It’s funny how life changes. Once upon a time, anything even slightly morally dubious would have been met with revulsion. Offers denied, an angrily upturned nose at the mere suggestion that something not right might be going on. But that had been a lifetime ago, in more ways than one.
Now… Now it was easier to ask the hard question: What is the end goal? It might be questionable now, but what was it working towards? Was there something beyond the immediate?
The more that Sierra saw, the more that she could see the end goals. She could see the way that she’d been, quite frankly, stupid. Even now, working with Lisa, who admittedly played her cards very close to her chest most of the time, she could ssee how most of the time there was something more than the immediate cash at hand. She didn’t always have to like what was happening in the moment, but she could trust.
To an extent. But that was part of her job.
“I was expecting it to smell more.”
Lisa flashed her a grin as she sidestepped a large pipe. “Mr. Abrams does good work.”
Sierra smirked a little. This was a good opening. “I’m still amazed that you’re working with a Tinker so heavily again, especially after the issues we had with the teleporters.”
“In a way, I’m not. In this case, what he makes is stable. It works in the way described without something from a passenger helping out. Anyone can work with the end product, so I don’t see this facility as using Tinker tech. It’s more like I’m working with Twain or anyone else. He provides us with a resource, but it’s up to us as to how we use it.”
“The fact that you’re making a lot of money not withstanding.”
That made Lisa sober as they continued their walk. Nobody moved to stop them. Nobody dared. “A means to an end. And I know where you’re going with this.” Of course she did; everyone was an open book to her.
“Yes, everything but the money was already going to be put in place anyway. I just… greased the gears to advance timetables a little, and let them think that they were entirely my doing. It *was* dishonest, yes. The teleporter would have been built no matter what. Both the Dragon’s Teeth and the Wardens have been worrying about Mr. Abrams for quite some time.”
“And sending the siblings to St. Louis?”
Lisa’s face darkened. When she spoke, her voice was distant. “Sierra, do you know why I ask you to question me so much?”
She did. But she had the feeling that Lisa was going somewhere with this.
“Thinkers… It’s so easy for us to think that we’re right and the world is wrong. We know so much, precogs can tell the future, we think on completely different levels… How can we not know better than the average person? All that it takes is a moment and you forget yourself. You forget what it means to be human, that even the best of us fall down sometimes.”
She clasped her hands behind her back, looking at the machinery that was separating sewage into oil with a distant look on her face. It was so surprisingly quiet.
“I made mistakes. I *still* make mistakes. And unfortunately, I can’t take them back. Not every mistake can be fixed, not all burned bridges can be repaired. Because I thought I knew better than the world. I thought that I was smarter than everyone else because of my power.
“God, if I could go back in fucking time, the changes that I’d make…”
Thinking like that was a trap, Sierra knew. Sometimes, she looked back at everything, and for a moment she would wish that she could go back and treat Skitter differently. Maybe if she’d stayed, if she had trusted her more, things would be different.
But the trap was that you couldn’t know how things would turn out. If she’d been more supportive, Taylor might not have ever joined the Wards. She might not have become Weaver. If Weaver wouldn’t have existed, then would Khepri? And if Khepri didn’t exist, would Scion have been beaten?
She didn’t say any of it, though. Lisa didn’t start speeches like this without a reason.
“I leveraged everything to send those two into St. Louis, because I knew better than the rest of the world. I was going to make a new Undersiders, because I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was right, and the world was wrong. I knew that I had learned from my past mistakes and could do it. I could make them into something special. And the truly sad part? The worst part about it? I was right.
“After… everything, I hired a precog. Her power is unreliable — every forecast ends in her death, but if you ignore the details, it’s accurate enough. If I had held my ground against that Warden bitch, had gotten my claws into the two, do you know what would have happened?”
Sierra shook her head.
“Eventually, Miss Abrams would have died. Almost twenty forecasts, and she always died somehow. Many times, something happened to his brother as well. Jordan would be devastated, destroyed by it. In many, he committed suicide. In some, Teacher got him. In others, he lost every shred of morals and only lived on one thing — revenge. In others… Well, no matter what happened, so long as he didn’t off himself, he would end up here.”
“In New Brockton?”
Lisa nodded. “At one point, he set off a nuke here. Usually, it was a direct warpath, coming for my blood and killing anyone who got in his way.”
Sierra winced. “I warned you that he was violently protective of them. Emphasis on violent.”
Lisa smiled sadly. “And I promised you that I’d treat them well. Again, I’m at fault here. I could have shown more care. I did… I tried to keep to keep that promise, Sierra. I could have twisted his arm, I knew the right things to say to force him to come with me instead of them, the things to whisper into their ears to make them dance to my tune.”
Sierra understood. She’d seen Lisa make people all but worship her as a goddess in the space of minutes. “Thank you. For Charlotte’s sake.”
Lisa’s smile could have made a lesser person burst into tears, but Sierra was made of stronger stuff. “You’re one of the few who have stuck with me. After… everything, the Undersiders… Rachel is off being the alpha bitch of her little tribe.” She snorted. “I would have never guessed it when I first met her, but it just sort of… happened.
“Alec and Brian are dead. Sabah and Lily are off doing their thing. Charlotte is busy, and I can’t blame her. She’s doing good work… I understand it all, I really do, but sometimes you just need someone there, even if they don’t agree with you. But you’ve been there, either serving as my eyes at the Orphanage, making sure things go smooth with whatever project I have in mind, or here.
“You’re my friend, Sierra. Even if you aren’t a fan of him, you asked me to be kind. Asking me to treat him and his siblings well. And I tried. But like I said, I knew better than anyone. And as much as I hate to admit it, there’s a lot of nights where I lay in bed and think about how many graves are filled because I knew so much more and wouldn’t be told otherwise.”
“Bullshit,” Sierra said. “And you know it. People think that you’re just in it to make a profit, but how much money did you lose with those guides when people were fleeing Earth Bet?”
“It wasn’t just Bet,” Lisa said distantly.
This wasn’t like her at all. Even at the worst of times, Lisa was oozing with confidence. Maybe not in the situation, but at least in herself. Sierra took a deep breath. This might be tricky.
“Exactly. Everyone assumes that you’re living it up in some mansion, but you live right above your office. People don’t know about the wigs and disguises so that you can be in the middle of it all. You could have so much more money than you do. You could have Twain’s balls in a vice and we both know it, but you let them be independent.”
“It’s better that way. At least, for now. They can’t keep going the way that they are, but…” Lisa shook her head. “Putting more pressure on them has too many risks right now.”
Sierra smiled warmly. “Exactly. You try and do right by people. Maybe not individuals, but you try and see the whole picture. So something must have shaken you, Lisa.”
Lisa smirked a little. “Sometimes it’s easy to forget that you don’t need my powers to be observant.”
She moved to a pipe, turning to hop up onto it with a touch of difficulty. “Ugh, I remember when doing that was nothing.”
“We’re getting old,” Sierra said wryly. That earned a stuck out tongue in response.
Lisa’s levity didn’t last, though, as her face fell again. “We are. And… I don’t know. Last night, as I was getting ready for bed, I realized that it would have been my brother’s birthday.”
She had a brother? But she was already pulling her mind reader routine.
“His death lead to me triggering. But I haven’t thought about him in a long, long time. And I kind of realized it last night. And I asked myself, what would he think? And there’s a part of him that would hate me for all the lies that I’m keeping up.”
“Lisa,” Sierra said, but her boss, her friend held her hand up to silence her.
“Not the little things. I think that he would have understood the little white lies. It’s the big ones that I think would bother him. Like with Bet. We tell people things about the chasms that Scion dug, but we don’t tell them how deep they actually went, and how all of Bet would have been destroyed if it weren’t for Vista holding it together. And if it would have gone, Gimmel would have gone, too. How we’ve spent the past twenty years applying band aids and sutures to hold it together, and that’s the real reason why things got so bad. Why it took so long for things to stop getting worse, even though we’ve had teams working on purifying the air.
“I think he’d be upset that we didn’t evacuate Bet and close the portals. Instead, we let people think things were going to be alright. When things kept getting worse, I just said the party line. Even now, I don’t tell people about the big beam that they’re shooting into the Earth over there… or the fact that it usually kills between two hundred and a thousand people a year. He wouldn’t care that it’s fixing things, he’d be angry.”
Lisa lowered her head, her expression distant. “Si, you have no idea how tired I am right now. I keep telling myself it’s worth it. This facility is a proof of concept. I know Paris is going to want to get their hands on this material once they hear about it. I know that the design could be better, though. People will buy the materials from Abrams, they’ll produce their own crude and natural gas. Electricity will flow freely, homes will be heated, cars and trucks will be a fucking option again.
“Once he finds a way to separate out the phosphates, communities too big to survive on substance farming can give back to the ones that grow food for them. All of this wasn’t about me. The natural gas power plant was just a nice bonus for me, for the city. I tell myself that it all leads to better things for everyone.”
“It is,” Sierra said quietly.
“Is it?” Lisa laughed bitterly to herself. “Tell that to the Abrams family and see if they think the same–”
“Jordan would.” Sierra’s voice was strangely stern. “You’re right, I’ve never liked him. He reminded me of some of those mercenaries of yours back in the day. Even as a little kid, he was… like the worst of them, in a way. But I’m sure that he would rip off his own damn arm off if he thought that it could feed a starving village. If he knew that everything that’s happened would make people safer, then you know as well as I do that he’d…”
Her words trailed off as Lisa’s eyes went wide. She knew that look.
Lisa hopped off the pipe, automatically pacing. “You’re right. You’re right. And it all falls into place. All of it. The last puzzle piece drops and the image becomes clear. The question is, do I tell the Wardens that I know? Do I tell the Dragon’s Teeth? I don’t think that they know.”
The words flowed out of her mouth like a waterfall as she stalked back and forth. “The Wardens have been going out of their way to run a smear campaign against Jordan, painting him as a villain, but they’ve been doing a half-assed job with it. They could have used those journalists in their pocket to destroy his rep so bad that Jordan would be stoned to death the moment he showed his face.
“It’s been bugging me why they were doing such a piss-poor job of it, especially when they’re being so fucking obvious about it. It seemed so needlessly cruel. But they’re doing it because they know that he’d approve. But that’s just it, he might not even know. I’ve heard that Valkyrie tried to talk to him, and he turned her away. So I don’t think that he knows. I think Valkyrie was trying to get some face time with him to explain what they were doing and why.
“But she was talking to him right after a fight. His body was flooded with hormones, and he was too primed for a fight. And rather than fight Valkyrie, he walked away.”
Lisa shook her head. “No, no. That isn’t quite right. There’s… There’s more to why he walked away, but…” Her face folded into a deep frown as she stopped in her tracks. “Come on… Come on…”
Sierra stepped forward to lay a hand on Lisa’s shoulder. Her boss, her friend, looked at her, suddenly looking desperate. “My power… I can use it longer, but… Ever since Scion died, it’s been failing me. More and more holes, suddenly stopping short. Suddenly just refusing to work at all. In a matter of seconds, I figured out more about Leviathan than the Protectorate had since he appeared. Now… Now I can’t even… I should have figured this out a year ago. Right after New Fairfax, I should have known with the first reports.”
“Hey,” Sierra said softly. “Hey, come on now. I think you’re being a little hard on yourself.”
“No. No I’m not. You…” Lisa shook her head. “Paras are defined by their power, and believe me, mine is so very, very powerful. If people know that I’m losing it, that, that it just isn’t working any more… It isn’t the Wardens or the Dragon’s Teeth that are keeping Teacher away from New Brockton, from him steamrolling us. It’s him thinking that I’ll find his students with just a glance.”
“And the only other person who can root them out them instantly would rather see me buried in a shallow grave.”
Sierra rolled her eyes. “Okay, now you’re going too far. Look, I’ll admit that you made a mistake there. But–”
“No,” Lisa interrupted. “He’s the one who made me realize it. Hell, I’m pretty sure that Remy knew about his power not being completely reliable before I fucked that one up, and now look at what he does for a living. I screwed so much up on that one, because I knew that I was right and the–”
“Shut it,” Sierra said sternly, he eyes narrowing dangerously. “You’re getting circular. You’re getting so wrapped up in the idea that you’re wrong… Lisa, you’ve always had this obsessive streak to you. Just like how you can get carried away in the moment, you get so narrow-focused sometimes that you can do yourself more harm than good. And you know it! That’s why you hire people who will call you on your bullshit, am I right?”
Lisa sighed heavily.
“Alright. When was the last time that you just… took a few days off and relaxed? No plotting, no planning, nothing like that. Where the only thing on your agenda is enjoying yourself?”
“Fuck if I know.” She sighed softly. “I… I honestly don’t know. God, it’d have to be… No, no. Right after Morn I spent all my time working my ass off. It’d have to have been–”
“Twenty years ago. Lisa, have you ever stopped and thought that maybe it isn’t that you’re getting old? That maybe you just have pushed yourself so hard that you burned out ages ago?”
“I can’t stop,” Lisa said defensively.
“I’m not asking you to stop! I’m asking you to take a damn week off! To trust that the world isn’t going to fall apart without you for just one fucking week.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“Bullshit! You’re going to end up a complete husk at this rate. The least that you can do is recharge your batteries and focus on having fun for a week.” Sierra paused for a moment. “Alright, how about this? Come with me to the Orphanage for Christmas.”
Lisa looked away, wincing. “I’d rather not.”
“What, you think it’d be depressing?” Sierra snorted. “Oh, Lisa, Lisa, Lisa. Why do you think it’s almost the only time that I go there? It’s the least depressing time of the year. It’s like… All the kids are determined to make each other forget about everything for a little bit.”
That got a snort out of her. “Oh, come on. They don’t think of it like that.”
“Nah, they just have a blast.” Sierra grinned from ear to ear. “Everybody has fun! It’s more of a blast than Halloween, which I really didn’t expect. You’d be surprised how many kids put their heart and soul into it. Hell, I was surprised by how the synagogue really gets into it, but they see the whole Santa and stuff thing as just part of the season and not the Christian overtones.”
Sierra took Lisa’s shoulder. “Come on. The world can survive for one week without you. We’ll go a day or two before Christmas, then come back the second.”
Lisa stared at her for a long moment, her face setting more and more in stone. When she spoke, it was with a soft, quiet, irritated voice. “You know the worst part about my power? I know already when someone won’t take no for an answer.”
“Damn straight. Besides, they’ve got a kid there that Charlotte tells me can do amazing things with his powers. Always bright and cheerful, always making everyone around him smile. I’m sure he’ll do something wild this season. You’ll love it.”
Lisa rolled her eyes and began walking again. “Alright. I’ll meet with the Commander Jensen to make sure that things are covered while we’re gone.”
“It’s months away,” Sierra said with a roll of her eyes. “Besides, Jensen. Really, I don’t know how you can deal with the man.”
Lisa flashed her an impish grin. “He’s fascinating. Even my power can’t pick up much on him. Everything that he does, ever single breath or blink, it’s on purpose. He wills it to happen. I’m still trying to piece it all together.”
“He’s a mystery that even you can’t solve? I’m surprised that it doesn’t drive you batshit crazy.”
“Hey, like I said earlier. I’m not sixteen any more. Hell, I’m almost forty. Things change, Sierra. Besides… It’s not like I don’t have his office bugged now.”
Things might change, but some things remained the same.