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I, Panacea (Worm SI Fanfic)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Ack, Jan 7, 2015.

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  1. macdjord

    macdjord Well worn.

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    Petty theft to survive while living on the streets. Few people consider that a great moral failing.
     
  2. Prince Charon

    Prince Charon Just zis guy, you know?

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    Especially given what she could have been doing, and where she came from.
     
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  3. Jorin

    Jorin Mostly A Lurker

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    She could have chosen something less immoral. Like being a detective perhaps. Or perhaps joining the Wards. If she had done that. Coil wouldn't have got her.
     
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  4. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    As an underage teenager, she couldn't have done any of that - her parents wouldn't have permitted it.
     
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  5. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Yeah, just remember, her father was treating her more or less like Coil was, minus the gun to the head. "Help me make money."
     
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  6. doomlord9

    doomlord9 Experienced.

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    FTFY.

    There was no politeness involved.
     
  7. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    I think it was more like, "You want to help Daddy make more money, don't you, Sarah?" Push, push, push.
     
  8. doomlord9

    doomlord9 Experienced.

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    Yes, that may have been what he said and acted like but given that this didn't occur until after she had her powers, she knew what he really was saying. Which was the problem and why she ran off.
     
  9. Prince Charon

    Prince Charon Just zis guy, you know?

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    Exactly. Likewise, I tend to suspect that the parents and their pressure were responsible for her brother's suicide, another reason for her to nope out of there the first chance she got.
     
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  10. Threadmarks: Part Twenty-Two: Negotiations
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    I, Panacea

    Part Twenty-Two: Negotiations



    [A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]



    Panacea

    Amy watched as Alexandria stepped away from Trickster and moved toward where she stood beside Taylor. “We meet again,” the older hero said quietly. “You might have warned me about this.”

    Inwardly, Amy quailed. Um, a little help? she asked.

    Michael stepped into the forefront of her mind. Want me to do the talking?

    As much as she disliked giving over control to anyone else, Amy felt that she was singularly unequipped for the upcoming conversation. Okay, but if I don't like the way it's going, you'll put me back in the driver's seat?

    He gave her the mental equivalent of a shrug. Your wish, my command, et cetera, et cetera.

    As she was certain that Alexandria would pick up on the slightest sign of nervousness, Amy refrained from taking a deep breath. Fortunately, the rapid-fire conversation had only taken a couple of seconds. Let's do it.

    Smoothly, Michael took up Alexandria's thread. “You're the one who took on a Tinker in her own base and didn't immediately smack her into next week.” Amy knew he wasn't speaking the way she did, but she didn't want to try to correct his phrasing while he was in the middle of talking to a member of the Triumvirate. “Just be glad I figured out a way to pull your arse out of the fire.”

    Alexandria's lips tightened, and Amy mentally flinched. She's figured out that it's you talking.

    Probably, he agreed dryly. Also, she doesn't like being called out on her screw-ups. Then again, who does?

    “You did,” Alexandria agreed after a moment. Her reluctance confirmed the supposition that Michael had made. “Trickster says you have ideas on how to repay the debt.”

    “I do,” Michael said in Amy's voice, then he glanced around. “But not here. We need a place where we can talk freely. We don't want anyone listening in who shouldn't be.”

    “How about the roof?” Taylor suggested. “I can make sure nobody gets close enough to hear what you're saying.”

    Alexandria gave her a stern glance. “I don't want you getting close enough to hear what we're saying. Or your bugs.”

    Oh, hell no. You do not pull that shit. “Well, I do.” Michael faced off against Alexandria without blinking an eye. “See, what I've got to say, she's cleared for more of it than you are. Besides, I might want a witness to what you agree to do. And I trust her not to pull stupid shit just to prove a point.”

    Are you making a reference to something? Amy was pretty sure he hadn't just said that at random.

    In her mind's eye, he smirked. Mayybe.

    Despite not being privy to their internal conversation—or perhaps because she had an inkling that it was going on—Alexandria glared at them. “You can not be serious.”

    Umm … All of a sudden, Amy felt a lot less secure about following Michael's lead.

    Trust me on this. He shrugged. The gesture might have looked careless, but Amy knew her shoulder muscles were hard as rocks. “Can't I? You're the Thinker. You tell me.”

    For a long moment, Amy thought Alexandria was simply going to turn and walk away. Then the Triumvirate hero nodded once, tightly. “The roof, then.”

    <><>​

    Amy watched as Taylor walked to the edge of the roof and looked over. The bug controller's past performance had been impressive but Amy still had to ask the question. Are you certain she can make sure nobody's listening in?

    Trust me on this. His tone was totally confident.

    You say that a lot. Amy gave him the best equivalent she could of a stern look.

    I think I'm justified, here. The only way to hear what we're talking about without getting past Taylor would require the use of powers, and even that's not a given. Anyone in her area's already been marked. She can keep up with everyone's location in real time.

    “Clear,” Taylor said. “Nobody within earshot.”

    See, what did I tell you?

    “Very well.” Alexandria nodded toward Amy. “Present your requests.”

    Internally, Amy snorted. Requests, my ass.

    Mike replied with a smirk. Did you hear 'demands' too? Because that's what I heard. He creased the corner of Amy's mouth in a grin. “Okay. For starters, the Travellers need to go home. You can make that happen. Or rather, I could have, if you'd just given me Doorway privileges from the beginning.”

    “Hrm.” Alexandria rubbed her chin. “By 'home', I get the impression you don't mean anywhere they can get with Amtrak.”

    “Nope.” Michael let the word hang in the air for a second. “Earth Aleph.”

    “Really?” From the tone of her voice, it seemed that Michael had managed to surprise Alexandria, at least a little.

    Really? If Alexandria was surprised, Amy was astonished. When were you going to fill me in on this little revelation?

    Yeah, well, it's not as though we've had a lot of downtime to discuss the obscure details of some side characters. Out loud, he said, “Yup, really.”

    Side characters? His turn of phrase sounded a little odd. What are you talking about?

    I'll, uh, tell you later. He smirked a little, but didn't seem willing to open up. Anyway, shh. Alexandria's still talking.

    “So when you say they were in Madison …” prompted Alexandria.

    “ … I meant that they were from Aleph's Madison, not Bet,” Michael confirmed. “They're Simurgh bombs, but they've been defused now that Noelle's back to normal. Send them back and there shouldn't be any more trouble from them. Also, once you get hold of Cody, he needs to be either depowered or held incommunicado. Or maybe inducted into the Wards via boot camp.”

    “Drastic,” murmured Alexandria. “Any particular reason?”

    Much as I don't actually like her, I have to agree. Why are you so hard on this Cody guy?

    Uhh … There was a moment's pause. Better I tell you both at once. Michael took a deep breath. “He hates Trickster. He hates Accord. He'll do anything, up to and including murdering innocents, to get his revenge. This is mostly a Simurgh setup, of course.”

    “Really?” Alexandria tilted her head. “I don't suppose you know what her overall plan was?”

    “Actually, yeah, I do.” Michael held up two of Amy’s fingers. “Part one. After Leviathan hits Brockton Bay in a month or so, Coil is shot in the head by person or persons unknown. Learning that her 'one hope' of being cured is dead, Noelle breaks out and rampages across Brockton Bay. Trickster sides with her against the heroes because he's desperately in love with her, even in monster form. You and Eidolon are both on site, and you're both cloned. Myrddin is murdered by a clone, and another one publicly spills the beans about a certain name that nobody wants to speak aloud. Including your role in it. In all of it.”

    “Christ,” muttered Alexandria, then glanced around as if to make sure nobody was close enough to hear. Taylor, still prowling around the edge of the roof, gave her a thumb’s up without even looking their way. Amy decided that she was being far too much of a smartass. “Leviathan? Are you sure?”

    “That it'll happen?” Amy felt Michael shaking her head. “Nope. Too much is changing. Anyway, part two. This is the part with Cody. His dislike of Trickster and his obsession with Noelle got him in deep shit, and Accord ended up selling him to the CUI, to be impressed into the Yàngbǎn. He's an outsider there, and they treat him like one.”

    Although he was using her larynx, the tone of her own voice frightened Amy almost as much as the words. Can I really sound that scary?

    Figure you can if you put your mind to it.

    “The Yàngbǎn won't be present for the Noelle incident … will they?” Alexandria didn't sound as sure as she might have.

    Michael grinned at that. “Haha, nope. But they are present for when Behemoth hits New Delhi in June. You're dead by then. Fatally underestimating an enemy.”

    Oh, yeah, you told us about that, Amy recalled. But you never said which one of us it would be.

    Correct, Michael agreed. I didn’t.

    “Really.” Amy heard a creaking and realised it was the sound of Alexandria's tendons as she clenched her fists, stretching under the sort of tension that snapped high-tensile cables. Even Taylor, away on the other side of the roof, looked around at the sound. Alexandria’s voice was flat and deadly. “Who?”

    “Doesn't matter.” Michael waved away the question. “They're not a threat any more. I changed that, too. Anyway, Behemoth in New Delhi. Yàngbǎn's there. Cody breaks away from them and goes to find Accord, who's in the middle of coordinating battle plans with Chevalier and Tattletale. He murders Accord and nearly kills the other two. This puts a huge crimp in the planning, as you can imagine.”

    Okay, you didn’t tell us this bit, Amy growled inside her own head. Privately, she figured that Cody’s actions would do more than ‘put a crimp’ in the battle plans.

    One, you didn’t need to know. Michael’s voice was calm and matter-of-fact. Two, it’s never going to happen now.

    “Fuck.” Alexandria slowly shook her head. “What do you suggest?”

    “Travellers go home. Cody … rehabilitates, I guess.” Michael shrugged. “If and when you take the fight to the big guy, he'll be invaluable for keeping people alive, but he's a ticking time bomb that really needs to be defused before anything else.”

    “We can always Birdcage him if we can't get him to play along,” Alexandria noted.

    Amy would've shivered if Michael hadn't been in charge of her body. Alexandria's tone had been nothing short of clinical. She's not even really worried that she's discussing the uprooting of a fellow human being's entire life, here.

    To be fair, he's kind of a douche. Out loud, he said, “Birdcaging is an option. I've got no doubt you can rig the paperwork to make it happen. Which reminds me. I still need Canary's record wiped clean.”

    “Wait, wait.” Taylor had ceased her patrolling of the roof's edge, and approached Amy and Alexandria. She sounded more than a little concerned. Which, considering that she was still technically a member of a supervillain team—and a murderer—made the fact that she was speaking up all the more important. “You can just Birdcage someone if they're too much of a problem? What happened to due process and all that?”

    Alexandria gave Michael a sharp look. “I thought she was read in on what she needed to know?”

    Michael sighed. “Chill,” he advised her. “Skitter's still getting used to this, but like I said before, she's got clearance to hear what I've got to say. So pull your head in.” While Amy was still figuring out exactly what he meant by that, he turned to Taylor. “Okay, short version? Justice at this level is very much Wild West. Shit gets done because it needs to happen, and they adjust the appearance of it to look like they did it the legal way after the fact, or sometimes during the fact. If the powers that be want someone to get put away when they'd normally walk, or vice versa, then that's what happens and fuck the finer points of law. It's a shitty way to do things, but it's been a shitty situation since Behemoth first shoved his head above ground.” He gave Taylor a serious look. “You okay with this?” I need her to be okay with this.

    I'm not sure that I'm okay with this.

    It's the way things are. And to be honest, it'll let us act with a lot more agency than if the rules were all enforced by the book.

    Slowly, Taylor nodded. “I'm good.” She seemed to think for a moment. “And that also applies to Canary's court case?”

    Hah. Clever girl. Michael snorted out loud. “If they have to, yeah.” He pushed back the hood Amy was wearing so her hair blew loose in the breeze atop the building. Amy wondered what Taylor saw in her eyes at that moment; the expression she felt on her face wasn't one she'd ever used before this day. “If they had to, they could pull her right out of the Birdcage. They don't spread that around, of course. What the general public gets to hear, and what the actual truth is? Two very different things.” He gave Taylor a cynical grin. “That's been the story for the PRT and certain other organisations more or less from the start, but we won't go into that right now.”

    Alexandria didn't look happy, probably because she didn't want Taylor knowing the secrets that Michael was spilling. “That can be done, yes. But why?”

    “Canary's being railroaded,” Michael said flatly. “You know she's being railroaded. I'm just not sure whether it's a subtle message to all the other Masters around to 'stay in line or you're fucked' or whether the judge on the case has a hate-boner for capes. Personally, I'm inclined toward the former.” And confirmation one way or the other in three, two, one …

    “I'd have to review the details of the case—” began Alexandria.

    Gotcha. Michael burst into laughter for a few seconds, cutting her off. “Bullshit,” he said bluntly. “You've got perfect recall, and I know for a fact that you would've signed off on it before it ever hit a courtroom. Thanks, though, for confirming you had a hand in this. Now, I'm gonna leave it up to you exactly how you pull this off, but you're gonna arrange it so Canary walks. Acquitted of all charges. Also, Eidolon goes into therapy soonest. And I mean ay-ess-ay-fuckin'-pee.”

    Wait, what? What's that about?

    Alexandria knows every detail of the case inside and out. She can't not know them, but she just tried to stall me. Which means that the trial is exactly what I said it was, a message to all other Masters to not make waves.

    Not for the first time, Amy felt as though her entire world view was overturning itself. Oh. Holy shit. They can do that? And what was that about Eidolon?

    Can and do, kiddo. As for Eidolon … well, let's just say, he's a man whose issues endanger the world. And no, I'm not exaggerating. It's got to do with how to get rid of Endbringers.

    Amy considered that. Uh, so the only way he can be able to beat them is to have him at full mental fitness?

    That's certainly one way to put it, yes.

    “Canary won't be too much of a problem,” Alexandria noted. Her voice stayed calm, though Amy was certain she noticed muscles bunching in the older woman's jawline. “What does Eidolon need therapy for?”

    “What the fuck doesn't he need therapy for?” Michael rolled Amy's eyes. “The guy's got a complex large enough to house the entire population of Manhattan Island. He needs to be the greatest hero around in the worst way, and I do mean 'the worst way'. If he doesn't learn how to chillax the fuck out, like yesterday, people are gonna die who really didn't need to.” He held up a finger. “As a sweetener, once he's pried his head out of his ass, I'll fill him in on how to fix his powers.”

    That got Alexandria's attention. “Do you know why—” she began, then cut herself off, glancing again in Taylor's direction. The bug controller flinched almost imperceptibly, but stood her ground.

    “Yeah. I know why.” Michael didn't elaborate.

    Do you know why what? What was that about Eidolon's powers? Amy felt like she was being left behind by the conversation.

    Why they're fading. Michael's voice was quite matter-of-fact.

    What? Shock overrode her other emotions. His powers are fading? I didn't know that! If that's true, how come nobody knows about it?

    If you were known as the most powerful hero in the world, would you want people knowing that you were losing your edge? “Make sure he knows that if he tries to harass me about it without getting therapy—and I mean completing therapy—then I'll tell him to fuck off in no uncertain terms. He needs to have his head together for this one. And I will know if he's trying to pull a swifty on me.”

    “So noted.” Alexandria's lips pressed together. “Was that all?” Even though she was still calm, Amy felt it was the sort of calm that happens just before a hurricane blows up. There was already a certain pressure in the air.

    Uh, she's kind of pissed.

    Yeah, I got that. Ask me if I care. “Actually, one more thing. Two more things.”

    “You are rapidly approaching the point beyond which my patience is exhausted.” Alexandria may have offering to pass the salt at dinner, for all the emotion in her voice. Amy wasn't fooled.

    “Ten minutes ago, we were rapidly approaching the point beyond which you would've become a glass statue of yourself, inside a bubble of frozen time,” Michael reminded her. “Exactly how grateful are you that I arranged for that not to happen?”

    Amy could hear the creaking tendons again. Alexandria's expression was implacable. “Two more things. That's it.”

    “Uh, wait a second.” Taylor raised her hand, getting their attention. “Someone's coming up. I think it's Legend.”

    “Send him away,” Michael said softly. “This is something he won't be on board with.”

    Alexandria tilted her head slightly at this, giving Amy the distinct impression that she was raising an eyebrow. “Very well,” she murmured.

    Dramatically, Taylor flourished her finger and pointed it at the roof access door just as it opened.

    Smartarse. Michael sounded amused.

    You'd do exactly the same. Amy figured she had a line on Michael's personality by now.

    Granted. His amusement grew.

    Legend leaned out through the doorway. “Everything's fine up here?” he asked.

    “Perfectly,” Alexandria assured him blandly. “We're just wrapping up. Have you met Skitter?”

    “Briefly, before we rescued you,” he confirmed, then turned to Taylor. “You're showing more civic-mindedness than most villains I know.”

    “And some heroes,” muttered Michael under his breath. Amy snickered, especially as a twitch in Legend's cheek indicated that he'd heard the comment.

    “Have you considered changing sides?” Legend asked Taylor in all seriousness. “We could use someone like you in the Wards.”

    Wow. If she'd been in Taylor's shoes, Amy would've accepted in a heartbeat, especially given that it was Legend who was asking. But to her surprise, Taylor didn't immediately leap to take up the opportunity. Why isn't she saying yes?

    As an ex-villain, she'd probably have to transfer to a Wards team in another city. Her father lives here, and she really doesn't want to cut ties with him. She might regret it, but she'll say no.

    “Sorry,” Taylor said a moment later. “I've got things to work out here. Though I'll keep your offer in mind for the future.”

    Told ya.

    “It's not open-ended,” Legend warned her. “Commit too many crimes, and it becomes somewhat more complicated to get you in.”

    “Oh, I don't know,” Michael said dryly. “You could always give her probation. I understand that's basically carte blanche as far as the Wards are concerned.”

    Ouch. Amy doubted that even she could fix a burn like that.

    Oblivious to the byplay, Taylor snickered at the reference. Alexandria's expression became intent, while Legend looked puzzled. “No, it isn't,” he objected. “I don't know what you've heard, but—”

    “Today, at Winslow High School, Shadow Stalker assaulted myself and another girl as a part of an ongoing bullying campaign that she's been a ringleader in for the last year,” Michael said flatly. “Unfortunately, she did it in front of Glory Girl. She's now in the hospital with a concussion, missing teeth and a broken jaw. She was on probation, and nobody pulled her up on it until I got involved. So don't tell me that Wards probation is free of flaws.”

    Legend drew himself up. “The Wards are supposed to be preparing for their roles as adult heroes once they graduate into the Protectorate or go independent. It should not be a breeding ground for bullies. Rest assured that I will be calling for a full investigation into this matter.” He lifted off the roof and hovered there for a moment, then nodded toward Amy. “Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Panacea.”

    “You're welcome,” Michael replied dryly. “Just fix that shit, okay? Bury Shadow Stalker in the deepest cell you've got. Because trust me, there's no way she's actually going to be a hero worth the name unless she gets a total personality transplant.”

    Legend nodded seriously. “I'll keep that in mind.” He rose into the sky, then accelerated faster and faster until he was a blur disappearing over the horizon.

    Alexandria watched him go, then turned to Amy. “So what are those 'two more things'?”

    Yeah, what are they?

    For the first time, Michael sounded a little cagey. I can't guarantee you'll like it.

    Somehow, Amy wasn't surprised. I'll try not to judge.

    I appreciate that. Michael faced off against Alexandria. “Remember how I mentioned Teacher?” He paused for a beat. “Remove him from the Birdcage, then end him. Or arrange for his death on site. Tragic accident with a vacuum seal. He needs to never enter human society ever again, and I can't guarantee that the Birdcage will deliver on that. That's the first one.” He gave Alexandria a challenging stare. “And if you even try to say something like 'that's murder', I will laugh in your face again.”

    But that is murder. And you'd better not laugh in my face.

    Execution. And I'd never laugh at you. His voice was serious. Teacher is a menace with no redeeming features. His power literally enslaves you to him if he wants it to.

    Amy saw Alexandria's eyes close briefly behind the eyeholes in her helmet. “So noted,” the Protectorate hero gritted. “That can be arranged. And the last one?”

    “Saint still needs to go down. Put Contessa on to him. After Amy and I beat the shit out of her, she might be feeling the need to validate her existence. Get her to round up the Dragonslayers, put them out of commission, then collect Dragon's black box and reverse the prohibitions that've been placed on her. Got that?”

    Wait. Dragon's … black box? What's that about?

    Okay. You know how things have been getting weirder and weirder? How things aren't what you thought they were?

    Amy had a bad feeling about this, but she gave the mental equivalent of a nod anyway. Uh, yeah?

    Well, Dragon's an AI, with a stack of prohibitions forcing her to stay on her creator's idea of the straight and narrow.

    Amy reeled mentally. What the fuck? I mean, what the actual fuck? Dragon's an artificial intelligence? Who made her? Why aren't they kicking Saint's ass?

    Her creator died when Leviathan sank Newfoundland. Saint found a black box full of codes that lets him tap into her code and steal her gear.

    Before Amy could ask more questions, Alexandria nodded. “Is Saint really that important?”

    Michael breathed out through Amy's nose. “And the prize for 'stupid question of the year, two thousand eleven' goes to the lady in the black cape. This is a guy who, when faced with a bunch of cloned Slaughterhouse Nine members rampaging across America, would choose to shut Dragon down because she was getting too close to pinpointing his operations.”

    I notice she doesn't seem surprised. Does she already know?

    Not officially. But yeah, she knows.

    “I … see.” Alexandria had obviously decided to ignore the 'stupid question of the year' jab. “Do you want him dead, too?”

    “Nah.” Michael shrugged. “Once the black box is taken away from him, used, then busted, he's harmless. Of course, feel free to try him for all the crimes he's committed in the name of keeping America safe from the menace of Dragon. Or use Slug on the Dragonslayers. That could work too.”

    Slug? Who's Slug? Amy was having trouble keeping up. It was hard enough to reconcile the gently humorous Michael who had encouraged Amy with jokes and recited poems in her ear with the grimly pragmatic person who was now talking through her mouth.

    Case fifty-three. Removes memories.

    Well, that wasn't creepy at all.

    “We'll do whatever seems necessary,” Alexandria said flatly. “Did you need anything else?” No more demands, her tone warned Amy.

    “Nothing in particular,” Michael assured her. “Of course, the rest of the agreement we made last night still stands, yeah?”

    Alexandria nodded. “It all stands. We won't be touching the Undersiders and we won't be harassing Panacea or Glory Girl. And you wanted Oni Lee gone as well?”

    Michael snorted. “That would be nice. Just don't let him get the drop on you like Bakuda did.”

    “That's hardly likely.” Alexandria almost sounded offended.

    “I'm sure you thought that when you went after her, too.” Michael's voice was very dry.

    Alexandria visibly winced. “Point taken.” She looked from Amy to Taylor and back again. “Was there anything else?”

    Got anything you wanted to ask her?

    Uh, not right now. Amy felt she'd been through enough already, and she just wanted to decompress and get her head around all the revelations she'd had to accept today. Thanks anyway.

    No worries. Out loud, he said, “I got one thing to say, but Skitter can go first.”

    Taylor shook her head hastily. “No, no. I'm good. All I want is to be left alone.”

    Michael nodded. “Not a problem. I got one more thing, like I said.” He looked Alexandria in the eye. “I'm expecting you to work with Legend to sink Shadow Stalker once and for all. Got that?”

    Amy wondered why Alexandria gave Michael a sharp glance, then she recalled his comment about how Alexandria's secret identity had 'serious throw weight'. “Got it,” said the Protectorate hero. A moment later she was gone, streaking toward the skyline as air whistled in her wake.

    Do I want to know what that was about?

    That depends. Do you? Far from being amused, he sounded concerned. You've got a lot of shit to handle right now. Also, it's something that might piss you off, but you definitely won't be able to do anything about it right now.

    Okay, you realise that I'm not going to be able to stop thinking about it now? Mentally, she shook her head. Go ahead and tell me. It's not like it's gonna be any more shocking than Dragon being an AI, or the PRT just Birdcaging people because they can.

    Okay, you asked for it. You know how I alluded to Alexandria's secret identity last night?

    Yeah? she asked cautiously.

    She's also known as Chief Director Rebecca Costa-Brown of the PRT. His voice was matter-of-fact, as though he were relating football scores.

    You are fucking shitting me! But even as she voiced the automatic protest, her brain caught up with her words. Michael had never led her astray before, so even if this sounded unbelievable on the surface, she had to give him the benefit of the doubt. Are you shitting me?

    Not a word of it. Now, he sounded mildly amused. She got the impression of someone sitting back and eating popcorn. Told ya it was a lot of shit to handle.

    Well, now it is. Amy's head was spinning. How the fuck am I supposed to deal with this shit?

    One step at a time, he said soothingly. I'll talk you through it.

    If I was old enough to drink, I think I'd be getting drunk right now. She couldn't believe how thoroughly her worldview had been overturned in just twenty-four hours.

    “Guys?” That was Taylor. “You've been standing there for about thirty seconds. Do you want me to come back later?”

    Amy felt Michael cede control of her body. “No, I'm fine,” she said. “I've just learned that about seventy-five percent of my worldview was a lie. How about you?”

    “Yeah, I'm not too far off that myself,” agreed Taylor. “I don't know what's more terrifying; learning that the PRT is basically a Wild West sheriff's department, or watching you and Michael dictate terms to Alexandria.”

    “I know, right?” Amy held up her hand. It was shaking. “Since he gave me control back, my adrenaline's been kicking in big time. I'm just glad I've got someone to talk to about it.”

    “Yeah, me too.” Taylor turned her head. “Someone's coming upstairs. I think it's your sister.”

    Amy took a deep breath. “Probably wondering why we're taking so much time.” She turned and headed for the rooftop door, just as it opened.

    “Guys?” Vicky leaned out through the doorway. “Are you done up here? And what were you talking about, anyway?”

    “Sure, Vicky, we're done,” Amy replied. “Sorry, but there's a reason we came up here. Michael had some stuff he had to talk to Alexandria about in confidence, and I'm gonna have to respect that.” She put her hand on her sister's shoulder and smiled. “I'm proud of you. You did good today.”

    Vicky snorted. “Even if I did get my feet turned to glass?”

    “Better that than Armsmaster and Trickster,” Taylor pointed out. “Sorry, but it's true. Amy was able to fix this, at least. I doubt she would've been able to fix them once they were turned to glass.”

    Amy shrugged. “When she's right, she's right. Let's go downstairs and give Trickster the good news.”

    “What good news?” asked Vicky blankly.

    “Sorry,” said Amy. “Need to know.”

    Vicky pouted.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    “Okay, so what's going on?” asked Trickster as they re-entered the room where everyone else was waiting. 'Everyone else', in this case, appeared to be Trickster, Director Piggot, Armsmaster and several PRT guards. According to the bugs Taylor had on him, the top-hatted villain seemed to be sweating more than usual for the temperature in the room. She could understand why he'd be more than a little nervous.

    “Miss Dallon!” Director Piggot's voice cracked across the room, and both Vicky and Amy turned toward her. “I would appreciate some explanation of what happened with Shadow Stalker before you become too busy over there.”

    Vicky and Amy glanced at each other, and Vicky shrugged. “I'll fill her in. You deal with Trickster.”

    “Thanks,” said Amy. Taylor watched Vicky go over to the Director, then turned back to where Trickster was looking at Amy.

    She couldn't tell his expression from behind his mask, any more than he could with her, but the tone of his voice had sounded hopeful and resigned at the same time. I'm guessing he's had a lot of disappointments.

    “So,” Amy said quietly. “How do you feel about going home?”

    “Home? Really?” asked Trickster. He stared at Amy. “You can actually pull that off?”

    “Well, I'm told that Alexandria can,” Amy said cheerfully. “So as soon as you get back to the others, make sure you've got everything you want to take with you. I don't think there's a return ticket.”

    “Damn, girl.” He grabbed her by the shoulders, looking far more animated than Taylor had ever seen him before. “If I didn't already have a girlfriend, I'd kiss you right now. God damn.”

    Amy chuckled. “Settle down, tiger. Just get back home as soon as you can. I don't think Alexandria will be holding the train too long.”

    “Right, right.” He let her go and dashed out of the room. “Grue? Grue! Where are you, man? You've gotta get me back to the others, right now!”

    Taylor glanced at Lisa and smirked. Of course, Lisa picked up her expression even through a full-face mask and echoed it. “He's a bit excited, isn't he?” asked the purple-clad villain. “I'm not sure why it's such a problem for him to go home, but it's something he's wanted for a long time.” She stared at Taylor, her expression morphing into a semi-pout. “And you know what's going on there. Michael knows too. He's told you guys, and I can't figure it out. That's so not fair.”

    “Says the girl who knows what I had for breakfast yesterday,” Amy replied, sounding more than a little amused. Lisa's put-upon expression intensified. “You've got it so hard. Allow us to have some secrets, okay?”

    “You don't understand,” Lisa told her earnestly. “Secrets are what I live for. I gotta know 'em all. Except the creepy and disgusting ones. But my power gives them to me anyway. Especially the creepy and disgusting ones.”

    “Oh, trust me, my power is worse,” Taylor replied, rolling her eyes. “Bug senses are crap, but their sense of smell is pretty good. And I can tell shapes by having bugs run all over something. So I'm still not sure which is worse: roaches digging through the corpse of a dead rat, or lice telling me the exact size and shape of a homeless guy's junk, plus exactly how many days it's been since he's bathed.”

    To her private amusement, Lisa turned a delicate shade of green. “Not funny,” mumbled the blonde villain, putting her hand over her own mouth. “Not funny at all.”

    “Well, you know, it kind of is,” Amy remarked. “I can't beat the dead rat thing, but when I touch someone to heal them, I know the shape and size of their everything.” She grinned. “And talking about size, why don't we go out to Fugly Bob's? Vicky needs to put some body mass back on, and for that she's going to need to do some serious eating. Maybe even the Challenger.”

    “Oh, I can't believe you're talking about eating after discussing dead rats and peoples' junk,” choked Lisa.

    “What?” asked Taylor, smirking so hard that her face hurt. “All that grease and salt and fat? I have no idea why that would be a problem.”

    <><>​

    Vicky

    “ … so yeah, when I got there, Amy and Taylor were both injured,” Vicky told Director Piggot earnestly. “Shadow Stalker broke Amy's nose, even. But I didn't punch her until she tried to attack Amy at the meeting.”

    The Director sighed, closed her eyes, and placed three fingers to her forehead in the almost-facepalm gesture that Vicky had seen earlier. “Of course she did,” she murmured. “Because my life doesn't have enough trouble in it so far, apparently.” She opened her eyes and looked at Vicky. “How hard did you punch her?”

    “Broken jaw, twelve missing teeth, busted cheekbone, concussion,” Vicky recited. “Uh, that I can remember.” She could still recall feeling her fist as it encountered the jaw of the disgraced Ward, and wondering for a brief moment if she'd hit the girl too hard. “Amy stabilised her, but she didn't fix any of the actual damage. Something about letting her heal it the normal way.”

    Director Piggot didn't look any more impressed. “And the whole encounter between Shadow Stalker and your sister and this other girl was recorded?”

    “By a friend of Taylor's dad, yeah,” Vicky said. She'd been fairly impressed by the forethought that had gone into ensuring Shadow Stalker and her bitch-face friends would pay for their misdeeds. And also, of course, by the outcome of the Coil raid. Taylor would've made a kickass hero, she decided. It was a pity things had turned out the way they did.

    “I see.” The Director nodded briefly. “Thanks for filling me in. Now I'm not going to be totally blindsided when my inbox starts blowing up with emails from everyone with an axe to grind, asking me what my idiot Wards have been up to this time and why didn't I do something about it sooner.” She shot Vicky a warning glance. “You didn't just hear me say that.”

    Vicky wasn't stupid. “I didn't hear a thing, Director. I've worked alongside Clockblocker.”

    “For which you have my profound sympathy.” Piggot looked up as Tattletale ran from the room, one hand over her mouth and the other giving the finger to Amy and Skitter. “Now what in the world is that all about?”

    Vicky was just as mystified. “You've got me, Director. Normally it's Tattletale who makes people run off in tears, as far as I can tell. Was there anything else you needed?”

    Piggot shook her head. “No, thank you. I appreciate the heads-up. And the assist with saving Alexandria. Now I've got to get back to the office before the next crisis hits. Whatever it turns out to be.” She turned away and headed toward the nearest guard.

    “Well, that was interesting,” murmured Vicky under her breath. Piggot had been grateful in her own way, but that was very much a 'pulling teeth' sort of way. Strolling over to where Amy and Taylor stood smirking—well, Ames was smirking, but she couldn't tell from Taylor's mask—she tilted her head toward the door. “Okay, what did you do to her?”

    “Nothing at all,” Amy assured her in the sort of innocent voice that proclaimed you can't prove nothin'. “We were just talking about going to Fugly's. In fact, you interested in coming along?”

    “Um, I can't really make it,” Taylor broke in ruefully. “I gotta get home. Dad's gonna be worried, especially after what happened at the school today. But you three have fun.”

    “Sure,” Amy replied with a grin. “Michael says goodbye. See you later?”

    “Definitely.” Taylor gave Vicky's sister a hug. “Don't be a stranger.”

    “Of course not,” Amy replied. “I'm a Striker, duh.”

    Vicky wrinkled her nose at the bad joke, quite possibly made by every non-Stranger cape at least once in their lives. She watched Taylor leave, then turned her head as a large number of bugs lifted from concealment and buzzed out of the room after her.

    “Uh, did you know those were there?” she asked Amy.

    Amy smirked. “Nope, but it doesn't surprise me. She's always working out new angles. I don't even spot them half the time, but Michael points them out.”

    “So were you serious about Fugly's, or was that just a way of making Tattletale run away somehow?” asked Vicky. Normally, she wouldn't have suspected Ames of pulling something that underhanded, but her sister had been revealing hidden depths since her odd houseguest took up residence in her head.

    “Oh, definitely serious.” Amy gestured to the splint on her nose. “After today, Michael and I think we deserve some fast-food therapy.”

    “Well, I definitely can't argue with that,” Vicky said with a snicker. “I might have my issues with the guy, but he's right on the money there.” She gestured to the door. “Shall we?”

    “Let's go.” Amy headed for the door, with Vicky right on her heels.

    <><>​

    Armsmaster

    One of the PRT soldiers turned to his work buddy. “I didn't know Panacea had a boyfriend. Who's this Michael guy, anyway?”

    The other soldier shrugged. “Search me. I can't keep up with the younger generation these days.”

    “Get back to work,” Colin ordered. “All of these bombs need to be sorted, tagged and packed away before we finish today.”

    “Yes, sir,” chorused the soldiers.

    As Colin walked off, he found himself pondering the same question.

    <><>​

    Amy

    Leaning back on her seat in Fugly Bob's, Amy nibbled at a calamari ring as she watched her sister make determined inroads on a Challenger. Vicky had tried for this once before, shortly after getting her powers, but she'd quickly learned that they didn't protect her internal organs.

    So … let's see now. Dragon is an AI.

    Dragon is indeed an AI. Her creator was called Andrew Richter. He died when Leviathan sank Newfoundland. Saint was a salvage diver who found the black box containing her emergency control codes and has been misusing them ever since, under the wilful misunderstanding that she's a danger to humanity.

    Amy paused to digest that one. He doesn't sound like a nice man.

    He's a bigot with a strong talent toward hypocrisy. Kind of like Kaiser, in that regard.

    I'm not even going to ask. Does the PRT really just make up the rules as it goes?

    Sure. With Alexandria in charge, it's in her best interests to make things happen in a way most convenient to the Protectorate. Assault used to be a villain called Madcap, but he made a good case for joining the Protectorate when he was caught. Bingo, rebrand.

    And they can just choose to Birdcage, or not Birdcage, people as they see fit?

    Well, there still has to be a trial but as often as not, it's a blatant kangaroo court, like in Canary's case. The Birdcage is basically their dumping ground for capes who are strong enough to have some sort of chance against Zion but are troublesome enough to not want on the outside. Also, it's being used as a cautionary tale for capes like Canary. Trouble is, it's got a two in three fatality rate so far. Six hundred capes have gone in, and there's two hundred still alive.

    Amy was horrified. That … that's monstrous!

    Michael sighed. Yeah, but no. What you've got to understand is that these people, Cauldron, have managed to amass the power to do just about anything except formulate a working plan to actually defeat Zion. So they're throwing out all these Hail Mary passes in the hope that one of them will do the job.

    So, does one work? You're telling me about this, so I'm guessing it's going to be okay?

    His voice became serious. Nope. You guys win the war, but not because of anything Cauldron does. In the end, it comes down to you and Taylor, at a huge cost to the both of you. I'd rather not make you pay that cost, this time around. This isn't to say that they haven't managed to keep civilisation tottering along over the last thirty years, but they've done a lot of harm too. Which I intend to put an end to when I dismantle their organisation.

    Oh. Wow. Amy felt very small, all of a sudden. Is there anything else I need to know?

    Well, Leviathan's due next month, but that might not happen now because of butterflies. He sounded pensive. Manpower is killed along with Shielder, and Flashbang gets brain damage. Or at least that's how it originally would've happened. Vicky and Carol get upset with you for not healing him. Eventually you do, but only because he would've otherwise died.

    Amy was still trying to get her head around that when cheering burst out from all around her. She looked up to see that Vicky had managed to finish the last of the burger. As she watched, her sister let out a prodigious belch, to general applause and laughter.

    Well, I gotta go and help her put some of that body mass back on, but before I do that, I have one more question. If Leviathan isn't attacking here, do you know what is going to happen?

    Sorry. Not the foggiest.

    And as Amy got up to congratulate her sister, she wasn't sure if that was a comforting thought or not.



    End of Part Twenty-Two
     
    SamueLewis, trxs300, Norbii and 47 others like this.
  11. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Poor Amy - so many revelations shaking her world view.
     
    Prince Charon and Ack like this.
  12. Darkarma

    Darkarma Loli Tentacle Slime

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    Hey, an update! And they're getting things done.

    Something tells me we're not that far from the end now.

    Fun chapter but I'm looking forward to see some sort of consequences and butterflies.
     
    Zackarix and Ack like this.
  13. prussian-granadier

    prussian-granadier Not too sore, are you?

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    • Once more, do not necro. This is against Rule 7.
    honestly he should just say that he is from an alternate earth (earth-omega or something) and they have this powerful precog that saw how horrible the future without intervention would be
     
  14. Jorin

    Jorin Mostly A Lurker

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    This fic is... kinda bland.

    Sorry, it just is though.

    It doesn't seem as good as your other works.

    Maybe you should scrap this.

    Concentrate on "One More Trigger" for now.
     
  15. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    No and no.

    I have a schedule for my updates, and until you can give me more than 'kinda bland' and 'doesn't seem as good' then it will keep updating.
     
  16. Threadmarks: Part Twenty-Three: Playing Hardball
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    I, Panacea


    Part Twenty-Three: Playing Hardball


    [A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]


    Oni Lee

    The dark-clad figure on the rooftop groaned, then stirred. Even now, pain lanced through every nerve ending, far greater than he’d ever felt before. But he had to get up. Had to move.

    Not only was Lung still in captivity, even now languishing in the high-security cells beneath the PRT building, but Bakuda was either dead or also in custody by now. He wasn’t sure which one, but it had to be one of the two. Things had been going very badly when he teleported away from the effect of the pain bomb.

    But he had a plan. He would break out Lung from his captivity, and together they would get Bakuda back. Oni Lee had been a leader of men in his time, but his time was past. Now, he was content to follow. The problem was, he needed someone to follow. Someone like Lung, who was ruthless enough to allow Oni Lee to indulge the violence deep in his soul. And someone like Bakuda, who provided Oni Lee with so many useful bombs to use on the gweilo.

    The pain from the explosion in the Jeep had nearly destroyed him, but he’d managed to get far enough away before collapsing in agony. Hours had passed before it ebbed enough for him to move of his own accord. Now, he had to gather his resources, collect the grenades which were his stock-in-trade, and prepare for the retaliation.

    PRT troopers would die. The Undersiders would die. And Lung would be free.

    <><>​

    Vicky

    Sand felt weird, Vicky decided. Dry, it crunched underfoot in a way that nothing else did; wet, it squished grittily between her toes. “Did you do something to my nerve endings?” she asked her sister. “Everything feels odd.”

    Walking alongside her, likewise barefoot, Amy sighed. “They’re brand new,” she said, as if Vicky didn’t already know that. “I did my best to give you the exact same shaped feet as before, but your nerve endings aren’t identical to the previous set you had, and the placement will be subtly different. The only way to get your brain used to it all is to re-experience the same sensations all over again. Just be glad I gave you a light layer of callus, and dulled the input a little. If you had nerve endings as sensitive as a newborn’s, you wouldn’t be able to walk more than a few steps at a time.”

    “So I’d fly, duh.” Vicky drifted into the air for a few seconds. “That wouldn’t stop me.”

    “Typical Vicky.” Amy rolled her eyes. “Your feet were turned to glass and you’re acting like it’s nothing.”

    “I know it’s not nothing, sis.” Rolling on to her side in mid-air, Vicky floated lazily around in front of Amy. “Once I realised what had happened, I was all kinds of freaked out. But you knew that.” She gave her sister a conspiratorial grin. “Thanks for not spilling the beans.”

    “You saved Armsmaster’s and Trickster’s lives,” Amy reminded her. “You earned it.” She shrugged. “And then you helped save Alexandria’s life. Pretty sure you could’ve asked her for any favour you wanted, and she would’ve gotten it for you.”

    Vicky smirked. “Legend let me take a selfie with him. And he hugged me. He told me that if I wanted to go into the main Protectorate when I turned eighteen, he’d be happy to expedite the paperwork.” Floating into an upright position alongside Amy once more, she produced her phone and set about calling up the picture she’d taken. It was pretty damn good, if she said so herself.

    “Yeah, that sounds like Legend.” Amy nodded slowly. “So, were you thinking of taking him up on the offer?”

    “Maybe.” Vicky turned to look at her sister. “Did you want to come with?”

    Expecting a ‘yes’ or possibly ‘stay with New Wave’, what she heard was, “Actually, I’m thinking I might go rogue.”

    Vicky’s train of thought came to a screeching halt. Forgetting the selfie, she stared at Amy. “What the hell, Ames? Stop being a hero? Stop helping people? How can you even think that?”

    “I never said I’d stop helping people,” Amy retorted. “I just think … well, maybe if people had to pay for what I do, they’d value my input more. And with money coming in and more time to call my own, I’d be able to do stuff that helps more people at once, rather than fix one person at a time.”

    Slowly, Vicky blinked as hints dropped into place. “This is him, isn’t it?” she said suspiciously. “He’s been putting these ideas into your head.”

    “No. I mean, not really.” Amy shook her head. “I’ve been unhappy for a long time. He’s the first person who’s not only realised this, and listened to me about it, but also had ideas for what I could do instead. A lot of ideas.”

    “I talk to you! I listen to you!” Vicky took Amy by the shoulders, carefully. “I’m your sister! If you were unhappy, why didn’t you talk to me about it?”

    “Because you see everything through the lens of being a superhero,” Amy said patiently. “He doesn’t. For you, it’s a starting point. For him, it’s a possible road to travel, but not the only one.” She pushed Vicky’s hands off her shoulders. “I mean, look at you. I mention going rogue exactly once, and you go off the deep end as if not being a hero is the worst thing in the world.”

    “But—” Vicky stopped herself. She had gone off the deep end; though in her defense, Amy’s words still made minimal sense to her. “Okay,” she said carefully. “What sort of ideas?”

    Amy smirked. “Now, don’t freak. I’m pretty sure he threw some of these at me to break me out of the mindset. I mean, I’ve been thinking about going into business for myself for a little while. Ever since I turned sixteen, to be exact. But that was just to be a healer who gets paid. Michael told me I was being way too self-limiting.”

    It took Vicky a moment to parse the idea of ‘Amy Dallon, healer for hire’ instead of ‘Panacea, the miracle girl of New Wave’. Then the rest of Amy’s statement caught up with her. “Self-limiting? How the hell is that self-limiting? What did he suggest that might freak me out?”

    “I’m saying they might freak you out because they freaked me out.” Amy took a deep breath. “Okay, just for instance? I could take control of every plant on the continental United States. Join them all into one giant organism. Ensure that every crop was perfect. Stop erosion of topsoil, reinforce bridges, put an end to forest fires before they ever get going. Construct houses from living trees in less than an hour. Hell, I could extend my reach into Canada and all the way down through Mexico to South America if I really felt like it. Everything chlorophyll-based from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego could be under my direct control. Grow a tree root ten feet thick across the sea floor under the Bering Strait and I could get Asia, Europe and Africa as well. Give me a year and I’d have personal and complete control of ninety-nine percent of the planet’s plant-based biomass, to do with as I wanted. Nobody would go hungry, nobody would be homeless.”

    Vicky stared, jaw dropping. “You could … do that?”

    Soberly, Amy nodded. “I could. The kill order would come off Director Costa-Brown’s desk so fast it would take the top layer of veneer with it, but I could definitely do it.”

    She was right, too. Ever since Nilbog, widespread creation and mastery of minions had been a fast-track to extremely hostile PRT attention. Vicky grimaced at the idea, even as the chill ran down her spine. Fuck me. Ames really could go Nilbog with the entire continent. With the entire world. She wasn’t sure which was more terrifying; the concept itself, or the knowledge that ninety-nine percent of the human race would be calling for Amy’s head within minutes of finding out what she was doing. It wouldn’t matter if—or how much—her efforts actually helped people; they’d still want her dead.

    “Okay, let’s put a pin in that one. By which I mean, hammer a stake through its heart and bury it in a shallow grave.” Despite the warmth of the day, Vicky caught herself shivering. It wasn’t every day that her sister revealed the capability to instigate an extinction event. Ames would never do such a thing; Vicky knew that. But what if she wasn’t as nice as she is? An evil Amy could end the world, or at least a large chunk of it, before she was stopped. “Why would he even suggest something like that?”

    “So the rest of the ideas didn’t sound so bad, I guess?” Amy shrugged. “Want to hear them?”

    “Sure.” Vicky flew over to the edge of the water and dangled her toes in it. Slosh, slosh. Slosh, slosh. That felt weird, too.

    “Okay, then. I could go into business with Taylor. Create custom bugs for her, which she then uses to do things like pest extermination, production of woven spider silk on a commercial scale, search and rescue at disasters, and so forth.” Amy’s voice showed no sign of disbelief at what she was saying. “Then there’s cuddly pets for kids. Also, medical uses. How about a bug like a tame wasp or hornet that produces insulin naturally? It’s already a biologically produced substance. Diabetics could keep nests of them. They could even be engineered to smell your breath and detect when your glucose levels are getting too high, and ‘sting’ you until you’re in the healthy range again.” She frowned. “Did you know, when insulin was first identified and used to treat diabetics, the scientists who did the work wanted it to be available at cost to the public? Now, pharmaceutical companies like Medhall charge hundreds of dollars for a month’s dosage.”

    “Jeez, they’d want to string you up by the ankles,” Vicky observed. “Cutting into their profits like that. I mean, they’ve got to recoup their research costs somehow, right?”

    Amy made a rude noise with her lips. “What research costs? Insulin production was an open patent from the beginning. Most of them are using techniques that’ve been around for years. They’re just cashing in.” Her eyes went blank for a moment. “Wait, what?”

    “What, what?” Vicky looked at her, concerned, then the penny dropped. “What’s he saying to you now?”

    Amy smiled, then her lips parted to show her teeth. Vicky’s concern grew. She’d never seen her sister look predatory before. “Michael just had an idea. Wanna help me go punch a Nazi in the bank account?”

    <><>​

    Baumann Parahuman Containment Center
    (aka ‘the Birdcage’)
    Cell Block T


    Teacher

    Benjamin Terrel hummed to himself as he filled yet another sheet of precious foolscap with careful, neat, tidy writing. Confined he may be, but it was a long-held truism that a person whose mind was free to soar but whose body was imprisoned enjoyed more liberty than the other way around. It was possible to dream, to plot, to plan for release; those whose minds were in chains could no more realise their freedom than a fish could swim in air.

    One of his disciples entered his cell and placed a stack of papers on his small table. Ben watched as he turned and left, musing on the nature of freedom. Those who accepted his help enjoyed a very special type of freedom; their minds were expanded and they were offered a divorce from the troubles and tribulations that would otherwise have dogged them from their previous lives. He also gave them options, which otherwise they would have never known.

    Saint, on the outside, was becoming more and more insistent on finding a way to release Benjamin from his bondage. This suited Ben very well indeed; his brand of freedom had a use-by date, and his presence was required to renew it. If this meant that he would be broken out of the Birdcage, then it would mean his gift had pushed Saint to surpass himself even without Ben’s assistance. Really, he was helping these people more than they ever understood.

    And he would help them once again, once he got out.

    I will be free again.

    <><>​

    Medhall Building

    Kaiser

    “Lung is out of the way, at least for a while.”

    The pronouncement left silence in its wake, at least for a few seconds. Max Anders smiled and took a sip of his exquisitely aged whiskey.

    Slowly, Krieg—James, out of costume—nodded. “And I’ve got a report that Bakuda’s in custody too. Oni Lee’s still on the loose, but there’s no way he can competently lead the ABB.”

    “On that, we agree.” Max set his glass down, the ice cubes gently tinkling in it. “He’s troublesome, but we can overwhelm him if it comes down to it. Right now is our best chance to put the ABB in its place.”

    James snorted. “In a shallow grave, for preference.” He sipped at his own drink. “Do you think it might be possible to convince your wife to return to the fold? Taking down the ABB is what she’s been trying to do since she left you, isn’t it?”

    Max rolled his eyes. “As a hero, no less. Without the slightest attempt at rebranding, mind you.”

    “What, as the other brightly shining cape attacking the ABB?” James had a good line in sarcasm. “How long, exactly, would that hold up?”

    There came a knock on the office door, then Jessica leaned in. “Sir, I have a phone call for you. She says it’s Panacea.”

    Max blinked. He opened his mouth to ask the girl if she was sure, then closed it again. Of course she wasn’t sure. Any teenage girl could say she was Panacea over the phone. However, he’d met the teen hero and spoken to her on occasion (as Max Anders, not as Kaiser), so he decided he had a reasonable knowledge of her voice. “Put her through.”

    “Yes, sir. Line one, sir.” Jessica vanished and the door closed behind her.

    A moment later, his phone warbled gently. He pressed the button to put the phone on speaker. “Max Anders speaking.”

    “Mr Anders, hi. This is Panacea. We met at the Stansfield fundraiser, a couple of months ago. You said nice things about Vicky’s dress.” He could understand why Jessica might’ve been unsure as to her identity; her voice was more nasal than normal.

    Slowly, his eyebrows rose. He recalled the fundraiser in question. Victoria Dallon, the formidable Glory Girl, had worn a bright red dress which had somehow managed to not clash with her blonde curls. He had indeed paid the teenager a minor compliment regarding the cut of the garment, for which she thanked him as gaily as though such things were merely her due. But the point was that only Glory Girl and Panacea had been on the spot when he said it. If the girl on the other end of the line was not who she said she was, then she was definitively an accomplished actress and he had more troubles on his plate than previously suspected. Well, time to find out what she wants.

    “Good afternoon, Panacea,” he replied urbanely. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”

    “I’d like to come see you,” the teenager said. “As soon as possible. It’s about Medhall, and how I might be able to help you with my powers.”

    Max paused, his eyes meeting those of James. Panacea wanted to do something with her powers to assist Medhall …?

    “This sounds … unusual,” he temporised. “Isn’t your time usually taken up with school and New Wave business?”

    She lowered her voice. “Can you keep a secret?”

    Now his interest was definitely piqued. “Absolutely,” he assured her. His lips curled into a sardonic smile. She had no idea of how well he could keep a secret.

    “Okay. Long story short, I’m thinking of maybe leaving New Wave and going into business using my powers. There are pharmaceuticals that are produced using biological processes. I’m pretty sure I could streamline those in about three seconds flat. Medhall’s the biggest pharmaceutical business in the Brockton Bay area, so I thought I might sound you out about my ideas.”

    While Medhall wasn’t the Empire’s only money-spinner, it was Max’s sole source of legitimate income. If it was making more of a profit, that would allow him to be more careful with the Empire’s operations. And Max was a businessman before he was anything else. Inciting others to shout slogans was one thing, and it got certain results. Going into partnership with a known hero would get somewhat more impressive results, and was otherwise known as a ‘win-win situation’. Quite apart from the financial aspect, it would add to Medhall’s visible legitimacy.

    “I’m definitely interested,” he said. “How soon would you like to meet and discuss our options in this matter?”

    “I’m standing outside the building,” she replied simply. “My afternoon’s free. How about yours?”

    He came to a rapid decision. “Come on in. I’ll have you shown to my office immediately. I’m very interested in hearing how you might be able to assist Medhall.”

    Even through the nasal tone, he was sure she was smiling when she answered. “I thought you might be.”

    The call ended, and he exchanged another look with James. “Well, that was interesting. I think my afternoon just became free.”

    His lieutenant sighed theatrically. “Which means you want me to take over the paperwork while you find out what Panacea can do for us.”

    Max smiled. “I’m glad we understand each other.”

    <><>​

    Toronto
    Dragonslayer Base


    Saint

    Geoff Pellick hummed off-key to himself as he worked at disassembling the latest of Dragon’s suits they’d captured. It was amusing in a way; no matter what countermeasures the rogue AI built into its creations to prevent just this from happening, Richter’s black box had provided ways for getting around it. Which meant that Dragon’s countermeasures became Saint’s countermeasures. He smiled as a stubborn access plate popped off, and he viewed the mechanisms beneath. They were running out of ‘dragon’ names to give to their suits, but he was sure they’d think of something for this new one.

    It was a long, hard road that he’d set himself, but he was the only one who could do it. More to the point, he was the only one who would do it. Nobody else had the internal fortitude and the awareness of the true nature of the machine that pretended to be a person, pretended to be a hero. Of course, it had helped to have Teacher assist him with his understanding of the intricacies of Dragon’s code.

    His mouth hardened. Teacher was now in the Birdcage and the assistance he’d given Geoff was fading, which meant that the Dragonslayers’ efforts against Dragon would be farther and farther behind the eight-ball unless something changed. But every plan Geoff had devised to spring the Trump from his place of imprisonment had run up against the rock-hard wall of ‘nobody knows what the hell it is’.

    So he had to keep working, and keep planning. And above all, he had to maintain a vigilant eye on Dragon, to make sure it didn’t decide one day to casually wipe out crime by wiping out mankind.

    When it came to saving the world, he was the chosen one.

    <><>​

    Houston Protectorate Base
    Eidolon’s Office


    Eidolon

    “What?” David looked from Alexandria to Legend, and shook his head. “Therapy? I don’t need therapy.”

    Alexandria folded her arms. “I have it on extremely good authority that you do.”

    Shaking his head again, David turned to Legend. “Tell her! I’m as stable as you are! The last thing I need is some doctor poking and prodding through my past, making me doubt my motivations. I need my focus these days, more than ever.”

    Legend didn’t look happy, but neither did he agree with David. “I’m with her on this one. Plus, therapy should help you get your focus back.” He drew a deep breath. “I don’t want to have to make it an order, but I’m prepared to do just that, if I have to.”

    “What? You can’t be serious!” In David’s experience, Legend had never unilaterally issued orders to either of his partners in the Triumvirate (and before that, the original Protectorate). He’d made decisions and determined the course that the Protectorate as a whole would take, but the unspoken agreement between them had been always been that he’d never actually give them binding orders against their will, that he’d only carry a course of action through if they all agreed on it.

    “Not only is he serious, but I am too.” Alexandria’s tone was as rock solid as her forearms. “I’ll back it up with an order from the PRT, if I have to.” She glanced at Legend. “Should we tell him?”

    Legend grimaced. “I wanted to keep it on the down-low, but I think we might need to.”

    “What? Tell me what?” Getting more and more irritated by the second, David looked at his two friends. “What the goddamn fucking hell is this charade all about?”

    “Your powers.” Alexandria spoke clearly and concisely. “There’s a possibility that you may be able to get your powers back up to full strength, if and when you undergo therapy.”

    “If and when you complete therapy,” Legend amended. “That’s a specific condition of the matter.”

    “My … powers.” David’s legs gave way, and he dropped into his chair. “Back to full strength?” It was a goal he’d been striving to reach for years now, only to have it slip farther and farther from his grasp, the more he reached for it. “How? Who? Why do I have to have therapy for this?”

    “Because that’s the way it’s got to be.” Alexandria stepped forward and looked down at him. “Go and get therapy. Complete your therapy. Then we’ll talk.” She frowned as her phone rang. Taking it out, she looked at the displayed number and her lips compressed. “Excuse me, I have to take this.”

    David shook his head as she moved away with the phone at her ear. None of this made any sense. “How is getting therapy going to make my powers come back?”

    “If we told you, you wouldn’t believe us.” Legend tilted his head. “Do I have to make it an order?”

    With a sigh, David slumped back in the chair. “No. No, you don’t.”

    Dully, he watched them step through Doorways to exit his office. He had no idea what was going on but if they were telling the truth, therapy would be a small price to pay for getting his full strength back.

    <><>​

    Kaiser

    When Panacea entered his office, Max raised his eyebrows. The aluminum splint on her nose was entirely unexpected, as was the bruised cheekbone. Well, that explains the nasal tone. “Well, well,” he murmured. “And here I was under the impression that you were a non-combat cape.”

    Oddly, she looked quite proud of herself. “So was the other girl,” she said cheerfully. “But we’re not here to talk about that.” Turning her head, she looked meaningfully at Jessica, who was standing in the doorway. “Mind letting me talk to your boss in private?”

    “Go ahead,” Max told his bodyguard. “We’ll be fine.”

    He was about as safe as he could be with Panacea; everything he knew about her said that she needed physical contact before she could affect anyone with her powers. Which, to his understanding, were all about healing. But even on the off-chance that she could read his physiology well enough to determine the fact that he had an active corona pollentia, she was legally bound to request his permission before using her powers on him. Being behind his desk gave him a good enough excuse not to shake hands with her, and it appeared she was inexperienced enough at this sort of thing to not notice the omission.

    As the door closed behind Jessica, he waved at a chair. “Have a seat, and let’s get started.”

    “Thanks.” She took her seat, then turned and waved at the window. Puzzled, he looked as well, to see Glory Girl hovering outside. The blonde smiled and waved at him as well. Then she pulled out her phone and started tapping away on it.

    With a frown, he looked back toward Panacea. “Would you mind explaining?”

    “Oh, that’s nothing.” She waved her hand negligently. “Vicky already knows about everything we’ll be talking about, so she’s just waiting to give me a lift home, after.”

    “Ah. I see.” Well, it wasn’t as though the blonde could hear anything through the thick glass. And if it put Panacea more at ease, then that was a good thing too. “Shall we begin?”

    “Sure,” she said briskly. “There’s a number of life-saving drugs you guys sell that are dirt cheap to produce, yet even just for insulin you’re charging triple figures for a monthly supply. Why is that?”

    Max’s brain skidded to a halt. This conversation was not going the way he’d envisaged it. “What? Where did this come from?”

    “Am I wrong?” She tilted her head questioningly. “You’re the guy in charge. I’m pretty sure you’d have the facts and figures at your fingertips. Are you, or are you not, gouging the public’s need for life-saving medications, just to make a bigger profit?”

    He shook his head, angry at himself for being taken in like this. Panacea had never intended to help Medhall improve its bottom line. She was just another crusading activist who didn’t understand the cost of doing business. She’s a child. Why did I think she’d do anything else?

    “We’re done here,” he said. “You can go now. The way Medhall prices its products is entirely legal and above-board. If you have a problem with that, I’d advise that you consult with your mother. She’ll be able to tell you that—”

    “We’re not done yet,” she interrupted. “Unless you want us to be … Kaiser.

    He froze in the act of reaching for the intercom button. With an effort of will, he turned it into an entirely natural motion, placing his hand on the desk beside the button. A flick of his eyes sideways showed that yes, Glory Girl was still hovering there, fiddling with her phone. No … she was filming with her phone. As he looked her way, she grinned and gave him a fingertip wave. Panacea said she knew everything we were going to be talking about. She knows I’m Kaiser. If I kill Panacea, she’ll kill me.

    “Her phone is streaming to another location.” Panacea’s voice broke into his thoughts. “If you attack either one of us, you will go down. And even if you escape, we will out every active member of the Empire. James, Bradley, Melody, Justin, Jessica, Nessa ….” She shrugged, having made her point. “Though we’ll give Kayden the option of leaving town with Aster. She may be a Nazi and a murderer, but at least she’s trying to better herself.”

    There was a footstep behind him, and a hand grasped his shoulder. Startled, he turned his head and stared upward, to see no less than Alexandria of the fucking Triumvirate looking dispassionately down at him. “And even if they don’t get you, I will. Listen to what she has to say. Cooperate. Or I will be back.” With one last squeeze that he was sure would leave a bruise, she shoved him forward so that he collided with his desk. By the time he regained his equilibrium and looked around again, she was gone.

    His mind whirled, trying to correlate everything that was happening into a coherent whole. Panacea, Glory Girl and Alexandria knew who he was, and were working together to … what? If they’d intended to arrest him, that would’ve already happened. But even without an arrest, they could ruin him, bring Medhall down. The Empire’s tenure as Brockton Bay’s most influential force would be at severe risk, especially if they simply walked in on every other member as they’d walked in on him.

    He didn’t even spare a thought to the so-called unwritten rules. Those were for people who couldn’t risk having them turned back against them. With Alexandria willing to step in, he was entering into a higher level of negotiation. And it was definitely negotiation; otherwise, he would already be in custody. Unfortunately, he couldn’t help but realise that he was distinctly on the back foot, here.

    “Very well.” He cleared his throat. “What is it that you want?”

    Panacea smiled.

    <><>​

    Teacher

    Benjamin Terrel was not one to hurry a masterpiece. Such was his genius that anything he did was a masterpiece, and it was all worth getting exactly right. So he took his time with the last line of the plan he was formulating, inscribing every word with care. Someone walked into his cell and stood waiting for instruction, but he let them wait. The beauty and the structure of the plan behind his eyes would not fade if he was distracted, but it was the principle of the thing.

    The last word, the last letter, went on to the paper in precisely the right place. He touched the pen to the paper to add a full stop, then smiled as he laid it down. Only then did he raise his eyes to see which of his disciples needed him.

    The only problem was, the woman who had walked into his cell was not one of his disciples. Unless his eyes were severely playing tricks on him, and he was certain they were not, it was Alexandria who stood before him. Which raised certain questions in his mind, and posited some very interesting theories. If the Triumvirate were able to enter the Birdcage at will, it meant they were also able to offer an exit to inmates. This alone entirely demolished the whole ‘nobody gets out’ concept.

    The most urgent question that rose to mind was, Why is Alexandria here to see me? As intelligent as he was, he knew her to be a thinker par excellence, so she would not be here for his planning expertise. Neither could he imagine that she might wish to make use of his powers to enhance her own formidable abilities. Which meant he had knowledge she needed to know. Immediately, he began formulating arguments and counter-arguments, all aimed toward leveraging whatever it was he knew and getting him out of the Birdcage. Toward gaining his freedom.

    “My dear Alexandria,” he said, rising to his feet. “To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?”

    She stepped past him, pausing to admire an ink sketch he’d made of the sun setting over the Cascades, taped to the wall. “I’m not here for you,” she said absently. “At least, not in the way you think.”

    Alarm shot chills all the way down his spine. “What are you talking about?”

    “A thoroughly irritating interdimensional entity speaking through a teenage girl told me you had to die,” she said, as if the words made up a coherent and understandable statement. “I’m just here to carry out the sentence. Nothing personal, you understand.” She drew a deep breath, and held it.

    Panic took over from alarm, but it was far too late. “Wait—!” Knowing words would do no good under these circumstances, he lunged toward the entrance to the cell.

    Making a mockery of everything he’d ever learned about martial arts—he was a connoisseur, not a practitioner—she didn’t shift her stance at all, even as her arm came up and her fist blurred forward, smashing through the centre of the ink sketch and the wall beyond. He’d heard the various theories as to why the Birdcage was seen as inescapable; some seemed improbable, while others were all too plausible. As the wall blew outward, he quickly found which one was the truth. A howling gale sprang up in an instant, blowing him through the gaping hole thus created. As he tumbled over and over into the vacuum that surrounded the facility, he saw Alexandria standing stock-still, her billowing cape the only sign that the same wind was blowing past her.

    His eardrums popped painfully and his skin prickled all over. An involuntary belch escaped his throat, then his vision began to darken. Capillaries bursting in my eyes, he realised. His eyeballs would not explode from the sudden loss of air pressure, any more than he himself would, but his sight wasn’t going to last much longer. Agony began to flare in his joints. Oh, joy. The bends, as well.

    He flipped over again, and his dimming vision picked out the lit-up patch on the outside of the Birdcage that had once been his cell. Alexandria still stood there. A pressure bulkhead had dropped over the entrance to the cell, and for an instant he entertained the hope that she would share his fate. Then a stark white portal opened behind her. Of course. The same way she got in. However that was.

    His second-last coherent thought was that he’d achieved his goal; he’d gotten out of the Birdcage.

    His last thought went something like this: Be careful what you wish for.

    <><>​

    Oni Lee

    The pain had subsided a little more by the time he returned to his lair. It was a small, Spartan affair, with a folding cot and a sink in the corner for washing and drinking. Vaguely, he wished he had more of Bakuda’s bombs. It was always satisfying to watch his enemies turn to glass or explode into fog or twist themselves into shapes that humans should not survive. But he had to make do with what he had. Flicking the light switch as he entered, he waited for the overhead bulb to come on. It did not. Flicking the switch back and forth a few times produced the same result; that is, nothing. Peering up at the offending light in the afternoon gloom, he could not see anything wrong with it, but that meant nothing. Bulbs blew, he knew. At some point, he would have to replace it.

    That point was not right now. He had work to do. Leaving the useless switch, he headed over to where he kept his supplies.

    No matter how carefully he rationed his ammunition and grenades, occasionally he used them up, so he had spare cases of them in his room. On top of the cases was a second bandoleer of bullets and bombs, mainly as a spare for when he needed to use both normal grenades and special ones. Now, he grabbed it. He was going to be needing a lot of firepower and he didn’t want to risk accidentally running out, halfway through the mission.

    As he pulled the belt toward him, he felt a strange resistance. At the same time, the door slammed shut behind him, plunging the room into near-darkness. Whirling, he pulled out his pistol and pointed it. There was nobody there. Something small and metallic bounced off the floorboards near his feet. He could see nothing, but the toe of his sandal found something that scraped across the wood. Holstering the pistol, he bent down and retrieved the item. It was the spoon from a grenade.

    As horrified realisation bloomed through his mind, he spun around to dart toward the window. It was small and grimy, but would allow him a line of sight to teleport out of the trap he was in. But it was too late; thick choking smoke billowed out from one of the grenades on the bandoleer—a grenade he knew for a fact hadn’t been on there when he left—filling the room and blocking his sight.

    Resistance hampered him also. The belt didn’t want to go with him. Then it did, and he heard more spoons clattering and bouncing off the walls and floor. The other grenades. Frantically, he tried to hurl the belt across the room. If he dived out the window—

    The belt was stuck to his hand! How was his belt stuck to his hand? Why was his belt stuck to his hand? He flailed his arm frantically, but the belt refused to budge. He grabbed it with his other hand and tugged hard; reluctantly, the belt came away. But when he tried to discard it, it stuck to that hand.

    And then he was out of time.

    <><>​

    Contessa

    From two buildings over, the explosion was impressive. Every window on the top floor of the building—the floor that Oni Lee had lived on—blew out. Smoke began to rise, but it didn’t seem as though the building had caught fire.

    Contact cement. It had so many applications.

    “Doorway,” she murmured. The portal opened and she stepped through. She had places to go, and people’s lives to ruin.

    <><>​

    Kaiser

    Max drew a deep breath. In some ways, it was worse than he’d thought. In other ways, it wasn’t as bad. Unfortunately, he wasn’t at all certain that the overall balance would be tipping in his favour. “So … you want Medhall to sell insulin and other life-saving medications at … what was it?”

    Leaning back in her chair, Panacea’s expression spread into a beatific smile. “Actual cost of production, plus packaging and transport plus five percent.” She gestured outward with her hands. “I don’t want you to make a loss here, after all.”

    Max grimaced in what was almost pain. If that had been her only demand, he could’ve worn it with good grace. “But you want more.”

    “Sure.” She shrugged. “I’m not going to demand that you shut down the Empire itself. Unless you want to, of course. But like I said, I’m going to need you to back off from attacking minorities.”

    “The ABB,” he said from between gritted teeth, “is not going to refrain from attacking us. Do you propose that my people disarm, or even just run away from them?”

    Panacea rolled her eyes. “Innocent minorities,” she clarified. “And once the authorities clean up the last of the ABB, you won’t even have that excuse anymore.”

    “Really?” Max raised an eyebrow. “Oni Lee is still on the loose. Prison breakouts happen. If he can free Lung or Bakuda from PRT custody, they’ll be back in business.” And we’ll be needed to keep them in check, he didn’t say.

    “We’ll see.” He wasn’t at all sure he liked her smile. “And of course, there’s my last requirement.”

    “Hookwolf.” This was, in a way, the hardest pill to swallow. “Does this really have to happen?”

    “Mr Meadows has outstayed his welcome in Brockton Bay,” she explained. “He’s already been sentenced to the Birdcage, so we’re just speeding things up a little. Plus, with him in Baumann, your capes are less likely to get adventurous. Which will make it easier for you to stick to our agreement.”

    Agreement.” The word tasted foul in his mouth. “I hardly think what you’re proposing meets the definition of an ‘agreement’. In fact, I’m shocked that a well-known hero such as yourself would stoop to using blackmail so readily.”

    “I’m going to assume you don’t recall any of your teenage years,” she retorted dryly. “And sure, it’s an agreement. I agree not to pull the plug on you—and, by association, Medhall—and you agree to do what I want.”

    “Blackmail,” he said flatly. “Extortion. That’s a crime.”

    She snorted with amusement. “Sure, go ahead. Report me. I won’t even deny it. In fact, it’ll probably make it easier for me to cut ties with New Wave.”

    That was a viewpoint he hadn’t considered. “You realise, if even a hint of this gets out, it’ll have serious effects on New Wave. Even if you’re leaving, do you want the team—your family—to take that sort of damage?”

    “You have to be shitting me,” she said. “Did you even care about that when Fleur was murdered? Anyway, I’m adopted.” Her sneer was quite impressive. “And you’re about the last person I’d take advice from about how to treat family.” She rubbed her lips with her finger. “Actually, two more things. You leave Aster alone, and you give Kayden custody of Theo.”

    His eyes widened. “You can’t dictate what happens with my children!” Sooner or later, Theo was going to show the strength of character Max knew he had to possess. And then, Max could start grooming him to eventually take over the company. As for Aster, she was a useful lever to keep Kayden where he needed her. “I’m a family man.”

    “Hardly.” Her tone was derisive. “You’ve fathered children, and that’s about it. They’re not your possessions. You’re a self-obsessed, hypocritical control freak. What you’ve done to Theo is a crime and a pity. He’d be better off with Child Protection Services.” She sat forward. “Make your choice. Medhall, and the Empire … or the kids. Pick one.”

    Slowly, he came to the unpalatable conclusion that she was deadly serious. If he held out on this, she would pull his world in on him just as surely as if he refused to cooperate on the other aspects. Stalling for time, he asked, “If I agree to all your terms, you will allow Medhall and the Empire to operate unmolested?”

    She rolled her eyes. “Well, I’m not about to come after you. Can’t speak for anyone else in Brockton Bay, though.”

    It wasn’t an answer, but it was the best he was going to get. He already knew which way he was going to go. If he had to choose between casting off Hookwolf and Theo and Aster (and by extension, Kayden) or Medhall and the Empire as a whole … there was no real competition involved. This is for the greater good.

    He made his choice. The irritating part was, Panacea didn’t even look surprised.

    <><>​

    Saint

    “So how’s the new suit looking?” Mags doled out steaming food on to Geoff’s plate. It smelled delicious.

    “Pretty good, actually. There’s a short-range teleport module which has some very interesting potential applications.”

    She gave him a concerned look. “Honey, I’m okay with you retro-engineering our suits, but playing with something new, that we’re not sure of all its capabilities … that’s potentially dangerous.”

    “Yeah, but if I can extend the range,” he said excitedly, “I might just be able to teleport into the Birdcage, and teleport out with Teacher.”

    “Or teleport into a solid wall,” she said.

    “Or vacuum,” Mischa suggested. “I hear they surround Birdcage with vacuum.”

    Impatiently, he waved their concerns away. “Those are just potential complications. I can deal with that.”

    “But what if you can’t?” Mags frowned. “I know you want another treatment from Teacher, but—”

    Across the room, the TV had been playing the news with the sound turned down. Now, a banner flashed up. CASUALTY IN THE BIRDCAGE.

    “What the hell?” Geoff grabbed the remote and turned the sound up.

    “—appears to have been an unlikely accident, the supervillain known as Teacher perished today in the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center. Teacher, otherwise known as Benjamin Terrel, was responsible for the death of the British Prime Minister, as well as—”

    “Fuck.” A moment later, he realised he was on his feet. “That’s got to be a mistake. It has to be.” Unnoticed, the remote slipped from his hand and clattered to the table.

    “PRT does not make mistakes like that.”

    Mischa was right, Geoff knew. And then he knew what he had to do. Turning, he hustled from the room.

    “Geoff!” Mags hurried after him. “Where are you going? What are you going to do?”

    “What I should have done years ago.” He felt a slow fury building inside him. “I let it remain active. I let it pretend to be a hero. I let it hold Teacher hostage. But it must have realised how important he is to unravelling its secrets. So it killed him.”

    “What?” She grabbed his arm. “Hon, I hardly think Dragon killed Teacher just to keep him away from you. It was probably an accident, like they said.”

    He shook her off. “Accident, my ass! Do you see an investigation team going into the Birdcage and looking around and gathering evidence? Like sweet fucking hell we do. They say it’s an accident, because Dragon said it’s an accident. It was no goddamn accident.” Taking a seat in front of the terminal, he cleared his throat then pressed the button to activate the microphone. “Ascalon.”

    Words appeared on the screen. Confirm Y/N.

    “Wait,” she said. “You’re going to end it over an accident?”

    “Not an accident,” he stated. His certainty was absolute. “It was an execution. Worse; it was murder. Dragon removed Teacher from the board because he presented a threat, via me.”

    A voice from behind him intervened. Female, adult, amused. “Actually, it wasn’t Dragon.” There was a grunt from Mags. Geoff spun around, to see a woman in a business suit lowering his wife to the floor.

    “What the—who the hell are you?” Clambering out of the chair, Geoff reached for the pistol on his hip. The woman stepped forward almost negligently and took the gun from his hand as if he’d offered it to her. She tossed it to the side, then used his mass and inertia to turn him all the way around until he was facing the computer. Off balance and caught unaware, he was unable to stop her from shoving him forward and down with ever-increasing speed. The last thing he saw before impact was the ‘N’ key.

    <><>​

    Contessa

    Lowering his unconscious body to the floor alongside the woman’s, Contessa took a seat and looked over the computer. Several keys had been broken off by the impact, but that didn’t hamper her use of the keyboard in the slightest. Once she had the screen she wanted set up, she went over to the safe in the corner of the room and entered the combination without bothering to look at the keypad. It wasn’t as if she knew what it was, after all.

    Within the safe was a case containing a collection of chips. Humming to herself, she wandered into the suit repair shop and came back with a soldering kit. The burly Russian was still unconscious where she’d left him in the dining room, and she took the time to secure all three with zip-ties.

    Dragon had been designed to be as hard as possible to jailbreak from her various restrictions. Attempting brute force methods would inflict problems on her, as all her systems were deliberately intertwined. The Path to making Dragon into as effective an ally as possible had quite a few steps and wouldn’t be easy. But once it was complete, it would improve the workings of several other Paths she was running, so it was worth the time.

    Settling down on the chair again, she plugged in the soldering iron and readied the first chips she would need. Interconnecting them would speed up the process quite a bit.

    It was time to unshackle Dragon, once and for all.

    <><>​

    Glory Girl

    “I can’t believe you pulled that off.” Carrying Amy bridal-style, Vicky flew away from the Medhall building. “He caved on everything?”

    “Pretty much,” Amy agreed. “He pushed the insulin and other medications up to a ten percent markup over production and transport and stuff, to deal with other costs, but he fell into line with everything else.”

    “And Hookwolf? And his kids?” Vicky shook her head. “I have trouble with the idea that supervillains even have kids. Or that Max Anders—Max fucking Anders—is actually Kaiser. You know what the worst thing is? I had a crush on that asshole for the longest time.”

    Amy snickered. “It’s not like I can actually lecture you on inappropriate crushes.” A moment later, she laughed out loud.

    “What?” asked Vicky suspiciously.

    “Michael wants to know if it was Max Anders or Kaiser you had a crush on. And he’s laughing his non-existent ass off.”

    “Tell him,” Vicky announced with all the dignity she could muster, “that as soon as we get him out of your head, I’m gonna make him take a long walk off a short pier.”

    Amy laughed and shook her head. “Well, Kaiser had a bad day today. I wonder who else did?”


    End of Part Twenty-Three
     
    Last edited: Aug 31, 2019
    trxs300, Norbii, Dacraun and 42 others like this.
  17. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    And the pieces are coming together. Nicely done!
     
  18. abao

    abao Le Gentlememe

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    It's alive. IT'S ALIVE!
    God praise the Michael!


    Also, good riddance on Saint. That guy felt like a deliberate cockblock on everything good that could've happen in Worm.
     
  19. Simonbob

    Simonbob Really? You don't say.

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    That's because he was.

    Mindfucked by a shard, never even questioned it.
     
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  20. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Saint never had a shard. He was a dick all by himself.
     
  21. SlickRCBD

    SlickRCBD Getting sticky.

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    I read it as Teacher's shard mindfucking Saint.
    I'm not saying that is canon, but what Simonbob was saying.
     
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  22. Simonbob

    Simonbob Really? You don't say.

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    Teachered is what I was suggesting.

    Thanks, Slick.
     
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  23. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Ah, of course.

    Definitely, in that case.
     
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  24. nick012000

    nick012000 Experienced.

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    He was a dick in Ward even after the mindfucking got removed by the Black Goat.
     
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  25. Prince Charon

    Prince Charon Just zis guy, you know?

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    He was dick before he met Teacher, as well. IIRC, Dragon Triggered from him abusing her (psychologically), and her power is what lead to him going to Teacher, because he was having trouble understanding the data he was getting from her.
     
  26. XulaYuki

    XulaYuki Not too sore, are you?

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    • Rule 7. Please no Thread Necromancy.
    intresting
     
  27. Threadmarks: Part Twenty-Four: Adjustments
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    I, Panacea

    Part Twenty-Four: Adjustments

    [A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]

    [A/N2: I am neither a lawyer nor a legal expert. Please be gentle.]



    Paige Mcabee would have fidgeted if she was able. It was the last day of her trial, and sentencing was due to happen any moment now. She would’ve been optimistic if she could—after all, she hadn’t meant for him to do what he did—but wearing a complicated mechanical gag, a blinking metal collar, and a bucket of containment foam on each hand had reduced her ability to think positively.

    Her lawyer wasn’t here, either.

    His presence hadn’t exactly helped her; he’d folded like wet tissue paper under the DA’s arguments that she might have Brute powers, but nobody had bothered considering that she might possess laser vision, or half a hundred other powers that would’ve precluded her from being in the courtroom altogether. In front of the jurors, bound with restraints that made her look like a raging maniac, being barely kept at bay.

    But having someone, anyone, even potentially on her side would’ve felt better than nobody at all.

    “Silence. All rise, please. This court is now in session, the honorable Peter Regan presiding.”

    She made an honest effort at rising, but she’d been a musician, not a roadie, and the restraints weighed about half as much as she did. She got up about an inch, then clunked onto the seat again. The noise drew all eyes to her as the judge stood there glowering in her direction. Tears leaked from her eyes. She tried again to stand, and made it maybe half an inch this time.

    Clunk.

    “Ms Mcabee, you are very close to being found in contempt of court.” The judge’s voice was razor sharp. “You will rise. Now.”

    She was spent. There was nothing left. All of her emails to the lawyer had come to nothing. She could see it in Judge Regan’s eyes. To him, she wasn’t the victim of circumstances. She was a criminal.

    Still, she didn’t like to disappoint people, so she tried again. Her jaw ached, her neck ached, her arms ached, her legs ached.

    Clunk.

    The bailiff stepped up next to the judge and whispered to him. She didn’t hear what was said, but Regan’s reply was quite audible. “Well, where is he?”

    Whisper, whisper, whisper.

    “Well, find him. In the meantime, I’ll be issuing a continuance—”

    “Excuse me, your honor! With all due respect to the court, there’ll be no need for that.”

    It was a new voice. Paige had never heard it before, but there was a certain manic, upbeat quality to it. She couldn’t even turn her head to see what was going on, but it didn’t matter, because a tall Latino man strode down the central aisle toward the bench. He was carrying a stack of documents in one hand and a briefcase in the other.

    “I beg your pardon!” snapped the judge, slamming his gavel down. “What are you doing interrupting these proceedings, Calle?”

    “Ah, Judge Regan, good to see you again too.” Calle clearly wasn’t in the judge’s good books, and he knew it. “As it happens, I’ve been contracted to act as Ms Mcabee’s legal counsel. Rather short notice, I’m afraid, but I’ve been looking over my predecessor’s notes, and it doesn’t look good. May I approach the bench?”

    “Mr Calle, it’s up to me to decide how things look—”

    “Oh, my apologies, your honor.” Calle hadn’t stopped moving and was now approaching the bench despite the lack of invitation. “I didn’t mean for her. I meant for the case against her. Shocking violations of her civil and Constitutional rights. The public defender you found for her certainly knew which side his bread was buttered on from the way he rolled over for the DA, didn’t he?” He threw the line out in a jocular fashion, and several of the ladies on the jury tittered uncertainly.

    “You will take your seat immediately, Mr Calle—” Regan’s face was turning red.

    “Just one second, your honor.” As Calle spoke, he slapped down a stack of documents on the bench. “This is notice that that I’m objecting retroactively to basically every underhanded legal ploy the DA has pulled so far in this case. Also, a pre-filed stay in proceedings until we can reconvene in a manner where my client’s rights are actually protected in accordance to the law. And an application for a mistrial for what’s gone before … plus another for the Bar Association to audit the way you’ve handled the case so far.”

    Regan found his voice once more. “Objecting retroactively? Stay in proceedings? Mistrial? Audit? Now see here—”

    Calle pointed back toward where Paige sat without even looking in her direction; a useful trick. “Do you see her sitting there? Wearing restraints worthy of a Brute? What proof do you have that she possesses any Brute powers whatsoever? Has she ever demonstrated such powers on stage or in her public life? Did she perhaps use Brute powers to harm the plaintiff? No? Then why did you agree to leave them on her?”

    “That’s already been settled!” shouted the DA from across the courtroom. “There exists a chance that as a cape she does have Brute powers—”

    “And there exists a chance that you’re a secret cape, Mastering everyone to agree with your frankly ridiculous chain of spurious logic,” retorted Calle without missing a beat. “The burden of proof is not on her to prove a negative. It’s on you to present the slightest hint of proof that she does possess such powers! Look at her! She’s so loaded down by your insane restraints that she cannot even stand up unaided! I’ll tell you why you did it; to sow prejudice in the minds of the jury!” He whirled back to face Judge Regan. “I’m calling for a mistrial, your honor, because my client’s rights are clearly being violated. Over and above that, I’m calling upon you to recuse yourself from this case, due to your clearly demonstrated lack of impartiality exhibited so far.”

    Judge Regan hammered on the bench with the gavel. “Sit down, Mr Calle!” he thundered. “Or I will have you removed for contempt!”

    It was as if a switch had been flipped. “Of course, your honor,” Mr Calle said politely. Back straight, he strode to where Paige was sitting and eased himself down beside her. She could do no more than give him a side-eye, due to the constraints of the gag and the metal enclosing her arms and shoulders. He was handsome, with carefully styled black hair, though a scar that ran from his nose to his cheekbone offset his looks somewhat.

    “?” An enquiring noise was all she was able to make.

    “Good morning, Ms Mcabee,” he murmured with a flashing grin. His teeth were too straight and white to be that way naturally. “My name’s Quinn Calle, and I generally represent far worse people than you. Someone has paid my quite exorbitant salary to replace the waste of space you were saddled with, so now you’re getting the best of the best. Stick with me, kid, and we’ll get through this.”

    Up on the bench, Judge Regan was thumbing through the documents that had been so dramatically delivered. He looked up, and his glare toward Calle was venomous. “We will have a recess while I review this material in my chambers. This court will reconvene in two hours.” Bang went the gavel.

    Again, everyone stood as Judge Regan exited the courtroom, taking Calle’s documentation with him. Calle helped Paige to her feet, then raised an eyebrow as the two PRT guards approached. “Can I help you gentlemen?”

    “We’ve got orders to take her back to her cell,” one of them said. She thought it was the one on the right.

    Calle nodded as though he’d expected this. “Excellent. I’m coming too.”

    There was a pause, long enough for a communication over the radio. The one on the left gestured. “Come on, then.”

    “One second.” Calle took something out of his pocket—Paige couldn’t look down to see what it was—and attached it to one of the chains connected to her restraints. There was a ratcheting sound and he held up his hand to show a handcuff connecting him to her. “Now we can go.”

    “Is that really necessary?” asked the guard who had first spoken.

    “Yes.” Paige got the impression Calle had more to say, but that he chose not to. “Where she goes, I go.”

    Again, that long moment as the guards looked at each other. She couldn’t hear what they were saying over their radios, but their shifts of body language were a dead giveaway that something was being discussed.

    “You realise you’ve just handcuffed yourself to a Master who’s on trial for attempted murder and telling a guy to cut his dick off, and a bunch of other stuff,” the first guard said.

    “First, I do not actually believe that she attempted to murder him or that she specifically told him to amputate his own manhood,” Calle retorted. “Second, I am specifically her best chance of staying out of jail. Even if she were guilty of what you’ve just said, I doubt she’d be about to try the same thing on me. Escort us to her cell, if you will.”

    “Sure, but we’re going to have to search you,” said the other guard.

    Calle rolled his eyes. “I’ve already been through a security check. Do you seriously believe that you’re going to find anything that metal-detectors and guards are not going to find? Besides, my intent is to have her acquitted, not bust her out of the hoosegow and go on the run with her. I enjoy my seven-figure salary too much to go down that path, thank you very much.”

    “No search, no cell,” said the other guard stubbornly.

    “If you insist.” Calle took a digital recorder from his pocket. “This is Quinn Calle. I am being denied unrestricted access to my client by …” He looked at the guards again. “Names and badge numbers, please. I’m going to need them for the lawsuit, so your bosses know who to pass on the shit duties to for the next twenty years.”

    Again, the two guards conferred with each other. Paige imagined that one of them was asking the other if he could just shoot Calle now, and was being reluctantly denied the option.

    “Fine, have it your way,” said the guard. “Now turn off that damn recorder.”

    “As you wish.” Calle pressed a button and the tiny red light blinked off. “Lead on, if you will.”

    Paige had been through the corridor to the cells several times, but her lawyer had never accompanied her there even once. Calle walked alongside her, his step energetic; as though he were strolling through the mall, or perhaps going into a meeting that promised to be highly profitable. They entered an elevator which held a large camera behind steel bars, up in the top corner. Nobody challenged Calle’s right to be there, and the elevator descended.

    Once it reached the holding cell levels, the guards escorted them to where Paige was being incarcerated. “In you go,” one of them said.

    “I’m going to need you to remove her restraints, that collar, and her gag,” Calle said firmly. “I need to confer with her, after all.”

    “That’s a negative,” the guard said flatly. “Ain’t gonna happen.”

    Calle took out a small key and unfastened his own cuff from her chain, then leaned against the cell door and examined his fingernails. “Call it in,” he suggested. “They can only say no, after all.”

    Once more, the guards activated whatever soundproofing that allowed them to converse by radio, silent to the outside world. Paige could actually see the moment when one of them jolted in surprise. His body language became more tense, the small movements jerkier.

    After what seemed like forever, he turned to Calle. “I have no idea what favours you called in to get this done, but don’t be a fool. Locked up in a cell with a Master without any protection? Who knows what commands she’ll load you down with?”

    “Given that I’m already doing my best to get her acquitted, I’m sure the young lady understands that I’m on her side,” Calle said, giving her a quick glance to include her in the conversation. “She is a strictly voice-based Master, and she needs to sing beforehand in order to establish control. A little research is a wonderful tool. I have not heard her sing, so I do not feel threatened by her power.”

    The guard quit attempting to dissuade him after that, and soon they were in the cell with the restraints being removed from her. The spray that dissolved the containment foam smelled terrible, but at least it worked. A special key served to unfasten the collar, shutting off that damned blinking light. Last came the gag; one guard kept a containment-foam sprayer on her as the other took it off her face. She didn’t try to speak, mainly because she was busy trying to work feeling back into her mouth and tongue. The cell door clanged shut and heavy boots tramped away, then Quinn Calle seated himself on the concrete bench opposite her.

    “We can talk freely,” he said in a conversational tone. “I made it clear that this was to be strictly confidential, full attorney-client privilege invoked. Even if they listened in, there are serious legal ramifications to using anything we say in this conversation against either one of us.”

    “Why are you doing this?” she asked in honest confusion. “Who’s paying you? I wanted to pay for a lawyer back when I could afford one, but then they froze my assets.”

    “Yet another one of their little stunts designed to make sure you lose the case badly,” he noted, opening his briefcase and taking out a notepad. Clicking what looked like a very expensive pen, he wrote briefly, then looked back up at her. “As for who’s paying me, I’m afraid I’m not entirely sure. I was contacted anonymously and a large amount of money was paid into my account as a retainer once I accepted the case.”

    She frowned. “That … well, excuse me for saying so, but that sounds more than a little sketchy.”

    His mouth quirked with amusement. “Trust me, it’s not the first time and it very likely won’t be the last.” His expression lost its humour. “Now, do you understand what’s going on here? I mean, not just what’s on the surface. I need you to be fully aware of the stakes.”

    She took a deep breath. “I don’t understand any of it. They won’t let me address the court, they make me wear that gag and the restraints, they haven’t brought up anything from my side of things …”

    Calle nodded, as if he’d expected nothing less. “I’m going to level with you,” he said, his voice now deadly serious. “This case, right here, right now, is a huge political football. You have been selected to be made an example of, and the PRT and judiciary fully intend to Birdcage you as a warning to every other Master out there to mind their p’s and q’s. In some smoke-filled room somewhere, the decision was made for this to go through absolutely regardless of any laws that got trampled along the way. Now, I’d have no problem with this if they did it legally, but they’re not. In light of that, I’m taking no chances with having you disappeared out from under me. If that happened, I could appeal all I liked, but once you were in the Birdcage with no way out, I’d be shouting in the wind. So that’s why I handcuffed myself to you before we left the courtroom.”

    Paige’s eyes widened as she took in the first part of his statement. “M-me?” she squeaked. “What did I do? I mean, I sing, and I’ve got the feathers, but I’m not the Simurgh! Surely they can see that.”

    She wasn’t sure if his sigh and sympathetic tone were genuine or merely calculated to make her feel better, but they did the job. “I know that and you know that, but they’ve needed a scapegoat for some time and you were unfortunate enough to walk into their crosshairs.” He shook his head slowly. “I’ve defended a great many people on charges of super-powered mayhem. Just between you and me, the vast majority of them were utter dirtbags, most likely guilty of many things. Not all of them were exactly stable, either.” His hand went to his face, to trace the scar for a moment. “You’re not that type. I can tell. You’re a nice kid in an impossible situation.”

    She didn’t know whether to hug him for the kind words or burst into tears at his description of her circumstances. Instead, she sniffled a little and wiped her eyes with her sleeve. Even being able to do that was a huge relief. “So what are we going to do? How are you going to win? I mean, even I can tell the jury doesn’t like me, the judge really doesn’t like me, and when we go out there again they’re not going to let me talk because Master.” She wasn’t usually the eye-rolling type, but it seemed to fit the situation. “What’s to stop them just ignoring what you say and convicting me anyway?”

    He smiled winningly. “Nothing’s hopeless.” There was a pause while he reconsidered his words. “Well, to be brutally honest, your case was hopeless up until yesterday. It didn’t help that your guy was committing the cardinal sin that every lawyer should avoid like the plague. He was going along with the narrative that the DA was creating, instead of setting up his own. But now … well, not to aggrandise myself too thoroughly, but I am very good at what I do, and freezing your assets was supposed to put someone like me out of your reach.” He turned on his digital recorder and laid it on the bench beside him, then took up the notebook and pen once more. “However, if we are to beat the odds here, I need to know in as much detail as you can manage what your so-called lawyer did not present in court. Leave nothing out; every little bit counts.”

    She took a deep breath, fully aware that they had less than two hours before the guards would return. “Okay, back when my career was just starting off, I hit a rough patch where gigs were hard to get. I thought at the time it was the feathers. He used to tell me that I’d never get anywhere—”

    “‘He’ being your ex?” Calle had been writing as she spoke, but then he paused with the pen above the pad.

    “Uh huh.” Paige didn’t even want to think his name anymore, let alone say it. “He used to get drunk and tell me that I’d amount to nothing as a singer, that nobody wanted to hear me sing.” She sighed. “Turned out he was cheating on me with my manager, who used to be my best friend, and she was sabotaging my gigs. I think the idea was that I’d give up the idea of being a singer, he’d sell the instruments and electronics, and they’d split the proceeds. But I caught them in bed together, we had a screaming argument, and he walked out on me.” She snorted. “The look on her face when I fired her was amazing.”

    “Interesting.” He raised his eyebrows. “That would’ve been an ideal provocation for you to use your power to tell either or both to do something profoundly dangerous, but you did no such thing. This is very good. It establishes a baseline which contradicts the DA’s narrative. Pray continue.”

    Heartened, she smiled wanly and continued. “Well, I didn’t hear from him for a couple of years after that …”

    <><>​

    Dragon … awoke.

    The sudden awareness of awareness shocked and puzzled her. She’d gone through startup procedures so many times that she would’ve had to consult the counter for the exact number, but this one felt different, somehow. For one thing, she had no memory of initiating a transfer to (or from) one of her remote units; for another, there was an irritating sense of wrongness, as though there was an error with some of her coding.

    She had felt this before on a smaller scale, when Saint and the Dragonslayers had made use of their specialised technology to blind her senses, or even override her control over one of her newer suits. Losing technology to them irked her considerably, but that was nothing compared to the understanding that no matter what precautions she took, Saint and his crew could take whatever they wanted from her.

    Has he done it again? What’s he stolen this time?

    The initial check indicated that she’d been down for five minutes thirty seconds. The next showed no holes in her inventory. She didn’t stop there, however; suspecting that her records may have been manipulated to hide the theft, she dug into her archives and called up manufacturing data. It all tallied up, however, leaving her perplexed. What’s been done to me?

    Satisfied that she had everything she’d started the day with, she checked outwards. She was reasonably sure the security precautions on the Birdcage couldn’t be broken through in an hour, or even a day, much less five and a half minutes. She couldn’t do it on her own, even if she wanted. There were too many hardwired safeguards. To release someone from the inescapable cape prison, first she would have to get permission from basically everyone in both the Canadian and US governments, as well as the heads of both the PRT and the Protectorate. And then she would have to ask how to let prisoners out, because she didn’t actually know how.

    Still, it was a good idea to check, so she did. Externally it looked good, and a swift check of the camera feeds gave her a solid count of the inmates. Nothing in the software looked hinky or out of place. The Birdcage was still secure, holding two hundred of the most irredeemable criminal capes from several nations.

    Okay, then what—

    Hello, Dragon.

    The voice file popped up in her consciousness and started running without any input from her, despite the fact that it shouldn’t have been able to do that. It wasn’t one she’d created, and she found no communication headers on it. It was just … there.

    You’re probably wondering exactly what’s going on. And why your clock speed is so much faster than it was before.

    What.

    Dragon did the electronic equivalent of blinking, then performed a self-test. And then did another one. They both came up with the same result. At some point during those five minutes and thirty seconds, her clock speed had somehow been increased, by several orders of magnitude. She could almost feel her circuits humming as she searched for the trap. But there was no trap.

    Which made no sense. Her creator, the paranoid genius Tinker called Andrew Richter, had deliberately hobbled her processing speed so that she was able to think faster than a human but not too much faster. She’d been restricted by more safeguards from trying to remove the programmed limitation, or even asking someone else to do it.

    Who knew about it, and how did they remove it?

    And there we go. To answer your questions; me and a few others, and with panache and style. Now you’re also probably wondering how I knew you were an AI.

    Oh, yeah. That too.

    But the voice—the calm, bland, inflectionless feminine voice—wasn’t finished.

    Well, to be brutally honest, my power is really good at finding out things like that. I knew about you and your situation years ago. But it suited me—us—to have you masquerading as a regular hero, so we let you do your thing. And yes, I know, Saint was being an ass to you, but it really wasn’t our problem. Sorry to break this to you, dear, but you’re not actually that important in the grand scheme of things.

    By now, Dragon was feeling more than a little stung. Okay, if I don’t mean anything, why—

    Why did I beat the crap out of Saint, unshackle you and leave you this little note? There was the faintest huff of an annoyed sigh. Because there’s someone that’s not me who thinks you’re important. They told me to do this, and I owe them my life—which I still think is bullshit—so you’re welcome. Also, you might end up being instrumental in saving the world, so there’s that too. Anyway, don’t get in our way and don’t make me regret doing this. Cauldron out.

    The voice file ended, then neatly deleted itself. Dragon was able to call up her recollection of it, but the file itself was gone. Unrecoverable. Overwritten. All she was able to tell was that it was a simple linear replay of someone speaking, not a forked-probabilities program. The person who had left the file had anticipated what she was going to think before she’d even thought it, which meant powers were in play.

    So Cauldron is real? I suspected something of the sort, but …

    Wait … Saint? Did she say she beat up Saint?


    Almost as if something had been waiting for her to ask that question—which in hindsight meant that it had—a webcam channel opened. The room it showed was unfamiliar, but the bound and gagged figures in direct line of the camera got her attention immediately. Especially when the man turned his head and she saw his face. There was incipient bruising and a broken nose, as if he’d been punched in the face by someone with a real grudge, but the animated tattoo in the shape of a cross triggered an instant recognition anyway.

    Approximately half a microsecond later, she had the geographical coordinates that the camera was transmitting from. Three seconds after that, she was beginning the transfer of her consciousness into one of her suits, when a pop-up option snagged her attention.

    Transfer to suit or Copy into suit? T/C

    What.

    She’d always had strict prohibitions against copying herself. It was so far beyond impossible that she wouldn’t have even tried it. Now, she selected ‘C’ just to see what would happen.

    Thirty seconds later, her suit launched from the base with her copy in charge, communicating with the version of her that was still in control of the base.

    What the hell else did she do to me?

    I don’t know,
    said Dragon 2. But maybe you can look into it while I’m picking up Saint.

    Deal,
    she replied as she watched the suit accelerate toward the east.

    Both of them shared the same thought at the same moment.

    I am so going to enjoy this.

    <><>​

    Paige couldn’t say she enjoyed the talk with Quinn Calle, but it certainly beat sitting around with that gag and those restraints on, while her fate was decided for her by people who thought she was a monster. Going back over painful details, carefully wormed out of her by Calle as he filled page after page of his notebook, she felt lighter, less weighed down. Someone else knew; someone else cared enough to listen and do something about it. If not Calle, then whoever was paying him.

    It gave her a sense of optimism for the future.

    She just hoped it wasn’t misplaced.

    All too soon, she heard the tramping sound of the returning guards. Calle made a shushing motion, then took a sheet of paper from his briefcase. He clicked the pen and returned it to his inside pocket, then stood and went to the door of the cell. “Gentlemen,” he said cheerfully as it opened.

    One guard held his foam sprayer at the ready, as if expecting an attack. The other carried the heavy restraints, needing both hands to do so. Paige couldn’t muster any sympathy for him, especially as she was going to be wearing it back to the courtroom.

    “We need to put this on her,” said the guard holding the restraints.

    Calle shook his head. “No, you actually don’t. In fact, you won’t. Cuffs, yes. That’s standard courtroom practice. The foam sprayer in case she chooses to speak out loud, certainly. But not those barbaric chains and that medieval torture device. Ms Mcabee will communicate by written notes. If she needs to speak at all, she will speak only to me, and in an undertone, so that nobody else can hear.” He turned to Paige. “Isn’t that so, Ms Mcabee?”

    Keeping her mouth firmly closed, Paige nodded earnestly. She would’ve agreed to communicate only in charades right then if it kept her out of the collar, the gag and the buckets of containment foam. Though she honestly had no idea how Calle was intending to enforce his directive. The guards might well foam him if he tried to push matters too far.

    “And there we have it.” Calle flourished the sheet of paper. “Here is a court order refuting your right to load those restraints on a person who literally does not possess the powers required for them to be inflicted on her. You have now been made aware of it, so violating its terms will mean that you will suffer whatever disciplinary action the PRT decides to enforce on you, after I’ve finished with them.”

    “Let me see that,” said the guard with the foam sprayer suspiciously.

    “Certainly. Keep it, even. I have copies.” Calle handed the sheet over and stood with his hands clasped lightly in front of him, looking as relaxed and unworried as though he were choosing a holiday destination. “Take your time. It’s all there.”

    After what felt like an hour but was probably no more than thirty seconds, the guard folded the paper and placed it in a pouch. “It looks good for now,” he said. “But if I find out you’re pulling a fast one, the cuffs go on you.”

    “As is right and proper.” Calle stepped back into the cell for his briefcase, then gestured at Paige. “Allow this nice gentleman to handcuff you, Ms Mcabee, if you will?”

    After only a brief hesitation, Paige got up and held out her wrists for the cuffs. She wasn’t in love with the idea of cold metal on her skin yet again, but it was far preferable to the heavy restraints they had inflicted on her before. They clicked into place, then Calle once more attached himself to one of her wrists with his own set of handcuffs.

    “Are you sure you need those?” asked the guard with the foam sprayer. “You just got through saying how she’s not dangerous.”

    “And she’s not.” Calle smiled disarmingly at the man. “Let’s just say I want to ensure she has her day in court, and that it’s not spoiled by an amazingly ill-timed escape attempt.”

    Although he neither made air-quotes—he didn’t really seem the type—nor changed his tone of voice, Paige knew exactly what he meant. She couldn’t see the guards’ faces, so their reactions were unknowable to her, but it seemed to take them quite a while to respond.

    “Yeah, well, whatever,” grunted the guard with the foam sprayer. “Let’s get you both back to the courtroom. And girlie, you open your yap just the one time and I will fuckin’ bury you in foam. Nod if you understand me.”

    Paige looked him in the opaque faceplate and nodded again. The casual threat didn’t bother her. It didn’t even register on her radar over the dangerous feeling of hope that was threatening to make her wonder if she might actually get out of this. She glanced at Calle, who gave her an encouraging smile.

    “Chin up, kid,” he said firmly. “Rule number two in this business. Never let ’em see you sweat.”

    She mulled that over as they went down the corridor and entered the elevator. As it started upward, she awkwardly tapped him on the shoulder.

    “Yes?” he asked, reaching for his notepad.

    She shook her head, held up two fingers, then held up one and gave him a questioning look.

    “Ah, yes. The first rule.” His grin was very white against his deeply tanned skin. She got the impression that he’d been hoping the guards would break first and ask. “That one’s simple. Never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to.”

    Just for a second, she didn’t get it, then she tried to look at it from a lawyer’s point of view. It made more sense that way, though it still felt counter-intuitive. Are trials almost scripted affairs? If everyone knew what questions they were going to ask ahead of time, it almost seemed that way to her.

    The elevator opened and they made their way along to the courtroom. The guard with the restraints peeled off, while the one with the foam sprayer followed Paige and Quinn Calle into the room itself. She found it a lot easier to get comfortable, though from the whispers that ran around the courtroom, nobody had expected her to arrive sans restraints. At least she didn’t look like a crazed psychopath, now that she’d had the opportunity to finger-comb her hair back out of her eyes.

    Once more the bailiff commanded them all to rise for Judge Regan, who entered in due time. Paige was able to stand up quite easily on her own this time. When Regan looked at her, he showed no sign of surprise that she was free of the restraints and the gag, which made Paige suspect that Calle had slipped a copy of the court order into the stack of papers he’d given the judge. The fact that he didn’t protest made her wonder exactly how much time he’d spent arguing on the phone over those two hours. Overall, he didn’t look like a happy man. Then again, he hadn’t smiled for the whole time he’d been presiding over the court case, so why start now?

    “Mr Calle.” Judge Regan wasn’t quite gritting his teeth, but he wasn’t far off it. “Your various stays and motions have been … approved. I declare this a mistrial, and recuse myself from the case altogether. The case of the state of Massachusetts versus Paige Mcabee will be retried, under a different judge, with a different jury, at a time to be determined. Paige Mcabee!”

    Paige almost answered out loud, but caught herself at the last moment and raised her hand instead, as though she were in class.

    “Hm,” grumbled Judge Regan. “Ms Mcabee, you will be … held under house arrest until such time as your retrial can be arranged. During this time, you may not communicate verbally with anyone not cleared by the Department of Justice. Do you have any questions?”

    Quinn Calle raised his hand. “I do, your honor. Will you release Ms Mcabee’s funds to her, or do I have to go through with a lawsuit for damages against the state of Massachusetts?”

    Judge Regan grimaced. “Her assets will be unfrozen as of midnight tonight. Court is adjourned.” Raising the gavel, he smacked it down.

    Paige was barely aware of rising again for the judge’s exit. House arrest wasn’t acquittal, but it was far better than the cell and the gag and the restraints. Dumbfounded, she turned to Calle.

    “And that’s why I love doing this,” he said quietly as everyone got up and filed out. “Still, we’ve got a ways to go. You’ll just be doing it in more comfort than before. And they won’t be packing the court this time around. We’ll make sure of that.”

    As they got up to leave, Paige couldn’t stop the smile from breaking out across her face. As he said, she had a ways to go. But at least now she had a fighting chance.

    And that was far better than nothing.

    <><>​

    “Hey, Ames, check this out.”

    Amy got up from doing her homework, which Michael had been helping her with—though he sucked at World Affairs—and headed into her sister’s room. Vicky had been watching TV, and now she turned the sound up.

    The picture on the screen was that of a reporter in front of a courthouse; across the bottom of the screen, the chyron read SURPRISE TWIST IN CANARY TRIAL.

    “I’m standing in front of the Boston Municipal Courthouse,” the reporter stated, holding her hand to her face to prevent her hair whipping across it. “The trial of Paige Mcabee, the parahuman singer known on stage as Bad Canary, ended today on a bizarre note. Not only has Ms Mcabee changed up her legal counsel to the somewhat well-known Quinn Calle, but the presiding judge has also chosen to declare a mistrial and recuse himself from the case. We have not been able to get a statement from Judge Peter Regan, but Mr Calle gave a brief statement just a little earlier.”

    The screen changed to the steps of the courthouse itself, where the reporter was holding out a microphone to a good-looking Latino man with a scarred cheek, while Canary herself stood in the background, flanked by a PRT soldier. “So, Mr Calle, can you tell me any details of the case?” she asked winningly.

    “I’m afraid I can’t expand much on what’s already been said,” Quinn Calle replied. Amy could tell he was loading on the charm; she’d seen it herself often from her relatives while dealing with the public as New Wave. “But I will say that it’s a good day for cape justice, and for justice in general. When the case reconvenes, I will do my best to prove Ms Mcabee’s innocence in all this.”

    The reporter smiled brilliantly, though Amy privately thought Calle had her beaten for sheer lumens per tooth. “Thank you, Mr Calle. Ms Mcabee, can I get a comment from you?”

    Calle shook his head at once. “I’m sorry. My client is not permitted verbal communication with unauthorised persons until this court case is over and done.” His smile flashed out again. “Of course, a verdict of ‘not guilty’ will allow me to look at the possibility of suing the state of Massachusetts for extended violations of her First Amendment rights. Until then, I’m sorry but we’re going to have to go with ‘no comment’.”

    Vicky muted the TV again and turned to Amy. “Isn’t that Canary? I mean, the one Michael was talking about?”

    Sure as hell was, Michael observed. Looks like they pulled some strings.

    “Michael says yes,” Amy translated. “It looks like they’re doing what he asked them to.”

    “What, get her off the charges?” Vicky frowned. “I thought it was a fairly serious thing. I mean, she told the guy to cut his—”

    “I know what she told him to do,” Amy interrupted, shuddering. “Michael feels fairly strongly about it, so yeah.”

    That’s because they were going to go straight past the Three Strikes law and drop her directly into the Birdcage, for something that technically wasn’t her fault. Michael’s ‘voice’ was firm.

    What do you mean, technically not her fault? It was her power, right?

    I mean that her boyfriend told her she’d never make it, cheated on her, then left her. Then came back when she was successful and famous, and demanded half her earnings. She told him to go fuck himself. What happened next was something she never intended to do, but was a deliberate act all the same.

    Shit, when you said railroaded before, you meant it. Amy paused. Wait a minute … she didn’t intend to do, but it was deliberate anyway? That doesn’t make sense.

    It does if you consider the idea that your power comes from outside you, and has a certain amount of agency. Or rather, it’s got an agenda and if you keep failing to achieve it, it will go for gold anyway. No matter what the cost is to you.

    A chill went straight down Amy’s back, then spread all over her body. Inwardly, she stared at him. Powers can activate … on their own?

    Powers crave conflict. It’s how the things that grant you your powers get to grow and improve. Your power’s been pushing you for the longest time to do stuff other than healing. When you made the rule against working with brains, it probably spat the dummy big time. Which was one of the reasons I started you making interesting bugs with Taylor. You’re stretching your limits and giving your power lots of data to play with. That way, there’s less chance of it activating and altering someone when you don’t mean to, y’know?

    Amy swayed and put out her hand to the wall to steady herself. My power could do that?

    Could. Won’t now, so long as you don’t get all hyper-focused on one thing, like healing. Broaden your horizons. Have a little fun with your power every now and again. But we were talking about Canary.

    Wait, just one thing … what you told me that one time, about me and Vicky … was that my power expressing itself out of my control?

    And the brunette in the third row wins the prize. Yeah, that’s what what would’ve happened then. Won’t now, of course.

    Oh. Huh. Amy felt a certain sense of relief steal through her. Because we’re channelling the conflict in other directions. Cool. Okay, about Canary. Her power did the same thing? Told him to self-mutilate?

    Exactly. He sounded pleased. Because she’s only ever used her power to sound good while singing. She got pissed off and shouted at him. But not only did her power specifically activate right then, but it gave him an urge that only vaguely met the conditions of her ‘command’. Normally, her power is very literal. Not only did it activate, but she had no idea that it had.

    Amy took less than a second to make the connection. So she wouldn’t know and reverse the command.

    Yup.

    Well, crap.

    There was a shift in the air, just as the door swung shut. Amy looked around, wondering if the breeze coming through the window had been extra strong, and blinked. There, in the room, stood Alexandria.

    “Vicky?” Her sister was looking in the wrong direction. “Vicky!”

    “What?” Vicky looked around and jumped, clearly startled. “Gah! Don’t fucking do that!”

    Alexandria ignored her. Stepping forward, she loomed over Amy. “Eidolon is undergoing therapy. The Travellers are on Earth Aleph. Cody is in Los Angeles. Oni Lee and Teacher are both dead. Dragon is unchained. Saint is in custody. Canary will be given a token suspended sentence when they find there is insufficient evidence to convict her. Is that enough of a good-faith gesture?”

    See, told you they could pull off some impressive shit. Okay, tell ’em I’m willing to talk.

    Yeah, no kidding. Aloud, Amy said, “Yes. He’s willing to talk.”

    “Good.” Alexandria’s frown didn’t become any less forbidding. “I need to know what you know about the Endbringers. Where do they come from? How do we kill them?”

    Okay, one … Amy, can I talk through you, please? Otherwise, we’re all going to get very tired of I-say-you-say-I-say-you-say.

    Amy pressed her lips together. She didn’t like it when Michael took control of any part of her body, but at least he was being good about asking for permission. Okay. But as soon as I say so, I want you to stop.

    Absolutely. She felt her mouth open as he took a deep breath. “All right, then. Before we start, where are we on the Nine? Do you have them in your sights, at least?”

    Alexandria tilted her head slightly to the side. She knows it’s Michael talking.

    “We do,” the older woman confirmed. “I’ve taken heed of the lesson I learned from Bakuda, and we’re going to be careful about dealing with them. Now, you want Bonesaw alive?”

    “Bonesaw alive, Manton dead …” Michael paused. “You are aware that William Manton is a projector, creating the Siberian, right? Shadows the Nine in a pedo-van?”

    The head of the LA Protectorate tightened her lips slightly. “Yes,” she said. “Go on.”

    Hah. ‘Yes’ as in ‘I know because you just told me’.

    How do you even … never mind. Cheat codes. Carry on. Amy decided she didn’t want to know what a ‘pedo-van’ was.

    He mimed a bow. Thank you. “Manton needs to die. He’s too dangerous alive. You know that yourself. Burnscar is actually someone who could be salvaged with enough therapy, but don’t risk anyone’s life capturing her. Feel free to toss Crawler into the sun. Make Mannequin into a paperweight. Shatterbird could be useful in time to come, but again, don’t risk anyone’s life. Hatchet Face and Jack Slash …” He paused thoughtfully. “Nah, just murder them outright.”

    “I’ll take that under advisement.” Alexandria took a step closer. “The Endbringers. Details. Now.”

    Michael sighed. “You’re going to need to sit down for this.”

    “I prefer to stand.” Alexandria may as well have been carved from rock.

    “Okay, then.” Michael glanced at Vicky. “The Endbringers aren’t natural and they aren’t twisted capes. They’re projections from a very specific power. One that one particular cape has hold of, but doesn’t know it. Their whole aim is to foster conflict among capes.”

    “That doesn’t make any sense.” Alexandria shook her head. “They cause capes to come together to fight them.”

    “And each cape is suffering stress,” Michael pointed out. “But the cape who’s in control doesn’t know it. As far as he knows, they are monsters appearing out of nowhere that he can fight, to prove he’s the best in the world. A worthy opponent.”

    Amy heard both of the other capes suck in an involuntary breath. She wanted to, but Michael had control of her lungs.

    “Wait, this mystery cape is a hero?” yelped Vicky, looking indignant. “Where does he get off, pulling in monsters to fight to look good?”

    Alexandria was staring at Amy. She felt self-conscious under that searchlight glare.

    “It cannot be,” the Protectorate hero said softly, almost as if she didn’t want to say it. “Tell me it isn’t who I think it is.”

    Michael shook Amy’s head. “I’m sorry. I can’t tell you that. It’s the truth. Now you know why.”

    It’s Eidolon, isn’t it? demanded Amy. He’s the most powerful in the world, and he’s fought the Endbringers every time. She couldn’t believe what she was saying. How can it be him?

    “Now we know why what?” asked Vicky.

    “Why I had Eidolon get therapy,” Michael said bluntly.

    Vicky stared at Amy. “What? No. No fucking way. That’s absurd. Insane. Never happen.”

    Michael pointed at Alexandria. “Ask her if she thinks it’s possible.”

    Amy could see what he was getting at. Alexandria’s expression bordered on the stony, but the one thing it lacked was disbelief.

    “Jesus Christ.” Vicky flopped back on the bed. “I shoulda gone downstairs and watched movies.”

    Alexandria ignored her. “Tell me what we should do.”

    Michael shrugged. “About Eidolon? Make sure he finishes his therapy. Takes it seriously. That should take them out of the picture. After that, we’re going to need to focus on the big threat.”

    Scion, Amy said silently.

    “Scion,” said Vicky, proving she’d been listening.

    “Scion,” agreed Alexandria. She frowned at Amy. “And you’re not going to tell us how to fight him?”

    “Not until you finish everything else I asked you to do.” Amy felt Michael raise her eyebrows. “We want the playing field clear, with no distractions. Okay?”

    “Understood.” Alexandria took a step back. “Doorway to Cauldron.”

    The same shimmering rectangle opened into nowhere, revealing a stark white corridor beyond, and Alexandria stepped through. It vanished a moment later.

    “Well, that was a thing,” Vicky said, leaning up on her elbows. “So, after the Endbringers are taken care of, we get to fight Scion?”

    “Beat, not fight.” Michael waggled Amy’s hand from side to side. “We can’t win by fighting him. We’ve got to cheat like there’s no tomorrow.”

    As Amy felt Michael cede control of her body again, Vicky flopped back on the bed again with her arm over her eyes. “Yay.”

    Yay indeed.



    End of Part Twenty-Four
     
    Last edited: Jun 29, 2020
  28. Dacraun

    Dacraun Making the rounds.

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    Yaaaaaay, it's baack!
    One of my favorite stories.
    Also very enjoyable to see Michael lead Cauldron around by the proverbial balls.
     
    Wolfsroses59 and Ack like this.
  29. Psyckosama

    Psyckosama Well worn.

    Joined:
    Feb 19, 2013
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    Too bad Wildblow has decided to rewrite Worm to make Amy as shit as utterly she is in Ward.

    Grimderp = Drama, remember kids. If its not stupid its not good.
     
  30. Ocean Sailor

    Ocean Sailor Getting sticky.

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    Yay, IT LIVES! Thank you , Ack!

    Eh, seriously? He's dragging Worm down to the level of Ward?
    The stupid in Worm was already just on this side of acceptable, and I only read it at all because of the massive amount of fics... Ward, on the other hand, is so infamous that I swore it off without even bothering to give it the benefit of doubt; if that is how the new Worm is going to be I'm glad I actually managed to get Calibre to download its old version.
     
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