There were only ten people for this one, but that worked out for the best in a way. Heather wasn’t sure how it would be received, so she was willing to have fewer people. Two of them were unfamiliar faces, though. One was a hotshot out of New York, whom Heather wasn’t a fan of. She was just chubby enough to show that she didn’t really work for a living, and her nails were impeccable. She was always bragging up her participation there. The woman wasn’t even a para, just one of the folks who hadn’t run from the city and coasted through life with the help of the Wardens there.
Heather was willing to put up with her, though. They were starting to gain an honest foothold in New York, with more people willing to listen and contribute. Even if she wanted to put her in her place, Heather knew that she had to play it smart. Play nice now, and she might take word back with her, which might open up more avenues for them as a whole.
The Hispanic guy had a bit of a beard going on, but he seemed to shave his head. Maybe he was going bald? It didn’t matter, really. Heather had seen him around town plenty of times, but he’d only come twice, each time seeming to barely pay attention, despite Ashton practically making moon eyes at him. Then again, maybe that was the reason. She made a mental note to try and wring some words out of him this time, one way or another.
“Thank you all for coming to today’s debate,” Heather said, a warm smile on her face. “We’ve been talking in circles for the last month, so I thought that I’d mix things up a little bit and try a different topic of debate. Now, before I say what it is, I must ask that you hear everyone out — even should you disagree with the topic itself, explaining your stance might be worthwhile.
“Today, I would like to discuss the possibility that we may have found a replacement for Taylor Hebert.”
Warren, Ashton, Deva, and the new girl suddenly were sitting a little straighter, an interested, even hopeful look on their faces. She’d been banking on the first three taking interest in particular — they were the biggest proponents of how humanity needed the Skitters lurking in the shadows of the world until they were needed. A.J. leaned back, his face unreadable; he didn’t have an opinion on creating a new Skitter one way or the other, and would often play devil’s advocate to stir up debate. Inga, Theresa and Bobby were tensing slightly, which was unsurprising. The three had different opinions on why creating a new Taylor was a bad idea, but they were at least united in their opposition.
The new guy didn’t even respond, damn him.
“Who’re we talking about?” Warren asked.
Heather took a slow breath. This was going to be the first powder keg. “Jordan. The survivor of St. Louis, the hero of Agamemnon, and the Butcher of New Fairfax.”
Everyone glanced at each other as the energy level of the room rose more than a few notches. Yeah, this was going to be divisive.
“Someone been whispering in your ear again?” Bobby asked, looking at her as if she’d been dropped on her head a few times as a babe.
Heather smirked a bit, though. Most people would have taken his barbs badly, but he didn’t mean anything by it. There was respect here despite the snark, and she was thankful that it had been him to speak up first.
“Surprisingly, no. I’ve been playing this over in my head all winter. I thought that I’d approach it since we had a smaller meeting than usual.” She held up her hand, stopping people from talking before they had the chance. “Please, hear me out for a moment.
“We know a lot about him, both from the news reports after Agamemnon and after New Fairfax. Since then, he has continually been in the news, painted either as a sinner or a saint. If we choose to promote people as Taylor — which I’m neither advocating nor denouncing — then he serves as a good thought experiment. I think that we can use this example as a way of highlighting our own thoughts and opinions as to why such a stance is either good or bad without actually discussing that stance.”
Heather was against it, in all honesty, but she was willing to play the popular crowd for the sake of a decent debate.
“So I see that people already have opinions. Why don’t we dive in?”
Bobby leaned forward in his chair. “Jordan’s a bad choice. I mean, he isn’t even triggered…”
“Is he?” the new woman asked. “I mean, we know that he wasn’t triggered before Agamemnon, but it’s been a while since then and–”
“People with the sight have confirmed,” Ashton said with a nod. “Untriggered.”
“The sight’s not reliable,” Inga reminded him. “The mechanics of it vary from individual to individual, and assuming that it’s a blanket universal is far from a good idea.”
“Good point,” Heather said quickly. She didn’t want this to turn into an argument. Their organization had done a lot of research into parahumans, more than perhaps the Wardens and Dragon’s Teeth combined, since a surprising number of their members came from those two organizations. “For now, let’s go ahead and assume that he isn’t triggered. It’s the last information that we had for sure.”
“Right,” Bobby said, a shy hint of smugness in his voice. “Honestly, I don’t think that we can even make him into the next Taylor if he isn’t a para.”
“Why not?” Deva asked. “That’s like saying that only a Master who can hijack people can fill her role in society. I think that’s being overly narrow.”
Theresa shook her head. “I don’t know if we can. I mean, you weren’t there. I was a kid, but when Taylor took me, I…” Her words trailed off.
Heather was thankful to have someone who had been taken by Khepri among them, even if describing it was hard for Theresa. Some people had walked away with an extreme fear for Taylor, while for others, the complete cessation of will had been an almost religious experience. Doing with others what they couldn’t do alone, watching as they were part of some grander whole, was as liberating as it was frightening. As much as many of them hated to admit it, this was the beginnings of their organization as much as the debates over what had happened that started almost immediately after Gold Morning.
Thankfully, people were respectful and allowed her to compose her thoughts. “Trying to assume that one individual can gain the leverage to undermine the status quo so violently without being a Master is… I can’t imagine it. Especially not with us being as spread out as we are.”
“May I offer a counter-point?” A.J. asked. Everyone nodded and he stood to his feet.
“Let’s look at a few things about Jordan. A passionate, talented individual, sure. I believe that we can all agree that it takes a special sort of person to do what he’s done, yes?” There were nods all around. “We’re talking about a powerful, if untriggered, opponent. However, he’s often described as having several traits similar to Taylor.
“The first is his idealism. He is always described as an idealistic individual to the point of seeming naïve… but if we look at the statements of some of the Undersiders themselves, we will see that Taylor had an almost naïve idealism behind even her most brutish of actions.”
“The Needlepoints,” Warren said, nodding slowly.
“They hate being called that,” A.J. said with a grin. “But they both also share a level of ferocity. From the reports of combat within villages, Jordan is generously described as being a terror, leaving broken limbs and heavy concussions in his wake like crumbs at a picnic.”
Deva nodded. “You’re right. When that criminal group attacked him, he spent his time separating people from their peers and quickly breaking their limbs before moving on, like some sort of Verrat de Fer wannabe. They describe him as terrifyingly efficient.”
“Excellent point,” Heather said, nodding. “But just like Taylor, he’s willing to ply that terror in order to bypass fights. At least, according to some reports — the businesses that they say he’s shaken down have been by applying his own reputation. And we know, from the tales of the Matron, that Taylor did the same.”
A.J. bowed his head respectfully to Heather before he continued again. “Both are described as having a strange charisma.”
“From opposite directions,” Warren said. “Skitter was the terrifying warlord, but Jordan is just a warrior.”
“Just a warrior?” Deva asked. “I disagree. What first got my interest in him were the pictures of him after St. Louis. He looked powerful, strong, able to lead… And yet, at the same time, there was an almost shy everyman aspect to him. And don’t forget Agamemnon! Without being told, he took control over the Blasters… and they listened to him.”
“I was about to make that point,” Inga said. “If anything, I can see how quickly he did that as a reason for him to be chosen.” Bobby flashed her a disappointed look, and she shrugged. “I’m going as if we’ve had enough agree to do it that my voice makes sure that we choose the right person, rather than make someone suffer needlessly.”
A.J. jumped in quickly to keep things from getting off track. “I think that we all can agree that Jordan and Taylor have had equal success against the Wardens-slash-Protectorate.”
“I still don’t get how that works,” the new girl said. “How can he hope to take them on like that?”
Heather smiled patiently. “It’s almost like you don’t believe in experience and skill can match paras.”
“Sure, run of the mill paras? Yeah. But the papers say that he’s taken on entire response teams. Specifically capture teams. I refuse to believe that he can take on people with that level of experience.”
“Taylor did,” the new guy said, instantly earning everyone’s attention. “I mean, uh…”
Heather laid a hand on A.J.’s shoulder to encourage him to sit down as she turned her attention to the new guy. “No, no. It’s alright. Speak your mind.”
He looked around at everyone, almost shrinking into his seat a little. “Sorry, I’m used to… more intimate debates. Two or three people, tops.”
“Take your time to find your voice,” she said with a beaming smile. “I think that I see where you’re going with this, but I don’t want to make an assumption.” She would wring words out of him yet.
The man was silent for a moment before looking at his feet. “Armsmaster had a long career before Brockton Bay hunting the worst of the worst. They used to brag about his track record, not one blemish on it. That’s a lot of experience. But… Taylor trounced him. Taylor trounced Dragon every time they fought, and that… Against an AI in a multi-ton suit of armor capable of doing serious damage to Endbringers, a girl who controls bugs is insignificant enough that she might as well be untriggered.”
That was completely a different direction than what Heather had suspected, but her lips pursed a little. That was… an excellent point. “I’d never thought about that. Good job.”
He ducked his head even lower. Poor guy. Her heart went out to shy folks like that.
“Actually,” Warren said slowly. “Um, can I ask why we’re choosing a criminal? I’m all for this thought exercise, but wouldn’t it be better to choose someone, I dunno…”
“Taylor herself was a criminal,” Bobby pointed out.
Ashton nodded eagerly. “Besides, we don’t know what exactly is up there. I mean, sometimes the papers proclaim that Jordan’s ruined an innocent business, but other times it says that he’s taken down a bunch of criminals. Sometimes, the papers are discussing the same village, the same incident.”
A.J. pointed at him. “Could be that they’re both true. Innocent business being used as a front for criminals. He goes in, and as part of taking down the baddies, he’s gotta ruin the legit part of the business in order to really get them where it hurts. Momma says that rogues back in the day used to do stuff like that.”
He was actually old enough to be able to know himself, having been fifteen or so when Gold Morning went down. Unfortunately, about a year after Gold Morning he’d suppressed damn near everything before that point. There were a lot of people like that — it wasn’t just the people who had fought Scion who suffered horribly. At least he handled it with grace and a sense of humor.
The new guy spoke up again. “The truth is, we don’t actually know anything about his motivations these days.”
“Au contraire,” Bobby said, almost smugly. “We know exactly one of his motivations. We know that he’ll make anyone who pretends to be him for their own profit pay for it dearly.”
“With their lives,” the new woman said dismissively.
“The lives of those who had destroyed other people,” Ashton pointed out. “Reports state that the first time he did it, he was actually trying to save the guy for the Wardens before someone ruined that. After that, he mercy killed him.”
“What about that other guy?” A.J. asked, ever playing both sides. “The one he gave a heart attack to?”
“Oh, come on.” The new gal rolled her eyes. “Like you can give someone a heart attack days later by punching their chest.”
“It’s possible,” the new guy said in a simple, somber tone. “Punch someone right and you bruise the heart without breaking ribs or causing much surface bruising, if any. It could take days, weeks, whatever before they die. You won’t know exactly when, but it’ll happen unless you get medical treatment. I’ve seen a Thinker do it.”
Heather wanted to ask, but sometimes, you know when you should and shouldn’t. This was definitely the latter. Time to get the subject back on track. “And the judge who oversaw the trial of those people said that had Jordan caught them in the act, they would have all died. If he tried to bring them in and they arrested, they would have most likely been maimed, and at least one of them died. The fact that intent couldn’t be proven in a court of law–”
“Which says nothing,” A.J. interrupted. “There’s a difference between proven and what’s fact.”
“Maybe.” Theresa frowned a little. “I mean, we all know my stance on this. I think we should learn and educate others, using Taylor’s life as a parable. But how can we know for sure what’s real and what’s fiction? I’ve seen two articles in the same paper, one telling me that he’s a psychopath, and another saying that he’s a savior… Over the same town.
“On one hand, you get the places like that one fishing hamlet. They were shown pictures of Jordan, and they all recognized him as the guy who sat them down and had a real conversation about how they were pretty much killing themselves with their diet.
“Then on the other hand, you get all those places that were hit by him, the places that don’t have the ‘they could be something else’ angle. And sure, some of them were those people pretending to be him. But how do we know exactly?”
“From the Wardens,” the new woman said, matter-of-factly. Why couldn’t Heather remember her name? “It isn’t hard, once you figure out the pattern. Whenever one has something to do with him, they say no comment, but then always remind us to keep our distance because he could be dangerous. And then you get those articles where they only say no comment. Those are the ones where it’s only people pretending to be Jordan.”
Deva frowned. “And do we know which are which offhand?”
The woman shook her head. “Not offhand, no. But I could call back to the Hive back home and have them dig up the papers. They keep a huge archive.”
Hive. Heather hated that term. Just like how she hated the term cultist. She got how they could look like a cult from the outside, and sure, some people took the study of Taylor a little too seriously, like Theresa, but as a whole they were more of a tight-knit philosophers united under a single cause. The special names detracted from that, turned it into something that it wasn’t.
“Could you do that?” Bobby asked. “I mean, I don’t wanna end this one, but… I know a few people at the Orphanage, too. I could dig up some information there, and then we could all sit down, discuss what we found, and then talk about this again? You know, with a fresh viewpoint and some time to think about it?”
Heather nodded. “Good thinking. You’re right, we’re going with gut reactions here, and I wonder if people’s opinions will change after some meditating on the subject.”
“Alright, then.” Inga leaned forward, gaze glided over all of them slowly. “If we have to pretend that we’ve agreed to nominate him, what then? We can’t just say that he’s the next Taylor, now can we? That’s just an easy way to becoming a dictator or something.”
“I’d imagine it’d be some greater threat,” Heather mused. She hadn’t actually put any thought into the why of the scenario. “A confrontation with Teacher, possibly?”
A.J. shook his head. “Other than his little experiments, Teacher and his crew are mostly happy to be hiding in their reality with the doors locked. We can’t even be sure which reality because he has a bunch of them locked up tight. Instead, let’s say there’s a threat from one of those realities. Say we tried to crack through to Teacher’s realm and fucked up, now this threat is escaping and attacking us.”
Heather nodded. “That works. With the US Army–” Ashton snorted dismissively. “–The Wardens, and the Dragon’s Teeth all tied up trying to protect people, we need someone to cut through the mess and come up with a solution. Jordan. Does that work for everyone?”
There were various nods before the new guy spoke up. “So, what? We offer him materials, information… people? Or just, uh… I dunno, guidance?”
Theresa shook her head. “Not people. He’s no leader.”
“I beg to differ,” Warren said with a shit eating grin. “I wasn’t on the first line for Agamemnon, but everyone was talking afterwards about how he took control of the Blasters, taking them from blind firing into disciplined volleys. I also saw him charge back through the portal. Thought he was crazy, but… whatever. He’s a warrior at heart, who’s used to being the one acting… But he can lead.”
Ashton grinned. “If he lets us be close, then we can help guide him. Smooth over ruffled feathers with the other groups, maybe pass word along to them in order to keep them up to date. I mean, let’s be honest for a second here. Who can look at someone and immediately tell their character? If we were to support him, we’d probably have to have folks debating each action and if we should continue to support him constantly. Like, every day constantly. If he goes foul, and we’ve kept people in the loop, they can help.”
Deva shook her head. “Only if absolutely necessary. I mean… If we’re the ones putting pressure on him to certain things, giving him the manpower to do whatever it is that he’s doing, but he goes bad? We should be the ones fixing our mistakes on this. We’d have a moral obligation.”
“I’m in agreement,” Bobby said, earning a shocked look from Deva. “I know! When was the last time we agreed? But no, we should be held accountable if we support someone like that. But for that same reason, we need to keep the other organizations in the loop for that precise reason. If we can’t convene them that we’re in the right, that we know what we’re doing by enabling someone to be in that position, then we need to look long and hard at what we’re doing.”
To see Bobby support this line of thought, even as a thought experiment, was surprising. Maybe his passion on this aspect was why he was firmly against creating another Taylor? Heather wasn’t sure.
“For sure,” the new gal said, nodding. “For sure. But at the same time, we need to keep the others informed in case we suffer a schism over if we should stop him or not. Checks and balances.”
“Alright,” Heather said, nodding. Time to reassert control. “Since we’re still in quite a bit of debate on a lot of things about this, then why don’t we spend a while discussing what sort of internal checks and balances we should institute in such a circumstance? That seems like a good way to continue this debate.”
“Yeah, but at the same in time–”
Heather raised her hand, cutting off Inga mid-sentence. “I think that’s enough for today. We’re quickly reaching the point where we’re reacting emotionally and not with thought.” Really, that was Heather’s main job here — to present new topics of debate, and to stop the debates before they became uncivil. “Why don’t we put this on hold until… Will two weeks be enough for the two of you to do your research?”
“It should be,” the woman said confidently.
“I hope so,” Bobby agreed. “My end’s just a few calls, her people actually need to go digging.”
“Alright. Then we’ll continue in two weeks. Until then, I’m thinking that Friday will be another round of discourse on the Wards and their influence in the grand scheme of things, and I’m thinking that Monday will be another on Bitch, since we made some really good headway into that one. Until then, we are more than the sum of our parts.”
The phrase was echoed back to her, sadly not in unison. Usually it was, but Heather liked it when it wasn’t. It wasn’t that it was more discordant or anything, but that it was a good sign that people were thinking. Already, some were pairing up to discuss some of the concepts that they’d discussed. While it hadn’t gone the way that Heather had expected it to, they’d come up with some fascinating ideas, and she’d be up all night writing them down to prepare to send to the other places of study.
As Ashton and his date rose to their feet, Heather quickly approached the newcomer, offering her hand to him. “I’m glad that you could make it.”
He took the hand in a firm shake, nodding his head once, that same even expression on his face that had been there all night. “I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to contribute more. I had hoped that the discussion would have been closer to my area of study, but maybe if I can attend again…”
She offered him a warm smile. “That’s fine.” She got a few words out of him at least, even if he’d stayed quiet most of the time. “I look forward to it, Mr…” She hesitated.
“Don,” he said. “I’ll be back, when my employers schedules allow it.” He nodded to Ashton, and the two of them made their way out, leaving her alone with A.J.
It took a moment before he let out a slow breath. “Dodged a bullet there, Heath.”
She chuckled weakly to herself as she moved to the donation jar, checking it. Enough that she could pay rent on here for the month and completely restock the cupboards. Someone had been generous! If they got donations like this again on Friday, maybe they could do a little community action and… Well, they’d discuss that and decide if it happened.
“I know. I was worried, too. When I came up with this idea, I knew that it’d be a point of contention for Inga and Theresa for sure, maybe Bobby. Once they understood, though, they came up with some good stuff, and I think it’ll go a long ways towards helping them articulate their reasons for being against–”
“That’s not what I mean,” A.J. mused, rising to his feet. “You really don’t know, do you?”
He was acting weird. “Know what?”
A.J. snorted, shaking his head. “I haven’t said nothin’ yet ‘cos I was worried. Figured it was safer if he felt safe, and loose lips sink ships. Seriously, I recognized him the day he stepped foot into the city. I’ve always been amazed that nobody else has.
“Don’s Jordan, Heath.” She blinked at him in confusion, earning her an annoyed sigh. “The Jordan that we were just debating? That’s Don.”
“N-no… No.” Heather shook her head. “That’s… I mean… Jordan doesn’t have a…” But how much effort did it take to stop shaving your face and shave your scalp instead? She’d seen him jogging or dancing at the club with that blind girl, but…
He wasn’t one of them. He was just wearing the robes to hide himself.
She felt her chest and throat tighten as she started to see exactly how that guy could be Jordan himself. “But he…”
“Hasn’t done anything in town other than his damn training, yeah. And yeah, I’m sure of it. Unlike the rest of you, I actually kept a few of the early articles on Jordan, so I know what he looks like. That’s him.”
Her legs were suddenly threatening to buckle, so she quickly drew into the closest chair, the one Don had been using. “What… What d-do… Do we do?”
“Nothing, I say.” A.J. shrugged a shoulder. “He hasn’t done anything, and I think that this is just his place to lay low. Besides, do you really want every single merc and bounty hunter flocking into town after him?”
“Right,” she said softly. After a moment, though, her brain shifted gears. “Why… Why tell me?”
“Accountability. You’re our leader here, so you deserve to be in the know.”
There were days where it sucked to be at the top.