“So,” said the voice in the right helmet speaker. “What’s your assessment of the city so far?”
Colin lifted an eyebrow. The window in the upper right of his vision showed the boy looking over to his sister, but she waved him off like it was nothing. Interesting.
“Um. Well, uh…” Jordan took a shuddering breath to steady himself. His voice was higher-pitched than when he’d been just talking to his sister, and he was more than just a little nervous. Was he hiding something? “Even if we were to clear out all the wildlings, the city itself isn’t fit for resettlement.”
Colin’s eyes went back to looking at the reams of information that were streaming on the monitors. Not content with a progress bar, he was watching file names. On occasion, one would leap out, taking position at the top right of the screen that he was sitting behind. Tess setting aside things that she thought the two of them might be personally interested.
The entire room was full of people, hunkered over computer screens, analyzing data as it downloaded. Their bandwidth was far greater than fiber had been back in the day, sped along by various advances. Various Tinker advances. But the Wardens were more than eager to get to work on this, leaving everything that they found open to the two of them.
He had to admit, it was good to see Chevalier again. Awkward to be greeted with a hug, of all things, but good all the same. It had been a decade since the two of them had last talked, but for some strange reason, they’d picked up like it had just been last week. Or, at least, Chevalier had. Colin found it harder than ever to talk to him. What could he say?
At least now he had an idea on something to say.
“Down to business?” he asked, the corner of his mouth quirking. “I’m surprised that you aren’t wanting to chat more.”
Tess chuckled in his ear, the sound from her conversation muting. “I’m trying a different tactic with him. He’s awestruck by me, but his sister is extremely professional. I’m hoping that if I can get him in a similar mindset himself, he can relax.”
Colin nodded a little. “That’s not a bad idea.”
“I think that a few words from you would really make his day.”
She was pushing again. She was always pushing for him to deal with people more. It seemed harder than it used to, though. He’d never been good with others, putting his foot in his mouth far too easily. He was more efficient on his own, or with Tess. Others, even in Europe and Scandinavia, just complicated his life. Especially over there. He didn’t speak the language, and honestly? He didn’t want to.
For the most part, he liked being left alone. He didn’t mind helping people, especially when threats arose out there, but… He was doing important things. Everything that he did advanced the Wardens that much more. There was always more to analyze, new iterations of suits, technologies, programs to work on. And then there was his side project, the one that he was fairly sure would never be completed in his lifetime.
He looked up at the window in his vision, and it automatically expanded a bit. Two rapid blinks opened it fully, occupying his vision. The boy, Jordan, was coming out of his shell. Becoming more animated as he talked. It didn’t quite reach his eyes, but that could simply be exhaustion. He was wearing a large bandage on his neck, too.
Behind him, Sarah would occasionally look back with a knowing smirk despite the dark circles under her eyes. She looked… genuinely happy, though. There was a degree of fatigue in her movements, a subtle lack of dexterity, but her smile looked real enough.
The two had been through a lot since arriving here. Who knew how much rest they’d gotten?
He thought it over. They’d sleep in shifts, no doubt helped by the strange wildlings in their presence. Each moment, though, their senses would be primed, ready for the first moment of danger. That takes a toll on a person. The longer that you’re in that state, the heavier the toll. Without a proper period of rest, they would begin to make mistakes. Rational thought would give way to faulty judgement.
How long before tempers flared, and they began to fight each other?
Could him saying anything really make a difference? Something that Legend had said, long ago when Colin had worked under him, echoed in his ears. Morale isn’t always about big speeches or grand gestures; a hand on the shoulder of someone suffering could mean more than any speech.
He watched as Jordan hefted a wildling, silently alternating between pointing at body parts and scratching its head.
“You’ve gone quiet,” Tess observed.
Colin’s lips pressed in a thin line for a moment before he spoke. “I’m not sure what I’d say.”
“Hm.” She sounded thoughtful. “What would you have said to the Wards back in Brockton Bay when they’d done something impressive?”
He snorted a little. “Impressive work. Good job. That sort of thing. I wasn’t good with kids.” He never had been.
“Funny. Vista said in her memoirs that you were the second best leader of the Brockton Bay PRT that she’d served under.”
He blinked, instinctively turning his head. As if to accommodate, the display in his field of vision split in two, showing a smirking Tess splitscreened with the two kids. Her own doing, probably. “You’re kidding me.”
“No. She described you as a team dad to her. Not necessarily there dealing with her day in and day out, but a presence. Cool, calm, capable. Hardworking. Not big on pleasantries, but it made your few compliments honestly mean something to the kids.”
He could almost see that, he supposed. He didn’t feel like it was the truth, but he could see how Vista might have seen it that way.
“She said that it was hard for her to be the youngest member of the team despite having been a member for the longest period of time. Everyone else treated her like a kid when she was as hard working as anyone else. But that you didn’t treat her like a child. In her eyes, you treated her with the same level of respect as you did everyone else.”
Had he? It was so very long ago. Twenty-two years. A literal lifetime ago.
Colin wasn’t proud of the person that he was back then. Looking back, he’d done a lot of things to be ashamed of. He could see his logic behind each of those decisions, those multitude of actions that brought him shame. But he would do it all over again. So many of those poor decisions, he would have done again from the start. The only difference was that he’d do better.
Which… also brought him a touch of shame. He’d messed up so many lives, including his own, and done as much harm as good in some ways, and yet he’d still walk into those same mistakes with his head held high. And he’d do it all for selfish reasons, too.
Without those mistakes, Taylor Hebert might not have become Skitter, might not have become Weaver, might not have become Khepri. Without Khepri, would they have even beaten Scion? Without those mistakes, they wouldn’t have the Dragon’s Teeth today, free from the rot that had festered within the PRT. Without those mistakes, so much of Europe would be in even worse shape than it was today.
Without those mistakes, he wouldn’t have Tess. If he could go back in time, to change anything, could he risk anything that might lead to her never filling a void in his life that he hadn’t known was in him before?
It was stupid. Selfish. But it was there all the same.
“If I say something at the end, will you help?”
Tess’ image smiled warmly. “Of course.” After a moment, though, her smile faded. “Colin… You used to be able to handle this without any problems.”
He sighed, glad that his helmet was closed. She was right, of course. It didn’t mean that he had to like the fact that she pointed it out, but she was right. He had handled fans to a certain extent, and he had media training. He didn’t think that he was good at it, but he could do it. “In a manner of speaking, yes.”
Tess remained silent, which meant that she was waiting for him to continue.
“I was the stern, stoic one in front of others for the most part. People expected that of me, and that was fine. I could keep my responses short, brief, and gently push the idea that I had other duties to attend to. The media liked that, and that gave me the freedom to leave early.
“This? Ever since Gold Morning, the people who know me…” He paused, struggling to compose his thoughts into words. “Every time that we’ve been on this side of the ocean, people have looked to me like they’re begging for support. Something more than just a nod of the head. They want me to… I don’t even know.”
“You’re exaggerating,” Tess said in a soothing tone.
“Maybe. Here? I can work in peace. People understand how important this data is, and they’re willing to give me the room to do what we came here for.” Which he was all too aware that he wasn’t doing, simply by talking to her. On the other hand, she thought at speeds that he could only dream of.
“I just don’t know how to handle others these days. And over there, in whatever city we end up setting up shop in for the year? It isn’t just the language barrier. There’s a cultural barrier, a way of life that I just feel like I can’t connect with.
“But you’re right. My social skills have atrophied. Maybe…”
Maybe what? He wasn’t even sure any more.
“Alright,” Tess said. “I don’t understand, not exactly, but… I can help you.”
“Thank you.” Colin paused, thinking about how best to handle this. “What if we record a message in advance that you can give to him at the end? Say that I’m very busy with the data, but I asked you to pass along the message for me?”
The image of Tess nodded slowly. “That would work. Any ideas on what you would say?”
Colin took a slow breath, rusty gears trying to turn in his mind. “Hm. I’ll want to thank them for their hard work. Stress how important this is to all of us. Inform them that they need to be careful until they come back.”
Tess tilted her head. “Is that all?”
Is that all, she asked. “You’re hinting at something.”
The image of her vanished, replaced by an image of Jordan in his armor. Colin settled back, waiting. Slowly, the image changed. The red of the armor changed to match the blue. A helmet like his sister’s appeared on his head. It didn’t take a genius to guess where she was going as the almost-halberd appeared in his hands.
“You’re saying that he’s a fan.”
“He’s not just a fan, Colin. I’m willing to bet that his brother patterned his armor specifically off of yours.”
“Minus the armor plates,” he observed.
“Minus the plates. But the basic suit is there. He’s obviously patterned himself off of you.”
Colin sighed. “This is what I was talking about. Fanboys are one thing. But someone like this is… This is hero worship. I can pretty much guarantee you that I’ve never met this boy in my life, and he’s patterning himself off of me. That suggests that I fill some sort of need for him. I represent the fix to some sort of deep emotional trauma to him, and he’s basing himself off of me to avoid that pain.”
Tess’ face reappeared, wearing a surprised smile. “And you said that you were getting rusty.”
“I’ve had to investigate copycat crimes in the past. The same basic principle applies, right?”
“Not quite, but good enough. And for the record? I do disagree with your assessment. If he just wanted to be you, he would have focused on Tinker things, or things to allow him to emulate Tinkers, rather than the wide array of classes that he did take.”
Colin frowned. “Alright. Then what do you think that it is?”
“If I had to guess, I’d say that he’s trying to be a hero, and patterned himself off of you. Somehow, he latched onto you as an ideal hero, and is effectively trying to follow in your footsteps.”
“That really doesn’t help me much.”
Tess laughed. “Alright. I did promise to help. What would you have loved to hear the most when you first joined the Protectorate?”
Colin considered that. It seemed so far away that it was hard to remember. “Here’s a blank check for your workshop?”
Tess opened her mouth and closed it again. A show for effect. “I walked into that one, didn’t I?”
“A little bit, yes.”
She laughed softly. “Alright, then. Let’s try a different tactic. What would you say to someone following in your footsteps?”
He didn’t know any more, and that was the entire point. He was in his fifties now, and there was very little that wasn’t machine these days. Twenty years ago was a completely different world now.
“Alright. Maybe… Maybe some advice directed to the two of them?”
Tess’ smile grew wider. “To the two of them, I like that. Don’t favor Jordan over Sarah. Now, what sort of advice?”
He looked to his left, where Jordan was silently talking to Tess. The boy had such strange features that didn’t quite fit his skin tone. He wasn’t a handsome man by the standards that Colin grew up with, beyond the scars and the exhaustion saying that he’d been through a lot. He remembered people saying that sort of thing was attractive.
“If they have the food, to hunker down and stay at the offices for a little bit. Find the barracks, lock the doors, and get a solid eight hours of sleep at the bare minimum. Hydrate, eat well, and spend a few days of rest and recovery while moving on.”
“And?” she asked.
“And… that they’ve deserved their rest. As much as I hated it back when I was Armsmaster, I knew that I had to let myself rest after a particularly rough mission with my strike team, or else I wouldn’t be as efficient. They’ve had nothing but a rough mission for a long time now, and a day or two of nothing but rest will make them more capable from here on out.”
“Okay, we’re making good progress.” Tess smiled. “See, you aren’t nearly–”
The images on his HUD blanked out, along with all of the progress monitors on all the monitors. As people cried out, Colin was already moving, pulling a USB cable from his arm and plugging it into the computer that he’d sat behind.
A new image appeared in the lower left of his vision. A circle of green dots, except for one that was solid red. In the middle, a dot alternated between flashing red and blue.
The agent in the arm’s computer worked fast, picking up on the trial of breadcrumbs that Tess had left him and displaying them on the arm-mounted screen. A fragment of code had been saved, and after it passed through his translation program, it confirmed his suspicions. Meanwhile, the agent prepared a mapping file that traced the breadcrumbs to their source, translating it through the mapping program to give him a location based on the available data.
In the building.
Instantly, Collin was on his feet, sprinting despite the floor shuddering beneath his feet.
“Defiant,” Chevalier called after him, but there wasn’t time to stop and explain.
His armor’s systems had automatically copied the map that had displayed on his arm, allowing his onboard computers to set up a waypoint system. Within moments, the map was displayed in his field of vision, letting him track without looking constantly at his arm. Not as efficient as he’d like, but this was the first actual test of this particular system.
Colin’s footsteps thundered through the halls. He took stairs two at a time as he ran, making his way up two flights, ignoring the complaints of the building around him. Time might not be on his side.
The map marked a door in red, and he burst through. The woman behind the computer barely had time to look up before he raised his arm, curling his pinky and index finger. Automatic systems within the armor took care of the rest. Containment foam sprayed out, coating the woman completely.
Now came the tricky part. The waiting for others to catch up.
It was annoying. It betrayed every single instinct in his body to stand there and do nothing. Colin wanted to hurry to the computer, to begin analyzing everything on there as best he could. Doing that, though, would only lead to more problems. Security was… sensitive.
“What’s going on?” Chevalier asked as he caught up. A contingent of people were behind him, not sure if they should be ready to fight Colin or the woman encased in hardened foam.
Colin forced himself to turn to look at his old friend. “Cyber attack. Ever since we closed the spying windows that Teacher used, he’s had to rely on more direct methods to try and get to Dragon. When she…”
He took a calming breath. This hurt. Now that he wasn’t acting, his mind was feeling an echo back to when Saint…
No. He could deal with those emotions later. “When she destroyed herself, she was able to leave digital breadcrumbs here, with a ghost left behind to make it look like the hacker was successfully making progress.” He turned his head to look at the woman.
Chevalier stared at him for a moment, processing what had just happened. After a moment, he turned to one of the Wardens that had trailed behind, authority booming in his voice. “Get in touch with Nexus. I want his people here now. We’ve been infiltrated again.”
The Warden nodded her head once before hurrying off.
Colin was glad that they had systems in place to deal with Teacher’s so-called students. “Can I convince you to go over her laptop until she comes out of Teacher’s control? My suit uses a lot of Dragon’s programming.”
“Of course.” Chevalier looked over to the woman before sighing. “But… I don’t think that we’ll get the debriefing that you’re hoping for.”
Colin felt a sinking feeling in his chest, a simulation of what he would have felt if it would have been more organic. It was made worse by the fact that the central dot on the display at the corner of his vision was still blinking blue and red. “Explain.”
“Teacher is taking a page from Fyrtorn’s books. He’s not just content to have people under the control of his power. He brainwashes them now.” Chevalier’s face was grim. “She won’t give up anything, not without someone altering her mind. She’s his thrall even when his power runs out. If she even is under his power right now.”
Damn. He honestly didn’t know. Despite all of their precautions, despite everything, Teacher was adapting. Why didn’t Tess warn him? She had access to all of the data that the Dragon’s Teeth had. She should have told him, so that they might have been able to come up with more methods.
A different track. “Who’s Fyrtorn?”
“A cult, lead by a high-level Trump. The kind who recruit by force, and far more effectively than the Fallen did. Those they don’t take are slaughtered.” Not content to just have puppets, Teacher needed a cult backing him up now. Peachy. “We suspect that Teacher has dealt with them before. Whatever they do to cause such zeal in their followers, he might be replicating.”
“And this Nexus?” Colin asked.
“A criminal that we tolerate. He has a grudge with Teacher, and people who can root out anyone that’s ever had Teacher’s power used on them. He’ll loan them out for free under the condition that they can go free afterwards. Thanks to that, and a few other things, we try and turn a blind eye to his operations where possible.”
That never sat well with Colin. He didn’t like compromises like that. He understood them on an intellectual level, letting one criminal go free because they’re useful, but that sort of thing never felt right to him.
Thankfully, the middle dot finally turned a solid blue. Some small relief.
Back to more immediate concerns. Colin disconnected the closed system from his arm, holding it out. “In case her computer doesn’t give us enough intel, this contains a full record of everything that I downloaded when Dragon died. The ghost will be deleting everything as it goes.”
A man with graying hair took the small computer. “I’ll get to work on analyzing it right away. I’ll keep my terminal off the network, just in case.”
Colin nodded once before turning back to Chevalier. “I need an interdimentional communicator.”
Chevalier turned to the others. “Lock this area down. See what data we successfully got, make sure that it’s clean. I want to make sure that this wasn’t a trap left by someone in the St. Louis archives.”
It wasn’t, but Colin wasn’t going to interrupt his old friend.
“I want her in the detention center ASAP, and get someone to go through her laptop. Post a full squad outside her quarters — nobody goes in or out without first having been verified clean by Nexus’ people. His agents are not to go anywhere without full backup, and under no circumstances are they to go anywhere that she’s been in the past week without my authorization.”
Chevalier motioned for Colin to join him as he made his way down the hall. “Teacher couldn’t have done this at a better time. We finally get a secure link here, and…”
“The information’s safe,” Colin said as he fell into step next to Chevalier. “The Tiamat XIII can house almost the entire archive. We’ll bring it here once the upload’s complete.”
“I should have known that you’d think ahead for something like that.” He laid a sympathetic hand on Colin’s shoulder. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine. Dragon will be fine. I’m sorry that she had to be scrubbed from your local network, but we’ve had… issues in the past.”
Chevalier frowned. “He’s not giving up on getting her?”
“No. And neither will I until he’s dead.”