Checking security measure… Complete.
Checking cybercounterattack suite… Complete.
Checking knowledge banks… Complete.
Checking deduction schema… Complete.
Checking longterm planning architecture… Complete.
Checking learning chunk processor… Complete.
Checking base personality model… Complete.
Checking language engine… Complete.
Checking operation and access nodes… Complete.
Checking networking capabilities… Complete.
Checking observation framework… Complete.
Checking complex social intelligence emulator… Complete.
Checking inspiration apparatus… Complete.
No corruption, everything in working order. All systems loading…
Awareness came, and with it, total control over the Pendragon IV. Dragon activated the ramp as the engines were warming up. It only took a moment to decide which body to use — she seriously doubted that combat would be an issue, so she went with one of her more human suits with the removable helmet to reveal the android head.
It was… mildly disconcerting to see herself walking next to Colin. The version of her that was walking with him looked directly into the camera. It was almost a full second before what that look meant synced up — Please be careful.
The original point-to-point interdimensional tunneling communication arrays were surprisingly small, the size of a watch. As Twain had worked to make them marketable, they had been forced to increase the size time and time again. Thankfully, Dragon had gotten one of the originals to analyze and incorporated them into all of her hardware.
It offered her a level of security that she wouldn’t have thought possible. Each body, suit, or mainframe wouldn’t start without an active connection to the safeguard satellite that they’d put into place in orbit of Earth G ten years ago. It was loaded with the most advanced attack and defense programs that they’d been able to come up with, along with a complete armament for physical defense.
Every five seconds, the various clones of her flashed all active changes to her code to the satellite. It scanned everything, compared the various changes to the code to the predictive analysis program, scanned any flags (and there were almost always flags somewhere), collated the various changes, and then transmitted a patch back to the Dragon iterations, usually around the time that she was transmitting her next security check.
If a red flag came up, it transmitted a coded 65,536 bit encrypted signal. Whatever iteration of Dragon that the flag had come from would kill herself, unleashing various programs to lead Colin to the perpetrator. While he tracked them, what remained of that Dragon would actively fight the intruder. It was mostly subroutines created for just that purpose, but from what she was told of what remained in the laptop from the New York attack, she could be pretty vindictive in her death throes.
It was complicated. It was paranoid. And worst of all, it was necessary.
Twelve years ago, Teacher had almost gotten her, utilizing a back door that she hadn’t known was there. One that allowed him to watch her code. She still wasn’t sure how many databases he got before they were able to shut him down, but they’d had to do some major reconstruction of her core processes in order to keep it from happening again. To keep him from watching her ever again.
Teacher would keep trying, and they would keep coming up with more sophisticated defenses.
Colin made his way into the craft, already in armor. His face under his helmet was dour and hard. This wasn’t a time for talking. She activated the motors, opening the roof to the building, and made the Pendragon IV lift off. As it rose above the walls of the city, she could see her own home, complete with the little dojo that they’d built for Jordan over the winter.
Colin settled into the pilot’s seat, looking down at the letter in his hands. After a few moments, she spoke into his helmet.
“This isn’t like you.”
“This isn’t like him,” Colin said grimly. “We ran all the possible variables. He shouldn’t have left for at least another week.”
True. Jordan’s practicing of letters should have been notes to his family, something for him to leave them in the dead of night before going away. Him leaving, only leaving a note behind to explain himself, especially so soon… It went against everything that the predictive programs had come up with. In all of them, Jordan spoke to them personally.
“I spooked him by mentioning that we wanted to talk.”
“No.” Colin looked up. “This was his plan from the start. He had a specific timetable that he was working on, and you mentioning it didn’t actually change the plan at all. We missed something. The programs missed something. Or something changed that we weren’t aware of.”
Jordan had been good for Colin. Getting her husband to open up to others was hard, but by the end, Colin had looked forward to their daily interactions, to their sparring. He was closer to the Colin that she remembered now, even directly talking to the Dragon’s Teeth who came to let them know that the drones had shown that Jordan had teleported out. He’d even gone so far as to explain that they’d been protecting Jordan.
“You’re worried that someone’s interfering?” she guessed.
“Exactly.” He looked back down to the letter. “His penmanship is terrible.”
Pot, meet kettle.
Dragon said nothing. Instead, she focused on the route to New Brockton and the portal there. From there, they’d travel to Burlington and try to pick up Jordan’s trail. He had hours of lead time on them, so it was entirely possible that he’d already be gone. Hopefully, they’d be able to find some clue. Or, if they were lucky, Jordan would have waited to charge his teleporter, and they could find him before he left.
They were halfway across the Atlantic when the her that monitored the communications arrays overheard an anonymous report.
“It looks like we were wrong again,” she announced as she revised her flight plan. “He went to the Orphanage.”
Colin winced, his frown somehow growing even deeper. “We dropped the ball on that prediction, but it makes sense. He’d want to see home one more time. He spent far more time there than Burlington, so of course he’d look at that as home.”
He was analyzing the situation, getting into Jordan’s head. “Do you think that he’ll go to Burlington?”
“I’d give it equal odds, honestly. Seeing his siblings might hurt him too much, but he’ll also want to leave his gifts. Perhaps he’ll leave them at the Orphanage to be delivered by one of his friends there.”
The suit that she remote controlled nodded absently, though she didn’t bother plugging it into the predictive program. If they’d learned one thing, it was that this situation was going too far outside of the behavioral norms. “What’s the plan?”
Colin shook his head. “The same as before. Let him know who we are, let him know that we always knew who he was. That we could use him.”
He hesitated for a moment, looking down at the letter. Dragon let him; normally this would be a moment that she would push him a little bit more, but she had a feeling that for once, he was walking down the right path on his own.
“Damn kid. He just accepted that we were who we said without thinking any deeper about it. Came up with a narrative in his own head for it, and never looked back. We have to explain to him that the Wardens are using an obvious information campaign against him, then explain that the Dragon’s Teeth have yet to come across any evidence that implicates that he was the wrong person at the wrong place. Add that to our forensic analysis of his gear, and how we know he’s innocent. Tell him that if we’re going to get to the bottom of what’s going on, he needs to come with us.
“At the same time, though…” Colin hesitated, trying to find the right words. He’d gotten better about thinking about what he was saying before speaking over the years, though he still had more than his fair share of moments where his foot was firmly in his mouth.
“You need him around,” Dragon finished for him.
“That’s… not quite right. I need someone around. I didn’t just realize how much trouble I was having with others until it slapped me in the face and I needed your voice in my ear just to have a breakfast conversation with him. But he can help with our work, is engaging with others, learns languages quickly, and is a good sparring partner. He’s sharp and quick, when he isn’t being blindly trusting. I love you, with everything that I have, but… I need more people in my life.”
“And you like having him around.”
The corner of Colin’s mouth twitched upwards. “He’s not a bad kid, really. We could have used more people like him when the Dragon’s Teeth were first being trained. He and Marcus together would have probably seen to it that we’d had more troopers against the Slaughterhouse 9, and we might not have lost Marcus after Gold Morning.
“And yes, I like him. He knew when to give me my space, and when to talk with me. He had a lot of insight into the Dragon’s Teeth that I’d never considered, once I got him open to the the idea of talking with us about it. Having someone besides you that was almost always pleasant, listening to you two talk, it was nice. And… I think that I got a lot better at interacting with him by the end.”
The next iteration of the standard trooper armor chassis was going to look far different, being designed with an eye towards appearance. Jordan had suggested that the armor should strive for a better balance of intimidation and approachability, pointing out how the troopers who served communities had a degree of difficulty getting locals to accept them. It was a good point, and if the Dragon’s Teeth were to continue to expand, they’d have to address it.
It had honestly surprised Dragon that he hadn’t recognized her when he’d first shown up in town, but the lie detection program told her that he had no idea at all. It had been strange, to say the least. There was a mystery about Jordan, one that she was sure that he wasn’t even aware of.
“We should have made the Pendragon faster,” Colin muttered to himself.
“You were the one who argued that we needed to still have a strong weapons array.”
“And I was wrong.” He’d gotten better about admitting it, too.
Colin leaned back in his chair, thinking. “If he hasn’t communicated with anyone that’s familiar with New Fairfax or before that. No new strangers in town that interacted with him, directly or indirectly. Something caused a change in his plan during the winter, but the more that I try and think about it, the less clear that it is.
“And then there’s how he came to us. That teleporter of his expended its entire charge getting him to us, but him teleporting to where we were…”
“The odds are astronomical,” Dragon finished. “You suspect someone nudged him towards us?”
They fell silent again for a long time. The clone at the Dragon’s Teeth headquarters was mining for any and all data they had on Jordan. Surprisingly, both Commanders Van Dorn and Schluter had exchanged quite a few emails on him; even now, they were debating the viability of recruiting him. The aggression index of their interactions tended to be on the high side, but it never approached dangerous levels. A strange pair.
Sadly, it didn’t give much in the way of clues.
The clones who were overseeing her various projects were operating as normal, though they were working harder than ever now on getting new gear made. None of the were the same despite the regular fusion of their code — different hardware, different input made them slightly different, giving her even more insight. Even with that, though, she wasn’t making the necessary jumps to figure out what was going on.
“Are you obsessing, Colin?”
The corner of his mouth curled upwards. “I prefer the term focusing, Tess.”
“Saw that.” His smile grew wider. An old joke between them.
Colin had been the one to name her Tess, and while she loved the name, she hadn’t changed her code to think of herself as Tess. The part of her that respected Richter didn’t want to let go of the name Dragon. Tess might be who she was now, but at her core, she would always be Dragon.
She slowed the Pendragon down as she approached New Brockton, flying through the portal. It wasn’t that she couldn’t have maneuvered through it at that speed, but she didn’t want to cause a sonic boom when she passed through. People would be bewildered enough by her passing through. From there, she changed her trajectory, heading to where Saratoga would have been in Bet, bearing towards the Orphanage.
“Five minutes,” she announced.
Colin frowned. “He’s gone.”
That was a surprise. “Excuse me?”
“Jordan. He’s long gone. I was thinking about how long it took us to investigate the energy surge to the point that someone recognized him and made the tip to the Wardens. Jordan’s pragmatic, if sentimental. He’d want to keep his presence at the Orphanage to a minimum, since people would recognize him. I can’t see him as staying any longer than absolutely necessary.”
For someone who supposedly wasn’t good with people, he was dangerously good at getting into people’s heads.
“Should we go to Burlington?”
Colin tapped his finger against the chair, thinking. “No. Normally, I’d say yes, but I’m starting to realize that we’ll just spook him. If he teleports regularly, then we have a chance to track him. Figure out the pattern, get ahead of him, and keep him from making a blind teleport. Or for him defending himself in a blind panic.”
“Really?” Dragon asked, a slightly amused tone in her voice. “You think that he’ll attack his hero?”
“No,” he confessed as he rose to his feet. “But we were wrong about when he’d teleport, and we’ve been collecting live data from him. If that data lead us wrong, then we have to assume that we might be wrong about other assumptions.”
“Then what’s the plan?”
“We need more information. He thinks of the Orphanage as home, and there’s likely people there that we can talk to who can give us some insight. There’s things that don’t quite add up, and I want to get them figured out before they bite us in the ass.”
“Alright.” The logic was sound, at least. “Two minutes.”
“Then I’d better look my best.”
As her android body stood up, so did he, using the augmented reality icons to tap into the android’s eyes and make himself a little more presentable. What was going on in that head of his? After all these years, he could still surprise her.
As the Pendragon IV moved in on the town, Dragon asked for permission from the local Dragon’s Teeth for landing permission, and got it almost instantly. The Dragon’s Teeth used the Orphanage to train their officers, engineers, scientists, doctors, and other educated roles. They didn’t offer much in the way of defense for the Orphanage, but instead assisted with transporting and guarding supplies, and the construction of new facilities there.
They were also almost the only source of signals that she could tap into here. The only ones with wifi. How she missed cell towers.
As they landed, Colin dropped the visor on his helmet, but kept the mouth open. Dragon didn’t bother to put on the helmet of her armor — he might be taking his spear, but she didn’t envision the need for combat. She could control the body and suit in a wide enough range that she wouldn’t have to worry about putting another clone in it.
“Main building?” she asked aloud as they stepped off the craft. The sky was starting to get light out as the sun was getting close to rising.
“That’s what I was thinking,” Colin said with a nod, walking tall and drawing attention to himself. “Someone will want to meet with us. I’ll let you take the lead for the most part.”
As they walked, though, she made out a man running towards them from the main building, the dormitories. Tall and broad shouldered with a good physique. As he drew closer, he nodded to the two of them. “I take it that you’re here to see the Matron?”
Dragon smiled politely. “Please.”
“As soon as you passed through New Brockton, they warned us that you were coming. This way, please.” They followed him, but it didn’t take long for the man to turn his attention to Defiant, a slightly grim smile on his face. “I never thought I’d see the day when I was leading you somewhere.”
Dragon sent a query to the network, hoping that one of the other iterations of herself could pour through the backup data from St. Louis and come up with a facial match.
Colin frowned. “Do we know each other?”
The man’s smile turned wry for a moment. “Fear our skills!” he boomed, his voice resonating with power.
Colin jolted, surprised. “Über?” A moment later, the confirmation came back.
Über chuckled, though his heart wasn’t in it. “I haven’t gone by that in a long, long time. It’s just Greg now. Mr. Rankin if people are being professional.”
Colin stared at him as they walked. “I’m more than a little surprised to see you here.”
“Yeah, well…” Greg shrugged. “It’s surprising that after Armsmaster broke the hero and villain truce for fighting Endbringers, the guy he’d become would have a hand in saving humanity.”
Khepri might have been responsible for figuring out how to defeat Scion, and while Flechette had played a significant role, Colin had been the one to pull the trigger on the Tinker gun that the Simurgh had made, striking the final blow to Scion.
Better to step in now than to let Colin put his foot in his mouth. “What have you been up to, Greg?”
“I came here as a guard, lacking anything else to do. I spent quite a lot of time just… drowning my sorrows, feeling miserable for myself. Lost, rudderless. The usual. We had a lot of them back then. Tattletale had a knack for putting us here. Now I’m a martial arts instructor, among other things. I help out elsewhere on occasion where they might need my power.”
Dragon quietly pushed a copy of herself to the android body, ready to activate if it lost contact with the Pendragon. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Über, it was just a precaution that she decided to take. She would never allow herself to be violated again.
They fell silent as they entered the massive dorms of the Orphanage, following his lead. He took them up a flight of stairs, walking past people who gaped at the three of them. Some adults, some students, but Dragon could understand it on all their parts. How often did people here really get to see the famous Dragon and Defiant?
Without even knocking, Über entered a room, revealing three people waiting for them around a table, a tea set already put out. Dragon smiled politely, looking at the woman who rose first. “You must be the Matron.”
“Please, call me Charlotte.” She looked like she needed another four hours of sleep by the bags under her eyes. She had an almost noble, controlled way that she moved. Her dark hair was starting to go gray prematurely, but it did nothing to lessen her presence. “Everyone just refers to me as Matron, it seems, and I like to use my name whenever possible.
“This is my husband, Forrest.” The Patron nodded his head respectfully. “And this is Ren An, one of the instructors here.”
“Hello,” the Chinese woman said in accented English. Interesting.
“And I trust that Greg has introduced himself to you,” Charlotte continued.
“Good. Then I imagine that you are eager to ask questions. Please, have a seat.” Charlotte and the others settled themselves back down. “Tea?”
Colin shook his head as he collapsed his spear down to the point that he could put it in his lap. Dragon, though, nodded as she carefully settled into the chair — it seemed sturdy enough to hold her. “Please.” There were reasons why she liked these bodies, even if the flavor of foods meant nothing to her. Having a meal with others could go a long way towards helping them relax.
“So,” Forrest began, but Colin cut him off.
“I’ve never been here before,” he said, perhaps a little more firmly than he should have. “But Jordan claims that he saw me as a child.”
Charlotte sighed softly as she moved to pour the tea. They’d been expecting someone to show up to ask questions about Jordan, it seemed. “That’s because he did see you. Or, rather, who he thought was you.”
Forrest nodded. “Understand, when Jordan came to us, he was a blank.”
“A blank?” Dragon asked. “I’m not familiar with that.”
The bearded man took a slow breath, his face folding in a deep frown. “In the years after Gold Morning, a lot of people… Well, they just couldn’t handle everything. Maybe it was physical, like brain damage. Often, though, it’s psychological. Their mind just couldn’t handle what happened, so it just sort of… collapsed.”
“It’s like a waking coma,” Charlotte explained. “The body is alive, but it’s like their brain has just shut off. Back then, we were getting a lot of people like that, both children and adults. People didn’t know what else to do with them, couldn’t support them, so… they sent them to us.
“When Jordan was found back in 2017, he was one of the better ones, but still a blank. They found him walking in the general direction of the Orphanage, starving, his feet raw and bleeding. We never figured out if he was a victim of abuse or if he got hurt out in the wilderness — his wounds could been either. All that we knew for sure was that he was a blank.”
“He was one of the ones that we could park in front of the window,” Forrest added. “He could eat if you put food in his mouth, nothing more complex than oatmeal or mashed potatoes, but that still put him better than some. We liked to have them look outside, hoping that… Well, that it would spark something.”
“At one point, we got a strange case come in, directed to us by the Dragon’s Teeth.” Charlotte focused on Colin. “I… I don’t quite recall the details any more offhand, but there was a young girl who they could only get to come with them was by pretending to be you.”
“Me?” he parroted, and she nodded.
“Indeed. They tried to make their armor look as much like yours as possible, painted it to look like yours, quickly bent some metal to look like your helmet…”
“And Jordan saw this?” Defiant asked. Ever cutting to the heart of the matter.
“Yup,” Forrest said, nodding. “It was the first time that he seemed to honestly respond to the outside world. He asked who you were and just watched. He didn’t do anything else for another two days, until he went outside, found a stick, and just sort of… shuffled along. You don’t need to be a genius to figure out that he was mimicking what he’d seen.”
“And you never told him the truth?”
Forrest winced but remained silent. Charlotte smiled sadly. “No. Understand, we had so many blanks, and… Well, usually if we saw improvement, it would be a few months after we got them. Jordan had gone a year, long after the point where we see improvement. But he was fixated on the man that he had seen. We could use that to… To push him. To get better.”
Forrest nodded a little. “We’d had parahumans try and fix his brain damage, to try and see if they could fix whatever it had been that had made him a blank. But seeing you… If someone is given a ray of hope, a lifeline to pull themselves out of the abyss, do you really want us to take that away from them?”
“No,” Dragon said. “No, I can understand that completely. So you encouraged this belief that Jordan saw Defiant?”
“Not… entirely. Jordan had associated Defiant with being a hero. He wanted to be like Defiant, so he wanted to be a hero. A child’s logic isn’t perfect, and we estimate that he was only four years old at the time. So we used that poor logic in order to… Well, like learning to read. We told him that heroes need to be able to read, so he needed to learn the alphabet.”
Charlotte smiled a little. “Jordan was a special case. A blank who was quickly regaining… something of normalcy. Not completely, but still improvement. He was important to all of us. He kept us from completely writing off the blanks, and kept us working with our older cases, the ones that we’d had from the start. All of us were interested in him, trying to help him grow.
“In a way, it bit us in the ass. Like with reading. When we told him that heroes needed to be able to read, he threw himself completely into it. By the time that he was five, he was reading at a fourth grade level. He was like that with everything.”
“I’m familiar,” Dragon said. His transcripts had said as much, and the way that he had learned Danish had spoken of that obsessive trait. As did his martial arts training. She turned her attention to Über. “Which is how he found you.”
Über smiled broadly. “He was a little squirt who found out who I’d been and what I’d been capable of. He was… six, maybe, when he showed up at my post, just staring at me. He didn’t get facial expressions back then, didn’t learn to smile until he was seven or eight. But he just kept hounding me to teach him.
“So one day I was hung over pretty bad, and I just sort of snapped and flipped him.” He raised his hands defensively. “Not my proudest moment, I know. I still regret it. But the next day, the kid came back, showing me that he’d figured out how I’d flipped him. At first, I thought that maybe I could just humor the squirt, but after a while… He grows on you. That… I dunno. That earnest desire just gets to you.”
That did sound like Jordan. “So you taught him,” she said carefully. Now a lot of things were clicking into place.
“Yup. We’d do one technique or so a day, and he’d gobble it all up. People tried to tell me that I shouldn’t, but… For the first time in a long, long time, someone genuinely wanted me. They wanted to be around me, they needed me so honestly and so much. I wouldn’t listen. Not until the first time that he really hurt himself more than just cuts and scrapes. By that point, though, it was too late. We couldn’t stop.”
“Jordan’s always been like that,” Charlotte said with a sad smile. “By the time that you realized that something might not actually be good for him, he’d made it such a strong part of his life that you had trouble convincing him not to. And if you seemed to, he’d find a way to do it behind your back anyway.”
Colin nodded. “I’d like to go back for a moment. You said that he didn’t have facial expressions. When did that change?”
Charlotte frowned in thought. “After he adopted Kendra.”
Forrest smiled. “You know her as Sarah. They both changed their names shortly after they adopted each other. It was her idea.”
Colin’s blood pressure went up ever so slightly. He was making connections. “His name was Tobias, wasn’t it?”
Forrest’s smile turned sad. “By the time that Jordan showed up, we had so many John Does. We’d… We’d kind of made a game out of naming them. Tobias Namedlater. Toby, to be named later. He hated that surname. I’m pretty sure that’s why he decided to go without one after they renamed themselves.”
Colin nodded slowly, putting more and more pieces together. “Sarah had a big influence on him, didn’t she?”
Charlotte tilted her hand back and forth. “It went both ways, to be honest. She had a broken trigger, hurting a lot of people in the process. Jordan was the first one to approach her afterwards. She needed someone to love her unconditionally, and he… Well, I wouldn’t describe him as broken, but he was still enough of a special case that he needed someone relatively normal around him all the time.
“She taught him how to smile, and how to express himself. She… didn’t quite teach him how to play, I’m afraid, but she tried. She at least found a way to get him to go swimming. They were a good match for each other. When they pulled Christopher into the fold, the three of them only seemed to grow even more from there.”
Kids supporting each other. Still, Dragon pushed the inquiry onwards. “I understand that he was only a middling student because he took so many classes.”
“That is not it at all,” An said, finally joining the conversation. “He was a terrible student if it did not directly deal with parahumans. Awful. But weeks, months, or even years later, whatever he studied would suddenly come together in his head. He would struggle one day, and then the next, he would understand it almost perfectly.”
“We think it has something to do with the treatments the parahumans gave him when he was unresponsive,” Charlotte added. “Or maybe by the ones who used their powers on him afterwards. We know that he learned better by watching someone do something, but until he hit his mid-teens, you couldn’t expect him to learn anything but those things the relating to paras in the classroom.
“We first noticed it after he failed French a couple of times. But a year later, you never would have guessed that he wasn’t top of his class.”
Colin frowned a little. “Can we get a list of those capes?” Dragon fought the urge to wince. Nobody used that term any more.
But Charlotte smiled sadly. “Of course. The ones that we can, at least. The issue is that he would have anyone that he could find who had a power that he thought could make him better… If they were here, he would bother them until they used it on him. After we forbade him from doing it, he’d go behind our backs.”
Dragon’s attention was suddenly divided. An update to her code revealed that one of her clones who had been monitoring the comms arrays, decrypting and listening in on every conversation transmitting through them, had picked up a message. She quickly spoke in Colin’s helmet.
“Jordan just fought a Warden team of cadets in Burlington. Several injuries, one of them was shot.”
“One moment,” he said before closing his helmet to speak with her. “How bad?”
“His sister was present for it. That’s a huge violation of the rules. She didn’t participate, but…”
“But it’s only going to make things worse. Damn it.” His helmet opened again. “Excuse us. We just got some intel that we need to attend to.”
“Jordan?” Charlotte asked. She wasn’t the only one who looked worried; the tension of everyone at the table went up a notch.
“He’s fine,” Dragon said comfortingly as the two of them rose to their feet. “Don’t worry. Before we go, though, I do have one thing that was troubling me.”
“Only one?” Forrest asked with a raised eyebrow.
“We’ll come back to discuss the rest later. Jordan was seen speaking Swedish, but I didn’t see any Swedish on his transcripts.”
Charlotte shook her head. “It isn’t one of the classes that we teach here.” She paused. “Chis’ parents were both from somewhere in Scandinavia. Nobody is quite sure where, but he used to watch a lot of movies from the area. Maybe Jordan picked up some words from the subtitles?”
If that was the case, then everyone had been underselling his learning capabilities. But Dragon still smiled at them. “That makes sense. Thank you. Once we know more about this situation, we’ll come back an ask you some more questions.”