As far as days went, stepping through a portal created by Valkyrie to help with the analysis of an insanely powerful creature was an excellent start to one. Ernesto was pretty sure that he wouldn’t remember what he had for breakfast, or what he did earlier at work before this point. None of that mattered. The only thing that mattered was the here and now.
Immediately, a member of the Dragon’s Teeth, a scientist, turned to greet them. Greet, perhaps, was too strong of a word. Instead, he only muttered a quick “This way,” before leading them down a brief corridor. If the man was the least bit surprised with how they’d appeared, Ernesto couldn’t see it.
They moved from the corridor and into a room filled with monitors that were documenting countless instruments. While his partner moved to take one of the chairs, he instead moved to the officer in charge of this operation, a smile on his face and an extended hand.
“Captain Hewlett, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Sorry if we’re late.”
“Your timing couldn’t be more perfect,” Hewlett said, taking Ernesto’s hand. The captain seemed quite pleased that it was Ernesto that he was dealing with. “I’m sorry to ask your presence, but we’d rather not risk Dragon’s aid on this one.”
“It’s not a problem. We wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
Another soldier, a technician according to Ernesto’s power, turned to the captain. “T-minus two minutes, sir.”
“Begin the countdown.” The soldier turned to Ernesto. “Please excuse me.”
“Of course,” he said with a bow of his head before turning away. Ernesto turned to the two chairs, pausing for a moment to just observe. He wasn’t sure how it worked for every parahuman, but for him, the ability to see a system and optimize it came instinctively.
The layout was ugly — had he been involved from the very start, he could have made it so much better. If they were to ask him now what he thought of it, he knew that he’d be vaguely condescending to them as he told them what would slow them down. But he couldn’t change the system now, so he had to find ways to work within it.
It was a downside to his power, in a way, and what ended up bringing him into the Wardens. Everyone had their own way of doing things, which drove him mildly batty when he was given too much free range to optimize. The Wardens had a specific way of doing things, though, which gave him a framework. The Dragon’s Teeth were the same way, if a different kind of structure. He could work with this.
“Switch seats with me,” he whispered to his partner. Before he could even explain, she was already moving. They worked well together like that. Already, she was linking her electronics with the system, leaving him scrambling to catch up.
By the time that he had settled in his seat and gotten his laptop properly linked (such inefficient protocols — if he knew more about programming, he’d craft new ones for them) the countdown had already reached zero, and a new one had started.
Ernesto found his attention torn between the data coming in from the sensor array and the image on the large screen at the head of the room. The drone was flying silently towards what appeared to be a solid hemisphere of darkness, horribly out of place against the morning sun. It was strangely beautiful, and horribly distracting.
With effort, he tore his eyes off the massive screen, instead focusing on the data. Fifty different kinds of sensors, all collecting data and throwing them at his computer. It was hard to keep track of the differing numbers that were always changing, the graphics which explained things beyond his understanding, and different versions of what was displayed on the main screen.
The secondary monitor sprung to life, echoing his work as he tried to lay out the data in a way that would be the most beneficial to everyone here. He might not understand what he was looking at, but he had that instinctive knowledge of what they needed. It was almost enough for him to forget his companion, but for now, she could handle well enough on her own. If anything, it might help her.
The black hemisphere became a wall, encompassing the entire field of view. Thankfully, it didn’t last long — the drone passed through the hemisphere, and suddenly the sensors were going off the chart. He was changing layouts and highlighting displays so fast that he almost didn’t have time to appreciate what was inside.
What appeared to be three women mashed into one, with another figure standing off to the side.
“Hello bitchtits,” his companion muttered towards the screen.
“Gina,” he whispered. “Please don’t provoke the Endbringer.”
Ernesto briefly regarded Tohu. All four limbs were hanging limply. He hoped that meant she was idle, but her three faces made him worry. Two of them he couldn’t recognize, even with how long he’d spent analyzing the briefing materials. The third, however, he immediately made out as Glaistig Uaine. The fact that Eidolon was hovering nearby confirmed that rather quickly.
The fact that Tohu was using the Faerie Queen and not her older self as Valkyrie probably meant something. What, though, was beyond Ernesto’s mind.
“Red Choice and Victor 9,” Gina announced loudly, answering the question that was probably on everyone’s mind. He had no idea who those two were, and it didn’t matter.
As he watched, though, one of the figures softened and changed. The face warped, and he instinctively highlighted several sets of readings, letting people know just what was going on as that third of her body became a new individual.
It was infuriating, in a way. Here he was, helping on one of the first solid fact finding missions on an active but passive Endbringer, collecting data that might lead to help defending themselves should the Endbringers go on the offensive again. He was doing important work that allowed dozens of other people to do their jobs to the utmost efficiency. And yet, he had so little of a grasp as to what was going on that it wasn’t funny.
He knew that the Endbringer had appeared near what would generously be considered Ottawa Gimmel around 2017 and had formed the shield around her. He knew that scans and signals wouldn’t reach through the shield unless bounced through another reality, leading to the creation of this particular drone, worth probably millions of dollars. Considering most economies, that was worth a lot.
Beyond that? He might as well have been a kindergartner blindly clicking on things.
“She’s synergizing powers,” Gina whispered. “Why? What’s she after?” She suddenly spoke up more. “Can I get a focus on the ground near the Eidolon ghost?”
Damn it. As sensors moved to scan where indicated, Ernesto had to scramble to rearrange everything. There were Tinker-made drugs that he could take to make his own body more efficient in moments like these, but he was still resisting falling into that trap — he’d been warned multiple times that they were not only addictive, but would slowly degrade the people who took them. Still…
“Copy those scans,” Gina snapped. “Continue as you were; she’s placed ghosts underground. No telling who, but I’m willing to bet they’re weak.”
Ah, that explained why Eidolon was the only one visible. But why leave Eidolon visible at all? Why not keep everyone guessing entirely?
“Do you know who the new face is?” the Captain asked cautiously.
“Yeah,” Gina said, her voice sounding actually… pleasant. “But not officially. I can’t help you. Ask Lieutenant Gerdes later.”
A curious response, but Ernesto was willing to pretend that Gina hadn’t said anything. If she refused to comment on something, then typically it was because there were rules in place that she knew she couldn’t get around. And she’d given them a chance to skirt them — if Gerdes knew, he’d be able to say what she couldn’t.
The drone made a full circle, when Ernesto’s power made him focus on one of the cameras again. Eidolon. Interesting. It took him a moment to realize that the Eidolon ghost had turned to look directly at the drone.
Before he had a chance to say anything, Eidolon raised his arm and every camera went wild — some with snow, some with wildly fluctuating images, depending on what the cameras were recording. Sensors went wild… and then a moment later, they all spiked briefly and flatlined.
It was weird. Ernesto felt a pang of… loss. Of longing. One moment, he’d been so very needed, been capable of so much, and now… Now his power had nothing for him to do.
At least, for a moment. He quickly regained his composure, calling up the recorded data and sorting through it. He could highlight things that needed attention, bring to light moments that stood out and needed to be investigated. Thinkers would be analyzing this data for quite some time, as would the scientists within the Dragon’s Teeth. If learning institutions got copies, they would likely pour through them as well.
But the captain was talking. “What happened?”
“Sir,” a technician responded. “It appears that the drone received the self-destruct protocol.”
“You had a self-destruct protocol?” Gina asked, a surprisingly curious tone to her voice.
“In case the subject manifested someone such as Richter,” Hewlett said. Out of the corner of his eye, Ernesto could see Gina nodding appreciatively, not looking up from her displays. “It was a 1,024 bit encryption for that code, and a 200 word code on top of that to minimize the chances of it being used against us. Which appears to have meant nothing.”
“Not necessarially,” Gina mused. “If Tohu had one of the ghosts running a simulation, and another ready to transmit, they could have been doing it from the moment that we started. It might have taken her that long to get the right code.”
“Or she could have been fucking with us,” Hewlett observed.
“Sans lube, right up the ass.” Gina sighed. “And Ernesto? Quit eavesdropping and work faster, please.”
Ernesto fought back a yawn as he trudged through the hallway. For some reason, he hadn’t slept worth a damn last night, and couldn’t wake up this morning. Probably a side effect of the operation and its failure. They’d stayed with the Dragon’s Teeth until they shut down for the night around 7 PM before getting a doorway back to New York, but Ernesto still felt that he could have done more. He hated leaving jobs half done, but with terabytes of data to go over, there was no way he could do it all in a month, let alone one day.
He forced a smile on his face as he nodded to the people he passed, trying to play nice. Gina might be insufferable, but he didn’t need people calling him names behind his back. Idly, he wondered if thinking about things like that was a side effect of his power — something that he discussed repeatedly with his therapist.
He pushed such thoughts out of his head as he approached the office that he shared with Gina. It was technically part of the legal department, but her own Thinker powers made her invaluable to almost everyone. He wasn’t sure what her powers were exactly, but he suspected that it had to do something with processing information.
There was scant evidence to what her power was exactly — higher-ups knew, but they weren’t talking, since she’d asked that they kept quiet. Ernesto knew that it didn’t actually boost her intelligence, though. She’d complained about that a few times. He also knew that it didn’t grant instant comprehension, either — she still had to think about things. She just thought very quickly.
But he did know that the more work that they gave her, the less bitchy she was. They had no problems overwhelming her with so much to think about that she’d never finish it all. However, she was still only one person. Despite her ability to read several things at once, if things were too disorganized, her productivity slowed down. And people were more interested in getting things done than they were about how pleasant she might be that day.
That’s where he came in. Ernesto’s ability to instinctively and quickly optimize data ensured that she got the most that she could out of an eight-hour day. Not that he was only dedicated to her, of course; he provided data optimization for a plethora of Thinkers and people within the Wardens. He even compiled data for the Dragon’s Teeth. But it was easier for everyone if he was in her office, since she often could give offhand commentary or tidbits for reports going elsewhere.
As he stepped through the door, though, Ernesto was surprised to find her hunched over her desk, surrounded by books, and still dressed in yesterday’s clothes. She glanced up at him briefly, revealing deep bags under her eyes. “Dickshit,” she muttered before looking down at her work again.
Most people would take offense to being called that, but Ernesto smiled a little. She always called him that — when she went out of her way to insult a person the same way every time, it was a sign of endearment. She liked you enough to not say the first thing that came to mind.
“Gina,” he said, moving for the tea kettle in the office. “Have you been here all night?”
“Yesterday’s outing put me behind on some cases. Some of them have me going through older ones trying to find common threads. I don’t like what I’m seeing, but there isn’t much that I can do yet.”
“Mmm,” he said, pouring two cups. Milk and a dollop of honey went in hers. “You’re going to pass out doing that.”
“I’ll nap instead of have lunch.” One of her hands flew over her keyboard, pecking as quickly as most people could with both hands on home row.
“But you need to eat or else your productivity will tank.” He grabbed a book off the shelf, idly flipping it open to where his power told him it should be. “Maybe I could go out a little early and pick you up something, so that you can eat while you work, then nap?”
“That would be lovely,” she muttered idly. He set the book and the fresh cup of tea next to her. “Thank you.”
At least, he assumed that she said thank you. It was either that or fuck you. Which, for her, was often the same thing.
He turned on his computer, went to start another pot of tea, and headed back to his desk. The computers here came from one of Dragon’s pet towns, but they weren’t Tinker tech. Simple, normal computers. Hardware like Gina’s eyepiece and tablet computer were made by Masamune, but it was easier to use more normal hardware unless you needed it.
Once he was logged on, he took a few moments to reorganize the unopened cases and messages so Gina could accomplish her tasks more easily. She did have a massive workload still, and that was before factoring in everything else that she was wanted for.
It took fifteen minutes to scan everything else and get them into the right queue. There were all sorts of problems that she was being asked help with — analysis of a power based on its lingering aftereffects; possible conflicts between two Tinkers should they be placed in the same city; an analysis of Twain’s financial stability; a request for help in trying to find something to trade with a village; logistical concerns with a Canadian village that was willing to mine platinum… The list went on and on.
Once that half an hour of work was done, he looked into his own requests. Gina had a lot of high-level stuff that she had to think about. Ernesto’s requests mainly amounted to busywork. Mostly just organizing reports so that people could get the maximum information out of them. Really, there was a lot of editing work involved — remove all the chaff, and leave only the bits that would help the Thinkers and other analysts.
There were rules in the Wardens about writing reports, mostly as a way of covering your own ass. If someone objected to what you did and Legal had to get involved, it was smart to have a written record of everything involved. And it wasn’t like half the people in the Wardens weren’t borderline psychopaths. But at least they were focused borderline psychopaths.
Five minutes after he’d started, the door to the shared office opened. Ernesto turned, ready to give the polite greeting that Gina never would…
…Only to find Valkyrie stepping through, a bundled folder in her hands that looked out of place compared to her armor. There was an aura about her completely unlike most other paras. You could feel the power that she held, even without her ghosts visible. Was it any wonder that almost everyone who saw her felt a tremble of fear?
“Mr. Belmonte,” she said as she crossed the office to him. “I beg your pardon for the interruption, but I have a high-priority task that requires your assistance.”
Well, what the hell was he supposed to say to something like that? “Of course.” He rose from his chair to better greet the woman. At least he was doing something — Gina didn’t even look up from her work. “How can I help you?” As if the answer wasn’t obvious, but he suspected that courtesy counted for a lot with Valkyrie.
The woman fitted him with a smile. He had to remind himself that she wasn’t only a little younger than him; she looked 19, but she’d chronologically been an adult when Gold Morning had happened.
“I will be holding a mission briefing for various response teams later today,” Valkyrie said in a voice that was completely opposite of the power she wielded. Gentle, kind, easily dismissed. “It is potentially a dangerous operation for all involved.”
She paused, and one of her ghosts appeared. After a good ten seconds, it vanished again. No doubt, it was the spirit who opened the doorways for people. She fitted him with an apologetic smile before holding out the folder.
“With the stakes high for this particular mission, especially should we guess wrong, I have decided that it is wisest to make use of your power to ensure that my notes for the briefing will be of the utmost use to everyone involved. If I could trouble you, would you please first organize them, and then optimize them?”
He took the folder, sighing inwardly. Organizing them was one thing. He could do that in five minutes, tops. Optimizing them? When they were already in paper form and not a file? That could take hours to type out. And why not just organize as he optimized?
Still, he was here to earn a paycheck. “Sure. When do you need it by?”
“Oh…” Valkyrie’s smile turned a little odd in a way that he couldn’t put his finger on it. “Whenever you think that it’s time for me to have it back. Just don’t wait for too long. Thank you, Mr. Belmonte.”
She turned towards the door, only to pause and look back at Ernesto. “Oh, and one more thing. I hate to be a bother, but this is for your eyes only. Miss Franklin is not to have access, but I see no need to have you move to another office.” Gina’s head popped up at her name, and Valkyrie turned to smile at her briefly. “Good day.”
And like that, one of the top people in the Wardens stepped out of the office, leaving not one, but two bewildered people in her wake. What the actual crap?
After a moment, Gina scowled at him. “Well, what are you waiting for? Get to work!”
Get to work, right. He barely sat down at his desk before he heard her chair move. Because of course she couldn’t leave well enough be. She was going to get herself in trouble with this.
Ernesto unwound the string holding the folder closed and opened it. A picture of Jordan paperclipped to the top page, smiling lazily as he leaned on that polearm of his. That explained why Gina was supposed to be kept out of the loop nicely. With their friendship, there were rules against her involvement.
But Valkyrie had to know that Gina would snoop the moment that she’d been told not to. And, to be fair, Valkyrie had never actually addressed Gina directly, but that raised even more questions. Questions that were answered the more that he thought about it.
Valkyrie wanted her to see this. Why, though? That’s what didn’t make any sense to him.
But if he didn’t get to work, then Gina might prod him, which would let him officially know that she was hovering right over his left shoulder, barely out of sight. With a sigh, he began to move the pages.
There was a lot of redacted information here. He took the time to read half of anything that wasn’t marked out, figuring that Gina would have surpassed him by then.
Known movements, reports of sightings. A suspicion that Jordan had gone out of his way to assist a small fishing hamlet named Haven. No official word on where he was, but even Ernesto could see that there were hints of a pattern. If he applied his power, he was sure that he could figure it out in just a few minutes from all the information here.
He didn’t. He didn’t dare.
But there was more. Four individuals identified as masquerading as him so far, with more suspicions. People who didn’t match Jordan’s MO. The most important of which being a group of raiders who were bleeding villages dry. That seemed to be the crux of the file — there were all sorts of notes there about an operation set to begin today, sending response teams to select locations that were likely to be hit, if they weren’t being hit already.
It was another five minutes before he heard Gina stomp across the room. “I’m taking an early lunch,” she declared to nobody in particular. “It’s going to be a long one.”
And with that, she was out the door.
It was two hours later when the door to the office opened. Ernesto had returned the file without comment to Valkyrie an hour ago. She hadn’t asked any questions, and he hadn’t offered any answers. There had only been a knowing smile on her face.
He’d also noted that she’d been with a response team.
Gina stepped inside, looking eight times as exhausted as she had before. She couldn’t even be bothered to stand up straight as she slumped her way back towards her desk. She didn’t so much of sit as she did fall into her chair, her head hanging limply. He wasn’t sure what had happened, but it seemed to have drained the life out of her.
Ernesto moved to close the door before saying anything. “You saw him, didn’t you?”
“He needed to know,” Gina said weakly.
“God damn it! You could lose your job over this, and you know it!”
Gina looked up slowly, as if it took effort. “Ernesto. Come on. They wanted me to see it so that I’d tell him.”
“Or they’ve had enough of your shit and are looking for an excuse to shitcan you. Maybe both!”
“Oh, come on,” she snarled, a bit more life into her now that she was irritated. “There’s no goddamn way that they let me be around that file without knowing that I’d be on it like stink on shit. Stop worrying about it.”
“I worry about it because I’m your friend, damn it!” Gina gave him a weird look of confusion as he marched up to her desk, placing both palms on it and leaning as close as he could. “Yes, get over yourself. I’m your friend! You might be a bitch, but you honestly believe in what we’re doing here, and you’ve defended me from other Thinkers plenty of times. And you know what friends do? They worry about each other!”
“Exactly,” she said in a soft whisper. “That’s why I had to go.”
Ernesto sighed, looking heavenward for a moment. He was spinning wheels here. “Yeah, well… If Jordan’s your friend, do you think that he’d want you to risk your job over this?”
“Yeah, actually. Because this is big enough.”
“Oh, come on!” He stood upright again, shaking his head. “Okay, fine, let’s say he did. Now let’s say you get fired. What then? Do you wanna work for your father or something?” He was dimly aware of the bad blood there, but still…
It worked at least. Gina slowly rose to her feet. “Fuck you.”
“Oh, come on! Why not?”
“Why not? Why not?! Because I’d rather fucking slum it with Jordan than work with that fuckwad! Lemmie paint a picture for you! After Gold Morning, we didn’t need lawyers, we needed people who would work. Him? Not so fucking much! He made everyone else around him work, banking on that we would need lawyers some day. He made deals and screwed over countless people so that he could live a fancy life while other people were fucking starving to death.
“Oh, he might say it was for his family, but fuck that. You know what my life consisted of? When I was the smartest girl in my school, every day he told me that I wasn’t fucking smart enough. That I was better than all of them, that I had to work harder. He wouldn’t fucking let me have any friends because they were beneath me!”
The fire was back in her eyes now, and her back was straightening. “When he finally shipped me off to the Orphanage to study, I thought things would get better, but fucking no! He was constantly stopping by, talking to my teachers, and pushing, and pushing. Signing me up for more classes because I went swimming one weekend, so obviously I had free time! If I wasn’t at the absolute top of every single class, then he would spend an hour berating me, never mind that there were people twice my age in some of them!
“And he wasn’t doing it out of love, so don’t even fucking start down that goddamn trap! He was getting work as a lawyer, even with all those deals still going on in the background. All that he talked about was me being in the business with him, but that he’d make me pay back every single cent on my education!
“I couldn’t fucking keep up! Nobody can keep up with that sort of thing, especially not at nine fucking years old! It was a little easier after I triggered, yeah, sure, but that didn’t make it fucking easy! I had to lie and cheat and worse in order to even say that what I was doing was ‘tolerable.’ Seriously!”
Keep pushing the buttons. If he got her angry enough, she’d either tell him what he wanted to know, or punch him. Either one was fine. “So, what? Daddy was hard on you, so that excuses you breaking the law?”
“Fuck you in the eye with an elephant’s dick, dickshit!” She was screaming now. Good. “Hey, newsflash, people fucking need social contact! They goddamn need friends or else they’re gonna die inside! And there was no way that I could do it on my own. And after I triggered… Jesus fuck on a goddamn crutch, you have no idea how mind-numbing it is to try and focus on a person for a fucking conversation! It’s like goddamn torture!
“So, yeah, some fuckface comes up and decides to help me. He wasn’t pushing me, he wasn’t going for top of the class in anything! He was lifting me up because he saw someone who he thought was better than him who was struggling! He didn’t care when I snapped at him, he just kept fucking coming!
“And he’d talk… Jesus…” Gina laughed, but she sounded like she was on the verge of tears. “He was so goddamn idealistic, thinking that he was going to become a Warden some day, that he was going to be a hero. And there was something pure about that, like you can’t even begin to fucking imagine. You hear him, his sister and brother, and you get sucked in. You spend enough time with him and you…”
She took a shuddering breath, the rage suddenly disappearing from her. “You…”
Oh, hell. Pieces were snapping into place now with frightening speed. “You fall for him,” Ernesto said softly.
Gina nodded silently, her eyes falling to the floor.
“How old were you?”
“Fourteen. He was eleven, but it didn’t matter. He… He was more than just an idealistic little shit, you know? He’d start out so dumb at something, and then one day something would click, and he’d know it perfectly. And then if we were in the same class, he’d try and teach me. He wasn’t… He wasn’t handsome or anything, but he wasn’t bad looking, and so strong…
“I took the Wardens combat training just to have another class with him. I could tell what he was going to do instantly, but I still had to work to be better than him. And then afterwards… He’d help me get even better. I had to be the best at everything, if I wanted it or not. He didn’t understand that, he just… wanted me to be as good as I seemed to want to be. He…”
She shook her head, unable to continue.
This was getting awkward, but this was the most that she’d ever talked about her personal life. Ernesto wasn’t about to let this drop. “You’ve been holding a torch for nine years.”
“I’ll hold it for longer,” she whispered, hugging herself. “He won’t have me. I mean, he would, if I pushed it, made the first move. He’d love me back, too, with all of his weird, retarded heart. But I want him to want me, and his mind doesn’t work like that. He so focused, dickshit. You have no idea. So focused that he can’t see the forest for the trees. Focused on triggering, focused on becoming a hero…
“Now he’s focused on helping the people who are fucking using him.” She paused for a moment. “Well, most of them are using him. He’s… He’s got this weird, retarded charisma. At first he weirds you out, and then you just get drawn in. And I think one or two of them might be getting sucked in.”
She looked up at Ernesto, tears in her eyes. “And now he’s going to break. He’s on the warpath, and anyone who stands in his way is going to die. And once he crosses that line… He’s going to die, too.”