William was fighting. It wasn’t like the fight that the parahumans were going through right now. No, that fight would come soon enough. Right now, there were field logistics that had to be taken care of before he’d join them. Gathering intelligence, planning the angle of attack, predicting where they would attack. Last-minute firmware updates, equipment checks. The list went on and on.
He was comfortable with it, though. He’d done a tour with the Marines, he’d gotten used to the mentality of hurry up and wait. This time, though, he could actively see the reason why they’d all been put in armor so quickly, why they were now idling as the brass got their heads out of their asses.
Maybe he was older now. Wiser. More able to see the system behind it all. That would be a nice reason. Really, though, he knew it was because he was scared to death and was grasping at straws to help keep him calm.
It wasn’t the upcoming fight that scared him so much. That was duty, something that he actually understood before he’d even joined the military, let alone the PRT. It wasn’t the fact that he was looking at a very brief fight, followed by a very long time in the soil, and that was if he was exceptionally lucky. He was such a very small number.
It was the toll that Scion had taken. There were reports that he wasn’t sure that he could believe. Millions dead already, maybe even a billion. Unconfirmed reports that multiple Earths had been scoured of life. If those were true, then maybe the death toll was in the tens or hundreds of billions. He wasn’t sure.
Then came the global cooling. Scion had criss-crossed Earth Bet multiple times, blasting indiscriminately with that damn golden beam so powerful that it apparently reached the bedrock. There were rumors that the Mississippi had dried up as water drained into those deep channels. Millions of tons of dust had apparently been kicked high into the atmosphere, making the temperature plummet. He’d overheard a Thinker mention that fifty years before temperatures started to return to normal was an optimistic number. Like a nuclear winter, or maybe a Parahuman winter.
Some landmarks were rubble. Some were simply *gone*, as if they’d never existed at all. What the golden beams or his powers didn’t destroy, shifting earth seemed to do the trick. Some areas had a fifty foot difference in height between one side of the newly-formed canyons and the other.
William was fighting to put it all in order. The numbers were there, but he couldn’t make sense of them. He couldn’t translate them from meaningless digits into something that he could understand, something that he could relate to. Not the worst hurricane, not the worst Endbringer attack. The sinking of that Japanese island whose name suddenly escaped him? Or Newfoundland? Nothing. This was an order of magnitude more devastating.
If somehow they won this fight, if they killed Scion and saved the day, could humanity even begin to recover? Or would it take the end of the human race from Scion’s bang to a slow, hungry whimper?
“Van Dorn. Status check.”
William blinked, looking over at the source of the voice. Marcus. Figures he’d be the one to speak up when none of the others standing here dared to.
“Software update at 83 percent. Batteries at 93, fuel at a hundred. Three bars signal strength.” How were they getting any signal to start with?
“Did you finish the flight training?”
William winced under his helmet. “I was getting close to the end. I’m not certified, and I might not be in the best formation, but I’m pretty sure I can at least basically be where the programs tell me to be.” He paused for a moment before quietly adding, “Scared as hell though.”
Marcus laughed, looking at him. “You’d be either suicidal or a goddamn psychopath not to be.” There was a pause before his head lowered a little. “I dunno. I might be one, a little bit.”
“What? You’re not scared?”
“Oh, no. I’m scared alright. No, that’s not it.” William wished that he could see Marcus’ expression. “I’m just kind of relieved.”
A spike of anger welled in William’s chest, but he kept it in check, clamping it down fucking tight. He was relieved that the world was ending? What sort of a fucked up thing is that?
Just as quickly as the thought hit him, though, the answer came. “That you can do something?”
That made sense at least. Marcus had been one of the first recruits into the Dragon’s Teeth. He didn’t have the military background that William did, but the PRT had singled the man out as having the right stuff. He’d taken to the training like a fish to water, had helped train everyone else… and when the time came to take the fight to the Slaughterhouse Nine and their clones, he’d been denied. Something about his psychological profile indicating one of the clones having a high probability of compromising him.
Being one of the first, and then being sidelined like that, it must have been unbearable. William was still in training, one of the latest recruits, so he didn’t feel quite as bad for not being included in the assault. He’d at least taken solace in the fact that he’d join the ranks of the Dragon’s Teeth after the fact, forming a new wave of PRT troopers who could operate on the same level as parahumans.
To finally be able to fight, to have a purpose again, must have meant the world to Marcus. It gave him something to focus on beyond his own mental failure.
So here he was, filling the space, keeping people from getting too into their own thoughts. Damn, he would have made a good Marine.
Marcus spoke up again. “So, after we blow his goddamn head off and fuck the blowhole, what do you wanna to do?”
“Get really fucking drunk,” someone else said darkly.
“Okay, yeah. Besides that, though. I mean, I’m thinking about becoming a florist.”
“After the end of the world?” another trooper asked.
Marcus’ helmet nodded slowly. “Huh, maybe you’re right. Okay, fine. I’ll open a pancake house.”
Someone else called out suddenly. “I wanna be a bikini inspector!”
“Damn,” said one of the female troopers. “Can we team up on that? Become a franchise, maybe? I’ll handle the dudes for you, you can toss me the occasional chick, too.”
A ripple of laughter ran through the group. Already the stress was starting to ebb a little. They were going from a tight bundle of nerves to something a little looser. For a moment, they could almost forget that they were standing on the knife’s edge of doomsday.
Only for a moment, though. Doorways opened out of the air in front of each of them, showing a new location. A voice came over their helmets. “Step through and prepare to engage. Fly to your waypoints and activate the predictive algorithm.”
“Assholes and elbows,” Marcus called out as he stepped through.
William took a deep breath as he marched through the portal. He wasn’t a religious man, not by a longshot, but he still silently said a little prayer as he activated the flight system. Just because he didn’t believe in God didn’t mean that they couldn’t use all the help they could get. With any luck, if there was a supreme being, he believed in them.
There was an ounce of pain in William’s leg, where the artificial muscle fibers and titanium connected to flesh and bone. More issues. It was days like today that he considered getting the Tinker-built prosthetic ripped out and replaced with something far more mundane. Every month or so, he needed to get it worked on for something or another, and he was one of the lucky ones. He didn’t have a physically demanding job to put a bunch of wear and tear on it.
On the monitors in front of him, a new wave of red squares outlined people. The predictive algorithm was never intended to be used like this, but it hadn’t even required Dragon or Defiant to tweak it. What it did require, however, was that the mainframe be tied into every suit in the city to provide the necessary processing power.
The staff didn’t need to be told anything about those. Instead, it was the slower appearance of yellow boxes that required his attention. He lifted his tablet towards a monitor, and a copy of the image displayed appeared. He tapped one of the boxes, and it was immediately flagged to intercept.
To William’s right was Commander Jensen, who was engaged in moving the troops around, making sure that they were in proper position to handle the heavy load they were currently under. William had brought in extra troops just for this. Some might call it a waste of resources, but William preferred to think of it as forward thinking.
Jensen, Steve, was a good man, though you’d never know it by looking at him. One of the eight survivors of the Bangor Heavy Trigger Event back in 2019, he had undergone years of intense study. Today, people could easily mistake him for a sculpture until he moved, and even then he had no facial expression or body language.
How he was able to move and act at all with over half of his brain simply missing was a mystery to everyone. Not destroyed, simply missing, disappeared. But he’d somehow moved through the ranks, and was well-loved by the men and women under his command. What he lacked in outward emotion, he made up for with concern and care for those under his command, a devilish wit, a sense of humor that he applied to his condition, and his dedication towards keeping the area safe.
His posting in New Brockton must have been a source of constant frustration for Tattletale. It had to be. But from what William heard, she was utterly fascinated by the man. He preferred not to think about that.
Tattletale. Steve said that she was a good person at heart, but had trouble showing it to others. If that was true, she must have been goddamn autistic. The only reason why she kept a stranglehold over New Brockton, besides of the fact that she’d originally owned it, was that she had dirt on anybody and everybody, and liked to lord it over them. The few times that William had dealt with her had almost ended in a gunshot. These days, he left the interactions to Jensen. It worked out best for everyone involved.
How she had so many people who seemed to enjoy her company was beyond him. So long as she didn’t get close enough to try and play mind games with him again, he was willing to give her space.
A soft huff of breath brought his attention to the Thinker on his left. Gina Franklin had somehow gotten wind of this emergency operation and invited herself to join it. William wasn’t exactly a fan of her, and she wasn’t an easy person to deal with, but he’d allowed it with implied conditions. She’d picked up on them with frightening ease and had, apparently, complied. She was playing nice, too — her power let her sort through reams of data in real time, assisted by the monitors in this control room, the two head mounted displays she was wearing, the earbud in her ear, and her rather fancy tinker tech tablet.
Frankly, it was the first time in the three years he’d dealt with her on and off that he’d seen her without a sneer on her face.
It wasn’t an easy thing to admit to, but William didn’t actually like most parahumans. It wasn’t any sort of bigotry, not really. Most of them never asked for this, and he was told that most of their less admirable qualities were because of their passengers. He personally believed that to be at least partially hogwash, but he wasn’t going to argue. At least, not publicly.
No, his issue came from humanity’s new reliance upon them, and the end game from that. If you had powers, no matter what powers they were, it meant that society felt you had more options. More emphasis was put on people with powers than there should have been, even if their more valuable skills were purely mundane in nature. A civil engineer was worth their weight in gold, but people paid more attention of they were a Thinker or Tinker.
Even worse, the Dragon’s Teeth relied upon them so heavily. Dragon, Defiant, and Muramasa were alright, really. (What was Muramasa’s name? He couldn’t remember.) Two of those Tinkers worked tirelessly to create new tools for them, rarely asking anything in return. Muramasa saw to the production of those tools. Sure, they had to pay him for his time these days, but that was perfectly reasonable.
But those tools came with a hefty cost. Each individual trooper needed three suits, because two of them were all but certain to be in for repairs at any given moment. Repairs that couldn’t be made by the average person. The Dragon’s Teeth had small armies of Tinkers whose only job was to keep those suits up and running, and half the time those Tinkers would stop mid-job to go rushing off and deal with their own projects.
William didn’t blame the Tinkers. There simply wasn’t a point. You don’t blame the hornet for building its nest. You don’t blame the scorpion for stabbing you. What was the point in blaming someone for who, or what, they were? Especially when it was outside of their control.
Besides, with his cybernetics, he couldn’t afford to be a hypocrite.
No, he blamed everyone else. People who focused on supplying Tinkers to get teleporters up and running without supporting those who wanted to get the railways to connect the cities. Yes, it was hard work, especially on Earth Bet where the chasms were uneven, but it was reliable work that could be reproduced more easily. Focus efforts on technology which, in theory, anyone could operate and repair with the proper training.
That’s why Mr. Abrams was so important, why William was so willing to take the long path with him. Why they put so much effort into quietly protecting him. Chris could build things that made materials, materials which could be worked by those with the necessary skills, be they triggered or untriggered. The knives, for example, were as sharp as a blade could get, but without the fear of them not working when you needed them like with the nanothorn blades.
Which brought his eyes back to one of the monitors. The boy was hugging his brother fiercely. They could have audio if they wanted, but Steve had given the order for silence. Jordan was leaving, and it was an emotional moment for the family. They deserved some modicum of privacy.
William couldn’t agree more.
That’s what this operation was all about. Politics. Keeping people at bay while the family did their thing was a noble act, sure, but it was for selfish reasons. Chris might not see what was going on, but Gina had already confirmed that Sarah had. No doubt, she would mention it to the boy. The parents had probably noticed as well.
It wasn’t much in the way of manipulation, but it still was there. A gesture of support, a token of goodwill, and no doubt his superiors would grouse at him about wasting manpower. In the long run, it would make the supplies flow a little more freely, make Chris more willing to work with them. Whatever materials he deemed worthy of selling them could do them a world of good.
Jordan was sporting a brand new design of armor. William wasn’t heartless, but he always had to think. The new armor design had obviously learned lessons from the previous one. The cut was a little different, the shoulders were in a new shape, the collar looked strange, and Jordan’s armor now had a helmet that looked interesting. He wanted to get a closer look, but now wasn’t the time. Not in the slightest.
It was only a matter of time before the Dragon’s Teeth got their mitts on the materials used to make that armor. The gap would close even more, and fewer people would die each year. It just required patience, an even hand, and knowing when to apply pressure and when to back off.
On another monitor, a new yellow box showed up. William called it up on his tablet. The pale man was dressed well, but he still tapped on the image. Immediately, shorthand information was displayed. One of Tattletale’s cronies, one of her public faces. Triggered, Thinker and Trump. Not a good sign.
He turned a little towards Jensen, holding the tablet up. The other commander forced his body to move, to look at the tablet. The man’s steel gray eyes didn’t so much as twitch as he read the information.
“Jensen to Corporal Hutchinson,” Steve said in a voice that sounded three times his actual age. “New target, Frank Burke, three o’clock. Delay politely. Please confirm orders, over.”
William suppressed a grin. Steve was underscoring the importance with the request. His earpiece responded.
“Hutchinson to Commander Jensen. Intercept Mr. Burke, engage him peacefully and delay his engagement with the targets until told otherwise, while maintaining positive relations. Moving out, sir. Over.”
William looked back to the family on the monitor. Chris was finally pulling away from his brother. Intel stated that Jordan was taking a trip solo, while Sarah joined the Wardens. She’d do well with them, he thought to himself. She knew how to play the game, knew when to stand her ground, and when to back off. Before the Agamemnon incident, he would have said that her power was weak, but she was skilled in making it extremely versatile. Now, after seeing her power operate at almost half the strength of the earthlight cannon, he could appreciate her skill in holding back.
She was on her way to being one of the the heavy guns the Wardens wheeled out against S-class threats. He hated to admit it, but he liked her particular brand of professionalism. She was much easier to deal with Jordan himself; the kid’s nearly constant smile could be a little unnerving at times. But he had the feeling that Sarah would be better than most of the Wardens, and would treat the Dragon’s Teeth with respect. He preferred her as a mercenary, but if she joined and made her way through the ranks, perhaps it would help everyone involved.
Which made it all the more shocking when she grabbed Jordan by the throat and slammed him against the wall.
The mood in the operations center changed instantly. In a heartbeat, it went from a casual op to people ready to start giving combat orders. Operators hunched over their consoles, fingers hovering over the buttons. On the monitors, the Teeth who had eyes on the family tensed. William’s eyes opened so wide that they felt a mild ache.
Jensen, as expected, didn’t react outwardly. Miss Franklin, however, only gave a dismissive snort. “Stand down, she’s not going to hurt him.”
Eyes turned to the Thinker, who wasn’t even bothering to look up from the blur of camera feeds on her tablet. “It’s an act. She’s trying to sever the bond between her and Jordan, put pressure on him. She’s trying to help him trigger. It won’t work, though. He knows what she’s doing.”
William looked back to the monitor, where the young woman was snarling at her brother. Someone had zoomed the image, and he could see spittle flying. Another angle showed that the boy’s feet were barely touching the ground. That was some act.
“Why?” Jensen asked slowly. No matter what, his voice was always so calm, soothing.
“Current theory suggests that a lack of social support helps the triggering process.” The words flowed from Gina’s lips like a gush of water. “For a while, we believed that it was necessary, but this has since proven untrue. She’s probably uttering oaths that she’ll kill him if he comes back untriggered. But since he can see what she’s doing, it’s going to have an opposite effect. She’s supporting him to the hilt, and he can see it, which will reinforce their bonds.
“That said, it could still work in their favor. With the two of them separated, as he encounters stress he may long for her support. That lack of support could help push him towards triggering. With in going to wander Earth Bet, it increases his odds at least tenfold, perhaps even more. At the same time, he makes friends easily, even if they’re just using him. That will hurt his chances. Hopefully, he stays on the move.”
Jensen spoke again. “And you can figure up those odds.”
Gina actually smiled. Was the world going to end? “I’m eyeballing it. I have an advantage, since he’s my friend. It’s part of why I’m here, actually. He’s a good guy, and I’m not easy to deal with. I’m a raging cunt and I know it. But when I was slinging insults his way, he doubled down and became more determined to become my friend. He was my only competition in a couple of classes, and he found ways to make my home life easier. I owe him, even if I’m going to kick him in the nuts the next time I see him.”
William nodded. She was talking freely, barely cursing. He doubted that he’d have a better time to ask her questions than right now, when she was distracted. “You said part of the reason.”
“Yeah.” Her fingers danced over the tablet with uncanny precision. “As a thought exercise, I’ve been figuring up what groups have probably been taking a keen interest in him. Beyond our two organizations, I’ve gotten four that are probably going to try and get him into their fold for sure so far.”
He glanced back at the wide angle shot. Chris was holding their parents at bay. Had Sarah warned the boy what she was going to do?
“But that isn’t the real problem,” Gina continued. “The real issue is the increased focus the entire family is going to get. I’m putting in to have that teleportation sphere to Burlington be put on top priority. I’d suggest that you do the same, and talk with Christopher tomorrow. Not today, give them some time to grieve, but tomorrow should be good.”
That got William’s attention. “Why? You think that there’s going to be trouble?”
“Yeah. For example, if the squirt somehow managed to avoid Teacher’s interest before now, that’s ruined. Teacher will start his research on Jordan and Sarah, then will look for ways to manipulate the two of them. Once he sees that there’s an unaligned Tinker in their family, he’ll start salivating. After discovering the details of Chris’ powers, he’ll all but demand the boy.
“Most likely, Jordan will be the vector for that. Cut off from his family, desperate to trigger, he’ll be easy prey. Teacher will send someone to interact with Jordan, someone with cult-like charm. Once he’s used his power on Fuckface, it’ll be far easier to sink his teeth into Chris. If he fails, then it’s likely that he’ll try a more… active recruitment strategy.”
That made William’s face pale. Once upon a time, the surviving Undersiders had made a direct attack on Teacher. They’d failed, and Teacher’s counterattack had cost over a thousand lives. It would have cost more, but the bastard had only wanted to make a show of force, a warning not to interfere with him directly.
Since then, all operations against him had been incidental, easily explained as being part of other operations. There were people out there actively hunting those “students” who had infiltrated society, and it was a constant concern that they might provoke another counterattack. It was a dangerous prospect, and one that the Teeth debated interfering with at least twice a year.
William could see now why Teacher might go after the kid. That was a prospect that could end badly in any number of ways.
“If you give me a full assessment, I can send it up the chain of command. I’ll pull a few strings to make sure it lands on General Nozedar’s desk.”
“I was hoping you’d say that,” she said calmly. “I’ll need more time, and to check with some other Thinkers, but I should have it on your desk within a week.”
William nodded absently, watching as Sarah finally let Jordan down. The rest of the family began to share awkward words with him.
“I’ll put in an request for you to do that,” Jensen said. “Will that help grease the gears for you?”
“Yeah, it will.” Gina paused for a moment. “Will all of this hurt your relations with Tattletale?”
“It’s not my operation,” he mused. “William reports directly to HIGHCOM, and authorized it. Once she realizes that, it shouldn’t be a problem. Still, I’ll have lunch with her and try to smooth things over. I’ve been looking for an excuse for it anyway.”
William bit back a dismissive comment. Instead, he focused on the boy. Jordan was turning away, heading for the portal to Earth Bet. As soon as he was through and had stepped out of sight, Sarah broke down in tears. On another feed, Jordan lowered the visor on his helmet and adjusted his rifle strap, using his halberd as a walking stick.
William could respect that. The sort of strength that it took to keep walking, to not look back. It must have been hard, but the kid was doing it anyway. Jordan might make him a touch uncomfortable, but at least he earned respect the hard way.
It was a pity that irony was so heavily in play. The two siblings had worked so hard to increase their reputation to help once they joined the Wardens. Now, that very reputation was working against everything they held dear.
“I’ll be off, then. There’s a lot of work to be done. Gina, could you please give me the jamming device?”
Christina looked up from her computer as William opened the door, a happy smile coming to her ugly face. “How did it go, sir?”
“We did what we needed,” he said with a nod. “But I also got a wakeup call that has me worried. How many messages have I received?”
Christina paused to dab at her face before replying. She was a good trooper, and had served well. Her record was spotless, and he wished that she could continue to serve as a field trooper. She was worth far more out there than she did serving as one of his two secretaries.
But she’d been on the receiving end of a power that made her blood vessels continually burst. All of her skin was red and disgustingly blotchy, and near the end of the week she always began to leak blood from her pores. They had a way to treat her, to make her look normal again, but it was only temporary. Three days of horribly painful treatment gave her less than a two weeks before she started sweating blood again, and sometimes it was less than even that. She’d be dealing with this the rest of her life.
Which was why he had two secretaries. Both of them required treatments, but they could alternate one per week.
The Teeth took care of their own. If you were still fit for service, then there would always be a place for you. If you needed cybernetics, they would provide. If you needed treatment, they would provide. If you needed therapy, they wouldn’t hesitate. It was everything right from his time in the military, only more so. It wasn’t just a branch of service; he felt like it was a family.
He wished that she was a little more capable in her armor, that her combat scores were a little bit higher, that her treatments lasted a little longer. He’d hate to lose her as a secretary, but he had the feeling that Christina would make an excellent Endless.
“More than you want to know, sir. Commander Schluter has been sending messages since you left for the operation. Some of them have been quite… vocal.” Christina tilted her head a little. “Beyond that, nothing that can’t wait.”
William sighed softly. That meant that he’d be in worse trouble if he waited until Monday to talk to Liz. He’d expected her to throw a conniption fit when she found out what he’d been up to, but apparently she was taking it especially bad.
Damn. All that he wanted right now was to get off his leg until Tuesday.
“Alright,” he said softly. Then, more confidently. “I’ll go meet with her. It’ll probably take the rest of the day, so there’s no point in you staying. Take the rest of the day off.”
Christina blinked at him, something that looked far worse with the ugly circles underneath her eyes. “Sir, I’ve still got too much work-”
“Work that Hawke is perfectly capable of doing on Monday,” William stressed. His voice turned more gentle. “Your treatment starts on Sunday. I can handle whatever comes my way until he gets here. Go. Enjoy some time off. That’s an order.”
He saw her swollen face twisting into an appreciative smile as he turned and left the waiting room for his office.
HIGHCOM was a sprawling complex, filled to the brim with Tinker tech that needed constant maintenance. Fortunately for him, when they’d designed the base, Dragon had been insistent that they have walking belts to make the task of traversing it easier. It had initially been seen as a waste of resources, but with the number of disabled troopers they had stationed here, nobody argued with it any more.
Being a Commander was more akin to being a Colonel back in the Marines. The next step up was Brigadier General, a promotion William sincerely doubted he’d ever get. But as he passed the offices of those in the Logistics division that he was in charge of, he couldn’t help but feel a swell of pride.
Unlike some Commanders in Logistics, he had whipped his team into proper shape. They were capable of securing and moving the necessary resources around the eastern seaboard to help with the many needs of the Dragon’s Teeth with only minimal involvement on his part. That left him free to secure the more special supplies. Oil, gasoline, exotic materials, and Tinker-made items.
It also meant that he worked closely with the Recruitment division. To be fair, the also counted as a public relations division, but that was a term that was actively avoided. They didn’t want to have too many callbacks to the PRT days. Those had been a corrupt mess, and one that they actively worked to avoid returning to. Anything to distance themselves from the mistakes that the PRT had made was a win in their books.
Even with the over glorified treadmills, it took him almost fifteen minutes to reach Elizabeth’s office. As he opened the door, Davis looked up, his scarred skin wobbling unnaturally.
“Sir,” the Lieutenant said before reaching for the intercom. No need to ask; they all knew why William was here. “Ma’am, Commander Van Dorn is here to see you.”
“Finally!” He could hear her voice even through the wall, and had to fight a sadistic grin that threatened to form. “Send the fucker in.”
Davis offered him an expression that was close to a smile. “Commander Schluter will see you now, sir.”
It was only ten steps to the door to her inner office, but each step made William’s leg twinge in pain. Still, he fought to keep from limping as he opened the door. Elizabeth was a bit older than him, her dark hair having blonde highlights to hide the strands of gray. The crow’s feet around her eyes only served to make her death glare that much worse.
“Get in here. What the hell were you doing?”
“My job,” he said offhandedly as he closed the door behind him. Settling into the chair was the most wonderful thing he’d done all day. “And yours.”
“What are you talking about?”
Oh, William was going to get in trouble for this. “I read your letter to Jordan-”
“What?” Yeah, admitting that he was reading her mail wasn’t good for her blood pressure.
“And it was a good effort. Hamfisted, though. You did good to bring up the data, but you could have presented it better. Focused on showing it to him if he visited us. But you should have focused on the data of the powers hitting it. He’s a parahuman geek, but he’s more of a battlefield geek. He’d eat up battlefield data more than general data.”
Fire shined in Liz’s eyes. “Will, you had no goddamn right-”
“I had every goddamn right!” he boomed back. His old drill instructor would have been proud of that bark. “I’m the one who’s been dealing with this family for years! I’m the one who knows the ins and outs of their lives! You could have screwed up my long-term operation, and I could have made your attempts on Jordan that much more effective!”
Her fist slammed into the desk. “And so you kept anybody from dealing with him directly?! Letting him walk off by himself?”
“Yes,” he shot back loudly.
“Do you have any idea how recruiting him after that would affect our numbers for the next few years?”
“Of course I do! And I know that if we recruit him, getting shit out of his brother is going to be ten times easier! And since they saw me doing that, they’re going to like us even more!”
“But we could have pulled Jordan aside after the fact! Why did you let him go?”
“Because he wouldn’t join right now!” William’s hands gripped his chair. “He wants to be a hero, a Warden! That’s been his goal since he was, what, four? Five? The only reason why he’s that good is because of that! And now his sister is joining without him!”
“Which make it a perfect time to recruit him!” Liz’s voice was a bellowing storm now. People outside could probably hear them.
“Wrong! He still thinks he’s going to trigger! That’s why they separated! But he’s not going to!”
Liz paused, her lips silently working for a moment. When she did speak again, it was in a more quiet tone. “So, we let him come to grips with that-”
“And then we recruit him! Yes!” Fucking finally, she was using her head.
She sat back in her chair, visibly relaxing. Most people would have thought that they hated each other. At least once a month, one of them was in the other’s office, shrieking and screaming about something or another. Truth be told, they were rather fond of one another for that exact reason. They yelled, they screamed, they called each other every dirty word in the book and then some… and then they reached a compromise.
They didn’t have any lingering animosity between each other because they let it all out the moment it built up. They both were damn good at their jobs, and they both knew it. Their screaming sessions were productive, and often times cut to the chase of a matter in minutes when it would otherwise take hours or days.
“Alright, yeah. He schleps around a bit, hits a low point, and then we approach him.” Liz tapped her fingertips together thoughtfully. “Keep an eye out for when he hits that point. We offer him data and a tour, maybe dinner-”
“Training,” he said more calmly. “He’s a martial artist. We grab someone who knows an exotic style, something he won’t know offhand. Maybe even tell him that the Endless want to show him a thing or two.”
“No,” she said with a quick shake of her head. “We have to make that a reality. Lies like that come out over time, and we’re better than that. No… But what we can do is let it slip to them that he sparred Legend and got the man to submit.”
That made William’s eyebrows go up. He’d heard that they’d sparred, but hadn’t gotten those details. “Alright, yeah. That’ll get them interested in challenging him. He’d probably bite for that, thinking that he could pick up a trick or two.”
“That’s enough to get him in the door, but we need him to stay. Any suggestions?”
“He’s a battlefield geek who specializes in powers. Have him be a liaison with the Wardens, perhaps?”
She shook her head again. “It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but not enough. We need something a little more. If he wants to be a hero, we need a carrot that somewhere down the line will make him feel important, like he’s in the big leagues.”
“See about attaching him near Chevalier and Legend, then. Perhaps station him in New York so he can see his sister.”
“Good. But not enough. If he wants to be a hero, the Endless almost sound like a good idea. How idealistic is he?”
William shook his head. “Too much. They occasionally have to do dirty work, and he’d balk at that.” He thought for a moment. “Dragon has taken an interest in his well-being.” Which wasn’t actually all that special. He occasionally dealt with the program, and she showed an interest in his own well being.
But that made Elizabeth grin suddenly. “Perfect. Li says that he was horribly bashful when dealing with her; she described it as adorable to him.” Apparently she had much better access to intel on that subject than William. “He can analyze equipment in combat and report back to Dragon and Defiant. It works for everyone involved — he gets to interact with powers, to help improve everyone as a whole. As an added bonus, he gets to deal with heroes. We have someone with a dedicated duty to help stress test and develop our gear.”
William nodded slowly. “I like it. It sounds solid.”
“Good.” Her grin slowly faded from her face. “Now that we have that worked out, why aren’t you answering the messages that I sent you? We probably could have avoided half of this.”
Now it was William’s turn to smile. “Well…” He pulled the jammer out of his pocket and set it on the desk between them. After a moment, he did the same with the tablet. The moment he turned off the jammer, the tablet began to blink and chime, alerting him to a wealth of incoming messages.
“It blocks messages coming from HIGHCOM. It doesn’t interfere with other communications, though. I don’t have the foggiest idea how it works, but I conned a Warden Thinker into bringing it and giving it to me.”
Liz’s lips pursed. “They can do that?”
“Not for long.” He snatched the device back up, sliding it into his pocket. “I’m going to send it to Dragon for analysis. If she can figure out how it works, maybe she can come up with some way to have our ECCM suites keep things like it from working in the future. Then maybe we can avoid incidents like in Bakersfield.”
A puff of air escaped her nose as her lips twisted into a sly grin. “Will, I’ll be damned. Going out there to fuck with me, make the family like us, make it easier for you to get shit out of them in the future, and come back with some Tinker tech that might save lives in the future. And you planned all of it.” She chuckled softly. “Goddamn, Nozedar’s gonna love you for that.”
William grinned softly. He loved it when someone could appreciate the hard work he put into these sorts of situations. “Like I said, I was doing my job.”