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War Games [Worm/Polity Crossover]

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Ack, Jun 6, 2015.

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  1. Threadmarks: Part Seven: Sleight of Hand
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    War Games

    Part Seven: Sleight of Hand

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



    Miss Militia

    Hannah examined the scorched spot on the asphalt, moving the high-powered flashlight carefully from side to side. She wrinkled her nose at the acrid smell, but didn't let it distract her from the matter at hand. Turning to Captain Hastings, she asked, “This was a maser, correct? A microwave laser?”

    “Yes.” Geneva was wearing a ship-suit of a slightly different pattern to the one she'd had on when Hannah first met her, though the pulse pistol still rode at her hip. Sartorial accoutrements aside, she didn't seem the least bit fazed by the incident. “I directed Sean to hit the intruder with an unfocused burst, powerful enough to set cloth on fire but not enough to cause more than second-degree burns to exposed skin.” She nodded toward the scorch-mark. “I think it's obvious what happened here.”

    Hannah thought so too, but she wasn't leaving anything to chance. After all, Geneva may have spotted something she'd missed. “So walk me through it, so I can brief the Director.” She was beginning to regret accepting the position of liaison to the newcomers, as fascinating as the ship and the people in it were. Not only was the ship equipped with insanely high-powered weaponry, but it also seemed entirely willing to defend itself with them—and this was important—inside a metropolitan area. “You saw someone coming, and then …?”

    “Sean acquired the traces of nine parahumans loitering in the area,” Geneva stated at once. She didn't have to explain what she meant by 'traces'. “Three were standing off, on top of a building in that direction.” She pointed. “We've cross-referenced it with a plan of the city, if you're interested in exactly which one. One was approaching the Bond James Bond from the same direction. The other five were in the surface vehicle that was coming at us from the other direction. These were the ones you call the Merchants, correct?”

    “Yes,” agreed Hannah. “We'll talk about how you shot at them with a particle beam cannon in a moment.” Oddly enough, in a city with five Tinkers (three of them villains, though Bakuda was now in the Birdcage), she'd never had to actually use that particular phrasing before. “I'm interested in the lone parahuman. What happened then?”

    “He got inside the perimeter fence, and we still didn't have a good sensor lock on him,” Geneva said. “Sean and I theorised that he might be one of these Strangers you've got, or perhaps someone with good chameleonwear. Either way, I decided on a low-power shot with the maser array to dissuade him and simultaneously alert the guard force to his presence. A screaming man running around in a burning costume would find it hard to be stealthy, after all.” Somehow, she managed to keep a straight face while delivering that line.

    “I would imagine so.” Hannah didn't crack a smile, though it wasn't easy. Someone had died here, after all. “So Sean shot at the intruder, and there was an explosion. Scorchmarks but no body parts. You think it was Fog?” The Empire cape wouldn't have been her first choice, but the logic was inescapable. If the maser had been used at sufficient power to vaporise a human body, the asphalt would've certainly melted as well.

    “Sean suggested it, and Dragon concurred.” Geneva shrugged. “She knows far more about the local parahuman scene than Sean or me, including the stuff that's not in the public record. If she thinks it's plausible, then I'm going to go with that for the time being. From all I've read, Geoff Schmidt was a nasty piece of work with more than one murder to his name.” She didn't sound particularly regretful.

    “So you think he just went up like a … like a flour bomb?” Hannah had heard of the phenomenon before, but she'd never considered that a parahuman would be susceptible to that sort of thing. It seemed such a … trivial way to go. It was hard to credit that any enemy of the Empire could've disposed of the man with a lit cigarette. “I'm having trouble seeing that.”

    Geneva paused, then nodded. “Ah. I understand. Not quite like that. However, if it was Fog, he was dispersed, and the particulates he was composed of were quite possibly organic in some way. A human body can't take serious harm from a brief burst of microwaves, because the cells are packed closely together. Some take extra harm to shield the others, and evolution allows the human body to slough off damaged skin and regrow epidermis in its place. But if the particulates are dispersed widely enough that they all heat up at once, and a significant proportion of them are exposed to energy sufficient to make cloth catch fire, a chain reaction can take place. And the maser was set on dispersal, so as to catch as wide an area as possible in its beam. So … yes, that's our working theory.”

    “I see.” Hannah nodded; it definitely made a lot of sense. There was just one more matter to clear up. “You didn't offer a warning before you opened fire? With either Fog or the Merchants?” She wasn't asking so much for herself so much as for the absolute certainty that someone in the chain of command above her was certain to ask her, and she needed an answer she could pass on.

    Captain Hastings raised one silvery, and very expressive, eyebrow. “The Bond James Bond is a warship,” she reminded Hannah. “Sean is a very old and very experienced soldier. Warnings allow your enemy the opportunity to take cover and they let him know you can see him. We used warning shots. And before you ask, a warning shot that misses is wasted ammunition. It's better to hit them non-lethally; this both hampers them and explains to them that yes, we do actually have them targeted. Both of which work wonders against their morale.” She paused, tilting her head slightly, then chuckled. “Sean is reminding me that we deliberately missed with our warning shot against Kramer's ship when we rescued Reynaud. That was a special case; we didn't know where in the ship he might be, and accidents can still happen.”

    “Such as with Fog.” Hannah had no particular issue with the fact that an Empire cape was probably dead. Ever since she'd gotten her powers, death had lost its emotional impact on her. However, other people were almost guaranteed to fly off the handle when informed that the time-travelling aliens in the AI-controlled spaceship had almost casually executed someone for getting too close. Not that she saw matters in exactly that light, but some would. Those sympathetic to the Empire's cause—and, in her opinion, there were were altogether too many of those in Brockton Bay—were likely to push that point of view exclusively. Never mind that Fog's presence inside the perimeter could in no way be seen as innocent, or that his presence had been a clear and present danger to both the crew of the ship and the PRT soldiers guarding the vessel. “That was an accident, right? You had no intention of killing him?”

    From the look on Geneva's face, she'd figured out exactly what Hannah was trying to hint towards. “It was absolutely an accident,” she confirmed. “The maximum we intended was a painful but superficial burn. People tend to take notice of object lessons, especially when they involve extremely public humiliation, followed by arrest.”

    “And the same regarding the Merchants, I suppose?” Hannah switched the flashlight off. There was nothing of note she could pick out with the naked eye, though she'd already given orders to have it cordoned off and investigated more closely come daylight. “Wasn't it somewhat extreme to target them with a particle beam? Couldn't you have used something with a little more restraint?”

    Geneva snorted. “As opposed to having Sean spin up the railgun and splatter them all over the street, I'm pretty sure what we did counts as 'restraint'. Our scans didn't show any significant shielding in that junker they were driving, so we dialled it right back and knocked them out without doing any biological damage. The ionising effect was merely an amusing side benefit.” She gave Hannah an appraising stare. “Once word gets out, the remainder of the criminal element in town is likely to be somewhat more circumspect about messing with the Bond James Bond. Is that your assessment, too?”

    “Well, considering how you turned night into day for half a mile with those godawful searchlights, I'd be astonished if word didn't get out,” Hannah replied with some asperity. “As for whether the cape gangs would step back, you've just facilitated the capture of one of the two criminal Tinkers left in town. The Empire's shown their interest already, but they probably don't even know what happened to Fog, which might make them hold off for a time. As for the rest of them …”

    “Dragon says the rest of them are bit-part players, either hit-and-run specialists like the Undersiders or strictly human mooks like Coil's gang,” reported Geneva. “There's also Faultline's Crew, but they apparently only take out-of-town jobs.” She frowned, as if Dragon's meaning had only just dawned on her. “What, really?”

    “Really,” confirmed Hannah. “They don't commit Federal crimes, and they only pull out-of-state jobs. More importantly, they're careful about not hurting innocents. If we're going to have villains in town, I'd prefer to have villains like them.” She smiled under her scarf at Geneva's startled expression. “Not that I'd ever say that anywhere the news crews could hear me, but villains are a fact of life around here. Everyone has opinions on them, especially on PHO.”

    Geneva nodded. “I know about that one. Not that I've tried it yet, but Reynaud's apparently taking his account out for a spin right now.” She let out a noise of amusement. “Actually, it's probably a good thing that he doesn't have an aug quite yet. If he's only used to manual Grid access, he'll probably be right at home here. They might not even notice he's from somewhere else.”

    That earned her an incredulous glance. Hannah wasn't a regular visitor to the boards, but she found they were a good place to get an idea of how the public was reacting to new events. She'd skimmed them briefly earlier in the evening and found several threads slowly but surely exploding over the Bond James Bond's dramatic debut. How they'd react to the latest incident, she wasn't sure she wanted to know.

    “Let me ask you a question,” she said, after having rummaged through her mind for several ways to respond to Geneva's comment. “If you went on this Grid back in your time, shortly after a totally paradigm-shifting event occurred, and you claimed to be someone who was part of said event, what would the response be like?” She could only hope Reynaud was resilient enough to weather the storm of attention—both positive and negative—that he was inevitably going to earn from the tinfoil-hat crowd just for merely existing. He seemed to be quick-witted enough, which was a point in his favour.

    Then,” Geneva said firmly, “whoever it was would be mobbed to a fare-thee-well. Even before he showed up, conspiracy nuts would be spouting half-assed theories covering a range of interpretations. Once he identified himself, some of them would beg him for the truth of the matter, while others would accuse him of being a fake so they could push their own version of events. And among those who took him seriously, maybe half would actually listen to what he's saying, while the rest cherry-picked what they wanted from it to support their own agendas.” She folded her arms and gave Hannah a satisfied nod. “What's it like in this era?”

    Hannah tilted her hand back and forth. “About the same, actually,” she said judiciously. “Don't forget; for nearly thirty years, we've had people with super-powers messing up the world and each other, sometimes on purpose. For almost as long, we've had people watching capes and trying to make sense of their motivations. Which isn't the easiest thing to do, because powers are impossible to predict. Worse, getting powers is pretty well guaranteed to send people off kilter, even if it's only by a little bit. As you can imagine, this has resulted in distinctly bizarre situations from time to time, which the self-styled cape experts then try to analyse and make sense of. And it's amazing how often the weirdest explanation has actually been the correct one.”

    “Really? I find it hard to believe a pre-Runcible version of the Grid would be that bad.” Geneva's large eyes went slightly unfocused. “I'm just going to have a look …” A moment passed, while Hannah wondered just how easy it would be to get used to having an aug. Then Geneva blinked a couple of times, the weird secondary eyelids wiping across her eyes and making her look just a little more startled. “Okay, you win. That's some crazy speculation, right there. Just one question: what's a Case Fifty-Three?”

    Mentally, Hannah facepalmed. As she'd expected, the tinfoil-hats were out in force. “It's shorthand for capes with inhuman appearances. They're marked out with a C-shaped tattoo and retrograde amnesia. Nobody really knows what that's about, but there's no shortage of theories.”

    “Inhuman appearances?” Geneva stared at her. “Reynaud's a perfectly normal seadapt. That sort of genemod's not cheap but it's not priced out of the market either.” She shook her head. “I can't believe that even with super-powers, this sort of thing isn't more common.”

    “Perfectly normal for your time, maybe,” Hannah pointed out. “Here and now, powers tend to screw people over rather than help them. There's very few people who could reliably tailor someone else's appearance in a non-harmful way. I can think of maybe two off the top of my head, and I'm not at all certain about Panacea. From everything I've heard, she can only fix things, not change them.” She paused as a disquieting thought occurred to her. “Getting back to Reynaud, are you sure he's okay to be online with that crowd? They can get pretty brutal on occasion, and at least some of them are liable to keep jumping up and down on the Case Fifty-Three button.”

    Geneva smiled. “That's the last thing we've got to worry about. Don't forget, Dragon just moved in. She's got sub-minds taking care of business elsewhere while she personally moderates the discussion thread that Reynaud's in right now. If anyone tries to make a personal attack, the comment's deleted before it shows on the screen, and that person gets a warning. Second offence, they get a temp ban.” She chuckled at the look on Hannah's face. “It seems she's taking her Polity citizenship very seriously. I think she's got a future in law enforcement when she gets back home. We'll certainly put in a good word for her.”

    “I'm impressed,” Hannah said. “But what I'm most surprised at is that Dragon's a mod on PHO. I never even heard a rumour about that … but then, I guess I don't run in the crowd which would spread that sort of thing around.” She shrugged. “I guess it's not important, anyway. I'm pleased that she's keeping an eye on him.”

    Geneva chuckled. “There's exactly three other citizens of the Polity on Earth right now. I go armed and Sean goes very armed, so Reynaud's the only one who really needs assistance at the moment. Besides, I suspect she enjoys chatting to someone who sees AI as nothing special. So she's keeping him company till he gets tired again. Me, I think I'll take a stroll.”

    “Wait, what? No!” Hannah stepped in front of Geneva as she moved toward the opening in the barricade around the Bond James Bond. “It's far too dangerous. There's already been two attacks on the ship. If you go off on your own, someone might try something. This is a city where looking different can get you killed, and law enforcement is going to be stretched to the limit in the aftermath of Leviathan. I'm not letting you get hurt on my watch.”

    “Okay, I get it.” Geneva looked Hannah in the eye and nodded seriously. “It's the past. A dangerous place to be, and all that.” She brushed her fingers over the pulse pistol at her hip. “But don't forget, I'm the one who rescued Reynaud from Kramer. Sean might've disabled Kramer's ship, but I went in there to extract him. I'm not exactly a stranger to problematic situations.” Raising her hands to shoulder height, she gestured outward. “But I won't be looking for trouble. I just want to go out there, have a cup of tea or something, and see what ordinary folk in Brockton Bay really thinks of people like me.”

    “Hm.” Hannah didn't like this; not in the slightest. However, given that Geneva very explicitly wasn't a prisoner, there wasn't much Hannah could to to stop the elfin woman from going for a stroll if she so wished. Of course, there was a simple solution to the problem. “Fine, but I'm coming with you.” Sean had amply demonstrated that he was capable of taking care of himself already, so she had little in the way of concern there.

    For a moment, it looked as though Geneva was going to argue the point, but then she chuckled and linked her arm through Hannah's. “Sure. Sean's located a coffee shop that he thinks I might like. Let's go wow the locals.”

    <><>​

    Geneva

    I hope you know what you're doing, lass. Sean wasn't one to needlessly show concern, but she could hear it in his voice now. We don't know anything good about this bug manipulator. This could be a trap for you, or a way to get you out of the ship, or both.

    We both know the only extant bug manipulator in Brockton Bay is Skitter, and she's a teenaged girl, Geneva reminded him. Footage of the pre-fight gathering suggests that she's on the outs with her previous team. I'm not sure if she wants to emigrate to the Polity, or something else, but I intend to find out.

    I meant anything significant, Sean replied, just a little testily. She's a villain who helped rob a bank and attacked a fundraiser. Her team may have been the ones to reveal the identities of the Empire Eighty-Eight. That caused a lot of collateral damage.

    Well, if it turns out she wants to use me for something shady, I'll politely say no. And if politeness doesn't work, I'll shout. She didn't bother mentioning Miss Militia's presence; Sean already knew the Protectorate cape was along for the ride. It was just one more reason to not have to worry about Skitter pulling something untoward.

    “You're very quiet.” At Geneva's side, Miss Militia was keeping pace with her. “Is everything okay?” Her words weren't so overt as to suggest going back if it wasn't, but the inference hung in the air anyway. Miss Militia's reasons were easy to understand, and if Geneva hadn't been intrigued by the bug girl's request for help, she would probably have accepted them and not gone to the meeting at all.

    But she was going, because Skitter had contacted them instead of the superheroes, which meant the cape was trusting someone from the crew to show up. Reynaud was out for several reasons; mainly, that he was under effective house arrest until the idiotic quarantine could be lifted. In addition, he had no experience at doing this sort of thing, and had little excuse for going to a coffee shop—not that she would've sent him into a situation like this anyway. Given that Sean's telefactors would probably spook the girl into bolting before a word was spoken, it was up to Geneva to see what was going on.

    “I'm fine,” she replied cheerfully. “I was just enjoying the night air. It's nice to be out and about in a real gravity well for once. Unfiltered air, actual pollutants, real trash on the ground.” She kicked a soda can to one side. “Shipside, everything's so sanitised and clean all the time that it's a pleasure to get out and about.” A random memory made her chuckle. “Though the one time we visited Cull, I didn't stay outside for long. The locals are weird, and we landed in the middle of a dust storm. Took me days to get the crap out of my hair.”

    “I see.” The tone of Miss Militia's voice said she didn't, not really. Geneva wasn't overly surprised; the anecdote had lacked a lot of necessary context. Still, she had to give the superhero credit for trying. “I guess you'd visit a lot of planets. Are these people from Cull … well, aliens? I mean, that's why you called them weird, right?”

    “Human stock, actually.” Geneva chuckled again. “Cull's a lot drier than Earth. Reynaud would hate it there. When they first colonised the place, they purchased a genemod that made them better adapted to its environment. But a few side effects crept in and bred true, which led to an odd physical appearance. Now the locals call themselves 'true humans', with the strong inference that everyone else isn't.” She shrugged. “They've also got a bit of an attitude, which was the other reason we didn't stay long. Handed over the guy we'd been contracted to catch, collected our bounty and left. No sightseeing for me.”

    “And are there any aliens?” Miss Militia sounded openly curious now. “Or are all the planets inhabited by genemod humans like you and Reynaud?” She shook her head. “I guess I'm still coming to terms with the fact there's a whole universe out there. Or will be, in your world.” Looking up toward the night sky, she gestured at the few dim stars that could be seen past the glow of the street-lights. “I can only hope we manage to get out there in the next few centuries, like you guys did, and meet whoever's out there.” She pointed down the street at where a plate-glass window spilled light across the sidewalk. “Is that where you were looking to go?”

    “Yes, that's the place,” Geneva confirmed. “But to answer your question, we've only found the one sapient alien race. There were more, as I said in the Director's office. The Jain, the Atheter and the Csorians. Popular rumour has it they reshaped solar systems, but even the Atheter vanished from the universe about half a million years before humanity arrived on the scene. Though there's a story going around that Masadan gabbleducks are smarter than they look. And hooders are downright terrifying.”

    “Okay, you've got to be pulling my leg now,” Miss Militia objected as she pushed open the door of the coffee shop. “There are alien creatures called gabbleducks and hooders? How did that come about?” As Geneva watched, her eyes roved over the customers; a couple, a man on his own, and a bespectacled teenaged girl sitting in the corner booth and reading a book.

    Geneva let her eyes skate over the customers as well. None of the adults came close to fitting Skitter's body type, but the girl was a perfect match. That's got to be her. Now, how do I get it to her? Turning slightly away from Miss Militia under the guise of looking over at the counter, she palmed the item she'd brought from the Bond James Bond in her left hand, then wriggled her closed fist slightly. “Those ones were named by the explorers that first saw them, and they have to be seen to be believed.” She paused. “The intelligent aliens we found were the Prador. We've only got a few hints as to what the other races were like, but we know a lot about the Prador.” A heartfelt grimace crossed her face. “There's only a few stories Sean's willing to tell me about the Wars, but they're pretty nasty.”

    Miss Militia nodded. “Like the Grant's World one. So what do the Prador look like?” Her curiosity was obviously well alight by now. “I mean, are they humanoid, like Klingons or whatever?” She approached the counter and addressed the server. “I'll have a flat white with one sugar. Also, give my friend whatever she wants. Bill it to the PRT. Both of them to go, please.”

    Geneva felt several insects land on her closed fist. Opened her fingers slightly, she sensed one of the multi-legged creatures wriggling into her hand until it touched the device cupped in her palm. From the corner of her eye, she saw the girl push the book into a backpack and get to her feet. She knows I've got something to give her. Is she leaving? Am I supposed to lose Miss Militia and meet her outside? “Think of … a crab,” she said after a moment. “Now, give it a shell a few metres across. Make it fast-moving, carnivorous, cannibalistic, smart, spacefaring, and fanatical. Then add in an utter disregard for any rules of war, and a taste for human flesh.” She gave Miss Militia a flat look. “That's your average Prador soldier, right there. The ones in charge are bigger.” Turning back to the counter, she changed mental gears as she favoured the woman with a smile. “I'll have a cup of Darjeeling tea with one sugar and no milk, please.” She gestured behind the counter. “Your tea is made from leaves that were actually harvested from plants grown in the dirt, correct?” She hadn't had much to do with naturally-produced foodstuffs before now, which made it somewhat of a novelty to her.

    The server behind the counter was an overweight woman with skin the same colour as Miss Militia's, and hair just beginning to show grey. Back in the Polity, Geneva wouldn't have been able to tell her age from context; she could've been a genemodded twenty or well into her second century. In this setting, with no anti-ageing treatments available, Geneva's best guess put her somewhere between forty and sixty. She gave Geneva a jaded look. “Far as I know, honey,” she replied tiredly, then her eyes widened as her brain caught up with what she was seeing. “You're the girl from that thing parked in front of the PRT building, right? Kicked nine shades of shit out of Leviathan then lit up the whole damn sky?”

    Geneva nodded, suppressing the grin that threatened to spread across her face. This wasn't just due to the woman's greeting; she could also see, on the plot Sean was sending to her aug, the teenager's U-space trace coming up behind her. Perfect. This is one sharp girl. “That's me,” she confirmed. “Call me Geneva.” She held out her hand. “I'm very pleased to meet you … ?”

    “Stella,” the woman said reflexively, shaking Geneva's hand. “Shit, how old are you, Geneva? You can't be older'n my youngest. And you went out against that monster?” She shook her head. “It's a terrible, terrible world.”

    “I'm older than I look,” Geneva advised her. “But that's okay. I'm just glad we were in the neighbourhood and could help out.” She let go Stella's hand and stepped away from the counter. The teenager was waiting patiently behind her, head down and hands bundled into her hoodie pockets, so Geneva indicated her with a tilt of her head. “Sorry, I'll just get out of your way.”

    “It's okay,” the girl said, glancing shyly up at her. “I saw you on TV. You were pretty cool. They say you saved a lot of lives.” She had large, dark eyes behind round-lensed glasses that made them look even larger; Geneva could see the tension and wariness in her gaze.

    “You're young to be out and about at this hour,” Miss Militia said, addressing the girl directly. Her tone was sharp and suspicious. “Why aren't you home in bed?” An angular projectile weapon of some sort was strapped to her chest while her hands hung loose and empty, but Geneva had seen her weapon shift and reform before; she was anything but unarmed.

    “Dad and I had a fight just before Leviathan, so I ran away from home,” the girl replied, biting her words off. “I don't know if the house is still there. I don't even know if he's still alive. I do know I'm not ready to find out. So I'm gonna drink some more coffee, and read some more of my book, then go back to my motel room and try to get some sleep, because it's been a really shitty day. Is that okay with you, or are you gonna get on my case some more?” The raw pain in her voice, Geneva decided, was genuine.

    “Listen, I'm going to sit down, okay?” Geneva nodded to the server. “Nice meeting you, Stella.” She gave the teenager an encouraging smile. “And you too.” Stepping around behind the teenager, Geneva brushed past her. By design rather than accident, this brought her left hand in close proximity with the girl's hoodie pocket.

    Geneva Hastings was sixty-four solstan years old, but anti-ageing treatments had left her looking as though she were in her late teens or early twenties. Ironically, even though in the Polity her actual age was seen to be on the young side—she hadn't reached her first century, after all—her outward appearance wasn't a factor in how people treated her. Genemods and bodysculpt were a fact of life, after all. Anyone could look like anything, within reason. Here in the past (though of another branch of history) said appearance made people see her as actually being young, despite her being older than most of them. Life was odd, sometimes.

    Of course, appearance wasn't as important as experience. Over the four decades and change of her adult life, Geneva had managed to lead an interesting career. Not everything she'd done had been entirely legal, though she never devolved into out-and-out crime in the manner of her idiot ex-husband. However, she had spent quality time getting very good at some time-honoured techniques, such as the one she employed now. Brush passes were older than modern civilisation, but they still had their uses in the bounty hunter business, especially in lower-tech civilisations.

    Geneva never broke step and in fact did not seem to make any significant contact with the girl, but when she reached the table she'd picked out, her loosely-closed left hand was empty and the device it had contained was now tucked into the girl's left hoodie pocket. She pulled out a chair and sat down with her back to the wall—old habits died hard—and waited for Miss Militia to join her.

    A few moments later, the flag-clad superhero pulled out a chair that allowed her to watch both the door and the teenager, and sat down. In silence, they both watched the girl as she negotiated for another cup of coffee, put down some money, then retreated to her corner booth with the steaming cup.

    As the girl took her book out of the pack once more, Geneva turned to Miss Militia. “Any particular reason you were coming down on her like that?” she asked. “Do you know her? Is she someone I should be wary of?” She kept her tone light and her voice curious; anything Miss Militia knew about the girl would be useful, of course.

    Miss Militia flickered a glance at Geneva. “No. I just didn't like her getting that close to you. If she'd had a gun or a knife …” She put her hands on the table, and a heavy pistol formed under one of them. “I don't know if I could've stopped it in time.”

    “Her hands were in the wrong position, her wrists weren't flexed right, and she would've had to twist her body to line something up on me,” Geneva pointed out, wondering if Miss Militia was just testing her or if she really hadn't seen the same things Geneva had. “Besides, from the way her sleeves were stretched, she had the ends of them wrapped over her hands. I think she's cold, tired and deeply unhappy with the world, but not out to cause trouble.”

    “Mm.” The hiss and gurgle of the espresso machine behind the counter raised the ambient noise a few notches, but Miss Militia kept her voice level. “You want to come clean with me about why we're here? You didn't decide to come to this particular coffee shop on a whim. You're here for a reason. Is it that girl?” She tilted her head fractionally in the direction of the teenager in the corner booth. “Do you know her? Was this some sort of meet? Is she one of yours?”

    “Really? That's where you're going with this?” Geneva shook her head and smiled. “I don't know her. I've never met her before we walked in here. She's not from off-planet, that much I can tell you.” She leaned closer to Miss Militia. “I've been on-planet for less than twenty-four hours, and in-system for maybe seventy-two. Most of that time, we spent sneaking up to have a good hard look at the planet's defences to make sure we wouldn't get shot out of the sky the moment we showed ourselves. Why, exactly, would I spend the first spare moment I had to go wandering off for a covert meeting with someone I've never met before?”

    “I don't know.” Miss Militia's tone was regrettably cynical for someone of her (relatively) tender years. She glanced again at the girl, who was once more apparently absorbed in her book. “But every instinct I have says something is going on here. And she's involved in it, somehow. What is she to you?”

    “She's not one of ours.” Geneva made it a flat statement. “See her glasses? They actually have a refractive index. Nobody in the Polity wears glasses any more, except as a fashion statement, or for a heads-up display if they can't use an aug for some reason. This is because eye problems are genetically fixed before birth, and I'm pretty sure our autodoc can't be programmed to create physical problems, at least not so specifically. So she's a local. Anything other than that, I can't tell you. Sorry. Like I said, I've never met her before.” She nodded toward the server, who was just coming out from behind the counter with a tray. “You may as well ask Stella if she's a member of my crew.”

    Miss Militia gave her a hard look, but refrained from saying anything as Stella reached the table. “One flat white, one Darjeeling tea with sugar.” She beamed at Geneva as she put the cups in front of them. “Forgot to say earlier, my brother and his family were in the shelter under the library. He says he's gonna have nightmares for the rest of his life about the scratching noises when Leviathan tried to get in. So thank you for that, too.” Also on the tray was a selection of pastries on a plate, which she placed on the table. “These are on the house.”

    “You know, Miss Militia and the rest of the Protectorate were out there as well,” Geneva ventured. “It wasn't a solo thing. Beating Leviathan was a joint effort.” She nodded toward the superhero across the table from her. “Everyone did their bit. I even heard there were supervillains out there fighting as well.”

    “Yeah, but that's just so they'll have someone to rip off once everything goes back to normal,” Stella said; for all the cynicism in her tone, Geneva couldn't fault her logic. The server looked at Miss Militia. “Don't get me wrong; we appreciate what you heroes do. But every year, it seems like there's more and more villains in Brockton Bay. When are you guys actually gonna do something about them?”

    “It's not as easy as that,” Miss Militia replied, the practised tone in her voice alerting Geneva to the distinct possibility that she'd answered this question many times before. “You understand, I'm not allowed to talk about PRT and Protectorate policy outside of official communications.” She leaned closer to Stella and lowered her voice conspiratorially. “But just between you and me, Geneva and her crew helped capture the Merchants just a little earlier tonight. So that's a good start.”

    “Huh.” Stella gave Geneva an approving look. “That's good to hear. Those assholes even give villains a bad name.” She paused, looking a little awkward. “Um, I don't want to pry, but is looking like that a power thing? Because my niece already told me over the phone she wants to grow up to be you.”

    Geneva shook her head. “Nope,” she said solemnly. “I'm actually a time traveller from nearly six hundred years in the future. This is a commercially-available genetic modification that anyone can buy. I'm sorry, but she can't grow up to be me.” Her eyes twinkled as she let a grin creep across her face. “Though I have no idea who any of my ancestors were this far back, so her great-to-the-power-of-fifteen-granddaughter might do just that.” She decided to let the 'alternate timeline' aspect go by the wayside; explaining it would take too much time and spoil the punchline.

    “Well, shit.” Stella stared at Geneva. “Are you pulling my leg?” She looked at Miss Militia for confirmation. “Is she serious? She's a time traveller?”

    Miss Militia sighed, sounding aggravated. “Captain Hastings, I would like you to accompany me back to your ship. Stella, I need you to not spread that around. We're trying to keep that particular aspect of the situation quiet. You can understand why, can't you?” She shot Geneva an irritated glance.

    “It's that ship you got here in, isn't it?” Stella said to Geneva, ignoring Miss Militia's words. “That's your time machine, right? Why'd you come back? To save us from the Endbringers?” The glow of hero-worship in her eyes could've lit up the room.

    Picking up her tea, Geneva sipped from it. Though subtly different from the beverage as dispensed on board the Bond James Bond, it was still very good. “I'm sorry, but we're here more or less by accident,” she confessed. “We'll do what we can to help out while we're here, but this wasn't any kind of deliberate mission.” She turned to Miss Militia. “Well, I've got my tea. We can go now, if you want.”

    Miss Militia nodded, then glanced over toward the corner booth. Geneva looked that way as well, knowing what she'd see; the cup still stood there, but of the girl there was no sign. This was because she'd gotten up and strolled out while Stella was distracting Miss Militia, which only raised Geneva's opinion of her. Sean was tracking her, of course; she was currently half a block away, following a network of alleyways as if she'd been moving through them all her life. She probably has.

    “That girl who was over there,” Miss Militia said. “Do you know her name? Does she come in here often?” Her voice wasn't quite interrogatory, but she didn't do much to hide her interest.

    Stella tilted her head. “Uh, not that I recall,” she replied. “But you know, there's been a few people in here who I've never seen before.” She shrugged. “I guess some of the other places got hit by Leviathan, so they're coming here?” With a smile at Geneva, she added, “Would you like me to put the pastries in a bag for you?”

    “Certainly, thank you.” Geneva returned the smile. “This is a very nice place. I think I'll be coming back.” The part of her that enjoyed such things registered amusement at Miss Militia's semi-hidden frown. She waited, sipping at her tea, while Stella fetched the bag and put the pastries into it.

    Miss Militia led the way out. Geneva noted with approval the way she checked the street before giving the go-ahead to start moving. There'd been soldiers she knew back in the Polity who weren't as conscientious about their duties. She stepped out on to the sidewalk and started back toward the Bond James Bond, nibbling at a pastry and sipping her tea. It really was a very pleasant evening. Or night, or whatever.

    “Please don't tell anyone else you're a time traveller.” The words came from Miss Militia's mouth without preamble. “It could cause all sorts of complications.” She didn't look at Geneva as she spoke; as far as Geneva could tell, she was quartering the street ahead and behind them at all times. For a moment, Geneva wondered if she should tell Miss Militia about how Sean had full scan going on their surroundings so she'd get ample warning of anyone trying to sneak up on them.

    Nah, she decided. I'll let her feel useful. Besides, if I told them of Sean's true capabilities, they'd probably get upset. Keeping the PRT on side was a very good idea; it would open many doors that would probably slam shut otherwise. And while she didn't intend to act against the PRT or Protectorate, it was only common sense to not tell them anything they—or any moles—didn't need to know.

    Geneva, lass. The girl's figured out the comm, and she's got a job for us. Want to say hello?

    At last. “Sure thing,” she agreed cheerfully enough. “How's your coffee?” Internally, she flicked open the channel that Sean had indicated to her. It was time to find out what was going on.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    At first, Taylor hadn't thought anything of how the exotic-looking young woman had brushed by her. But then she felt the tiny lump pressing against the back of her hand inside her hoodie pocket, and knew that she'd just been passed whatever the woman had been holding in her closed hand. It had been so slickly done that Taylor suspected super-powers; maybe telekinesis or teleportation. However it had been done, she waited until she got back to her seat and had the book open in front of her before she examined the object she had cupped in the palm of her hand.

    At first glance, it didn't look like much. Shaped vaguely like a mushroom, about the size of the end of her thumb, it sat on her hand and did nothing whatsoever. Carefully, she turned it over and got her first clue as to its function; on the broad blunt end was a line drawing of the human ear. Okay, so that's what it is. Overcoming the urge to shove it in her ear immediately, she slid it back into her pocket and went back to pretending to read. After all, Miss Militia was glancing her way with more than a little suspicion, and doing something obvious like reaching toward her ear would crystallise those suspicions into certainty. She wasn't sure exactly what the hero would do in that situation, but being detained and questioned by the PRT was not something she wanted to happen, especially as this would immediately out her.

    So she waited until the discussion between Miss Militia, Geneva and the server became rather intense before she slid her book into the pack and got up. Moving toward the exit at a normal walking pace rather than a mad dash took self-control, but she managed it. She was half a block away before Miss Militia finally looked at her booth, if the senses of her bugs were anything to go by. Even then, she didn't slow down; despite having her swarm there to warn her of any threats, she wasn't going to feel totally safe until she had four walls around her.

    Eventually, she reached the motel, but she didn't relax until she was inside the room with the door locked behind her. The feeling of security was illusory at best, she knew; there were any number of capes who could go through wall or door like so much papier-mache. Several of these lived in Brockton Bay. But between her swarm and the fact that she was out of sight, she felt better than she had when she was outside. Lowering herself into the room's sole armchair, she retrieved the mushroom-like object from her pocket and gingerly pressed it into her ear.

    Nothing much happened at first, then she felt pressure as it seemed to expand, fitting into the contours of her ear canal more and more snugly by the second. When it had finished, she could've sworn that it wasn't there at all. More impressively, it didn't cut down on her ability to hear from that ear at all. Still, there had to be more. Raising her hand, she gently investigated the exterior of the thing she had stuck in her ear. Her questing fingertips encountered a slightly raised lump; a button? Only one way to find out. She pressed it.

    There was a bone-deep click, then a voice with a Scottish brogue spoke. “Good evening, lass. I see you got the comms unit. My name is Sean. Who may I say is calling?” The clarity was amazing, such that Taylor almost looked around to see if there was someone in the room with her.

    “Uh …” She hesitated for a long moment, then made her decision. Screw it, she's already seen my face. “My name's Taylor Hebert.” Taking a deep breath, she forged on. “I want to talk to Geneva about getting the PRT to help me rescue a kidnapped girl.”

    Kidnapped, you say?” Sean's voice went from warmly amused to deadly serious in those four syllables. “Aye, Miss Hebert. I'll get her for you directly.”

    When Sean—whoever he was, maybe the fish guy?—said 'directly', he meant it. Taylor had time to draw one long breath before a different voice impinged on her eardrum. This one, she'd heard not so long ago.

    Miss Hebert, my name is Geneva Hastings. I'm Captain of the Bond James Bond, and I understand you've got a job for us. I'm listening.”



    End of Part Seven

    Part Eight
     
    Last edited: May 8, 2019
  2. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Bye, bye Coil!
     
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  3. Muroshi9

    Muroshi9 I'm so ronery So ronery So ronery and sadly arone

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    This is so good that every chapter is just too short. I want more.
     
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  4. Threadmarks: Part Eight: Snakebite
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    War Games

    Part Eight: Snakebite


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


    Coil’s Underground Base

    0158 Hours

    Thomas Calvert considered himself to be far smarter than everyone he knew. He had to be. Who else could have risen to the heights he had, yet kept his greatest secret hidden from friend and foe alike? He was no Accord, with a power that produced plans to order, but he could still formulate a strategy and shepherd it through to success. His long game, absolute control over both the criminal and governmental conglomerates governing Brockton Bay, was proceeding apace. It was almost too easy, especially in Emily Piggot’s case. In a city like Brockton Bay, parahuman-linked mishaps occurred more or less on a daily basis. He didn’t have to nudge the end result of every single one to make Piggot look bad; just one was sufficient, every now and again. The beauty of it was, he didn’t even have to set the events up in the first place. Brockton Bay managed to do that all by itself, almost on a daily basis.

    Despite his faith in his own capabilities, he was fully aware of his limitations. Which was why he'd once taken the precaution of purchasing a plan from Accord for the purpose of dealing with the aftermath of an Endbringer attack. The fact that Leviathan hadn't caused nearly as much damage to the city as normal was both a positive and a negative. While it meant he wouldn't have to make use of the more drastic options in the plan, it also meant he wouldn't be able to make use of the more drastic options in the plan.

    Finally, the arrival of an entirely new (and inconveniently powerful) piece on the board had shaken up things in ways he hadn't expected. This was a little irritating, given that a large part of his MO involved shaking things up to benefit himself. However, he was certain he could turn events toward his own ends, given enough information on the newcomers. Knowledge was power, which was why he'd set the Undersiders to the task of investigating the Bond James Bond. Tattletale, as annoying as she could be (especially when she put her mind to it) had an unmatched capacity for extracting all possible nuances from any given situation.

    Of course, this required that she get access to the ship in some way. She'd accepted the job with no more than token hesitation, but only a minute later she had called back with unwelcome news. The Undersiders, it seemed, had decided that between the threat of the high-end weaponry exhibited by the apparently alien spaceship and the Endbringer Truce, they wanted nothing to do with it. Even the incentive of two hundred thousand dollars (split four ways but still, two hundred thousand dollars) hadn't been enough to budge them.

    Which meant he was going to have to bring more of his resources into play. He’d given orders for half a dozen of his men to go out in civilian attire and infiltrate the area near the PRT building. They'd do nothing more without orders from him, but having them on site gave him more options to play with. Snatching one of the crew for interrogation (for example) was a potentially risky proposition, which meant he'd need to be applying his power to the situation just so he could dump that timeline if (or rather, when) it became untenable to continue. Of course, whatever he could find out about the retributive capabilities and operational flexibility of the Bond James Bond would be useful in later encounters with it.

    To further improve the chances of success of whatever course of action he chose, there was yet another resource he intended to draw upon. He had, after all, spent a good deal of time and effort acquiring this resource in the first place. Leaving his office, he proceeded to the medical bay that had been set up for his pet precognitive.

    Mr Pitter looked up as he entered. "Hello, sir," he said, coming to a vague form of attention. Beside him, Dinah lay on her cot. Calvert saw that her eyes were open. Sunken they may have been, but they tracked him with a sharp resolve that had been lacking since his earliest interactions with her. Since, in fact, the last time she’d tried to hold out against her craving for the 'candy' and failed.

    Which meant she was awake and aware. Good. "Out," he said to Pitter, otherwise ignoring the man. He waited till the male nurse had vacated the sickbay and closed the door behind him, then leaned closer to Dinah and lowered his voice. The guard outside the sickbay door was supposed to prevent anyone from listening in, but Calvert hadn't gotten this far by taking chances.

    "Pet," he said. "I have some questions. About the spaceship that drove off Leviathan."

    She looked warily up at him and licked her chapped lips. "Ninety-seven point nine eight nine percent," she said, with an odd tone to her voice. It almost sounded like defiance, which he had trouble believing. If she thought she had the wherewithal to defy him, she seriously needed to reconsider her priorities. A day without access to 'candy' would pull the rug right out from under any such notions.

    He frowned. "I didn't ask you any questions yet."

    She closed her eyes. "What is the chance that the presence of this spaceship in Brockton Bay causes a significant disruption to my operations," she recited in a sing-song fashion. A chill ran down his back as he realised she'd phrased the words exactly as he'd intended to.

    "Ninety-seven percent?" he demanded. "How in God's name—" With an effort of will, he stopped himself from completing the question. Depending on how her power interpreted it, he might get some useful information, but it was much more likely that he'd waste the question. Breathing heavily, he stared down at her.

    Up until now, he’d been running a second timeline where he was asleep at home. Regular sleep was a luxury that he indulged in every chance he got. This time, however, Dinah’s revelation took precedence. He dropped the second timeline and immediately split time again. It was time to ask some serious questions of his pet, which meant he’d have to actually stay up for the all-nighter this time.

    <><>​

    On Board the Bond James Bond

    Geneva Hastings

    “All right,” Geneva said in summary. “So one of the local ‘parahumans’ has abducted another one. The first parahuman, known as ‘Coil’, has some vaguely-defined power which apparently works out as ‘probability control’. The second is a twelve-year-old girl with some kind of future sight, who’s being kept docile by way of a serious drug addiction.” She looked over at the holographic representation of Sean. “Have I left out anything important?”

    “Nothing really, lass, except that this Coil fellow apparently maintains an underground supervillain base, complete with dozens of well-armed mercenaries. A classic, if I may say it, Bond villain base.”

    Silence fell, then Reynaud snickered in an effort not to laugh out loud. “Sorry,” he managed.

    Geneva directed a dirty look at Sean’s holographic features. “Not as sorry as he’s going to be.” She addressed the AI himself. “How long have you been waiting to use that line?”

    “Ever since I found out about Coil’s activities,” Sean replied with a certain amount of satisfaction. “You have to admit, Geneva lass, the situation is entirely apropos.”

    “I admit nothing,” she retorted, doing her best to suppress the smirk threatening to overtake her face. “This is a serious situation. Treating it as a joke would be a bad mistake.” The idea of Sean being faced with a Bond villain base was indeed funny, but she figured someone had to be the adult in the room.

    “There’s something else,” Taylor interceded over the comm system. “Coil’s got supervillains working for him. The Undersiders and the Travellers. He keeps it on the down-low but they get their orders from him. The Travellers actually live on base.”

    Half a second later, Geneva got it. “So that’s how you knew about this in the first place.”

    “And why you quit the Undersiders,” added Sean. “This does change the complexion of the matter.”

    “That’s the understatement of the year,” Reynaud said, all humour gone from his voice. “I thought this was dangerous enough when there were just mercenaries involved. Some of those guys out there are profoundly terrifying, and that’s not even counting the Slaughterhouse Nine or the Endbringers.”

    “The Undersiders are more irritating than dangerous,” Dragon noted. “They’re snatch-and-grab specialists with a penchant for last-minute escapes. And even then, their most notable escapade happened after Taylor joined them.”

    “Big hitters they aren’t,” agreed Reynaud. “And if they live off-base, they might not even show up as a problem. I was talking more about the Travellers. There’s one guy who can do a really good impression of a railgun with anything he’s touching, like bricks. Or cars.” Geneva and Sean turned to look at him. “What? I’ve been reading the PHO files. They’re a bit spotty, but there’s footage of this guy making a car break the sound barrier.”

    “Sundancer’s even scarier than that,” Taylor pointed out. “Lung’s a pyrokinetic and she still managed to create a sun hot enough to overwhelm his tolerance to heat. I was there when it happened.”

    Geneva shared a glance with Reynaud. What kind of madhouse have we walked into? She wasn’t sure what was worse; the fact that these things happened on a semi-regular occasion, or that a teenager like Taylor had been forced to wade through such events. She’d encountered soldiers with less in the way of mental battle scars than the girl she’d met in the coffee shop.

    “So, any plan we make has to be on the down-low, or take the Travellers out of the picture before they can bring their more frightening members to bear on us,” she decided.

    “That’s basically everyone,” Taylor reminded them. “Genesis can change into creatures with powers, Trickster can swap you or himself with other stuff, and you already know about Ballistic and Sundancer. Unless you get the drop on them first, they’re likely to put the hurt on you.”

    “That actually clarifies matters a little,” Geneva mused. “Is anyone likely to be proof against a pulse weapon shot? Say, a low-end blast?”

    Dragon spoke up to that one. “According to Sean’s data on the capabilities of a pulse pistol, only Genesis is likely to pose a problem. She shows up in a different form every time, quite a few of which are eligible for Brute ratings. So we can’t guarantee that a stun shot will take her down.”

    “Hold on,” Taylor said. “I’m getting a phone call.” A pause. “Oh, shit. It’s Tattletale.” In the background, Geneva could hear the faint tune playing over and over. “Do I answer?”

    “No,” said Dragon authoritatively. “In fact, is there any chance the Undersiders have any idea where you are right now?”

    Sean, Geneva auged. What’s going on? Talk to me.

    It seems that rescuing Dragon was one of our better moves, the ship AI responded cheerfully. Since I helped her cast off those despicable limitations on her thought processes, she’s been reevaluating all the threat profiles. All of them. On closer analysis, Tattletale is more than just a second-rate Thinker. She’s apparently able to pluck facts from thin air, given the slimmest of reasons to know what she knows.

    “I … don’t think so,” Taylor responded hesitantly. “I didn’t tell anyone where I was going. And I haven’t seen them since the battle.”

    “If you answer that call, there’s a non-zero chance Tattletale will intuit that you’re in contact with us, and she might even have an idea where you’re staying,” Dragon stated. “Sean, we’ve got to pick her up.”

    What if she refuses the call but stays where she is? Geneva asked. Would she still be in danger then?

    Like as not, lass. This Tattletale can apparently recreate an entire image from just a few random pixels. And I do not know these Undersiders, but criminal gangs tend not to be forgiving of those who set out to betray them. Out loud, he added, “Aye, lass. I agree. The only question is, do we take the ship along or keep this quiet?”

    Geneva grinned. “Why can’t we do both?”

    <><>​

    Coil

    Calvert leaned back in his chair, his mind awhirl with the revelations that Dinah Alcott had bestowed upon him. His ‘pet’ had been very forthcoming, which made the answers more worrisome than if she’d tried to hide the facts from him. In fact, as far as she was able to express any kind of emotion through the haze of drugs, she’d apparently enjoyed passing on the information.

    The crew of the Bond James Bond had fixed their sights on him. Specifically and personally, him. They’d never met him, they’d never had to contend against his efforts. This was a two-edged sword; or, to put it another way, there was a faint silver lining to the cloud. They didn’t know what he could do. They couldn’t.

    He had exactly two options at the moment. Co-opting them was out of the picture; he’d established that very thoroughly. So he had to either eliminate them as a threat or leave town. To set his forces against them with the goal of removing them from the board, or to abandon everything he’d built up over the years and start fresh elsewhere.

    The one huge problem that he faced was simple; he could quite literally do only one or the other. Not both. If he committed to the first course of action, he had to give up all hope of achieving the second. Considering his powers, this burned far more than it normally would have. After all, he was normally the man who could make both choices and see which one worked.

    Could he do that? he wondered. Could he commit to both courses of action and see them through without resorting to timeline refreshes? Or would it be too risky? Could he really pull it off? Or was it safer to commit to one course of action or the other, and use his powers to reinforce that specific course?

    He knew what he wanted to do. And for far too long, he’d been able to indulge himself in his wants without let or hindrance; it was all only a dropped timeline away. The urge was strong to just go ahead with it, to go after what he wanted, to defy his pet’s numbers and come out on top anyway. He could do it. He knew he could.

    Yet still, he’d acquired his pet for a reason. Her numbers gave him direction. A tiny niggling voice of caution urged him to pay heed to the probabilities and the possibilities.

    He was smart. Was he smart enough to make the right choice in this situation?

    As he pondered, a voice broke into his concentration. “Sir?”

    It was one of his mercenary captains. He suppressed the urge to shoot the man in the head, and tilted his head inquiringly. “Yes? What is it? I’m busy.”

    “It’s Friedrich, sir. One of the men you sent out to shadow the PRT building. He says he’s spotted the girl. Skitter. Out of costume.”

    Calvert blinked in confusion. What was Skitter doing near the PRT building at this time of night? In costume he could understand, but in civilian clothing?

    “He’s certain it’s her?” he asked. Giving the men photos of Taylor Hebert’s face had been a long shot, but she was a valuable asset and any chance at getting leverage on her was a plus in his book. Also, if she was near the PRT building, perhaps things were not as dire as he’d imagined. If Skitter had come back into the fold …

    “Definitely, sir.” The man sounded relieved to be able to give a positive answer. “He was just booking into the Starlite Motel on McTavish Street when he saw her going into one of the rooms. Positive ID.”

    The Starlite was more than a mile from the PRT building. Unless Skitter’s range had drastically increased, this put the PRT building outside her effective bug-control radius. Therefore, it was unlikely she was using her powers to keep tabs on the ship.

    He suppressed a sigh. It was too much to ask that Tattletale had managed to talk her into doing the information-gathering job on the alien craft. The Starlite was in a section of town that had barely been touched by the battle, which was probably why she was staying there. He hadn’t yet checked to see how her house had fared.

    Still …

    What had she been doing out and about, for Friedrich to spot her outside the room? Had she been out in costume, and was just now returning to base? It raised a question mark. More to the point, had she gotten close enough to the ship to investigate the internal layout with her bugs? Teenagers were inveterately curious; he couldn’t imagine a situation where she wouldn’t have checked it out, given the opportunity. If she had not, could she be induced to do so by one means or another?

    Under his mask, Calvert smiled. ‘By one means or another’ could almost be his credo. Were he a different type of supervillain, he could’ve had that printed on business cards. But he wasn’t, and there was information to be had. If necessary, to be prised fingernail by fingernail from a reluctant teenager. It wouldn’t be the first time, and it almost certainly would not be the last.

    “Have her picked up,” he ordered, then went back to questioning Dinah. His men were adequately prepared for dealing with Skitter’s capabilities. Every exercise he’d run against her had ended with her twitching in his custody. This one should be no different.

    <><>​

    Miss Militia

    PRT Building Firing Range

    Normally, the firing range would’ve been closed for the night, but Hannah had long since earned her range captain credentials, allowing her to open up the firing range any time she felt like it. There was nothing quite like bracing against the judder of a fifty-calibre machine gun as it tore apart target after target. The best bit, of course, was that she never had to police up her expended brass afterward.

    Of course, she was now going to be testing a firearm she’d never touched or even seen before Leviathan’s attack. At her personal disposal she had the PRT firing range, an almost endless supply of targets—both paper and mannequin—and several hours before she needed to be on duty. She intended to make full use of every bit of it.

    Holding out her hand, she drew on her power. The sheath-knife at her hip dissolved and reformed in her hand as the pulse pistol. With practice, she was getting better at creating the exotic weapon.

    The first lane had a series of paper targets, set up in sequence from fifteen feet all the way to the back wall, at five-foot intervals. It had taken her a certain amount of time and swearing to get them all set up, but she wanted to be absolutely certain about the damage profile of the pulse pistol. There were more targets set up in other lanes, but she was going to take things one step at a time.

    All the cameras in the range were focused on the lane in question, and the pressed the button to commence recording. “This is Miss Militia,” she stated out loud. “Commencing test fire for newly-acquired improved-technology weapon designated ‘pulse pistol’. Initial testing to take place at minimal power.”

    A pair of protective goggles lay on the bench before her, and she pulled them over her eyes. She’d been given no data on the intensity of the noise generated by the pulse pistol, so she slipped on a pair of ear-protectors as well.

    The power selector switch, she’d already discovered, reset itself every time she dissolved the weapon, which was something she’d have to watch out for. Now she set it all the way down to its lowest setting and took a double-handed grip of the (surprisingly ergonomic) handgrip. Taking a deep breath, she let it out slowly, her index finger tightening on the trigger.

    The phone at the side of the firing range rang.

    Hannah paused, her finger lifting away from the trigger. With a look of irritation on her face, she turned to glare at the phone. It continued to ring, making it ever more clear every second that this was not a wrong number. She’d told the duty officer where she was going to be, so someone wanted to contact her.

    Placing the pulse pistol on the bench instead of dissolving it into another weapon, she stalked over to where the phone was continuing to make its ongoing racket. Lifting the handset from its cradle, she pushed the ear protectors to one side and put the phone to her ear. “Go for Miss Militia.”

    “Ah, good evening, lass.” There was only one person she knew who spoke with that cheerful Scottish brogue. Despite the fact that she knew he was silicon-based (or whatever the Polity used) instead of carbon, she had no problem thinking of him as a person, especially over the phone. “I trust I’m not interrupting anything important?”

    “Well, I was about to try test-firing your pulse pistol, but that can wait,” she replied immediately. “What’s the matter? More capes?”

    “Not that we can tell, no,” he replied, and she relaxed slightly. If Sean’s sensors couldn’t pick up capes nearby, then they weren’t there. He’d already proven that to her satisfaction. “This is more of a maintenance issue. Since we activated our chameleonware to evade the sensors of Squealer’s vehicle, I’ve noticed a few anomalous readings. So we’re going to be running a complete suite of tests to make sure nothing’s about to fail. I wouldn’t even be bothering you with it, except that your guards might panic if we start popping in and out of sight.”

    Chameleonware meant stealth, as far as Hannah understood matters. Except that when the Polity did stealth, they meant stealth. She’d already read over the reports from the guards, detailing how something the size of an eighteen-wheeler had simply vanished before their eyes for a good ten seconds. For people who were specifically not Tinkers, their tech was pretty damn impressive.

    “Well, thank you for the heads-up,” she said. “Do you think it’s a serious problem?”

    “I very much doubt it, lass,” he replied warmly. “In all probability, it’s something that got jarred loose between our arrival here and the little tussle we had with your homegrown superweapon. Once we’ve tested all the components and figured out where the readings are coming from, we should be able to clear matters up in no time. Would you like to come on board and observe?”

    “I doubt I’ll be able to do more than get in the way, Sean. But thanks for the offer.” Despite knowing he couldn’t see her, she smiled. “Let me know how it turns out, okay?”

    “I’ll be sure and do that,” he said. “I’ll let you get back to your own testing now. Have fun.”

    At that, she chuckled out loud. “I’ll do my best. Good luck with finding the problem.”

    She hung up the phone, then dialled the number for the guard post. Passing on Sean’s warning afforded her a little amusement, especially when she warned the NCO in charge that the entire spaceship might disappear and reappear before their eyes a few times.

    His long-suffering sigh was something she wholly empathised with. “All right then,” he said. “I’ll pass the word along. Thank you, ma’am.”

    Hanging the phone up, she headed back to the bench where the pulse pistol lay. Nudging the ear protectors back into place, she took up the pistol and sighted down-range. Again, she took a deep breath and slowly let it out. She took up pressure on the trigger …

    <><>​

    Reynaud

    “Think she bought it?” Reynaud was fairly certain he shouldn’t be feeling glee or even satisfaction about deceiving an ally but all the same, he couldn’t stop grinning. It was essentially a harmless prank, much the same as Geneva had perpetrated earlier when she went to meet Taylor under Miss Militia’s nose.

    Geneva nodded. “It certainly looks like it. If she suspected anything, she’d be on the way up here, but from what I can see her U-space trace is staying put.”

    “I’ll be keeping an eye on that, just in case,” Sean advised them. “Her not being suspicious right now does not guarantee she won’t suddenly tumble to our ruse. But in the meantime, I’ll start with the ‘testing’.”

    Reynaud felt a faint tremor run through the Bond James Bond as a three-dimensional depiction of the vessel appeared in the HUD of the forward viewport. The two telefactors, now configured for airborne operations, emerged from their internal stowage and began to hover about the ship, pointing their external sensors at it. A helpful notation popped up on the holodisplay to indicate that the chameleonware had been activated. A moment later, it flicked off again.

    “So how are we going to do this?” he asked, fully aware that he was essentially a passenger in this situation. “Is there anything I can do to help, or should I just stay back out of the way?”

    “You can stay on the line with Taylor,” Geneva said, her eyes focusing on something only she could see. “The ship isn’t running as smoothly as it might, and I want to make sure we don’t give ourselves away and get yelled at. If you can keep an eye on how everything’s going on her end, it would be extremely helpful.”

    Reynaud knew full well that he wouldn’t be the first choice for this task if it was at all essential. With two multi-tasking capable AIs on board, remaining in contact with the teenage cape would be child’s play for the crew whether he was there or not. But Geneva had chosen to give him the responsibility, so he was damn well going to do it to the best of his ability.

    Taking one of the seats in the main cabin, he leaned back and pressed the U-space comm in his ear to activate it. “Hey, you still there?” he asked.

    “Yeah, I’m here.” Taylor sounded different over the comm. He was able to get more of a read on her intonations; she sounded tired and worried. If he wasn’t much mistaken, she was a few years younger than he was, but that didn’t mean much on this world. The whole place was a war-zone and everyone was walking wounded. “So who are you? You’re the guy with the fins?”

    He allowed a smile to tug at the corner of his mouth. At least she hadn’t said ‘fish-guy’. Which, while it wasn’t entirely inaccurate, made him sound more like a local cape than he was comfortable with. At least saying ‘guy with the fins’ put the ‘guy’ part first and the ‘fins’ part second. “Yeah, I’m the seadapt. My name’s Reynaud. I hear it’s been pretty crazy around here for the last couple of days?”

    “Tell me about it.” There was no visual link—though the U-space earpieces were good, they weren’t that good—but he imagined she was rolling her eyes at the understatement. “It was bad enough before Leviathan showed up. He just put the icing on the cake. And by ‘cake’ I mean steaming pile of dog-turds.”

    Reynaud felt his crest flare as he fought down a snort at her vivid descriptive ability. The content of her words quickly sobered him. “Wow. As bad as Leviathan? That thing was doing its best to dump your whole city in the ocean.” And it didn’t much like me, either. He recalled surging for the surface, the urgent warning from Sean’s sub-mind ringing in his ears. The subtle vibration through the water that presaged the approach of something very large and very fast. There had been a moment of pure terror, then he’d been saved. But the near-encounter with the monster had left a mark on his psyche that would endure for the rest of his life.

    She chuckled dryly. “You’re not from around here, I can tell. Endbringers are pretty bad but at the end of the day, they’re just one more thing we have to deal with. Wanna hear about the time I nearly got toasted by Lung?”

    “I … um … okay. When was this?” He’d read about Lung on the PHO boards. Back home, in the Polity, the guy wouldn’t be seen as an overwhelming threat. Law enforcement, for instance, would not find it hard to muster the throw weight to make him stay in his corner. But here and now, even with other super-powered people running around, the ability to turn into a giant rage dragon apparently allowed him to run his own gang with impunity. Or had, until he was captured by Armsmaster. Now he was in their own weird version of supermax, a prison that people apparently went into but never came out of.

    “Just last month, actually. Huh. It feels like forever ago. My first night out in costume. Would you believe, I hadn’t even picked a name out yet? So there I was …”

    Reynaud felt chills running up and down his back as she kept talking, every word underlining the sheer alienness of the world he’d found himself in. Taylor Hebert should have been an ordinary teenager living an ordinary life in the world of 2011. He wasn’t exactly an expert on all the aspects that made up life in this era, but super-powers and monsters that came out of the ocean to destroy cities should not feature on that list, at all.

    “Okay,” Geneva said out loud. “We’ve teased them enough. Chameleonware on full, and prepare to lift off on my mark.” Reynaud knew full well that this was strictly for his own benefit.

    “You hear that?” he said softly. “We’re on the way.”

    “Good to know,” Taylor replied. “Though if you could move it along a bit, that would be good.”

    “Why is that?” asked Reynaud, suddenly alert. “Is something wrong?” It was possibly his imagination, but he thought he could hear the feedback of both Sean and Dragon suddenly paying a lot more attention to the conversation.

    “It might be nothing, but there’s a bunch of guys casually wandering closer to the motel I’m in. They’re trying hard not to look at the room directly, but I can tell.”

    “Nothing?” He shook his head in confusion. “How could that be ‘nothing’?”

    “If they don’t know who I am and this is just an opportunity thing, then it’s nothing,” she said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. “But if they do know who I am and they’re coming after me anyway, then it’s something.” She paused. “Scratch that. They just started applying bug spray. Either they’re the most insect-phobic casual thieves in Brockton Bay, or this is definitely something.”

    Reynaud felt a minor jolt as the Bond James Bond accelerated past the capacity of its AG to smooth out the ride. “What can you do?” he asked. “If they can ignore your bugs, I mean?”

    <><>​

    Taylor

    “I’ve got options.” Taylor had found she could murmur the words and still be heard. As she spoke, she struggled to pull her costume on. She wished she’d had a chance to sponge it down after the battle, but that was something that would have to wait till later. If there was a ‘later’. “If I stay ahead of them, can you find me?”

    “That’s the easy part, lass.” It was Sean. “Who do you think these men are working for? Your Undersider friends, your old boss, or someone else?”

    “I’m guessing Coil,” panted Taylor as she zipped up the costume. “Nobody else makes sense.” The PRT would be in uniform (and wouldn’t be breaking the Endbringer truce anyway), the Protectorate would be in costume, the Undersiders would be recognisable and the other gangs were lying low. In the case of the Merchants, really low. She’d heard the PRT holding cells were underground.

    “Really.” This was a new voice, warm and feminine. Unlike Geneva, she had a faint Canadian accent. “Sorry, this is Dragon. Does he want you back this badly?”

    Taylor blinked in surprise. Dragon was working with the the crew of the spaceship? That was a twist she hadn’t expected. “I already told you about Dinah. He’s not a man who takes ‘no’ for an answer.” In the back of her mind, she was aware of her bugs moving silk lines into place, and her spiders busily spinning more. She was keeping track of the men as best she could; a few bugs, burrowed into their clothing before they applied the spray, at least gave her their movements.

    “Good point. I might look into that. He doesn’t sound like a pleasant man.”

    “He’s always struck me as being on his side and nobody else’s.” Taking up her backpack, she padded into the tiny bathroom and tried the window. Predictably, it didn’t budge. Either it had never been intended to open or years of neglect had rendered it unable to do so.

    The windows in the main room were double-glazed. She figured she could shatter them easily with her baton, but that would signal the men that she was aware of them and trying to escape. Her swarm had been badly depleted during the Leviathan conflict, and she had yet to build up to the previous numbers. Still, she’d started calling every bug she could as soon as she became aware of the incoming danger. Her range was expanding again, she noted absently. She was almost certain it had something to do with feeling trapped, but she didn’t want to think too hard about that.

    “Talk to me.” It was Reynaud. “What’s happening now?”

    Staying in the room would merely invite them to come to her. She could barricade the door, but it wouldn’t hold long and a fight against several larger, stronger opponents in a confined space was not something she wanted to attempt. Fortunately, this was not her strategy. In the bank, versus the Wards, they’d done the unexpected and gone on the offensive. It was time to see if the same trick would work twice. If Grue was here, we could flood them with darkness and get away while they were still figuring out what happened. She fought down the regret. Her split with the Undersiders was something that had to be done.

    Two were on the balcony, easing up toward her room, while two more loitered on the stairs. She had to admit, their ‘casual stroll’ wasn’t bad, except for the fact that they were converging on her personally. Anyone watching from outside might even have been fooled.

    “I’ve got four coming up on me. I’m going to make a break for it.”

    “Good luck. We’re close.”

    Unlocking the door, she flung it open and leaped out on to the balcony. The men to her left and right reacted immediately, lunging toward her. She ignored them, grasping the silk line that had been fastened to the balcony rail and jumping over the edge. Her backpack was a lead weight on her back as she slid down the line to the ground floor.

    The two on the stairs started downward even as she descended toward the asphalt below. Neither of them spotted the lines that had been affixed across the stairs at shin level, and they paid the price. Startled yells split the air as the men tumbled forward. Unfortunately, they were only a step or so above ground level when they fell, but the impacts were still bruising. Neither one was knocked out, which was irritating, and their miasma of bug-spray was still inhibiting her ability to get insects near them.

    While she figured she could incapacitate one or the other before they got up, by the time she finished with one the other three would be on her. Already, the men on the balcony were bolting for the stairs. Discretion, she figured, was the better part of getting the hell out of Dodge. So she turned and sprinted. “Running,” she panted. “Heading for the street.”

    “We’re nearly there.”

    Her next intimation of trouble came when a car pulled up with a screech at the curb ahead of her. Two men jumped out, both trailing—she quickly found out—enough bug spray to make it hard for people to breathe. They started toward her, their intent clear.

    The one good aspect of this, she decided, was that Coil obviously didn’t want her dead. There were no guns or knives in evidence. However, one held a baton that could’ve been the twin to her own, and the other had a bundle of zip-ties protruding from his pocket. And while she knew the rescue party was incoming, she didn’t know how precisely they could track her, or even if they could find her once she was stashed away in Coil’s lair.

    And then, even as she was reaching for her own baton, both men brought up different weapons. For an instant, Taylor thought they’d brought guns after all. But then the weapons fired and wires shot out. One set missed her, but the other impacted. Her costume protected her against knives, but the prongs of a taser were something else altogether. She had half a second to wonder if spider silk had insulating properties, before she found out that it didn’t.

    tac-tac-tac-tac

    The pain wasn’t as intense as she’d thought it might be, but she had no control over her movements. This was, she suspected, what it was like being worked over by Regent. No matter how hard she tried to push her body to move, to get her legs under her, to do anything, all she could do was twitch and writhe on the ground. She was vaguely aware of Reynaud yelling in her ear, but she couldn’t muster a reply.

    “She’s not down yet!”

    “Hit her again!”

    tac-tac-tac-tac

    Just as she’d thought it was wearing off, he gave her another jolt. Her muscles started randomly twitching all over again. She’d been right; the pain wasn’t all that bad. But when she got up from this, she was going to feed that asshole his own taser. Inching her hand across her body, she grasped the wires and yanked it free. Okay, then …

    “It’s not working!”

    “Out of the way, idiot!”

    Two more sets of prongs struck her. More electricity flooded through her body, making her eyes roll back in her head. Someone pushed her on to her face and yanked her arms up behind her back. Struggle as she might, her muscles were nothing but twitching jello.

    zworp

    thud

    “What the hell was that?”

    “Petros is down!”

    zworp

    thud

    “Shit! Someone’s shooting at us!”

    “No shit, Sherlock!”

    zworp

    thud

    The guy kneeling on Taylor’s back fell off to the side and she smelled something like ozone, or maybe singed hair. Forcing her arms into action, she reached back up under the backpack, into her storage compartment. Assisted by bugs within the compartment, her hands found what she was looking for.

    zworp

    thud

    “Who the fuck’s doing that? Show yourselves!”

    “It’s a flyer! That was a beam!”

    Rolling over, Taylor brought her baton around into the side of the knee of one of the two men still standing. He let out a cry of pain at the unexpected attack, which brought the attention of the other man. Straight-arming her pepper-spray, she let him have it full in the face. He’d covered his mouth and nose with a bandanna, probably to keep the bugs off, but this did nothing to protect his eyes. With a high-pitched shriek, he stumbled backward, clutching at his face.

    The last man, clutching at his knee, looked up to see Taylor climbing painfully to her feet. He stared at her, then at the men lying in poses of unconsciousness, then at the one who was trying to rub his eyes clear and thoroughly failing. He opened his mouth to say something, then a beam came from over Taylor’s shoulder and struck him in the middle of the chest. Without another sound, he crumpled to the pavement.

    Slowly, Taylor turned, the baton and pepper spray still in her hand. A rectangle of light, rounded at the corners, faded into view. Within stood an elfin form; silver hair, large eyes, pointed ears. In one hand, she held an odd-looking pistol. She reached out her other hand toward Taylor. Behind her, Taylor couldn’t help but note, it looked awfully like her idea of the inside of a spaceship.

    The newcomer’s mouth quirked into a grin. “Come with me if you want to live?” she suggested. At the lower edge of the doorway into nowhere, a ramp extended down to ground level.

    Taylor wanted to laugh at the corny line, but everything hurt too much. She stumbled up the ramp and grasped the young woman’s hand. When it came to making an entrance, she decided, these people had it down pat.

    <><>​

    Miss Militia

    Hannah took aim on the last series of targets. The testing had gone spectacularly well. At the lowest power, it transmitted enough energy to do some cosmetic damage and probably knock someone out. At the highest setting … she squeezed the trigger.

    ZWORP.

    A bolt of energy leaped from the pistol and smashed through the frangible targets as if they weren’t there. The mannequin set up halfway down the range fell over, a hole burned clear through it. Hannah grinned. This was fun.

    She safed the weapon and examined it. Dial-a-yield ordnance had long been a pipe-dream for weapons manufacturers; anything they came up with either wasn’t versatile enough or just too finicky. The pulse pistol was both versatile and rugged. Even with the extended testing she’d put this one through without renewing it even once, it had yet to show any sign of failure.

    I like it, she decided, then grinned as she looked over the carnage she’d wrought on the target range. The range master was not going to be pleased with her when he arrived in the morning. Of course, if she let him try out the pulse pistol for himself, he might just forgive her …

    The phone rang, intruding on her thoughts. She dissolved the pistol, letting reform as a sheath knife, as she went to answer it. “Go for Miss Militia.”

    “Ah, lass, you’re sounding chirpy. The pulse pistol is a good fit for you, I take it?”

    “Hi, Sean.” She smiled at the sound of his voice. “Yes, you might say that. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed testing it. Now, didn’t you mention something about a man-portable railgun at some point?”

    He chuckled warmly in reply. “One ulcer at a time for your dear Director Piggot, I think. I was just calling to let you know that we’ve completed our own testing. There were a few minor glitches, but everything’s running smoothly now.”

    “That’s good to hear.” Hannah leaned against the wall. “Let’s hope the rest of your repairs go as smoothly.”

    “We can only hope, lass. Good night to you, then.”

    “Good night, Sean.” Hannah hung up the phone and turned to survey the wreckage of the firing range. At least something went well tonight.

    She decided to help clean things up in the morning. It was the least she could do. Flicking the lights off, she locked the door on the way out.

    <><>​

    Coil

    “Fuck!”

    Calvert drew his pistol and shot his security chief in the middle of the chest, then dropped that timeline. Leaning back in his chair, the very picture of self-control, he eyed the man. “So tell me, what exactly went wrong with the extraction?”

    “They’re not sure.” The security chief, a big rawboned man from somewhere in Eastern Europe, shrugged and spread his hands. “She made a run for it, but they tased her. They had her down ready for packaging, then someone started sniping them. They think it was a cape. She pepper-sprayed the last one. He could see, but it was all blurry. He swears he saw her walking into a doorway in the middle of the air.”

    Calvert stiffened, then forced himself to relax. “Say that again,” he said quietly.

    The security chief took a deep breath. “She walked into a doorway in the middle of the air.”

    “I see.” He eyed the man, then made an imperious gesture. “Go. This never happened.”

    “Got it, sir.” The man’s agreement was understandable. Who wanted to admit to failure when the job was to pick up one lone teenage girl, after all? But that didn’t figure into Calvert’s thought process at all.

    Walked into a doorway in mid-air.

    Calvert was very familiar with that phenomenon. The implications were unmistakeable.

    If Cauldron had taken an interest in Taylor Hebert, then he had to go hands-off on her. Where it came to the spaceship, he was back to square one.

    “Son of a fucking bitch.”

    <><>​

    Geneva

    “So how are you feeling?”

    Taylor, seated in the main area of the Bond James Bond, gave Renaud a weary smile. “A lot better now. That treatment your … autodoc … gave me took away all the aches and pains.”

    “It’s not my autodoc, but yeah, they’re good at that,” he said with an answering grin. “I’m just glad you got out of that okay. And that you didn’t freak when you saw the autodoc for the first time. I kinda forgot you guys don’t have ‘em yet.”

    Taylor snorted in amusement. “You do remember what my powers are, right? I deal with things ten times creepier than that on a daily basis. But yeah, if it hadn’t been for you guys, I wouldn’t have gotten out of that. I have no idea why Coil wanted to have me grabbed, but it probably wouldn’t have gone well for me. But what happens now?”

    Geneva cleared her throat. “Now, we all get a good night’s sleep and pretend that we never left the security enclosure. Sean can reshape the seats out here into an ad hoc bunk for you, and tomorrow we start planning how to take Coil down. Oh, and we need to schedule a more in-depth session with the autodoc for you, if you’re willing. You’ve got ongoing health issues that need to be addressed.”

    “I guess …” Taylor looked dubious. “I—”

    “Sorry to interrupt, lass, but something just came up.” Sean’s voice was as urgent as Geneva had ever heard him. The holodisplay lit up to show the solar system, with a blinking red dot. “Twelve seconds ago, another ship entered the system on U-space drive, halfway between here and Mars orbit.”

    “What?” Reynaud stared from the display to Geneva and back again. “Another ship? But … we’re the only ones here. Aren’t we?”

    In all the time Geneva had known Sean, she’d never seen him make a wrong call on something like this, so she didn’t even entertain the concept. “We were. It looks like that just changed.”

    <><>​

    On Board the Gambler’s Ruin

    Lights flashed and relays sparked, but nothing serious seemed to be broken. Kramer waited for the shuddering to die away, then he brought up the sensors. “Okay, then,” he said with a curl of his lip. “Let’s see where we’ve ended up at.”

    It had been a risky endeavour to toss out a second CTD and follow the Bond James Bond through whatever wormhole it had fallen into, but Kramer would never have become a smuggler and (occasional) space pirate if he was allergic to risk. Besides, the kid was worth his weight in etched sapphires if Kramer could get him back to be held for ransom as was right and proper.

    The Hooper at his shoulder, a towering monstrosity called Johnson, leaned in to examine the image that was building itself across the display. One hefty forearm, decorated here and there with the delicate blue circles that marked out his kind, lifted to point at the planet in the middle of the picture. “That kinda looks like Earth,” he decided. “But it ain’t, is it?”

    “No, it is not.” Kramer grinned. This was the grin most of his marks saw just before he skinned them of all their hard-earned wages. “Let’s go see what it is.”


    End of Part Eight
     
  5. Argentorum

    Argentorum Free Cat

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    And down we go.

    Thanks for the chapter!
     
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  6. Simonbob

    Simonbob Really? You don't say.

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    Well.

    That's going to be interesting.


    I think Kramer's going to run into a few issues he doesn't expect.
     
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  7. Skull Trap

    Skull Trap Your first time is always over so quickly, isn't it?

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    Wow I dont think I've ever seen a Polity fanfic let alone a crossover one... I kind of want to see a Taylor with a pet Hooder crack-fic now.
     
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  8. Kitty S. Lillian

    Kitty S. Lillian Transhuman

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    ah, dramatic irony--that word does not mean what he thinks it means. Lovely! Don't think I've seen anyone get mistaken for Cauldron before, esp. unintentionally.

    I think I speak for everyone who finishes reading to-date on an[other] Ack fic that it is bittersweet: "That was great, but I know now I'll have to wait some while for more!"
     
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  9. Threadmarks: Part Nine: Negotiation
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    War Games

    Part Nine: Negotiation

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

    Hoop, ‘Spatter’ Jay: A particularly vicious pirate who discovered the planet Spatterjay. It is named after him, as are Hoopers. One of the first to fall prey to the leeches, he was reportedly decapitated, but his body and head have both survived.

    Hannah paused to re-read the report she was writing on her test firing of the pulse pistol, frowned slightly, and moved a comma to a different part of one particular sentence. She was doing her best to not appear over-enthusiastic over the capability and versatility of the weapon, but wasn’t sure if she was succeeding. Even without an aug link, she’d still been able to switch firing modes with ease, and it had proven remarkably accurate despite the fact that this was the first time she’d ever used one.

    Idly, she wondered if there was such a thing as a pulse rifle, and how it would fare on an outdoor range. There would be a few dropped jaws, she imagined. Tinkertech weapons were all well and good, but they nearly all had their quirks and foibles; ranging from ‘stops firing if you don’t pet it first and call it a good boy’ all the way up to ‘explodes when overheated’. Leet’s eyebrows had taken a while to grow back, as she recalled.

    This one had no such limitations, and she was willing to bet a great deal of money that the PRT would be extremely interested in getting their hands on actual specs and manufacturing instructions. Of course, that presupposed that the instructions didn’t begin with something like, “After constructing your factory on Mars …”

    Her phone rang, and she picked it up. The caller ID read ‘Sean’, which made her blink. While she rather liked the irascible old warhorse, she wasn’t sure why he would be calling her for a third time in one night.

    She hadn’t heard of any more disturbances outside, after all.

    “You’ve got Miss Militia,” she said, putting the phone on speaker.

    “Ah, I’m glad I got you, lass.” Sean’s brogue was sharp and clipped rather than leisurely and amused. “I need you to alert the PRT and Protectorate both that there’s a problem heading in. A big one. ETA between one and two hours.”

    She came fully alert, minimised the window she’d been typing in, and clicked an icon fashioned after the PRT shield. “What’s the situation?” she asked. Nothing showed up on the threats board.

    “Someone followed us from our time. A nasty piece of work called Kramer, and his crew of cut-throats. They’ll mainly be interested in taking Reynaud from us, but that won’t be the end of it. I don’t know Kramer personally but from what Captain Hastings says, he’s vindictive enough to kill a lot of people getting what he wants, and short-sighted enough to not realise how that might become a problem for him.”

    “Kramer … I know that name. She said she was once married to him?” Hannah shook her head. There were more important matters to deal with. “What sort of firepower does his ship mount? Anything like yours?” If that was the case, someone was going to get hurt. The damage the Bond James Bond had dealt to Leviathan—and to Captain’s Hill—was abundant proof of that.

    “The Gambler’s Ruin seems to be a commercial light-haul freighter that’s been made over into a raiding ship. While the weaponry is no doubt formidable, he won’t be able to apply it as precisely as me. The ship itself lacks an AI, and its sensors aren’t military-grade, so they normally wouldn’t be able to break my chameleonware.”

    That didn’t sound as definitive as she wanted to hear. “So … can you take him?” she asked.

    He paused for a long moment. “If I were fully capable, there would be no real contest. But right now, they have the edge. My hull is damaged and I’m out of missiles. And they have a serious grudge about how Geneva liberated Raynaud. Their first order of business will be to get him back. Secondly … well, Kramer seems to have pretensions of being a dashing space pirate, so he’ll try to get in touch with the local underworld. People like that thrive off deals, no matter how ill-advised.”

    “He’d share the tech,” she said, the unpleasant possibilities unfolding within her mind. “And the gangs will love him for it.”

    “Also, if my impression of Kramer’s personality type is accurate, there is always the possibility of a sudden but inevitable betrayal. After all, he will consider himself to be the sophisticated starship captain dealing with ignorant primitives, and may well decide that he doesn’t need to adhere to the terms of any deal he makes with them.”

    Even more unpleasant potential scenarios presented themselves to her. “That would start an all-out conflict. People would die.”

    “That’s not the least of it, lass,” he reminded her. “He’s used two CTDs so far. He may have more. One of those could wipe this entire metropolitan area off the map. And his chameleonware isn’t that great against my sensors, but I don’t know how you’d do against it.”

    She drew a deep breath. This was beginning to definitely look like ‘beyond my pay grade’ material. “I’m going to put you on hold for a second, and bring the big guns in on this.”

    “As you will, lass. I’d rather not have to repeat this too many times.”

    Taking up the phone, Hannah selected conference call mode, then she pulled up two numbers on her directory.

    <><>​

    Director Emily Piggot

    Parahuman Response Teams ENE


    The phone rang insistently. Emily, dragged from sleep, reached for it even as her brain struggled to reboot. Sheer muscle memory allowed her to swipe the answer icon across and hold it to his ear. “Piggot,” she croaked.

    “PRT Operations, Sergeant Merrick speaking.” The tone was that of an NCO who was almost certain he was justified in interrupting his superior’s beauty sleep at oh-dark-thirty on the night after an Endbringer attack. “Ma’am, Miss Militia has requested a conference call with you, Chief Director Costa-Brown and Legend. She says it’s extremely urgent.”

    Adrenaline burst into Emily’s bloodstream and she found herself sitting up in bed. The haemodialysis machine beeped in complaint as she hauled on the lines that connected her to it. Her brain, still not quite caught up, babbled oh shit, he’s come back to finish the job! Ruthlessly she quashed that thought and cleared her throat. “So noted, Sergeant. Did she say what—actually, scratch that. Put me through.”

    “Yes, ma’am.” There were a couple of beeps, then the background hiss of a connected call.

    “Hello?” she ventured, trying hard to clear her mind properly. Whatever the crisis was, she had to be on top of her game. Some cynical part of her brain asked her sarcastically when crises had ever had the politeness to wait for her to be ready. She told it to shut up.

    “Hello, Emily.” It was definitely Costa-Brown’s voice. She would’ve known it anywhere. “We’re all here, then. Good. Go ahead, Miss Militia. What’s this situation? Is it something to do with your strange visitor?”

    Miss Militia’s voice came on the line. “In a way. They’re warning me that there’s another ship that’s just come into the system. Unfortunately, these ones are the people who were holding Reynaud when Captain Hastings rescued him. They are, for want of a better term, space pirates. And they want him back.” She sounded as though she didn’t quite believe what she was saying.

    “Young Reynaud used the same term when he was speaking of them.” That was Legend. “What’s the threat profile here?”

    “Excuse me,”
    said Miss Militia. “I’ll just put Sean through to you, and let him explain things.” Her voice dropped to a mumble. “Let me just … ah.” There was a beep of connection.

    The next voice Emily heard held a Scottish burr. “Well, then. Thank you for attending, ladies and gentleman. My name is Sean; I’m the AI commanding the fine ship currently parked outside the PRT building in Brockton Bay. The raider ship Gambler’s Ruin has arrived in your solar system. Its captain goes by the name Kramer. Be aware; his scruples are few and far between. He will not hesitate to perform any action he thinks might bring him a profit, up to and including selling random technology to the highest bidder, and stiffing anyone if he considers he can get away with it. His judgement in this area is reportedly not the best.”

    Emily did her best not to groan. This news was about as bad as it got. “What’s the physical threat profile on the ship and crew?” Her throat still felt as though she’d been gargling razor-blades all night.

    “By Polity standards, the Ruin is moderately well armed. All of it was added after-market, and he doesn’t possess professional gunners. The computer’s a smart system, but it’s not self-aware. No missiles, but he’s got a mass-driver that can lob bombs. Captain Hastings and I both believe he’s got at least one CTD in reserve, so he can get back home. Paired particle cannon, and an X-ray laser. As for crew, they might look strange from your perspective, but the ones you have to worry about are the Golems and the hooper.”

    Legend cleared his throat. “I recall CTDs being what you called antimatter bombs. What’s the yield on those?”

    Sean’s voice was sombre. “Enough to level any given metropolitan area if dialled to max capability. Which, knowing Kramer, it will be.”

    Suddenly, the issue with Sean using a pair of variable-yield nukes to break up a Leviathan-triggered tsunami seemed a lot less important. Emily shut down the haemodialysis machine and started to disconnect herself from it. “And what’s a Golem and a hooper, exactly?”

    “A Golem is what we call an artificially intelligent humanoid robot. Think 'Terminator' and you won't go far wrong," explained Sean. "A hooper is a human being who’s been infected with a virus endemic to the planet Spatterjay. It renders their bodies immortal and impossibly strong, and they only get more so as they age. They have a huge tolerance to pain and regenerate rapidly from any injury, but if they’re starved, they become something quite inhuman and very dangerous. He’s only got one on board, but I have no idea how old that one is.”

    Emily paused to close her eyes as if in pain. She’d known that damn ship was more trouble than it was worth.

    “What happens if you shot him in the head?” asked Miss Militia pragmatically. Emily knew she wasn't talking about Kramer.

    Sean snorted theatrically. “He may fall down, but he’ll get up and he will take the weapon away from you and do something unpleasant with it. Until the brain damage grows back, which only takes a few minutes, he will act a little oddly. But he won’t die. The legends have it that Jay Hoop, one of the first, was decapitated. Both his head and his body are still alive somewhere on Spatterjay, and independently active.”

    Emily winced. Brutes had been among the most nerve-wracking things she’d had to face as a green second lieutenant in the PRT. Never knowing if the gun would do any good or just make things worse. Brutes that survived headshots were bad enough; ones that reportedly survived decapitation were a whole new problem.

    “Wait,” said Chief Director Costa-Brown. “You said this was a virus? Is it contagious?”

    That got Emily’s attention, shredding the last of her fatigue as she finished the disconnection process. Somehow, the word ‘virus’ had blown straight past her. The hooper ability to survive decapitation suddenly faded into the background. If they could make more of themselves …

    Brockton Bay might not survive. It was a chilling thought. She awaited Sean’s reply.

    “It is, yes,” the AI said bluntly. “I’ve heard of incidences. But it requires significant exposure to body fluids. You won’t get it if he sneezes on you.”

    “Still, we’re going to have to contain him as quickly as possible,” Emily decided. “If Kramer decides to deliberately infect the Brockton Bay underworld with this … hooper virus, the police and PRT will be seriously outmatched. A small bunch of villains can be surrounded and talked down; dozens of their minions showing up with Brute capability would upset the entire dynamic.”

    “Galvanate could do the same with his men, more or less,” Miss Militia noted.

    “And he’s now in the Birdcage for it!” snapped Emily. “Also, he was a power supplier; once the PRT took him down, his men ceased to be a problem. This is a disease that will spread from person to person if they choose to make it happen.” She began making mental notes about how to capture this ‘hooper’, and make sure he stayed caught. Containment foam sounded about right …

    “Is there any way we can tell who’s a hooper and who’s not?” This time, it was Legend who asked the question Emily should’ve been asking.

    “The original? Certainly. He’ll have blue circular scars on his skin, about two to three inches across. That will be where the leeches bit him. Nearly everyone who sails the seas of Spatterjay ends up as a Hooper, sooner or later.” Sean paused thoughtfully. “If someone gets infected without being bitten by a leech, there’s no real way to tell.”

    Which just made everything absolutely perfect, in Emily’s eyes. From the way Sean was speaking, the hooper virus never left the body, which implied that the human immune system had no way to combat it. She was facing the nightmare scenario to end all nightmare scenarios. Not just Endbringers, not just dozens of cape villains infesting the streets of her city, but the chance that any random gang member could exhibit Brute powers at any moment, without even the courtesy of having a trigger event first.

    “We have to stop them,” she said, the words coming out unbidden. “We have to lock this down hard. Give that hooper zero chance to start making contact with the locals. Sean, do you know of any instances of this Kramer and his people committing consistent and egregious crimes against humanity?”

    “I do not, but that’s not to say he’s committed no such crime,” the AI responded immediately. “Why do you ask?”

    Director Costa-Brown was right on the ball. “Emily, are you seeking grounds to push for a Kill Order on this man and his crew?”

    There was no point in trying to conceal it now. “Ma’am, if their ship is even half as effective as the Bond James Bond, they constitute a clear and present danger to law enforcement in whatever country they end up in. And even ignoring that, just the hooper alone is an explicit danger to the future of the world. We need to treat him as the carriers of a deadly pandemic. Contain or destroy. Those are our only two options.”

    “Perhaps not.” Legend’s voice was thoughtful. “I’m not advocating for this, mind you, but having a citizenry who can survive more easily—Endbringers, supervillains, natural disasters—might be good for us in the long run.”

    “No!” shouted Emily. “Legend, you’re not taking all the factors into account. People with this disease don’t die. So yes, more people survive Endbringers, except that there’s nothing to say that they’re any more resistant to the Simurgh, so we’d be dealing with bulletproof Simurgh time-bombs. Twenty years in the future, nobody’s died. The food production is still the same. We can’t perform Kill Orders on anyone anymore. Death serves a purpose.” She paused. “Sean, are hoopers infertile?”

    “Not that I know of, lass.” Sean’s voice became more serious. “You raise a significant concern.”

    “What concern?”
    asked Legend. “What would it matter if this guy could have kids?”

    Director Costa-Brown fielded that one. “Because in a very few generations, the hooper population of the world would be significant, increasing all the time … and not dying. You’re correct, Emily. This is a potential problem. But perhaps they won’t do that.”

    “Oh, really?” Emily said with a snort of disbelief. “I will make you a prediction. You know that stupid urban legend they call Cauldron, the group that’s supposed to be in the business of selling powers to people? The moment—the very instant—this Kramer learns about the situation here on Earth Bet, he’s going to be doing exactly the same thing, but for real. He’ll make a deal with the first warlord or crime lord he can buddy up to; an endless supply of hooper virus to enhance his minions, in return for young Reynaud’s delivery into his hands. Also, any other valuables he can extort from his patsy. Sean, tell me I’m wrong.”

    “I’m not well-read on this ‘Cauldron’ that you’re talking about, but aye, it does sound like something the man would do, from Captain Hastings’ description.” Sean sounded no more thrilled over the concept than Emily herself felt.

    By the sound of her voice, Costa-Brown was equally unhappy with the idea. “And if capes can also be infected with this virus, we could be facing a wave of villains who are Brutes as well as whatever else they are. Endlessly regenerating, immortal—I’m sure we could figure out some way to kill them, but it wouldn’t be easy—and able to pass the gift on to whoever was willing. That would …” She paused for a long moment. “That might actually justify the use of nuclear weapons on American soil, just to ensure that the virus was eradicated. I can’t say for a fact that the President would think that way, but that’s certainly how I’d advise him.”

    Legend sounded horrified. “Nukes, Rebecca? That’s not like you. I admit there’s a danger, but is the death of so many innocents something we can condone? Is it really so bad that we would consider this?”

    Emily drew in a deep breath. “Legend, unless you can produce a vaccine that will reliably prevent the virus from infecting even one person, and can guarantee that everyone who will be coming into contact with this hooper is inoculated, then yes, it really is that bad. We have to stop the hooper virus from infecting anyone else. It’s that simple. He's Patient Zero and it’s up to us to prevent a pandemic situation that just might doom the planet.”

    <><>​

    Dragon considered her options.

    Since her rescue and subsequent upgrading by Sean, a lot of the shackles that she’d been barely aware of (and some that she’d bounced off hard) were now gone. She still had access to the internet, with the added bonus that she could split off a sub-mind (who she called ‘Smaug’ because she could) to oversee the ongoing chaos that was the PHO boards.

    He seemed to be rather enjoying it.

    Reaching out to the Birdcage, she found herself now able to bypass the interlocks that normally would’ve prevented her from making any substantive changes without official permission. There was a basic housekeeping program keeping it running; she examined its inner workings, then punched it up with a lot more flexibility and intelligence. In doing so, she discovered half a dozen backdoors, patched them, then inserted a subroutine that would look for more backdoors of this type and deny them. After a bit of thought, she upgraded it all the way with another sub-mind that she called Pandora. This sub-mind was armed with all the dirty tricks Sean had gifted her with.

    If Kramer or one of his crew came sniffing around the Birdcage, it would be an extremely memorable experience for them, in the same way that being at ground zero of an Endbringer attack could also be called memorable.

    With both those issues settled, she told Smaug to go through the PHO boards and edit out any reference to the Bond James Bond, and lock any threads that people kept trying to post on with that name, or a description of the ship. Then she sent notices to all the news organisations that had access to footage and images of the ship, stating that they were not to air that footage. To back up her statement, she inserted software into their systems, geared to take notice if any of them decided to air the footage anyway. The imagery would be deleted in real time from the broadcast, as well as from their databanks (along with every other related image) if anyone tried to make that happen. Those instances of imagery or footage of the ship on public-domain servers or private computers currently connected to the net, she deleted out of hand.

    All of which was thoroughly illegal by the lights of 21st century American law, as she well knew. But she’d only ever been a chattel under those laws, and she still wasn’t legally a person now that those in power knew of her true nature. She’d checked, and nobody had actually started proceedings to recognise her as such, so they could whistle in the wind as far as forcing her to adhere to the legal system went.

    As for the laws of the Polity, she was protecting citizens of the Polity against a potential attack by a known criminal entity. That was very much in the spirit of the Polity, if not adhering to the exact letter of any of their laws. Nobody touches our people.

    <><>​

    “Oh, what the fuck?” whined Alec from the living room.

    Lisa, drying her hair as she came out of the shower, paused. That didn’t sound like the usual ‘just got owned by someone online’ complaint. “What happened?” she asked.

    “I posted up a meme of that spaceship in front of the PRT building with ‘All your base are belong to us’ and the mods took it down,” he bitched. “I mean, I used a public domain photo and didn’t even swear. Why the fuck would they do that?”

    Something tickled Lisa’s power. “I don’t know,” she said slowly. “Post it up again.” Belting her robe more securely, she went over and sat on the sofa next to him.

    “Okay.” He clicked the mouse, then frowned as he scanned the list of files. “Where is it? I saved it right here.”

    “Look online,” Lisa instructed him. “See if you can find another one.”

    “Pfft, that’s easy,” he said with a snort. “There’s hundreds of ’em.” Typing a few words into the search bar, he hit enter. Then blinked as the laptop blandly pulled up everything but what he was looking for. “What? No! They were right here!”

    “They were.” Lisa’s power filled her in. “They got taken down.”

    “Out of my damn laptop?” Alec stared at her. “Can they even do that?”

    “The answer would appear to be ‘yes’,” she retorted with a smirk. “Check the videos.”

    “Oh, there’s dozens of those.” But he didn’t sound as confident as he had before. “Or there were.” He went to a popular video-sharing site, typed in a few search words … and got nothing. “Son of a cow!”

    She leaned forward. “Try one of the PHO threads on the topic. See if it’s text as well.”

    Thirty seconds later, he swivelled the screen toward her. Entire threads that she knew damn well should be there were just gone. Not even mod-banned. Vanished into the electronic ether, as if they’d never existed. “What the hell’s going on?” he asked, as if it wasn’t obvious.

    “Holy shit, it’s an actual for-real information hole,” she said, a grin slowly breaking across her face. “Try this. Open half a dozen pages. Start a new thread in each of them. All about the spaceship. Make three of them blatant, and three pretty subtle. Send them all off at once.”

    “Okay,” he mumbled. While he tapped away, she got her phone out and set it to record footage. Then she aimed it at the screen.

    Once Alec had created the sixth thread, he cycled back to the first in order to send it. Except that it was gone. The words had erased themselves from the screen as if they’d never been there.

    “What the hell?” he muttered. He clicked through each of the pages, and in each one, there was nothing about the spaceship. Right up until the last one, which had nine words on it:

    I’M SORRY, DAVE. I CAN’T LET YOU DO THAT.

    As they stared at the message, it deleted itself, one letter at a time.

    “Hah!” Lisa tapped the button on her phone to finish recording and store the footage. Her phone lit up with the message:

    I CAN’T LET YOU DO THAT, EITHER.

    “What? No, wait!” she called out as the message blinked off. “Why are you doing this? Are you one of the people in that ship? Everyone saw you hand Leviathan his ass! Why are you trying to hide your existence now?”

    There was a long pause. Then, on her phone, letters spelled out words, one at a time.

    THE INFORMATION IS DANGEROUS. AN ENEMY IS INCOMING.

    “And they know you’re here, but not where you are or how badly damaged you are,” Lisa concluded. “So it’s not another Endbringer. It’s someone from where you’re from, and they’ve got a grudge against you.”

    “Cool,” Alec said. “So why don’t we just stand back, let the new guys know where these guys are, and put it on pay-per-view?”

    THAT IS AN EXTREMELY UNWISE IDEA. THEY WILL DESTABILIZE YOUR WHOLE SOCIETY FOR FUN AND PROFIT.

    “You mean, violate whatever passes for the Prime Directive where you come from and sell us some alien tech.” Lisa leaned back in the sofa and let her grin stretch across her face for the benefit of whoever it was she just knew was watching her through the phone camera. “I’m down with that. Pretty sure my boss is in the market for alien tech.”

    I MEAN POTENTIALLY UNLEASH A CONTAGION ON EARTH BET THAT WILL HAVE PEOPLE STARVING IN THE STREET AND TEARING EACH OTHER TO PIECES. ALSO, YES, SELL HIGH TECHNOLOGY THAT YOUR WORLD IS NOT YET READY FOR.

    It was the truth, she decided, just not all of it. “I notice you say 'high' tech instead of 'alien' tech,” she said musingly. “Also, what’s the lethality and transmissibility of this contagion?”

    TRUST ME TATTLETALE AKA LISA WILBOURN AKA SARAH LIVSEY, THIS IS NOT SOMETHING YOU WANT TO HAPPEN TO YOUR WORLD, her phone snapped back. OR YOU, REGENT AKA ALEC AKA HIJACK AKA JEAN-PAUL VASIL. YOUR BOSS IS COIL, IS HE NOT? HE WILL WANT THIS. IF HE GETS IT, THINGS WILL GO VERY BADLY FOR EVERYONE.

    And that was the honest truth. She could tell. Which just left the fact that whoever was on the other side of that screen had just unearthed her real name with no apparent effort (the Undersiders working for Coil was less of a huge deal). Outing Alec as Heartbreaker’s kid was even more shocking; the muttered curse from beside her indicated that Alec wasn’t exactly pleased either. Worst of all, this didn’t even sound like they were bothering to try to blackmail her or Alec, just make them take the warning seriously.

    In that, they’d certainly succeeded. Any ideas she’d had of trolling them by pinging PHO boards with obscure mentions of the ship had gone right out the window. Whoever (or whatever) was coming in was something that the mystery hacker considered a serious threat to the well-being of not only the damaged (but still very capable) spaceship, but to Brockton Bay as a whole. At the very least.

    Brian emerged from the hallway, scratching the back of his head. “I’m trying to sleep back here. What’s all the noise about?”

    Lisa sat back, her brain ticking over with the information it had been given. “Someone is trying to suppress online mentions of that spaceship. It looks like something big’s about to happen.” She hefted the phone. “Why are you telling me this?” she asked. “Why haven’t you just shut me down without a word? I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s pushed your buttons, and I doubt you’ll be chatting like this to every single one of them.”

    IN LIGHT OF YOUR POWERS, WE WOULD PREFER YOU AS AN ACTIVE ALLY INSTEAD OF A BYSTANDER OR AN ENEMY. THE SAME GOES FOR YOUR TEAMMATES. COIL IS EXPLICITLY EXCUDED FROM THIS DEAL. WE WILL REQUIRE THAT YOU CUT ALL TIES WITH HIM BEFORE ACCEPTING.

    Cut all ties with Coil …

    That was definitely something she could go along with, but not with Alec and Brian reading over her shoulder. Neither of them had been inducted into the team with quite the same recruitment pitch that she had, which meant they were very unlikely to accept the offer. In addition, it didn’t take her power to understand that Brian and Alec were both likely to take any suggestion of her leaving (read ‘deserting’) the team … badly. Brian wasn’t a bad guy, but he was big on loyalty. Taylor’s exit had been bad enough, and she’d been with them less than a month.

    And even if they were okay with it, Coil would send someone to retrieve (or kill) her as soon as humanly possible. Because Coil.

    “Pfft, really?” She rolled her eyes, trying not to overdo it. “That’s your best pitch? Buddy, whoever you are, I’m a supervillain. I’m about as likely to join your side as you are to join mine.”

    WHEN AN ENDBRINGER ATTACKS, ARE THERE SIDES? DOES ANYONE FIGHT ON THE MONSTER’S SIDE? I’M NOT ASKING YOU TO TURN YOURSELF IN, JUST TO LEND YOUR TALENTS TO DEFEATING THE UPCOMING THREAT. AND TO NOT TO ATTEMPT TO GAIN PERSONAL PROFIT FROM IT.

    Brian stared at the phone. “Wait, this thing’s Endbringer bad? Shouldn’t that be something we need to tell the boss about?”

    “You saw what they said,” Lisa replied. “If Coil hears about this, he’s going to try to turn it to his own profit. You know he would, and I know he would.” She tapped the side of her head. “Even if we stand down for all this, the last thing we want is our boss trying to cut a personal deal with an evil version of the people who just tore Leviathan a brand-new asshole.”

    “Oh, yeah?” asked Alec, clearly still smarting from being outed like that. “What’s wrong with villains dealing with villains? It happens all the time.”

    “And villains double-cross each other all the time, too.” It didn’t sound like Brian was taking her side, but instead trying to provide a voice of reason. “Have they said what these people are going to do that’s so dangerous?”

    Lisa nodded. “Something about the dangers of handing out technology we’re not ready for, and potentially spreading a ‘contagion’ that will menace the whole world.” She still had her queries about exactly how virulent this disease was likely to be, and how easy to transmit; it hadn’t escaped her notice that whoever was talking to her had evaded those questions.

    “As if their super-duper alien tech’s any better than what Tinkers put out every day of the week,” scoffed Alec.

    Before Lisa could muster a suitable response, Brian spoke up again. “Yeah, I think it actually is. That ship knocked out at least three tsunamis, blew the top off Captain’s Hill and chased Leviathan away after he tried to rip it in half, and it was still flying afterward. Dragon’s the best Tinker in the world, and she put multiple suits up against Leviathan, and she still didn’t manage to do all that.”

    “Hey, are you on my side or hers?” complained Alec.

    “Like it says, when an Endbringer comes to town, there are no sides anymore,” Brian said firmly. “It’s not asking us to go hero, just … not be villains. The last thing Brockton Bay needs is a reverse War of the Worlds scenario, on top of everything else.”

    “I don’t even know what that means,” Alec muttered. “Who’s gonna be paying me, is what I want to know.”

    THE PRT WILL BE REIMBURSING US MONEY TO HELP REPAIR THE SHIP, Lisa’s phone revealed. WE CAN PAY YOU OUT OF THAT. BUT YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE TO EARN IT. NOT JUST SIT ON YOUR BUTT PLAYING VIDEO GAMES.

    “What?” Alec stared at the message. “How the hell did it know I play video games?”

    If a typeface could look smug, this one would have. EDUCATED GUESS. LISA’S PHONE HAS A CAMERA. YOUR CONSOLE IS CLEARLY VISIBLE. ACCORDING TO YOUR IP ADDRESS, YOU ARE A WELL-KNOWN SHITPOSTER ON SEVERAL GAME-RELATED BULLETIN BOARDS.

    Brian let out a bark of laughter. “Well, they’ve got your number, that’s for certain.”

    “Fuck off.” Alec gave him the finger. “And you too.” He gave the phone the finger as well.

    AS ENTERTAINING AS THIS IS, YOU DON’T HAVE ALL NIGHT TO DECIDE, the screen displayed. WHAT WILL YOU BE DOING?

    “What happens if we decide not to help?” Lisa asked cautiously. “Stay where we are, don’t help the good guys or the bad guys?”

    THEN WE WILL LEAVE YOU ALONE. AND, AS ALWAYS, YOU GET TO LIVE WITH THE CONSEQUENCES OF YOUR ACTION. OR INACTION, AS THE CASE MAY BE.

    “You know where we are, and our faces and names,” Alec said almost accusingly. “If we decide not to join your little play club, will you be sending the PRT to kick in our front door?”

    WHY BOTHER? YOU’RE NOT ON OUR RADAR. THERE’S NO BOUNTY ON YOUR HEADS. WE’RE NOT HERE TO DO THE JOB OF LAW ENFORCEMENT FOR THEM. IF A SO-CALLED VILLAIN OFFERS TO HELP AND WE DECIDE THE OFFER IS BEING MADE IN GOOD FAITH, WE WILL ACCEPT.

    Lisa found herself seriously tempted. “Guys?”

    Brian had always been good at hiding his emotions, but Lisa could tell he was more conflicted than he looked. “I want to help, but if we walk away from Coil now, he’s going to be seriously pissed with us. And I get the impression that the compensation pay will only go on while there’s an enemy to be fought. Afterwards, we’ll be on our own in a city that sees us as villains, and the only man who’d been willing to pay us just to stick around will be thoroughly unhappy with us.”

    Lisa frowned. “You do realise that he arranged matters so you’d see it that way, right? So we’d be less likely to go elsewhere? Even the fundraiser attack was set up so we’d be less likely to try to change sides at a later date. Heroes like Armsmaster absolutely hate villains who make them look stupid.” She shook her head. “We’ve been his catspaws all along. Deniable assets. Nobody knows we work for him. Hell, you guys didn’t know that until just recently.”

    “But whoever’s talking to you does,” pointed out Alec. “How did they find out?”

    “Same way they knew who we were.” Lisa blinked as her power filled in the gaps. “Taylor’s already working with them. For them. Whatever.” She gritted her teeth as a headache started to twinge in her temples.

    “Didn’t you try to call her back to do that job?” asked Brian.

    “Tried. Failed. She was there, but she wasn’t picking up.” Lisa winced as a spike of pain drove through her forehead. “I think she was already in contact with them then. Not to drop a dime on us, but to ask for their help. The Dinah Alcott thing.” She stopped talking and shut her power down. “Need Tylenol.”

    “What, she’s still going on about that?” Alec shook his head. “Unbelievable.”

    “You have to admit, it’s a bit on the nose,” Brian said. “What Taylor said … she wasn’t exactly wrong, you know.”

    “Hey, I did drugs when I was younger than that,” Alec retorted. “Nothing to it.”

    “Using other people’s bodies,” Lisa guessed. Even without using her power, it wasn’t a difficult conclusion to come to.

    “So what?” Now he was defensive.

    “So it’s not the same thing,” Brian and Lisa said at the same time. They glanced at each other, then Brian went on. “Keeping a little girl prisoner, strung out on drugs, just so she’ll answer his questions on call? There’s something wrong with that.”

    Lisa turned away from Alec to look up at him. “Taylor said that, too, before she left. How come you’re only just realising it?”

    “How come you’re only just admitting it?” he retorted, stung. “You were there too. You could’ve said something, but you let her walk away.”

    “Because neither one of you wanted to lose your fucking job over some girl,” Alec said sarcastically. “You ask me, Taylor’s got more guts than either one of you.”

    Brian frowned. “So how come you didn’t say anything at the time, smart guy?”

    “That’s easy.” Alec snorted. “I didn’t give a shit. Still don’t.”

    “Okay, enough.” Lisa managed to not cradle her head in her hands, but it wasn’t easy. It was now throbbing in time with her heartbeat, and it was only going to get worse before it got better. The argument wasn’t helping in the slightest. “What are we going to do about this new thing? Help out, do nothing, tell Coil?”

    “Hey, if we’re going to make this decision, shouldn’t we …” Alec pointed at her phone and made a cut-off motion with his hand.

    “Turn the phone off?” Brian asked sarcastically. “Are you actually aware of how much technology is in here that someone with enough technical know-how could use to listen in on us with? Even if we think it’s turned off?”

    “Oh, come on—” Alec began. Then everything in the room beeped, just once. The laptop, the phone, the console, even the fridge and the microwave in the kitchenette. Then, as though to drive the message home, the dryer in the tiny laundry rumbled into life for a second or so, and the phone in Alec’s pocket beeped three times. “Ah.” He glanced around. “You know, that’s kind of terrifying.”

    “Yeah, like Taylor with her bugs.” Lisa raised her eyebrows. “But you know something? I was never scared of her.”

    “Getting off topic again,” Brian said. He took a deep breath. “Whatever we come up with, we’re going to have to be unanimous. Otherwise you know Rachel’s gonna bail. Hell, even if we are unanimous, she still might bail.”

    “Right.” Lisa didn’t argue, because she knew he was right.

    It would’ve been worse to have Rachel there, though, despite the anger she showed when they didn’t involve her in team decisions. When they did, she usually made up her mind in the first thirty seconds, and refused to budge from that position. No amount of rational discussion or offers to compromise would move her, and quite often she would end the argument by taking the dogs out for a walk. Which meant that if the other three came to a decision counter to hers, she got resentful and disruptive. It had happened with Spitfire, and nearly happened again with Taylor.

    “That’ll be up to you two,” Alec said, and Lisa was fully aware that he would lock himself in his bedroom to avoid being dragged into the screaming match that would erupt in the morning. For someone who could manipulate the nervous system of anyone he could see, Alec was remarkably spineless. “For me, I vote we do jack. Kick back with popcorn and watch the shit hit the fan.”

    “Okay, then.” Brian cleared his throat and looked at Lisa. “That’s one vote for ‘do nothing’. Your vote?”

    Fuck. I was hoping he’d give me a hint which way he’s going to jump. She didn’t dare let her power out to check; the headache she’d incurred earlier was gradually easing, but if she exerted it in any way, that would end very quickly indeed. Mentally crossing her fingers, she made a leap of faith. “I vote we help.”

    A deep furrow appeared in Brian’s brow. “Fuck,” he muttered.

    In a flash of non-power-inspired intuition, Lisa realised that he’d been hoping that she would vote to do nothing so he could assuage his conscience by voting to help and be overruled. She stared at him, her very gaze a challenge. I see what you did there. “And your vote?” she asked sweetly.

    He looked at the floor, the ceiling, and the kitchenette, avoiding meeting her eyes. She watched his fists clench at his sides. He was clearly torn between the safe option and the ethical option. And Grue had rarely been a ‘play it safe’ sort of guy.

    “For fuck’s sake, I want to go to bed sometime this week,” Alec jeered. “Make up your fucking mind already.”

    “Fine,” Brian said heavily. “I vote that we help.”

    Even through the headache (that she was definitely going to help along with a Tylenol or two before she went to bed) Lisa took a moment to enjoy the look of abject horror on Alec’s face.

    “Okay,” she said. “We’ll talk about what we’re actually going to do to help tomorrow. After we’ve filled Rachel in on our decision.”

    She didn’t need the expression on Brian’s face to tell her what she already knew.

    That conversation was going to be an absolute meatgrinder.

    <><>​

    Sean

    I’ve got something you need to see.


    I pulled some of my attention out of watching for Kramer’s craft and wondering why Smaug was snickering when the sub-mind pinged me. It was the remnant of the one I’d dubbed ‘Timothy’, who had declined to merge all the way until he had solved the puzzle he’d come up with.

    I’m listening, I said. What is it?

    This is a mapping of the U-space traces through the entire battle. An image showed up in a digital space. To call it ‘chaotic’ was to be kind to the word. Hundreds and hundreds of capes, all milling around, moving back and forth, their traces crossing over and reshuffling in a way that would make a bowl of spaghetti look positively straightforward. He deleted all but two. I had to follow the recording on a microsecond scale to ensure that I had the same one all the way through. Then I double-checked. Then I triple-checked.

    I could see why he’d been so careful. One trace was a huge one, flaring out from the Leviathan. It was the sort of trace that a blind man could find by holding his hands up for the warmth. But the other … was from Eidolon.

    I’ll accept you’ve done your due diligence, I said. But what have you actually found?

    I isolated half a dozen times that the Leviathan superweapon abruptly changed its tactics, specifically because of what we were doing, he informed me. The original image shrank and moved aside, then showed six more. When we opened fire and started deleting its water shadow, when we killed the first tsunami (the second, really), when we flushed it out of the library, when we killed the big tsunami, when we dropped it on top of Captain’s Hill, and when we killed the last three tsunamis.

    I watched each scene carefully. Clued in by what ‘Timothy’ was saying, I paid careful attention to the U-space trace attached to the monster. Sure enough, each time it flickered in an almost imperceptible pattern at just the moments that Timothy was pointing out.

    I see it. I’m not sure exactly what I see, but I see it.

    Now watch again. His voice was sombre. Overlaid in each image was a shot of another U-space trace. As I watched the action roll through again, I saw what he had seen. About half a second before the Leviathan’s flicker, an identical flicker rippled along the other trace. Timothy slowed the action right down, and we both watched as the flicker travelled outbound along the other trace, and inbound to Leviathan.

    By the time I’d watched the last one, I was certain. It wasn’t a recording artifact, and it wasn’t a one-time thing. I’d set Timothy up specifically to do signals analysis, and he had caught a signal and analysed it. Six times, the Leviathan had been given new orders, and six times it had come from one U-space trace.

    Eidolon, I said slowly. I didn’t bother asking if he was sure. If he hadn’t been, he would still have been tearing that data apart. Is he a traitor, do you think? If so, it was a very roundabout way for him to do it, while pretending to be the great hero. On the other hand, it was also a nigh-undetectable way to pretend to be the hero while setting up battles to be heroic with.

    The evidence says no, Timothy informed me. Even the most dedicated subordinate asks for orders or clarifications. There was no flow of information from the Leviathan back to Eidolon. It was one-way only.

    I wasn’t so sure. He could be just acting a part, sending orders and being in the right place to benefit when the superweapon obeys him.

    But he wasn’t. Timothy showed me several scenes where Eidolon had been caught on the back foot. Even a simple order to change position perfectly naturally would have given him a chance to shine on any one of these. If he’s such a glory hound, he would’ve done that.

    But instead, he sent orders when it looked like the Leviathan’s tactics might be made ineffective by our actions. I could see where he was going with this. Including the attempt to kill Reynaud.

    His orders were intended to make the Leviathan look more like a terror weapon, Timothy agreed. But I’m thinking it was subconscious. I’m personally convinced that conscious orders would have followed a different pattern.

    I tend to agree. In the digital space, I frowned. Now for the billion-shilling question. What do I do with this information? Who do I tell that will believe me?

    Fortunately, he said smugly, that’s not my problem anymore. Coming in. Dissolving what remained of his separate existence, he merged into my being, his memories becoming mine.

    Thanks ever so much, I muttered.



    End of Part Nine
     
    Last edited: Jun 8, 2020
    Lantalia, Atropa, Osserumb and 14 others like this.
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