Who uses old time antique light bulbs anymore?
  3871.  
  3872. Lisa felt certain that was on purpose, like the deaf owners wanted to stick everyone a middle finger or something.
  3873.  
  3874. A group of tables occupied the center of the room. Not how they normally arranged it, given the scuff marks on the floor.
  3875.  
  3876. “So, where is everyone?” Cherie asked.
  3877.  
  3878. “We got here early,” Lisa answered.
  3879.  
  3880. “Why?”
  3881.  
  3882. Because the boss told us too. “Because punctuality is the first step toward success, sweetie.”
  3883.  
  3884. Cherie kept up the flawless smile, but Lisa’s power tracked the subtle contraction of her facial muscles. So easy to mess with for someone so proud of her ability to mess with others.
  3885.  
  3886. Lisa shrugged. “Don’t worry. Company should be arriving…”
  3887.  
  3888. She raised her hand and pointed to the door.
  3889.  
  3890. Nothing.
  3891.  
  3892. “Well,” Lisa mumbled. “That’s less dramatic than I wanted.”
  3893.  
  3894. Cherie chuckled, and the waitress returned with their drinks.
  3895.  
  3896. Two identical boys worked behind the bar, cleaning glasses and such. Siblings, Lisa decided. Older than the girl but related.
  3897.  
  3898. No business, her power told her. The gangs ensure the bar remains open.
  3899.  
  3900. Lisa clamped down on her power. So easy to lose track of it by accident, and she needed every squeeze out of that lemon today.
  3901.  
  3902. Kaiser entered as she organized her thoughts. The Valkyrie twins followed right behind him on either side. Guess he liked arm candy. Krieg, Stormtiger, Cricket, and Hookwolf brought up the rear.
  3903.  
  3904. Brought almost his entire remaining team.
  3905.  
  3906. Lisa didn’t need her power to know a show of force when she saw it.
  3907.  
  3908. Kaiser took a seat at the end of the table, his people moving to occupy a pair of booths close to the door. The king in iron gave the Undersiders a momentary glance, but said nothing. Lisa figured most people knew Grue’s skin color favored a darker tone for a long time. He didn’t always wear full motorcycle leathers after all. People in the business got wind of such things rules or not.
  3909.  
  3910. But having it out in the open?
  3911.  
  3912. Awkward.
  3913.  
  3914. Faultline arrived next. Lisa tried not to show her double take at that revelation. She brought most of her crew with her too, minus Labyrinth. Probably not one of the poor girl’s good days. Honestly, if Faultline really wanted to help she’d never have taken her out of the hands of professionals.
  3915.  
  3916. Gregor and Newter took up positions by the bar with Spitfire, while Faultline took a seat to Kaiser’s left.
  3917.  
  3918. Of course, the smug bitch walked past their table and gave Lisa a nasty look from behind her welder’s mask.
  3919.  
  3920. “Back in town already?” Lisa asked.
  3921.  
  3922. “Everyone knows better than to test me and mine,” Faultline replied. “For more than one reason now.”
  3923.  
  3924. Appreciates Newtype trying to help.
  3925.  
  3926. Lisa watched the woman go, wondering why she’d come then. Even without it being said, everyone in the Bay who knew about the meeting needed moronic abilities to not know what it was about.
  3927.  
  3928. Would Faultline take a contract on Newtype, even if she appreciated her?
  3929.  
  3930. Cherie grinned behind her mask. “Making friends Tattle?”
  3931.  
  3932. “Always,” Lisa replied.
  3933.  
  3934. “What did you do to her?”
  3935.  
  3936. “You just assume I did something?”
  3937.  
  3938. Honestly. What is it with Brockton Bay capes and being unable to let things go? First Faultline, now Newtype. At the rate Lisa accrued vindictive haters, she’d never get to retire.
  3939.  
  3940. “Don’t start anything,” Grue said. “We don’t need any more problems.”
  3941.  
  3942. Worried about Aisha.
  3943.  
  3944. Lisa momentarily questioned her power’s deductive reasoning at that startling revelation.
  3945.  
  3946. “You’re back in the city,” Kaiser asked.
  3947.  
  3948. “Is that a problem?” Faultline asked back.
  3949.  
  3950. “No. We’re all professionals. Teacher’s little game is unfortunate, but it wouldn’t be proper to let it get in the way of how things are supposed to work.”
  3951.  
  3952. Faultline grunted and kept her face forward.
  3953.  
  3954. The doors opened again.
  3955.  
  3956. Lung.
  3957.  
  3958. Lisa felt a small chill go up her spine. She let the tight grip on her power slip slightly. The steady flow entered her mind. Thoughts not her, but that sounded distinctly like her.
  3959.  
  3960. Wants to kill you. Won’t. For now.
  3961.  
  3962. How reassuring.
  3963.  
  3964. Bakuda followed the massive wall of a man who put a nail in the coffin of the tiny Asian stereotype. She glanced around, keeping in the dragon’s shadow all the way across the room.
  3965.  
  3966. She hid her nervousness well, very well.
  3967.  
  3968. Lung took a seat at the end of the table opposite Kaiser. Bakuda moving toward the bar and setting herself atop a stool. Spitfire said hello. Bakuda said to fuck off.
  3969.  
  3970. Doesn’t respect Lung. Scared shitless by Lung.
  3971.  
  3972. Well… Lisa could have guessed that. She glanced to Lung, the large Asian man leaning his seat back and lifting his feet onto the table.
  3973.  
  3974. Knows you’re watching.
  3975.  
  3976.  
  3977. Lisa used the opening door as an excuse to look away.
  3978.  
  3979. No chills this time, just general revulsion.
  3980.  
  3981. Coil walked in alone.
  3982.  
  3983. Or rather, the man wearing Coil’s costume walked in alone.
  3984.  
  3985. He fit the real deal though. Tall, skeletal thin, and hunched forward with a willowy walk. Of course, the man didn’t have the balls to show up himself. Not part of the plan.
  3986.  
  3987. Fake Coil took a seat between Faultline and Lung, hands folded together in front of him.
  3988.  
  3989. Grue rose, saying, “I’m going to go before all the seats are taken.”
  3990.  
  3991. He crossed the room and took a seat on the right side of the table, equally distant from Kaiser and Lung. Lisa didn’t envy Brian in the moment. On his left, the head Nazi who probably deserved at least a little blame – Rune’s efforts be damned – for what happened to his sister. On the right, the angry dragon man who wanted him dead.
  3992.  
  3993. And then Circus showed up.
  3994.  
  3995. Curious. Wants to know what will happen.
  3996.  
  3997. Surprising. Circus kept a low profile. He – she? - liked avoiding the spotlight. A good plan for a solo villain in a place like Brockton Bay.
  3998.  
  3999. Skidmark barged through the door last, in full regalia. He wore a disgusting costume, and a really stupid shit eater grin on his face. Mush and Squealer followed him inside. No sign of Whirlygig or Trainwreck. Well… the latter probably didn’t fit through the door and the former simply wasn’t very threatening.
  4000.  
  4001. Not worth inviting to the party apparently.
  4002.  
  4003. Kaiser turned his head as the Merchant leader strutted across the floor and took a seat.
  4004.  
  4005. Lung chuckled.
  4006.  
  4007. “Not going to say anything, majesty?” He asked.
  4008.  
  4009. Kaiser folded his hands together. “No fighting. It’s the rules.”
  4010.  
  4011. Lung cocked his head to one side, the metal dragon mask not quite enough to hide the grin on his face.
  4012.  
  4013. Poor Kaiser. He didn’t have much choice but to bend over and think of England on this one. Lisa would almost pity him if his life mission didn’t include giving all blondes a bad name.
  4014.  
  4015. But that seemed to be all the players. Only villain in the city not present was Chariot, and honestly, did he even count?
  4016.  
  4017. Lisa let her power slip a little more. She’d probably be laid up the rest of the day with a headache, but what the boss wants the boss gets. In this case, the boss wanted to know what the rest of Brockton Bay’s finest planned to, and of course he expected her to piece it together.
  4018.  
  4019. And because life hated her, the door opened again.
  4020.  
  4021. Everyone turned, except for Lung. He conveniently took the seat that let him watch the entire room without “looking.”
  4022.  
  4023. The man looked bizarrely unassuming in the current crowd. More soldier than cape, with a bullet proof vest, lots of pouches, dark bronzed skin, and a mane of red hair and matching goatee. He wore a domino mask, but it didn’t hide his face very well. Too thin. Anyone who really went lookin-
  4024.  
  4025. Can kill everyone in the room.
  4026.  
  4027. ...
  4028.  
  4029. What?
  4030.  
  4031. “You lost?”
  4032.  
  4033. Hookwolf stalked forward from the little gathering of Nazis.
  4034.  
  4035. Not lost.
  4036.  
  4037. “I heard there was a get together,” the man said with a small smile. Lisa glanced to Fake Coil, but got nothing. “Thought I’d drop by. Take in the local scene.”
  4038.  
  4039. “You’re a cape?” Faultline asked, obviously not entirely convi-
  4040.  
  4041. Lisa stiffened.
  4042.  
  4043. “I have a costume, don’t I?” He smiled and pointed at himself. “I’m not interrupting, right? I heard everyone was welcome and thought I’d drop by and say hello.”
  4044.  
  4045. “And you’re in the city for what?” Kaiser asked.
  4046.  
  4047. “Just working a job,” the man said. He stepped forward and found a seat next to Grue. “Nothing that should affect any of you.”
  4048.  
  4049. Lisa pulled her phone from her pocket, keeping it off to the side where no else could see it. No one but Bitch, but Bitch didn’t care.
  4050.  
  4051. “Then why bother coming?” Grue asked.
  4052.  
  4053. “I like meeting new potential employers.”
  4054.  
  4055. “A merc?” Faultline asked.
  4056.  
  4057. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to step on your turf. I only work a certain kind of job.”
  4058.  
  4059. Lisa scowled and slipped her phone back into her pocket.
  4060.  
  4061. Fuck.
  4062.  
  4063. “And your name?” Fake Coil asked.
  4064.  
  4065. “Don’t really use one. Fame is a liability, but since it would be rude not to give one, let’s go with… Arche.”
  4066.  
  4067. “Arche?” Kaiser asked.
  4068.  
  4069. “It’s German! I figured the current crowd would appreciate it!”
  4070.  
  4071. Friendliness is a facade. Has killed capes.
  4072.  
  4073. The man turned his eyes on Kaiser. “So… is this just an annual get together? I’ve never been to one of these before.”
  4074.  
  4075. Enjoys killing capes.
  4076.  
  4077. Kaiser regarded the man for a moment, assessing how useful he might be.
  4078.  
  4079. “We all know why we’re here,” the self-declared Nazi emperor said.
  4080.  
  4081. Kaiser looked around the room. Lisa didn’t need her power to know what he wanted. Such a woefully transparent ploy, Lisa wondered how the other white power nuts didn’t see it.
  4082.  
  4083. “Newtype,” Fake Coil said, because Kaiser would never be the first one to utter the name aloud.
  4084.  
  4085. He already walked a tight rope. If he didn’t play his hand carefully, people might see the cracks in the great white king’s crown.
  4086.  
  4087. “She’s becoming a problem,” Kaiser answered.
  4088.  
  4089. “A problem for you maybe,” Skidmark said. “Beat your scrawny asses good all fucking week.”
  4090.  
  4091. “She attacks me because I’m strong,” Kaiser said. “She’ll turn her eyes to the rest of you now that she thinks she’s delivered a significant blow.”
  4092.  
  4093. Blow is significant. Alabaster and Victor are important to how the Empire engages other cape groups.
  4094.  
  4095. Of course.
  4096.  
  4097. Alabaster didn’t die. It might not seem lethal, but when faced with a brute who doesn’t die you can only respond in two ways. Pin him down or ignore him. The former meant tying capes up in a stalemate. The latter meant leaving someone running around with guns and knives who could kill any cape short a brute rating.
  4098.  
  4099. And Victor gave the Empire something no other gang had.
  4100.  
  4101. A ready-made assassin able to kill in ways indistinguishable from a typical person. Oni Lee might be just as capable in practice, but everyone knew when Oni Lee killed someone. Victor committed a dozen or so major murders over the years and Lisa doubted the police attributed most of them to him.
  4102.  
  4103. Newtype didn’t take them out because they were easy.
  4104.  
  4105. She took them out because it hurt the Empire more than anyone else realized.
  4106.  
  4107. “She’ll turn her attention elsewhere now,” Kaiser continued. “If we let her keep running rampant, we’ll all suffer. Profits are already down, and not just mine.”
  4108.  
  4109. Lung grunted.
  4110.  
  4111. Not afraid of Newtype. Knows she can’t beat him. Knows he can’t catch her. Finds the current situation annoying.
  4112.  
  4113. “She’ll try,” the dragon said.
  4114.  
  4115. Bakuda flinched, and Lisa’s brow went up.
  4116.  
  4117. Met Newtype. Respects he- Respects her?
  4118.  
  4119. How did the bomb thinker and a seven-foot suit manage to cross paths without everyone knowing about it? Especially with the massively overinflated sense of self-importance and the sheer narcissism…
  4120.  
  4121. “Does Oni Lee share that opinion?” Fake Coil asked.
  4122.  
  4123. Grue visibly tensed at the table.
  4124.  
  4125. “I don’t ask such things,” Lung said.
  4126.  
  4127. A good cover. Lisa gave him that. Lung didn’t run the ABB by being a complete idiot, and everyone assumed Lee got hurt. The masked bomber remained sight unseen ever since their encounter. No way to deny it, so just play it like he didn’t care.
  4128.  
  4129. “She’s attacking all of us,” Kaiser said. “No hero has been this aggressive since before most of you even arrived.”
  4130.  
  4131. “Wonder why,” Lung mumbled.
  4132.  
  4133. “If we don’t do something she’ll grow,” Kaiser continued. “How long until she builds more suits? More robots? She’s recruited at least one other cape we know of, and there’s a third we don’t know about.”
  4134.  
  4135. “A third?” Fake Coil asked.
  4136.  
  4137. “She’s too capable,” Faultline said. “She can’t be any older than Labyrinth, but she’s planning operations with carefully hidden multi-pronged attacks, diversions and feints. She’s either the second coming of Scipio, or someone’s giving her advice.”
  4138.  
  4139. “Or she’s merely the front for a team that’s more ambitious than we’ve appreciated,” Kaiser said.
  4140.  
  4141. No one debated the point. Lisa turned an eye on Faultline for a moment. The woman’s presence still surprised her. Her power didn’t offer much though. Curiosity, like Circus, but something deeper.
  4142.  
  4143. “Newtype?” Arche tilted his head to one side. “The robot girl?”
  4144.  
  4145. “Mostly it’s the suit,” Fake Coil said.
  4146.  
  4147. Kaiser nodded.
  4148.  
  4149. “I’d wager its on par with anything built by Hero or Dragon,” he said. “I’m surprised the PRT hasn’t snatched her up.”
  4150.  
  4151. “Or they tried and that’s why she hates them so much,” Fake Coil offered.
  4152.  
  4153. “Hates them?” Bakuda asked from the bar. “Isn’t that just the internet?”
  4154.  
  4155. “No,” Lisa said from her booth. “She definitely hates them. Not sure why, but she hates them even more than she hates me, and she really fucking hates me.”
  4156.  
  4157. “Making friends I see,” Faultline said.
  4158.  
  4159. “Love you too sweetie.”
  4160.  
  4161. Lisa watched Bakuda carefully. Her face was hidden, but her body language?
  4162.  
  4163. Respects Newtype even more. Has grudge against the PRT.
  4164.  
  4165. An attempt to strong arm her probably. Maybe a threat of bird caging. The closest tinker to compare Bakuda to was String Theory, and String Theory didn’t end well.
  4166.  
  4167. “Except for the time limit,” Fake Coil said, changing gears completely. “A smart tinker would have foregone a degree of performance for better efficiency. The girl is rash.” He turned his head to Kaiser. “You’re blowing things out of proportion.”
  4168.  
  4169. “How long until she solves that problem?” Kaiser asked. “She’ll build more robots. More suits. She doesn’t need to recruit more capes. She’s an army waiting to happen.”
  4170.  
  4171. Fake Coil tilted his head just ever so slightly.
  4172.  
  4173. “Maybe,” he said. “Or she’s already at the limit of her ability. She doesn’t steal our money. She burns it. She seems to have some quarrel with the PRT and Protectorate, so she isn’t joining the Wards. Building an army of robots takes resources she can’t gain.”
  4174.  
  4175. Knows that’s a lie.
  4176.  
  4177. “Our money? She’s barely touched you,” Kaiser said.
  4178.  
  4179. “I’m careful with my operations,” Fake Coil replied. “I don’t let anyone access the internet on the job, or post on social media about the black man they beat up last week.”
  4180.  
  4181. Kaiser withheld a stronger response. “Meaning?”
  4182.  
  4183. “StarGazer,” Fake Coil said. “You all wonder how she keeps managing these attacks? It’s not experience. She’s a child, who happens to know another child, who is a computer cape. Tinker or thinker is irrelevant. We all know StarGazer does something with electronics.”
  4184.  
  4185. “She’s hacking you,” he said. “All of you, the Empire most of all because you maintain all your social media profiles for propaganda purposes.”
  4186.  
  4187. “She knows things we don’t put out on the internet,” Kaiser said.
  4188.  
  4189. “Things that aren’t on your computers? Your phones?”
  4190.  
  4191. Guessing.
  4192.  
  4193. Fake Coil shook his head.
  4194.  
  4195. “We may band together to deal with mutual crisis, but I see no mutual crisis here. She’s beating you, and that isn’t our problem.”
  4196.  
  4197. Kaiser tensed, but Lisa kept her eyes on Fake Coil. Harder to figure things out without seeing the man himself. Thinking on his words…
  4198.  
  4199. Wants to use Newtype. Knows he can push her aside.
  4200.  
  4201. Knows? How would he manage that?
  4202.  
  4203. “Skinny got a point,” Skidmark says. “I’m just peachy. Torching a lab or two don’t do jack shit to me, fuck, at this rate I’m going be doing more business than ever.”
  4204.  
  4205. Kaiser tensed. “Don’t get ahead of yourself filth.”
  4206.  
  4207. “Don’t fall behind me your majesty.”
  4208.  
  4209. From the reputation, Lisa expected more cursing. No. He certainly cursed more when alone. Like, a shit ton more. Skidmark didn’t behave this way around the Merchants.
  4210.  
  4211. Isn’t getting hurt too much. Operations are purposefully disorganized. Newtype struggles to keep track of his guns and drugs.
  4212.  
  4213. Huh. Coil might be onto something... And Skidmark actually had a brain in that head. Disorganized chaos as an actual management strategy. Inventive for someone running a gang of addicts and losers too high or too dim for anything more formal.
  4214.  
  4215. “She’s running circles around you racist fucks,” Skidmark said. “And you come running to us begging for help. And you’re begging. Only reason I brought my ass down into this shit hole bar!”
  4216.  
  4217. Wants to take advantage of the situation. Thinks the Empire is vulnerable.
  4218.  
  4219. Kaiser gripped the edge of the table with one hand. “Keep talking and I’ll-”
  4220.  
  4221. “Fighting is against the rules,” Lung said.
  4222.  
  4223. Kaiser snarled.
  4224.  
  4225. “You are the one begging,” the dragon said. “Quite the master race.”
  4226.  
  4227. That got the other Nazis going. Hookwolf muttered something about a “damn Jew” but Lisa knew Newtype wasn’t Jewish. French-German descent, actually. Irony.
  4228.  
  4229. “Why not just kill her?” Arche asked. “I find it solves most problems.”
  4230.  
  4231. Faultline crossed her arms.
  4232.  
  4233. Ah.
  4234.  
  4235. Will warn Newtype if the gangs go after her. Wants to repay her for threatening to enforce the unwritten rules.
  4236.  
  4237. “Perhaps you haven’t heard,” Fake Coil said. “Newtype recently made it clear she both has the ability, and at least insists she has the will, to out any villain who violates the unwritten rules.”
  4238.  
  4239. “And that’s a problem for killing her how?”
  4240.  
  4241. “StarGazer will follow through on the threat even if Newtype is dead.”
  4242.  
  4243. “So, kill them both.”
  4244.  
  4245. “No one has ever seen StarGazer, and frankly, anyone capable of gathering that kind of information in the mere months they’ve been active is probably smart enough to build a dead man’s switch.”
  4246.  
  4247. “Huh.” Arche shrugged. “Things are so much easier when killing is a viable option.”
  4248.  
  4249. “She’ll die,” Lung said. “But only because it is her fate. Not because you,” - he turned his mask toward Kaiser - “have begged for it.”
  4250.  
  4251. “This is becoming insulting,” Kaiser said. “Are you all so blind you do not see what is happening? She’s hemming us in. All of us, like a hunter. She’s only going to get stronger. She’s a tinker.”
  4252.  
  4253. “She’s a child,” Lung said. He removed his feet from the table and rose. “Bakuda. We are leaving.”
  4254.  
  4255. The girl hopped off her bar stool and quickly fell in behind Lung’s shadow. The dragon looked back just once, glaring at Grue.
  4256.  
  4257. “I have not forgotten,” he said.
  4258.  
  4259. Fuck.
  4260.  
  4261. “I won’t be taking any contracts on Newtype,” Faultline said. “Bad manners, and I’m not a hitwoman.” She cast her gaze on Arche. His “business” suddenly seemed rather timed, Lisa thought. Faultline thought so too. “Mostly, I want to be certain no one is going to be rude and crash into my newly renovated kitchen.”
  4262.  
  4263. “I think you’ll be fine Ms. Fitts,” Fake Coil said.
  4264.  
  4265. A few watchers glanced to Faultline, but the woman remained composed.
  4266.  
  4267. “It is what it is,” Fake Coil said. “You’ve always been honorable in your dealings. I think you’ll find it returned. Of course, if any outsiders show up and cause you any trouble… Well, given the current state of affairs it would be best if we managed any problems ourselves. Newtype threatening to do something is one thing. Watching her actually do it? There’s power in that. Far more than we want her to have.”
  4268.  
  4269. Faultline grunted and rose. Her team followed her out.
  4270.  
  4271. “Well, I guess this shit show is done with.” Skidmark rose from his chair. “Good luck, your majesty.”
  4272.  
  4273. Skidmark even gave an exaggerated bow.
  4274.  
  4275. Only came to rub it in Kaiser’s face.
  4276.  
  4277. Circus left not long after.
  4278.  
  4279. “Just might be the shortest Rock meeting ever,” Fake Coil said.
  4280.  
  4281. “Cowards,” Kaiser snarled.
  4282.  
  4283. “Villains. Honestly, what did you expect?” Arche leaned back in his seat, glancing to those left in the room. “Not what I expected. Brockton Bay has a reputation, even on my side of the pond.”
  4284.  
  4285. “Sweden, right?”
  4286.  
  4287. Grue turned, as did everyone else.
  4288.  
  4289. Lisa watched their reactions carefully. She felt the splitting headache on the edges of her skull, but…
  4290.  
  4291. “It’s where you’re from isn’t it?”
  4292.  
  4293. Arche grinned. “No. Though, I’ve been in and out for a few years.”
  4294.  
  4295. “Mercs have turned some parts into a paradise for themselves. No pesky governments to bother you. Well, except the Sanc Kingdom, but they’re just a small city state with a popular celebrity for a leader. Not a real administration.”
  4296.  
  4297. “It is convenient.”
  4298.  
  4299. Lisa turned away, looking as casually as she could manage. She might need to do something about that. Question was, how to do it without that monster looking her way.
  4300.  
  4301. Kaiser rose from his seat.
  4302.  
  4303. No point in staying. He’d have to solve his Newtype problem alon-
  4304.  
  4305. “So soon?” Fake Coil asked. “Surely the mighty emperor isn’t giving up that easily.”
  4306.  
  4307. Kaiser stared. Fake Coil folded his hands together.
  4308.  
  4309. Kaise’s eyes narrowed inside his helmet. “I’m told I’m overreacting.”
  4310.  
  4311. “You’re not,” Fake Coil said. “But Lung and Skidmark don’t care. They want to find ways to turn this into advantage. They’ll keep thinking that way until Newtype turns more attention on them.”
  4312.  
  4313. “And you?”
  4314.  
  4315. “Thinking of ways to turn this to my advantage, naturally.” Fake Coil pulled it off brilliantly, raising his head slightly and leaning back in his chair. “But my advantage, is not necessarily your disadvantage. We are not playing a zero-sum game. It’s something I doubt a brute or whatever Skidmark is will understand… but you and I?”
  4316.  
  4317. Kaiser grunted.
  4318.  
  4319. “Contrary to popular belief, I am not here to beg. If the villains of this city will not act to deal with this child before she becomes far too big to be effectively handled, then I’ll do it myself.”
  4320.  
  4321. Intends to listen to Coil, but not in front of his cronies.
  4322.  
  4323. “Of course,” Fake Coil said. “And I find myself less than interested in tussling with the little idealist, but I’m a businessman. I’m always open to negotiation.”
  4324.  
  4325. Biggest lie Lisa ever heard.
  4326.  
  4327. Grue’s chair slid back. “If it has nothing to do with us,” he said, “I don’t want to be accused of breaking any rules.”
  4328.  
  4329. “That’s fine,” Fake Coil said. “I think the original purpose of this meeting is well past.”
  4330.  
  4331. Smart move, though Lisa’s curiosity forced her to peak. Her head started to sting, but she needed to use a little more power juice when Coil wasn’t actually in the room.
  4332.  
  4333. Wants to come to an arrangement with Kaiser. Snake into his operations. Gain leverage that could destroy him, or help Newtype do it.
  4334.  
  4335. Clever.
  4336.  
  4337. Kaiser might fall for it too. He liked power, and lording it over the others. The wealth didn’t hurt either.
  4338.  
  4339. In any case, calling Kaiser a Nazi is like calling a zebra a horse. The similarities don’t go that deep.
  4340.  
  4341. Lisa thought that made him even more despicable. At least Krieg and Hookwolf did the shit they did because they actually believed in it.
  4342.  
  4343. Kaiser didn’t believe in anything.
  4344.  
  4345. But, mission accomplished. Coil got to watch it all though a camera in his double’s mask, and Lisa would give him more whenever he decided to call.
  4346.  
  4347. That’s how it worked.
  4348.  
  4349. She rose, stepping aside as Bitch ushered her dogs out. Hookwolf gave her a nasty look, but the girl either didn’t notice or didn’t care. Cherie followed, and Lisa joined Grue just behind the table.
  4350.  
  4351. “What’s your name?”
  4352.  
  4353. Lisa turned to Arche, a fake smile covering her face.
  4354.  
  4355. “Tattletale.”
  4356.  
  4357. “Cute.”
  4358.  
  4359. “Thanks.”
  4360.  
  4361. Wants to kill you.
  4362.  
  4363. Lisa kept smiling.
  4364.  
  4365. Wants to kill everyone.
  4366.  
  4367. A sociopath.
  4368.  
  4369. A sociopath who loved killing capes in particular.
  4370.  
  4371. A sociopath who killed capes without any powers.
  4372.  
  4373. “We need to watch out for him,” Lisa said as soon as they made it to the end of the block and into the van. “He’s a psycho.”
  4374.  
  4375. “And you taunted him,” Cherie said.
  4376.  
  4377. “I’ll just have to stick close to you,” Lisa said. “You could see him coming from a mile away.”
  4378.  
  4379. Cherie chuckled.
  4380.