Qamaits 12.2

I walked up to the young man, more as something to do than anything.  Waiting for people to figure out who was going to replace them was painful.  I needed to stay focused, to keep the anxiety from eating me alive.  Talking would help with that.

“Hej.  Are you alright with this?”

The young man looked at me, giving a lopsided grin.  “Nope!”  He flashed a quick glance to where Bitch was lurking nearby.  “But Mom’ll kick my ass if I don’t make sure we’re here, representing.  She insists on being a part of it if shit’s going down and we’re involved, but against a flier?  Yeah, she’s forced to just stalk around and glare and punch people.  Which does shit all.”

I glanced at Bitch, who was sitting on the ground, each arm draped over a different dog.  She was probably around twice my age, and while I was sure that I had more technical prowess than her, she was no delicate flower.  A big, powerful woman, whose body was built for strength.  And she was an Undersider, so I had no doubt that even without her dogs, she had a billion dirty tricks under her belt.

Yeah, without my armor, the idea of taking one of her punches wasn’t an idea that I relished.

I looked back to him, studying him a little more intently.  Sixteen, maybe seventeen, with short and spiky dark hair, and animal hide leathers.  That smile was still lopsided, but now I was making more out.  Like the slight trembling of his left arm, and how his left eyelid was drooping a hair.  At the same time, though, his posture and the way that he tilted his head a little was almost like he was compensating for it.  He was used to this, and it was nothing to him.

I wasn’t about to ask, though.  That would be too distracting for the two of us.

“What is your thinking on this?” I asked.

He grinned a little more.  “We got the smarmy winged bitchface moving for the first time in ages.  Something’s up, right?  We dunno what they ever really wanted, so what’s the point in worrying about it?”

I frowned, but before I could respond, he was continuing.  “But the way that I see it, your friend is only half right.  I can thinka, like, twenty ways that he could do this easier.  She doesn’t have to fight us.  She could just drop down outta space like a brick, reach out and stroke someone’s face before they know what’s going on, then shoot off again.  Or something, I dunno.  But it’d accomplish the same thing.  Stroke Tatt’s face, fly off, and bam, everyone’s wondering.  Then everyone’s asking about the others who were exposed to her.  With that, she’s mind fucked us without having to do anything, really.

“So, mebbe there’s something more here.  I dunno, though.  I’m no expert or nothin’.  I’m a kid who gets to stand next to older folks who know what they’re doing.”

I knew that feeling far too well.  I was feeling like the little kid giving orders right now, and things were only going to get worse from here.

On the other hand, though, this guy wasn’t giving himself enough credit.  That was a solid line of thought.  “If you had to guess.  What might that something more be?”

He puffed out his cheeks thoughtfully.  “Well.  I mean…  The last time we pulled anyone together was a shitshow.  Y’know, Aggie?”  I tilted my head.  “Agamemnon?”

Ah, that.  I nodded a little.

His lopsided grin grew a little more.  “Yeah.  Like now, we had time to set up, we had time to make a plan, but it was all dumb like.  Twenty years without thinking about this shit, we had no clue what we was doing.  Now look at us.  Until that mind fuck on us, we had shit locked down.  I was watching as there was people talking, and not just all crazy-like.  Like, hearing out what folks at the bottom are seeing, but only when it matters, then making sure that it gets shared with everyone else.  Like, they were acting like they could handle this.  That make sense?”

I  nodded again.  “Everyone is more organized than against Agamemnon.  Clear lines of communication, planning avenues of attack, gathering intelligence and spreading it to the groups who need it.”  Hopefully they were briefing latecomers this time.

But the guy was nodding eagerly.  “See, that right there.  That’s what I’m thinkin’.  So I’m thinkin’ more ’bout it, and I’m thinkin’…  What if, you know?  What if gatherin’ us together was the whole idea?  Like…”

He frowned, tapping his fingers together with his left hand.  I knew that exercise immediately — it was something to help retain control over your manual dexterity.  I was guessing he’d either suffered a bit of brain damage at some point, or maybe a stroke.  He did it enough that it became something familiar to him, an unconscious action that he did while under stress.

“Okay, so.  See, she goes and hangs out up in space, but she does it…  Like, we can see her.  We can watch her, while all the others hide and shit.  I think mebbe she wants us to see, you know?  Otherwise, she’d be on the dark side of the moon or something.  Then she comes down and fucks with people’s heads.  She’s a control freak, worse than Mom.  She wants us to know that she’s in control, that she’s got us.

“But they’re sayin’, they’re sayin’ that Agamemnon isn’t an Endbringer, but it made us respond like it was one.  So she’s asserting dominance on us again.”

I took a slow breath.  “That is a… very educated assessment.”

The man laughed, shaking his head.  I noticed that when he smiled, he didn’t show any teeth.  “Naw.  I ain’t all that smart, and the only school I been to is the school a life.  But we got a few shrinks and shit back home, and sometimes I, y’know, listen.  You listen to someone, and some a it sinks in, yeah?”

“Yes.”  I didn’t know how to explain that intelligence wasn’t necessarily the same as education to him, not while pretending to be a warrior from Scandinavia.  This wasn’t a stupid person.  Rough and uneducated, yes, but he’d picked up a lot and could use it.  That was frequently more important than someone who had just memorized books.

“Just my thinkin’, though.  What do you think?”

“I would prefer not to repeat myself,” I confessed.

He shook his head.  “I got no idea what you just said, man.  Your accent is thicker than Betty’s thighs.”

I had no idea who that was.  I opened my mouth to respond, but Emi was by my side.  She hadn’t teleported, I just hadn’t been paying attention.  “Relentless, it looks like we’re ready.”

I turned, only to not like what I was seeing.  Half of the people here were looking out of place and lost, glancing at their superiors from whatever faction they were from.  They looked like how I felt, how Bitch’s son felt, but the difference was that we were hiding it under an armor of confidence.  Bitch’s son could admit that he wasn’t ready for this, say that he wasn’t smart or right for this, but he did it under an armor that he could handle literally anything that came his way.

The only one out of the assembled who looked like they were comfortable leading everyone on the battlefield was the Dragon’s Teeth commander.  Everyone else was feeling the weight of having to make calls that would be analyzed and scrutinized from here on out.  That they were keenly aware of the fact that their words would lead to people’s deaths.

Hopefully, I could help with that.  At least the idea of dealing with them was less pants-shittingly terrifying than trying to convince Chevalier or Miss Militia.

As I approached, the US military officer glared at me.  “We’re running low on time before she gets to where we’re set up.  Unless you want her flying over our people, we need to act soon.”

“Indeed,” I said.

The Dragon’s Teeth Commander, pointed at the table.  “At this point, I think that we should cast a wide net.  Create a wide array of Blaster and Tinker beams, and then once one hits–”

“Each attempt fails,” Brenda said quickly.  “By the time that you cross the beams, she’s already moved to evade.  You’ll be chipping at her armor uselessly.  And no, you don’t want to bicker with me about my power or else I’ll bring your son’s indiscretions from the last time I met him into the conversation.  Each time that I do, it gets ugly.  Let’s just avoid it, alright?”

The commander bristled, but the teenage Wardens woman laid a hand on his shoulder.  “You can see into the future?”

I could only see Brenda’s lips thanks to her helmet, which looked a lot like mine, as she smiled pleasantly at the Wardens woman.  “I’m from the future.  I wasn’t even triggered the first time that I went through all this.  Each time I travel back, though, things change a bit, so don’t take everything that I say as law.”

“Do we save New Brokton?”

Brenda snorted.  “Trust Miss Alcott’s numbers on this one.  We’re wasting time, though.  Keep focused.  Pretend that I’m not here unless I say something.  Setting up save points for quick jumps is distracting.”

The Wardens woman frowned, but the U.S. captain looked at me, almost fearfully.  “You’re the reason why we’re here instead of better qualified people.  Do you have an idea?”

“Yes,” I said with a curt nod of my head.

“And… are you going to tell us?”

I took a slow breath.  I lifted my arm and pressed a button, closing the mouth of my helmet for a moment as I pretended to work.  “Dragon?  I need those video files linked into–”

Done,” she interrupted.  “I’ll work off of context, so just keep doing like you are now.

The first video came up, taking the entire “surface” of the holographic table as my helmet opened.  The Simurgh swooped through Madison, Wisconsin.  A black streak shot into the frame, almost too fast to see before slamming into one of the Endbringer’s wings, only to be flung off again.  A moment later, a woman jumped off of a building to latch onto one of the larger wings, immediately swinging her axe repeatedly against it.  With each swing, the Simurgh gave a scream of pain, thrashing until the woman suddenly exploded.

I tapped a couple of random buttons, and Dragon changed the image for me.

A white streak, plummeting from the sky, striking Leviathan.

The shockwave that accompanied the impact tore through the tower.  Superficial features broke away first, followed by the internal structures that had provided structural integrity.  The end result was a gradual, almost slow-motion collapse, a lingering view of the Simurgh and Leviathan as they’d been at the moment of impact.

They tilted as the tower did, but neither Endbringer moved.  The Simurgh had both feet pressed against Leviathan’s stomach, one hand reaching up to grip his face, the other hand holding the gladius she’d made, buried so deep in Leviathan’s sternum that only a little bit of the handle stuck out.

As the image froze, I looked at everyone and opened the mouth on my helmet again.  The Wardens woman looked spooked, the Dragons Teeth commander looked confused, but the US captain looked thoughtful.

“What are you trying to get us to see?” the commander asked.

Some distance away, I heard Tattletale give an amused snort, but she didn’t say anything.  I wasn’t sure if her silence was good or bad.

“Every Endbringer has a certain way of acting, yes?  Every one has a way of behaving.  Leviathan, a relentless force crashing against you.  Behemoth, working to create fear gruesome displays of raw power.  Tohu and Bohu, making you fight dark reflections of your allies, making you mistrust your environment.  This is how the Endbringers work.

“However, they have particulars as to how they fight as well.  The Simurgh more than the others.”  I looked down at my arm-mounted computer for a moment.  “Dragon?  How do you, ah, loop a video?”

“The first one?” her voice asked from the holographic table.

“Yes.”

As the first video began to loop again, I looked at everyone else.  “While on our way, I spent time reviewing video footage.  I have plenty of examples like this one, moments in battle that play out like this.”

Everyone glanced at each other, but it was surprisingly Bitch’s son who spoke up.  “Right, uh…  I think I’m speakin’ f’r us all when I ask this.  What’m I supposed to be seein’ here?”

I nodded.  I’d hoped everyone would catch it on their own, but the churning in my gut was because I’d expected them not to.  “The streak is Alexandria.  We may assume that she weighed 159 pounds, and in this she appears to be flying roughly at a speed of 125 miles per hour.  With this, we can estimate that she is impacting with the wing at with enough force to be comparable to megatons.

“By contrast, Axe Wail did not impart even a fraction of that force, and I cannot figure out the explosion off hand, but it still would not compare.  At first thought, one would believe that she had struck a sensitive wing.  However, the more instances of situations such as this, the more that it bothered me.  Not every weak attack that made her recoil made her react like this.”

Bitch’s son snapped his fingers.  “So, s’mone weak would attack, and she’d flinch, when someone powerful she shrugged off, yeah?”

I nodded once.

The commander shook his head.  “That doesn’t help us, though.”

“I think there’s something here that we aren’t seeing,” the US captain mused.  “There’s something here, a key to fighting her, but whatever it is, I can’t put it together.  Why would she react like that?”

“Because she wanted to,” the Wardens woman said in a hollow voice.  “That second clip, that’s the key.  She could have done that thing to Leviathan without all that, but she was putting on a show.”

“Indeed,” I said with a nod.  “There was a certain… showmanship to cape culture.  India highlighted this, but every culture had it.  People became absorbed with the idea of heroes, of villains.  Both Leviathan and Behemoth had the effect of aftermath.  Leviathan with the horror of sunken landscape, Behemoth with the dead and dying in his wake.

“Simurgh has always been about the aftermath, but that does not inspire fighting.  This showmanship helps us now, because we have not been trying to engage her by playing her game.”

The Wardens woman nodded with growing confidence.  “It wasn’t every weak attack that made her react, but the desperate ones.  The dramatic ones.  If you’re right, she’s avoiding our Blasters because there’s no drama there.  There’s no desperate fight for a city.  There’s no person committing to a final attack.  It’s just a bunch of people shooting at something in the air.”

The commander was nodding.  “I can see it.  If you all are right about her accomplishing her goal of casting doubt on East Coast leadership, then now all that she’s waiting for is the right injection of drama.”

“Alright.”  The US captain ran a hand through his hair.  “I’m not the right guy for that particular kind of bullshit, so you’re gonna have to sell it to me before I commit any of my troops to it.”

Everyone fell silent.

Dragon,” Brenda said over the comms.  “I’m looking ahead again.  Yes, headache.  Pretty bad.  They’re looking at Thinkers for other things.  No.  I need you to start making some stuff.  Private channel for the rest or else we’ll distract them.

In the back of my head, I could hear Kathy complaining about Thinkers again.  I was almost tempted to agree with her.

“Sacrifice,” Bitch’s son said at last.  I really wished that everyone would have introduced themselves.  “We need a sacrifice.”

The captain blinked at him.  “Excuse me?”

The young man shrugged.  “Hey, Relentless.  How many of those people who got a reaction died?”

“I am not sure,” I confessed.  “I am thinking most of them, though, but not all.”

“Right.  So, that chick with the axe–”

“Axe Wail,” I corrected.

“–She knew that she was going, so she went out in a blaze, right?  I’m willing to guess that the folks who got the biggest reaction were the folks who thought that this was it, or the people with more style than substance or whatever.  People who thought, fuck it, I’m not gonna live through this, so I might as well go out in style, yeah?  Well…  Whomever we send, they gotta be ready for that, have that same mindset, even if they think they’re gonna live.”

“Flash by desperation,” I said softly.

The commander from the Dragon’s Teeth frowned.  “I can assign an Endless–”

“Naw,” the teen said quickly.  “I know how you guys work.  You’ll give ’em, like, some flight thing or some bullshit like that.  Or get one that’s dying already or some such.  I mean, that’s fine for those other situations, but if we’re gonna do this, we gotta make it desperate.”

His voice took on a sad tone.  “Like, not just taking one for the team, but if shit goes south, then they gotta still try and fight to live.  Someone who’s being volunteered to die and doesn’t mind it?  Not gonna make a splash, I think.  It’s gotta be someone who isn’t ready to die, who’s gonna give it their all rather than just a token effort.”

They all hesitated.  I could see it already in their postures.  Nobody was sure they could give that order.  Some had never ordered someone to walk to their death, not unless that person was perfectly willing to.  The commander didn’t know the local troops.  The captain had never been forced to do something like that.  The Wardens woman had baggage about it — maybe she had given an order in the past that had killed someone, and now she was put in a position of doing that.

None of them had been prepared to make this sort of decision even ten minutes ago.  Sometimes, though, the best answer was to not make the decision.

I walked over to Kathy, unclipping the teleporter from my belt.  “I am stepping down from command.”

Kathy’s shoulders dropped, and she almost let go of her spear.  “Excuse me?”

I’d made myself clear.  Instead of explaining, I turned.  “Dragon.”

“I’m printing targeting sensors and a safety line that will connect to your belt already, Relentless.  I knew that you’d offer.”  Her words were tinged with regret.

John stood up, stalking towards me.  “I know that I said that I was staying out of it, but no way in fucking hell.”

“Archimedes,” I said warningly.

“No!” he barked angrily.  “You…  We need someone who isn’t a para leading us.  That’s the entire point of this organization, right?  And you’re the only one qualified.”

“Ask Jordan,” I said firmly.  “Or any number of people.  If I die, then there should be interest in joining.”

Let him go,” Brenda said soothingly over comms.  “Even when it fails miserably, it helps.

Kathy slowly reached out to take the teleporter from me before offering a salute.  It didn’t look right.  It didn’t feel right.  Even still, I returned it, feeling my stomach finally unclench.

“Work with them.  I want plans in case this doesn’t work.”

“Yes, sir.”  Her voice was tight.  “I’ll see you on the other side.”

“No you will not.  I am not planning on dying here.”  I’d already died once.  That should be enough for a while.  I turned back to the others.  “Let us figure out how to get me to her.”

Bitch’s son shook his head.  “You, and not any of your crew?”

“I do not ask my squad to do anything that I am unwilling to.  We can debate it when we see each other again.  Let us get to work.”

The sad part was that this was the easiest thing that I’d done today.

Qamaits 12.1

Defiant paused for a moment as he looked at me.  Yes, he was an old-school hero.  He knew just how to leave a pregnant pause to highlight tension.  It was partially nerves, partially the way that he’d presented us to the assembled, but my grip on my weapon was white knuckled.  Under my helmet, my eyes were the size of saucers, and my heart was hammering like a team of smiths at work — not the fastest, but making up for it with sheer strength.

“Chevalier,”  Defiant said as he looked back to the man.  “Will you please recognize Relentless?”

All eyes were on me, and I was pretty sure that the only person who was fooled at all was Bitch.  The only reason for that was she probably didn’t know who I was and didn’t give a rats ass.  The punk-looking son of hers showed more interest than her.  Chevalier was wearing an expression that I couldn’t even hope to read, very tight.  To his left, Miss Militia was in her fatigues, the flag wrapped around her body but not covering her face, so I could see that she was looking at me thoughtfully.

Foil was leaning in to say something to Parian.  Tattletale was smirking.  Because of course she’d be smirking.  She didn’t need her power to see through this ruse; it wasn’t going to fool anyone.  Everyone would know who I really was.  Trying to pull one over these people was useless.  I should have told him that I couldn’t.  I really should have.

My stomach was in knots.  I so wanted to puke.

Legend was the first to do anything.  His face was grim as he crossed over to me, offering his hand.  “Relentless.”  He waited for me to force myself to shake his hand before continuing.  “It’s good to see you again.  I wish that Jordan could have been here; he would have done wonders for morale after his experience with Agamemnon, but I’m sure that your familiarity with Endbringers will serve us well.”

I nodded once as I released his hand.  What was I supposed to say to that?  What was I supposed to say to anything?  What was I even doing here, near these people?  I didn’t belong here; these were important people and I was just…  I was just a wanted man.

Thankfully, Defiant saved me.  “What’s the current situation?”

Like he didn’t know.  He’d probably been monitoring the situation during our fight.  No, he knew, but was asking for our sakes.

The Dragon’s Teeth general reached out to touch the screen of the situation table before speaking in a thick accent.  “The Endbringer Simurgh was first observed passing near the village of Mason’s Grove in a westerly direction.”  A holographic image of the Simurgh appeared, along with a topological map.  The screen zoomed out as a dotted line began to extend from her, until it appeared over another location.  “She did not stop until she reached the hamlet of Wingman’s Hope.  She spent approximately thirty minutes over the populace before moving on at a surprisingly low altitude.”

“We’ve already dispatched some people to quarantine the hamlet,” Legend added quickly.

The American general present nodded grimly.  “Wingman’s Hope is one of the locations that is aligned with us, so we’ll be overseeing the quarantine process and doing our best to ensure the fair and humane treatment of those affected by the Simurgh’s abilities.”

Chevalier finally moved, joining in on the briefing at last.  “We mustered our flying blasters here.”  A point about a day’s march from the town appeared, a glowing red dot along the Simurgh’s path.  “Unfortunately, engaging the Simurgh has been problematic: she seems to begin evading our attacks before we even make them.”

The Dragon’s Teeth general touched a button, and a window appeared.  The Simurgh, fifteen foot tall and a beautiful shade of white, clad in a strange tunic to accommodate her plethora of wings.  I watched as the Endbringer began to move mere moments before a beam appeared.  A flyer who tried to engage physically was effortlessly deflected and sent towards the ground by a casual flap of a single wing.

The robes dealie things were new.  Were they some sort of disguised Tinker technology, like the sword that it had used to alter Leviathan?

The general stopped the video.  “Between attacks, she would once again resume her previous path.  The Dragon’s Teeth engaged here.”  Another red dot appeared some distance away.  “It went much the same — an entire wing of flying suits and six Javelin rapid response craft were disabled in this manner.  The predictive analysis program was useless against her, and we were unable to gain a targeting lock.”

It was believed that we had never actually seen the full capabilities of an Endbringer, so them being able to break old combat methods completely wasn’t surprising in the slightest.

Chevalier motioned and the map changed again, showing a path.  I didn’t need to be told to know where the path was headed; I could tell from the map, the projected path, and the exact bay that it ended in.  “It appears that she’s making a direct path for New Brockton.  So we’ve set up here.”  A new dot appeared.

Tattletale was the one to speak up now.  “Which makes sense.  If she wanted to throw the area into chaos, putting my city into chaos would be the way to do it.  Once locked down, at least 80% of the eastern seaboard across fourteen Earths would be affected by the loss of trade.  We don’t need to use Dinah to know that a lot of villages would die without those trade routes that pass through my portal network and teleporters.”

The general hit a holographic button and a red blinking dot appeared along the white dashes of the projected path.  The icon of the Simurgh updated as well, showing it approaching the dot.  “This is where we currently stand.  The joint forces of the Dragon’s Teeth, Wardens, and US Military including all available parahuman servicepeople are prepped and ready to engage as soon as we have a plan.”

With that, he took a half-step back, looking between everyone.

“Do we know how she passed into Earth Gimmel?” Defiant asked.  “The last that I knew, she was still in Earth Bet’s thermosphere.”

“No idea at all,” Tattletale said with a shake of her head.

That was troubling.  Did the Simurgh have some sort of natural ability to pass between worlds, or was it some piece of Tinker tech that it had made?  I wasn’t sure which possibility was scarier.

“You said that we couldn’t get a target lock?  We just upgraded the targeting systems for our heavy weapons.”  Defiant seemed particularly disturbed by that.

“We aren’t sure why the automatic systems aren’t working,” the general said, stoic and professional as ever.  “Manual tagging hasn’t worked because she evades it like any other attack.”

“She’s aware of what we’re doing,” Miss Militia said.  “This is a show of power — she’s moving this slow and low in order to taunt us.  She shows us that we can’t even touch her.  She’s trying to show that she is going to get to her target.”

“Mostly,” Tattletale said, starting to pace.  “I don’t think that’s quite right, though.   Getting to New Brockton is a secondary goal, I think, even if she’s actually worried about reaching it at all.  She’s got something else in mind.”

“Any idea as to what?” the US general asked.

She shook her head.  “I want to say that it has something to do with us, here.”

“Fucking Thinkers,” Bitch growled under her breath, making Tattletale grin a little wider for a moment.  I got the feeling that the comment hadn’t been directed to her fellow Undersider.  “I still don’t understand why we don’t just fight her.  All of us at once.  Watch her dodge that.”

Legend’s mouth quirked again.  “Because we’re trying to do better than we used to.  Do you remember how many people died fighting Behemoth?  Do you want that many of your own people dying?”

That made Bitch frown.  She muttered under her breath as she looked away, too low for me to catch.

“Alright,” the US general said, looking between us.  “What’s the point of bringing us all together, then?  Sending a message?  Trying to get us to work together?”

One of the Wardens that I didn’t know shook her head.  “Simurgh doesn’t bring people together.  She tears them apart and breaks them down.  Everything that my power tells me says that us banding together against her isn’t the goal.”

I was dimly aware of a change in John’s posture.  It was a subtle movement, but he had an idea.  I was willing to bet that we had a different perspective from everyone else here.  Something that the others wouldn’t have because of their backgrounds.  We had heroes here, we had military personnel here, but only my friends had the perspective of con men.  The Undersiders had been villains, but they hadn’t been the kind of criminals that we were.

The woman was continuing.  “We saw this in her post-Behemoth attacks.  For example, the Protectorate had been building an alliance with China until she had forced them to destroy that plane.”

“So she wants to get us fighting,” Chevalier said, stroking his chin.

“Or she wants to use some part of the chaos of fighting her to bring on some bad blood,” Foil said, tapping her fingertips together thoughtfully.  “Force us to make a mistake, maybe take out each other, so that folks start feeling some hatred to each other.  Then let that resentment build.”

“No offense,” the US general cut in cautiously, “but the Dragon’s Teeth and the Wardens have enough bad blood as it is.”

Everyone fell silent for a moment.  Was that the goal?  To make old resentments build into an all-out war somehow?  No, that didn’t sit right.

Legend looked directly at me.  “You look like you want to say something, Relentless.  Do you have anything to add to the conversation.”

I was glad that they could only see my mouth.  I could keep my stance neutral, I could keep the lower half of my face even, but my eyes would have given me away immediately.  Here I was, my stomach doing a slow roll again as all eyes went on me.  And they all were going to hate me.

“I do,” I said, putting on a Danish accent.  “You will not like what I am thinking, though.”

“Spit it out,” Bitch growled.

I looked Legend directly in the eyes.  “Protocols are being ignored.  People who have had sufficient exposure to the Simurgh during Gold Morning should stand down immediately before they have more exposure.”

I could feel the temperature lower as the blood in everyone’s veins dropped.

“Excuse me?” the US general said, bristling.  “What exactly are you saying?”

At least I had their previous conversations to back me up.  “Many here have had long exposure to the Simurgh.  We all know that it can get in people’s heads.  During Gold Morning, there was not the chance to ensure that those exposed to her were not affected.  After Gold Morning, there was one crisis after another.  There were so many things that needed done, and so few showed direct influence by the Simurgh’s traditional mind-altering abilities, that most of you did not have proper checking.”

“He’s right,” Parian said softly.  “I haven’t.  Have you?”

The Dragon’s Teeth general turned away, getting out a radio.  I couldn’t make out what he was saying as he walked away, but he sounded damn angry.

“You can’t be serious,” the U.S. general said, looking at Parian as if she were crazy.

John snorted, shaking his head dismissively.  “You’re the one being dumb.  This is exactly what the flying bitch wants.”

Everyone turned to look at him.  Great, they were only going to encourage him, and he was only getting warmed up.  “What?  Are you all blind?  Relentless just solved the riddle for you.  No matter what we do, we’re fucked now.

“She wanted us together.  Why?  Because of this very conversation.”  John walked up to Chevalier, pointing at the hero.  Did he not realize the people that we were surrounded by, or did he just not care?  “You all have two options, and they’re very, very dangerous options now.  You have no idea how rightfully screwed we all are because you all didn’t stop and think about the things from the past that could haunt us while dealing with everything that was currently going on.”

“Archimedes,” I said sternly, still keeping my accent.  “Show them the respect that they deserve.”

“No,” Tattletale said weakly, just loud enough for everyone to hear her.  I looked, and her face was white as a ghost.  “No, I think we all need to hear it.”

John nodded, smirking a little.  He was loving this.  “The way that I see it?  She’s set things up so that we have two options.  The first is that we cast doubt on everyone who was around her when she was hanging out during Gold Morning.  Even after you get everyone checked, people will always have those nagging questions in the back of their minds…  Are they affected?  How many of their decisions were legitimate, and how many were caused by her influence?  Are they trustable?”

A doorway opened in the air and Valkyrie stepped through.  By her posture, she was ready to give a report.  When she saw the attitude of everyone, though, she paused to listen.

“The other is that you bury what Relentless just said.  Pretend that it never happened, and quietly get yourselves checked.  But the thing is…  Which one of you is Alcott?”

Dinah set her tea down and lifted her hand a little.

“What are the odds of it coming out eventually if they try to bury what Relentless said?”

It struck me suddenly, in that strangely detached way, that all of us were in the perfect position to play our roles with such minimal time to prepare ourselves for them.  We were used to giving and using fake names, to coming up with a role to play on the fly and sticking with it.

Dinah frowned.  “Ninety-seven point four three one six.”

John looked directly at the frowning US general.  “That’s almost an absolute guarantee that somehow people discover that you knew that people here, people in your command or your superiors, or even yourself, that they might be ticking time bombs… and you did nothing.”

“He’s right,” Tattletale said, bushing a lock of hair away from her face.  “We’re finally getting back on track.  A great deal of the leaders of the Dragon’s Teeth were exposed.  I was exposed for far too long.  Almost everyone of note has had far too much exposure to her.  How do we know that she hasn’t set something up?”

John nodded.  “How do we know that she couldn’t finish a job that she had prepared earlier?”

“Archimedes,” Kathy snapped, making John jump.  She glanced to me, tilting her head to the side.  What…?

Right.  I nodded my head once, and she approached the US general.

“Sir.  I understand how difficult this might be, but I can see one way to get through this with as much dignity as possible.  Step aside for now, and request that Thinkers check you over as soon as possible.  Then claim that you have been aware of the risk and have been getting checked periodically over the years in order to ensure your own safety, as well as seeing a psychologist.  That all of you, as a group, discussed the possibility that further exposure to the Simurgh could compromise you, and that, as a whole, you decided to step aside.

“With that, begin a sweeping check of everyone here, regardless if they were exposed to the Simurgh previously or not.  Demand time with a psychologist for each of them, to help ease the minds of those who don’t necessarily trust parahumans.  And then plan accordingly — prepare others to take charge if another incident happens like this one.”

The general frowned, but he was caving in slowly.  “There aren’t enough shrinks to go around.  Not for everyone that was exposed to her back then.  Let alone Thinkers who can help.”

“They’re right,” Legend said, though he obviously didn’t like it.  “We can either watch everything that we’ve worked for crumble around us, or we can spend years performing checks to make sure.”

The Dragon’s Teeth general returned at last, approaching Valkyrie.  “I’m stepping down from control over my forces for this operation.  I have a Commander on the West Coast who was never exposed, and he has an armband on.  Could you…”  He paused, as if trying to remember the words.  “Could you doorway him, please?”

Valkyrie nodded, but held up a finger for him to wait.  “So you’re suggesting that we just… walk away from this fight?”

I shook my head.  “No.  Even if you are compromised, I think that you would be helpful for advice.  You have far more experience than us.  Ultimately, whomever you choose would have to understand that they can not completely trust your judgment.”

John looked to me.  “Sir?  I’m afraid that I’ll have to step down as well.”

I nodded once, and he smiled at everyone.  As he moved to stand behind me, the mouth portion of his helmet closed, and I hear him whisper over his comms.  “Great, now I’m pants-shittingly terrified for the third time today.

Bitch looked at the boy in his late teens next to her.  “Explain.”

“Wing bitch fucks with your head.  Your head might already be fucked with.”

“Bullshit.”

He shrugged.  “I’m with ya, Mom.  But other folks don’t know that for sure.  So you step aside for a bit until they can prove it to folks.  That way, we can still kick ass.  It’s a compromise.”

That was a weird exchange.  From my understanding, Bitch was horribly uneducated, horrible with other people, brutal and brutish, but not a complete simpleton.  Was there something else going on here that I didn’t know about?  Something to do with her?  With her son?  Or was it something else?  I simply didn’t know, and didn’t have time to figure it out right now.  At least she wasn’t kicking things.  Well, not yet, at least.

Bitch’s frown deepened as she looked over to me.  “I hate compromises.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, bowing my head.

“I won’t do this again for you.  I won’t sit on my ass again, understand?”

Thank god.  I looked up at her and nodded.  “I understand.  Thank you.”

She looked over at her son.  “Fuck this up, and I’ll kick your ass.”

“Love you too, Mom.”

The US general sighed softly.  “Alright.  Fine.  But we can’t just transfer command instantly.  You’ll have to give me a few minutes that we really don’t have.”

“It’s better than the alternative, sir.  Thank you.”  As everyone broke to make arrangements as quickly as possible, I looked up at a corner of my HUD and blinked twice to make my own mouth guard close.  “I’m sorry, Defiant and Dragon.  The same will go for the two of you.”

We were mostly here for an advisory role anyway,” Dragon said as Defiant’s own helmet closed.

That was fucking awesome,” Emi whispered.  I doubted that she needed to with her helmet closed, but I wasn’t going to correct her.

Not really,” Defiant confessed.  “We all should have been thinking of this a long time ago.  With so many other things going on, I guess nobody thought of it.

People did,” Brenda corrected.  “A lot of people did, by some of the futures that I’m seeing, and I can see about three hours even after the worst of the battles are over.  There have been a lot of people who thought about it, but didn’t say anything because they were afraid or weren’t in a position to do something about it.

That got Dragon’s attention.  “If you can give us a list of notable people so that we can see about making them a priority?

For a few, sure.  It’s hard, since I don’t know these people.

Kathy’s voice joined the conversation.  “Do we win?

Eventually.  In the worst case scenarios, Jordan remains quiet and we lose a lot of people.  She tears through everyone because of how we fight her, and ends up getting close enough to New Brockton to see it.  Then, we either figure it out, or she just gives up on her own.

She gives up?

Defiant spoke quickly and crisply.  “Given intelligence by Tattletale, the Endbringers never ended up showing us their full capabilities.  They were more powerful than anyone thought, to the point that we never should have been able to drive them off on our own.  Any time that we thought that we defeated an Endbringer and drove them off, they didn’t need to.  Not really.  Until Scion killed Behemoth, they would feign weakness.  We still don’t know why.

I’ve gotten into conversations about this with Tattletale a few thousand times,” Brenda said, even as she held up a finger and turned away, acting like she was talking with someone over the radio.  “They aren’t human, and they have never been human.  They’re something else, possibly passengers themselves or pieces of them.  There’s been a lot of theories that she’s talked about, but we agree that they probably don’t think like humans do.

John scoffed.  “You’re getting along with Tattletale?  There’s practically legends about how she gets under people’s skin.

Brenda’s free hand was moving as if she was deep in conversation, but it ran opposite of what she was saying.   “I’ve shot her billions of times.  And that’s not hyperbole.  Also, I really like this spear.  Can I keep it?

Sure,” Kathy said.  Had it been any other circumstance, she might have sounded amused.  This wasn’t an amused situation, though.  She still had a slightly stern edge to her voice.  “What’s the situation with these possible futures?  What are you seeing?  How are we going to do?

Good question.  I was curious about what those threads were telling her.

It’s both good and bad.  People are going to die no matter what.  Some go missing.  I don’t want to give too much direct advice, because you all start leaning on me too much, and things go horribly wrong when I start picking the wrong threads to follow.

That had to suck.  To see so many threads, so many possible pathways to the future, but knowing that they weren’t completely accurate.  Having to pick and choose lines hoping they were right, based on the commonalities between them rather than just being able to pick an optimal one.  And to see exactly how it all went wrong if she picked the wrong one, or didn’t communicate it right.

John, you did good with your little thing.  I would have stepped in if you didn’t.  Not the best, but you played your part nicely.  Removing yourself saved an entire argument that could have turned ugly.

Jordan, speak up.  No matter what you say, things get a little bit easier when you aren’t a chicken.  You never throw up, and you keep it together.  No matter how they take what you say, even if they reject it, you speak like someone who has put a lot of time and effort into thinking about the Endbringers, when most of them have wanted to forget that they existed, like they were only a thing from the previous age.  That helps.

Kathy.  Keep being the voice of reason.  You’re in over your head, yeah, but we all are.  And I don’t mean the five of us, I mean everyone here.  We’re all doing the best we can, even though we’re all scared.  Just keep being the second in command who can debate with Relentless but who also knows when to take an order without hesitation.

Emi…  Actually, fuck it.  Do whatever.  I want to see how this goes.

Emi snorted, straightening a little even as she cocked her hips a bit.  There was a nervous edge to her, though.

And the two of us?” Dragon asked.

Trust your experience.  Know when to make a sacrifice.  It sucks, I know, but it’s the best way to avoid even more agony and suffering.  Eventually, get your craft in the air and be ready to join the fray, but stay as far away as possible.  And that includes you, Dragon.  Distance will be your best friend.

Defiant was nodding thoughtfully.  Finally, he looked in my direction.  “Tell me you have another idea that I won’t like.

I frowned a little.  “Yeah.  I haven’t even said the full idea that I formed on the ship.  And no, you won’t like it.  Nobody will.”

Hephaestus 11.7

“I felt guilty, so we made a little dojo in the back yard for you to train in.  For us to train in.”  Damn.  Jordan was still on top of him, that bewildered, hurt, and lost expression in his eyes.  It hurt to look at.  Colin had to get him past that.  “You found a way to counter my toss.  When I used it here, you used the same counter.  Do you remember?”

Jordan’s mouth opened a hair wider, and one could almost perceive the shaking of his head as an involuntary twitch.  No, he was…  He wasn’t processing this very well.  The sound of his voice should have done it alone, even if Jordan wouldn’t recognize his face.  But the connections were being formed.  Colin just needed something more.

“When you tried to save that broken trigger, I called you out on your lie.  Do you remember what I told you?”

Jordan’s eyes were starting to get just a hair misty as he swallowed, and when his mouth opened, a small noise escaped the back of his throat before he could form words..  “That…  That I should have asked if she was okay.”

He licked his lips for a moment as his brain began to catch up at last.  “I…  Old man?”

Finally!  Colin took a deep breath, letting it out slow.  They’d wasted enough time with this.  He still didn’t agree with it, but at least they could move on.  “Jordan.  Get off.  We don’t have time to be laying here.  Things are happening, and we have work to–”

Jordan’s arm snapped, making his fist collide with Colin’s nose, but there wasn’t any strength behind it.  Okay, he deserved that.  He probably deserved a lot more than that.

Jordan, though, was already scrambling off of him, a look of horror and shock on his face.  “Oh god!  I’m sorry!  I’m sorry!  I-I-I didn’t…  I…”

“Shh.”  Tess had moved next to Jordan, and laid a gentle hand on the man’s shoulder.  “Shh, it’s alright.  We have a mission that we need you for.”

Jordan looked at her, blinking several times.  “M-mission?”

Colin began to pull himself to his feet slowly.  “The Simurgh is active again.  She already spent enough time over one village that we’re going to have to quarantine it, but she’s heading towards New Brockton.”

That made Jordan’s eyes go wide in a panic, but Tess was right there again, a hand rubbing Jordan’s back.  “She’s approaching from the northwest.  Burlington is safe, at least for now.  We aren’t sure where she’s going to go after that.”

There was a pause, a delay as Jordan considered this… and then suddenly, his face was hard and determined.  His own confusion and pain was suddenly a distant memory.  Had he forgotten the fight already?  Or was he just ignoring it for the time being, focusing on the mission?  “Right.”  He grabbed his halberd.  “How fast can we get there?”

“What?!”  One of Jordan’s gang, the little Asian girl, started marching up towards the three of them, livid.  “No, no, fucking, no!  What a crock of shit!  How do you know that they aren’t up to something after that pile of bullshit?!”

“Emi,” Jordan said in an even tone as he turned to her.

“No!  They fight you, then act all buddy-buddy?”

Jordan shrugged a shoulder as he hurried towards his pack on the ground.  “They had their reasons.  Right?”

“Plausible denial,” Tess said before turning to Emi.  “You’re right.  You have no reason to believe us, not after that.  But we both know that if we came to get Jordan to help with an Endbringer attack, you won’t be able to stop him.”

Emi marched straight up to Tess, ignoring the fact that she could probably be killed by Tess just falling on her, and crossed her arms defiantly.  “Yeah, well…  I…  I’m coming with you, bitch!”

“Emi,” John barked, taking a cautious step forward.  “You might want to–”

“We’re wasting time,” Colin announced, his patience wearing thin.  “Each moment that we spend here bickering is another moment that we can’t prepare.  Now, we’ve planned on bringing the five of you to this battle, and we planned on escorting the five of you to wherever you want when it’s done.  And, if we need to make some sort of reparations, then we’ll do so.  But right now?  Unless everyone is there and ready to do their part, then chances are that people are going to end up worse than dead.  Do you really want that on your consciences?”

He paused for a moment, looking between them.  The only one freely moving now was the teenager who was only opening an eye every few seconds as she grabbed a bag from the wagon.  Good.  Colin decided to force their hands now rather than say much else.

“You have a choice.  You can stay here and twiddle your thumbs, waiting for news and to find out what happened to Jordan…  Or you can come with us, and help Jordan.  Make sure that we don’t do anything.  The choice is yours.”

He turned on his heels and started to make his way to the Pendragon VIII.  The latest in a slew of new designs that they’d worked on recently, trying to get everything ready.  It didn’t surprise him in the slightest when Jordan quickly fell into step next to him.

“I’m going to need more information on the situation.”  All professionalism.  All of the previous pain set aside and forgotten.  It didn’t surprise Colin in the slightest, but it still earned a mark of respect.  Colin had become almost useless after Tess had been shut down by Saint, but here Jordan was, focusing on the task at hand.

“We have a terminal ready for you.  It’s also got a refresher on everything that we have on the Simurgh in case you need it.”  He took a slow breath.  This was going to be the hard part.  “We also have a suit of armor specifically for this situation ready for you.”

“I don’t need new armor.”

“Just humor us.  We’ve been working with your brother directly on this one.  It’s the latest iteration, a fusion of his own work and ours.  You’ll have better battlefield tracking and command capabilities, and you’ll have a client agent to help you sort through battlefield data with the built-in display.”

Jordan sighed softly, but gave no other indication as they made their way up the ramp.  Good.  At least he was playing ball nicely.  Colin folded his spear and stowed it effortlessly as they entered the craft, heading to the storage unit.  He retrieved the cloth armor and turned around to hand it to Jordan, only to find that little ball of spunk glaring up at him.

“Gimmie,” Emi snarled.  “We got a thing, and you aren’t getting in the way of it.”

Right, Gina Franklin had mentioned that Emi had put those robes on Jordan.  Had they known how much those robes and that mask over his helmet would make him look like Eidolon?  It had been hard getting a full debriefing out of her — Miss Franklin had been in shock, coming down from an intense battle with more blood and death than she’d ever seen.  He’d watched too many in her state after his strike team missions, and even more after Endbringer attacks.

Colin handed over the cloth and started getting out the rest of the pieces of armor.  Boots, greaves that came up to the thigh, codpiece, gauntlets, bracers, flexible chest and back protection, shoulders, and helmet.  Each was designed with snap in place integration, and was fitted with microcomputers that would distribute the workload between them.  The armor was still mostly that Tinker cloth that Chris Abrams made, but was the latest iteration of it, only developed last month.  Once the overarmor was in place, it would also use the suit itself to improve its processing power.

It took a few more minutes for the others to board the Pendragon, looking more than wary as Dragon followed them.  As soon as all were aboard, the ramp began to close and the thrusters began to warm up.

“We know that you’re hesitant to let people know who you really are,” Tess said.  “We’ve gone ahead and done some designing of armor for the rest of you as well, complete with helmets.  We couldn’t finalize it, but we have manufacturing capabilities now.”

“So we’re Jordan’s groupies,” the man, John, said in his thick New York accent.

“You’re Jordan’s team,” Tess clarified.  “We don’t want you to present yourselves as stragglers on, but a full team under his command.”

“I claim the funny one,” Emi snarled as she finished stripping Jordan, not minding his nakedness.  Almost immediately, she was grabbing the cloth to help him step into it.

“Then I’m the spicy but serious second in command,” the oldest woman, Kathy, said.

John rolled his eyes.  “Then I’m the skilled, bitter, almost unpredictable one who secretly wants to be in charge.”

“Where does that leave me?” Brenda asked quietly.

“You’re the dark and mysterious one,” Kathy replied instantly.  “Play that up, never quite say as much as you could and leave them guessing.  You might gain some fanboys for it.”

It was honestly interesting to watch them.  John, Kathy and Brenda began to change how they stood and their expressions almost immediately.  John folded his arms over his chest as he leaned against a cargo rack, glaring at everyone.  Brenda almost sashayed to a seat before settling down, a slight smirk on her face as she put the blindfold over her eyes.  Meanwhile, Kathy marched to Tess, shoulders squared back and a serious expression on her face.

“Will we have the same capabilities as Jordan?”

“No,” Tess admitted as she hung a sheet of fabric over the end of the craft.  Right, just because Jordan didn’t mind being naked in front of them didn’t mean that the others might be.  “At least, not yet.  We’re doing quick fabrication, and while you’ll have some of them, we can’t give you everything on such short notice.  However, we can offer you the chance to choose armor elements and their appearance.”

“We’re going to have a different color scheme than Jordan,” Emi said as she got the armor in place.  “All eyes should be on him, not us.  He should pop, we should be support.  Can you do that?”

“We can make some modifications, but we’re limited in that.”

Emi growled again as she pulled Jordan down to snap the chest piece in place.  She learned fast.

Kathy nodded thoughtfully.  “How long until we’re in the air?”

“We’re already in the air and en route,” Tess said, a small hint of pride in her voice.  “We’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

“E.T.A.,” Jordan said.  “Estimated Time of Arrival.  Can her helmet help her with the lingo?”

“I’ll link into it and give her text advice,” Tess confirmed.

“Good.  The better that we can keep up the ruse of being on his level, the happier that we’ll be.”  Kathy turned to Emi.  “Almost done?”

Emi clicked a pauldron into place before grabbing the helmet, carefully sliding it over Jordan’s head.  As soon as it was in place, the helmet closed — the smooth visor slid down, and the both sides closed over his mouth, sealing him in.  “Yeah, yeah.”

Emi moved to a chair and settled down dramatically, spinning to face a bank of monitors and wiggling her fingers in anticipation.  “Let momma do some magic.  How do you use this thing?”

“Why don’t we let Jordan use that bank,” Tess said, an amused hint to her voice as she motioned to another chair.  “I’ll walk you through what we can do.”

Colin moved to his seat and began running a diagnostic.  Jordan’s attacks had mostly done superficial damage, but he had been fighting smart.  He’d purposefully targeted Colin’s joints, where the armor was forced to have more bend and give.  The pistol shots to the armpit hadn’t done as much damage as the blade — a small gift from Chris’ cloth armor.

The fight had been… intense.  Despite all the data that the combat prediction program had on Jordan, it hadn’t kept up.  Jordan switched between styles without any predictable pattern, and had changed targets too fast for it to keep up.  It was good software, something that he had every right to be proud of, and the Dragon’s Teeth relied upon it.  However, it wasn’t perfect, and people like Jordan who never seemed to display their full capabilities could give it more trouble than anyone wanted to admit.

That knee, though…  Jordan had gotten two good chops with his halberd in, and while it didn’t look like he’d done much damage on the surface, he was maneuvering everything below the knee only by his body.  The energy reserves of his cybernetics wouldn’t last forever doing that, and it would slow him down.  At least both of his legs were fully cybernetic, even if his groin itself still was, blissfully, flesh and blood.  Otherwise, being pulled into the splits like that would have strained muscles.

Heat dissipation had briefly been an issue, and the on-board computer systems were only running at 83% efficiency.  He’d had to activate the reserve liquid coolant system to keep from baking alive.  Jordan had made good with that fire pellet attack.  Tactical, smart.  Smarter than Colin had been at his age.

Truth be told, Jordan was better than him.  It was painful to admit, but true.  Jordan had logged far more training time than Colin had when he’d been in his prime.  He had more experience than most people who had started in the Wards had gotten by the time they were his age.

And that was before the modifications that Jordan had.  Jordan would have a Brute rating now due to his cybernetics, and a Thinker rating, no matter how low, due to what all had been done to his brain and nervous system.  He should have been severely wounded by that fall out of a the window, he was hitting harder than ever, and his reaction times were completely skewed.  His gear offered him a low Tinker rating when it came to calculating threat, but lower ratings tended to be more dangerous.  What they lacked in power, they made up for in other things.  Jordan was no different — his Tinker-made gear was extremely familiar to him, offering him full knowledge of its capabilities and limitations.

And Colin?  Colin had gotten soft over twenty years.  Twenty years without training, without a real fight.  He wasn’t at his peak any more, despite it not being his body holding him back.  He was getting better again by the day, but a skill unused got soft.  Had he gotten another year to get back into practice, it would have been a much more equal fight.  He honestly looked forward to sparring with Jordan again once he got himself back into full practice.

Later, after this whole business with the Simurgh, he’d sit down and have a talk with Jordan.  They’d talk about their time together, about what all Jordan had done, why things were happening the way that they were…  And how he’d never actually seen Colin.

It was wrong to have Jordan believing a lie like that.  The fact that nobody had bothered to tell him was insulting to the both of them.  It served absolutely no purpose, and what purpose did it serve?  None.  None at all.

But everything had its place, and right now it would only distract Jordan.  Colin glanced to the boy…  To the man, and saw the entire bank of computers lit up.  Jordan was expertly navigating between screens of text, displays of maps showing the position of the Simurgh, and historic footage.  His time using the computer in his room had served him well; he was navigating it all better than some people would have before Gold Morning.

“Don’t underestimate him,” Kathy said softly.  When had she shown up?

“I don’t, believe me.  I never had any illusions about winning that fight.”  Winning would have been counterproductive.

“That’s not what I mean.”  She glanced at Jordan again before giving Colin a hard look.  “Don’t forget what happened with Agamemnon.”

That was a good point.  Jordan was keenly aware of danger, but didn’t pay much attention when him ignoring it could serve some greater good.  What he did with Agamemnon had been stupid and dangerous, and ultimately unnecessary.

And it had resulted in Jordan’s death.

But Kathy continued whispering.  “What’s the point of bringing him?”

“Agamemnon.  I’m told that he’ll be good for morale.  If the person who drove Agamemnon off, who was instrumental in the first solid victory against Fyrtorn…  If Jordan is there, it tells people that we might make it.  It’s about symbols.”  It all seemed stupid to him, and he was sure that it was stupid to Jordan as well.  They were soldiers, they marched to battle against evil.  Symbolism wasn’t their thing.  Leave that to the PR departments or whatever.

But Kathy was nodding.  “Makes sense.  He doesn’t realize just how big of a name he has, both for good or ill.”  She paused.  “But don’t think you can con a con man.  Something else is going on here.”

Wait, had Tess not explained?  “There is.”

“Do you mind–”

“Kathy!”  Emi put a hand on her hip, already done up in her cloth armor.  “You’re up!”

Kathy held up a finger before looking to Colin.  “You’re lucky, asshole, but that luck won’t hold out forever.  Nobody fucks with my friends like that and comes back with their balls attached.”

As she walked away, Colin was reminded of what exactly got Elizabeth Teeter kicked out of the Orphanage — attacking someone who turned out to be innocent of a rape accusation.  He had no doubt that she would make good on that threat if she could.

Instead, he turned back to observe how the armor looked on Jordan.  It was designed to look a bit like his, save for the helmet.  The shoulders were similar, the chestpiece was reminiscent, the greaves were almost exactly the same, sans the gilding that Colin had on his.  The biggest difference, besides still showing more cloth than hard armor, was the fact that the color scheme was different.  A heroic red and green design, with gold trim.  Tess assured him that it looked good, but he’d been hesitant.  It sounded like it would have clashed.

But she’d been right.  As usual.  Just like the dual knife sheaths on the chest armor did look good, and had a practical use.  One would hold the knife that Jordan’s brother had made him, while the other would hold the nanothorn generator blade.

He looked back to the others, who had replaced the green with blue.  It wouldn’t last — they didn’t have the time or materials to give a good coating.  But it worked.  Their armored portions were similar, though the cuts were all different.  Unique to each of them, showing a bit of personality, a bit of individuality.  The overall theme was similar, but it gave them all a personal touch.  They could pass for almost a military team who had taken the time to personalize their armor.

So it surprised him when he saw Tess’ client body retrieving a halberd from the manufacturing equipment.  He closed his helmet and spoke up.  “What’s up with the weapon?”

They said it was right for them each to have one.  I explained what we’re doing with Jordan, but…”  Her words trailed off.

Kids.

E.T.A. four minutes.  You may want to let him know about it.

Right.  He rose, putting up with the strain that walking put on his body as he retrieved the new head.  As he returned to Jordan, he opened his armor again.  “Hey.”

“Hey.”  Jordan didn’t look away from the screens.

“Four minutes.”

“Right.”

“Ideas?”

“A few.  You aren’t going to like them.”

“Good ideas are rarely liked.  Not when it comes to combat.”  He paused for a moment.  “You aren’t taking your halberd today.”

That tore Jordan away from his work.  His face was unreadable behind the helmet, even with his mouth visible, but Colin could imagine his eyes wide with surprise.  “But it’s my weapon…”

“Exactly.”  Colin held out the spearhead.  “It’s a modified nanothorn generator.  It uses some of your brother’s tech to provide power, but even then, it won’t work for long.  Fifteen minutes before it needs a recharge.  It’ll be linked to your helm, so you can activate it with a word.  We designed it specifically to attach to the shaft of your halberd — all that you have to do is switch out the heads.”

Jordan frowned for a moment before reaching for his weapon.  “Why are you being so nice to me?”

“I’m taking you to help fight the Simurgh, and you can’t even fly.  Most people would say that I’m not being nice at all.”

Jordan said nothing as he attached the spear to the shaft.

That was a fair response.  “We don’t have time to discuss it right now.  After all this is done, I promise you that everything will be explained.”

Jordan hesitated for a long moment before nodding.  “Alright.  Dragon, can I assume that you’ve been tracking everything that I’ve been looking at.”

Yes,” came Tess’ voice from the terminals.

“Can you please save the video from screen two, timemark 3:14 to 4:28, and screen five from 1:22 to  7:01?  Uh, if we have a way to show it, that is.  Sorry.”

You’re fine, Jordan.  Saved, and ready for when you need it.

“Awesome.  Thank you very much.”  He turned to look at John.  “Miss Tease.  Other than being a flirt and stuff, how would you describe her?”

John shrugged.  “Big beautiful woman.  Creative, funny.  A flair for the dramatic.  Fast witted.  Uh…  Apparently a virgin?”

Jordan nodded.  “Good enough.  Keep that in mind.  I want you to sound like you’re putting it together when I explain things.”

“Making sure my method acting’s up to par,” John said with a dismissive snort before pulling his helmet on.  “The play’s the thing, and all that.  I getcha.”

Tess pulled down the sheet.  “Alright, everyone.  We’re landing in a minute.  In positions.  Colin in the middle, Jordan and I on either side, and–”

Kathy interrupted, suddenly sounding stern and professional.  “Two by two following the commander.  You, with me.”  She pointed at John.  “The two of you following.”

“They can’t see us making faces at them,” Emi whispered.

“If we close our helmets, nobody can see it,” Brenda responded.

“See, that takes all the fun out of it!”

Colin rolled his eyes, not sure if they were just getting in their roles or not.  His helmet’s HUD displayed that they were descending now as everyone got into position.  “You ready for this, Jordan?”

“No, and I’m glad we hadn’t gotten lunch yet.  I haven’t felt like I was going to puke for a long time now, but oh boy.”

Colin frowned at him.  “I should have checked if you needed dramamine.”  The inertial stabilizers were good enough that he hadn’t felt the motion at all, but if Jordan was having trouble…

“Nah,” Jordan said softly.  “Just salt.  Listen, if this armor is voice controlled, can I get a list of commands for common things?  Like how Defiant has been opening and closing his helmet?”

“Done,” Tess said before donning her helmet.  As the ramp began to open, Jordan’s helmet closed.  Good.  It would be better if he didn’t speak or do anything until it was time.

As soon as the ramp was fully lowered, the group of them began down it.  It wasn’t with military precision, but it would have to do for now.  They didn’t have the time to get everyone on the same page.  Hopefully, Tess had explained everything to the others.

People stared as they marched towards the makeshift command center.  Wardens, Dragon’s Teeth, random capes…  It didn’t matter.  Some people inspired others to keep it together through big speeches or other dramatic gestures.  Colin preferred to save those for the Legends of the world.

Being professional, focused, and setting an example just by doing what he did?  Alexandria had approved of him using that method when he’d studied under her.  You needed the people to make the speeches, yes, but you needed the people to be examples.  The rock that others could rely upon.

Soon enough, though, he was able to see the others.  General Gill of the Dragon’s Teeth and his command staff.  Chevalier, Legend, and the other top-ranking Wardens.  General Wright and Miss Militia of the United States.  Which wasn’t as much of a surprise to him as most people would think.  Even if the Simurgh wasn’t threatening their territory, they’d still want a hand in fighting her.  Even Tattletale, Bitch, Parian and Foil were there, though Bitch had brought her spiky-haired son and seemed more interested in glaring at him than anything.  Even Dinah Alcott was there, nursing a mug of tea.

Chevalier looked up from the Tinker-made table at them.  “Defiant, Dragon, J–”

“I’m sorry that we couldn’t secure Jordan,” Colin interrupted.

Chevalier paused for a moment, looking from Colin to Jordan.  Almost immediately, a window opened on the holo table, complete with audio.  Of Jordan pinning Colin to the ground, slamming his knife into his helmet.  “Leave!  Me!  Alone!”

This was still dumb in Colin’s opinion, but he trusted Tess’ guidance on the matter.  He’d have to be the one to explain it all.  As soon as the video stopped, he turned his attention back to Chevalier.

“But I did bring that project that I mentioned working on.  A bridge between the Wardens and Dragons Teeth.  Unfortunately, we currently only have one squad.  In ascending order, may I present to you, Lacuna, Mover, recon and quick assault specialist.”

“Yo,” he heard Emi say in a dismissive tone.  “Nice weather we’re having, eh?”

The urge to roll his eyes was there.  “Next we have the Thinker, possible Breaker, Schrodinger.  I believe that she will compliment Alcott nicely.”

“I hope that I can be of assistance,” Brenda said politely.  Truth be told, nobody was sure what exactly Brenda’s power was, but by what she displayed against Fyrtorn, Thinker would be at least a good cover.

“Next we have–”

“Archimedes,” John interrupted gruffly.  “Brute, Breaker.  Numbers don’t matter.”

Were they… in character like that?  Did they operate like that so effortlessly?  These people were weird.

“Right.  Next we have the team’s second in command, Sagittarius.  Shaker and blaster.”

“My Blaster capabilities are limited by my shield capabilities,” Kathy said in a professional if slightly sultry voice.  “But I’ll offer what assistance I can.”

Colin looked to his left, at Jordan.  “Finally the team leader, and the only untriggered person in the team.  An expert in small team tactics, well-versed in the Endbringers, and one of the best combatants that you’ll meet.  He’ll be undoubtedly useful in figuring out how best to engage the Simurgh.”

He looked back to the assembled.  “Chevalier, will you please recognize Relentless?”

Aphrodite 11.6

Once upon a time, Dragon had all but asked Colin to violate her.  Later, she had begged him.  But in the end, it didn’t change the fact that he had.  No matter how noble the reason, no matter how necessary, no matter how much she loved him for it, he had done it.  He’d done it with respect, with growing dread each time, but he’d still done it.

She didn’t hold it against him.  She loved him for it.  The things that he’d done to her were a source of guilt for him, and he’d spent years beating himself up for everything that he’d done.  The fate of Pandora, the old backup of her that he’d unleashed to forcefully help her, caused him pain.  Pandora’s death had struck him deeply, an echo of what Saint had done to Dragon.  That was… desperately sweet, in a way.

But it was still violation.  She couldn’t get past that one simple fact.  No matter how necessary it had been, no matter how well-meaning, no matter how much good it might have done for her, it was still violation.  It was low on the order of magnitude, but it was still there.

The single-story building that the two of them approached looked like just another home with storage attached to it.  It looked absolutely no different from anything else in the city.  At least, as far as any human would be able to tell.  Thankfully, he had many other forms of sight.

The walls were both reinforced and insulated; it could have survived even a blast from the Pendragon.  Independent circuits hummed with power within those walls, far more regularly than a normal home; no doubt part of an advanced security system of some sort.  Below their feet, a multistory complex sprawled out in every direction.  It was hard to tell how big it was, but she guessed that it could theoretically have a hundred people in there.

It was possible that it was the largest source of employment in the village.

Colin stepped up to knock on the door.  It was almost immediate that it opened — the circuits and insulation had kept Dragon from seeing behind it.  The woman looked like a thug, but she bowed her head politely and motioned the two of them into a storage room of some sort.  As soon at the door closed, she moved to the one deeper in, opening that as well.

This was more of what Dragon had anticipated, though the floors still amazed her.  Heavy iron joists, metal plating, and then wood and carpeting.  This building had been designed with an attack in mind, despite the more opulent decor up here, or the two minions that lurked in the background.

Decor that seemed out of place with the young man in his late twenties sitting on the couch, or the hard-faced woman that sat next to him.  The man was disheveled — his clothes had been slept in, his light-brown hair was a mess, he hadn’t shaved, it was obvious that he’d been crying.  He looked up at the two of them desperately.

“Please tell me you have him,” Cesar Young, AKA Nexus, quietly pleaded.

“No,” Colin said, his voice hard.

“Why not?” the woman with the platinum blonde hair growled.  Dragon was still running through databases to figure out who she was.

“Amaia,” he said softly.

Amaia.  Amaia Gramon.  She, her sister Beth, and Solly Quanfington composed a group of ultra-religious mercenaries.  They tended to appear in times of need to fight, and then slip away after the situation was over with.  They were in turns both brutal and gentle, but very well respected in the world for their generosity and dedication.  The Dragon’s Teeth were surprised that they worked for Nexus, noting that the alliance would never last given his other business, and how his agents would frequently be on-scene to make investments as soon as they left.

“No,” Amaia said firmly before looking back to Dragon.  “It’s been three days.  If we can figure out where his hideout is, and had it communicated to us by radio, then you know it.  We know that you have the capabilities.”

Fuck, they knew.

Colin drew a breath before speaking.  “We can’t show our hand yet.  We’re working–”

“Whatever your hand is, it does no good if he’s dead!”  Amaia seethed, her fists clenching.  “We know that you claim to be hunting Jordan, but you’re only interested in his past.  You don’t seem to care about where he is right now, or else you would have gone to the town where he’s spending his downtime, or where he’s been hiding out.  You’ve been chasing other leads on New Fairfax, so somehow I seriously doubt that you’re trying to pick him up.

“So what good does it do to leave him suffering, possibly dying?”

Her words hurt both of them.  Colin’s body was tensing, and Dragon understood why.  Guilt.  Neither of them liked the path that they were walking right now, the path that they were forcing Jordan to walk.  Now simply wasn’t the time to act, though.  They needed something big to happen first.  But that didn’t make the situation any more pleasurable.

“You’re right,” she said quietly.   “We know where his safehouse is.”

“He took a wagon,” Cesar said quietly.  “Well, the others took a wagon.”

Nexus had an agent in the village, keeping an eye on the safehouse.  Dragon knew this because of how she kept an eye on the communications network.  Despite Nexus’ power, they did a lot of communication by the network — mostly details.  It was thanks to this that Dragon knew that three days ago, they had rented a wagon and two horses in a dead panic, bought supplies, and headed out with Jordan in the back.

Dragon bowed her head.  “Yes.  We believe that we know where they’re heading.  We’ve already met with a cyborg Tinker and arranged him to be in the area in order to ensure that Jordan will be properly cared for.  Analysis of the video shows that he should make it, and that with treatment, there should be few long-term effects.”

“But you let him suffer needlessly in the meantime,” Amaia hissed dangerously.

“We do,” Colin said, his voice still even and measured.  He might be feeling emotional turmoil over this, but outwardly he was the bastion of firmness in a chaos of guilt, anger, and whatever it was that Cesar was going through.  “But we can make sure that he’s treated, that he has everything that he needs, and that his future is better.”

“This bothers you deeply,” Dragon said in a sympathetic tone.

Amaia looked to Cesar.  After a moment, he nodded.  “I don’t…  I don’t think either of you two understand just what Jordan represents, and how much of a tragedy him triggering would be to those of us who believe that he’s innocent.”

“We know that he’s a special individual,” Colin said confidently.  “We know that he’s a good person who is also powerful and capable.  That he has a strange, rough charisma to him.  We–”

“No,” Cesar said with a weak chuckle.  “I didn’t think that you would.  If you know his past, then there’s the hope that things will get better.  That no matter how bad your position, you can struggle to something more, even if your finger nails get ripped out as you claw yourself there.

“But you’re old guard, from before.  You’re part of the problem.  We have…  We have a segregation.  In society.  That’s why the U.S. is so appealing to so many communities.  Without them, who can your town turn to if they have problems bigger than they can handle?  The Wardens, or the Dragon’s Teeth.”

“And that’s a problem?” Colin asked.

Cesar nodded.  “Segregation.  If your community throws in with the Wardens, you’re basically saying that if you aren’t triggered, you shouldn’t be handling things.  That only paras should lead.  But…  The Dragon’s Teeth are great.  Wonderful.  You’ve done a great job in helping them, and they’re a fantastic organization.

“An organization that only grew because after Gold Morning, there was a lot of resentment against paras.  The Dragon’s Teeth are a group of untriggered people, for untriggered people, geared to fight paras.  There’s a definite anti-para twist there, even if they have official rules against active discrimination.”

Dragon hated it, but she could see it.  A line in the sand, are capes better than you, or should they be segregated?  “I see what you mean.  After St. Louis, where Jordan worked hand-in-hand with his sister…  She did most of the talking, but was always speaking up about how she wouldn’t have lived without him.  Always stressing how he had been in charge.”

Cesar smiled weakly.  “Exactly.  He represented the ability for paras and untriggered to work together in harmony.  That’s…  That’s something that we need.  I…  I’m at the top of my little organization.  But I make it clear that paras and untriggered have an equal role, and that you’re only promoted by skill and the virtue of your hard work.  And I live that.  That’s as much of my, heh, my empire as anything.

“But Jordan…  If he triggers, that’s undone.  If he joins the Dragon’s Teeth, that’s chosen his place on that line.  So long as he’s out there, doing good…  He’s a good guy, out there doing amazing things.  And he thinks that they’re normal, mundane things.  To him, saving a village is…  It’s Tuesday to him.  And we need that.”

Cesar rose to his feet, took a deep breath, and smiled broadly.  All of his listlessness was gone in the blink of an eye as he hurried over to the two of them, a bounce in his step.  “So!  I play up the happy, the energetic!  I force that energy up!  Nice armor, Defiant.  That spear, it folds up?  So cool!”

He spun to Dragon, placing his hands on her shoulders.  “Look at you!  Oh my gosh!  This is an android body?  Is that a suit over it, or part of the body?  It looks so real!  I never would have guessed that you weren’t human!”

He bounced back, giggling like a madman as he danced in place, in apparent glee over the situation.  But that energy faded slowly, leaving him empty again.  A disheveled man, who looked like he was fighting just to remain upright.

“I don’t have to act much.  Not really.  I really am a fan, and it is a thrill to deal with him.  I just… put a bit into it when I met him.  And, when I meet him again, no matter how I’m feeling, I’ll always put it in.  Because we need that.  We need people like Jordan.  And this smear campaign that the Wardens are putting up…  It isn’t helping that matter.  I don’t know why they’re doing it, but…”  He shrugged.

“Because they need him to run,” Colin said.  Despite everything, he hadn’t changed his outward stance.  Still the rock that everyone could rely on.

“And you’re helping,” Amaia pointed out.  “You’ve been going to old allies under the impression of chasing him.  Setting up the fact that you’re after him.  Encouraging him to stay one step ahead rather than run the risk of having to face his hero in shame.”

They needed to change the topic or else they’d get into things that couldn’t be discussed.  Dragon stepped forward, putting her hand on Cesar’s shoulder.  “Are you alright?”

Cesar shook his head.  “I thought he could handle it without problem.  He’s handled so much worse like it’s nothing.  Instead, I treated him like meat instead of muscle.”

Colin shook his head.  “I’m not familiar with that.”

“It’s mercenary slang,” Amaia said, just as curt as ever.  “You work muscle.  You chew meat, you swallow it, you spit it out.”

“You shit it out,” Cesar said.  He looked to Amaia apologetically.  “I’m sorry, I know you don’t like it when I use that sort of language, but…  If you’re gonna explain it, do it right.”

She nodded a little.

Colin nodded.  “These things happen.  People run into unexpected complications, fights that should be easy go sour.  That happens.  It’s part of a leader’s duty to understand this, and understand that each time that you send a person out there, it could go badly for them.  I felt that way whenever the Wards under my command came back hurt.  It didn’t happen often, but I was always worried about it.

“But I knew that they understood.  I knew that everyone under my command knew and accepted the risks.  And Jordan accepts those risks.  He acknowledges them, even welcomes them, because if he’s putting himself under those risks, then someone else isn’t.”

Dragon gave Cesar’s shoulder a gentle squeeze.  “We’re a lot alike.  I hate seeing people suffer.  And I know that Jordan is out there, suffering, and there’s nothing that I can do about it.”

“I can’t reach him,” Cesar moaned.  “He isn’t answering.”

“He’ll be fine.  His cybernetics–”

“Were glowing,” Amaia reminded them.  “You cannot forget that.”

She just wasn’t willing to help, was she?  Was her concern over Jordan, or was it over Nexus?

“You’re right, they were.  But they were designed to protect him from anything, including energy or radiation attacks.”  Dragon turned her attention back to Cesar.  “If we find out from the cyborg Tinker that Jordan needs more help, then we’ll intervene.  We’ll take him to Mother’s Hospital to get fixed up.  And, should he and his companions decide to run, we’ve made sure that Riley will have a convenient escape route for him.”

“He’s welcome there?” Cesar asked, looking up to her.

“Of course.  Riley likes him.  She’s worried about him, just like all of us are.”

Cesar spent a long moment debating that before nodding.  He was getting some of his strength back.  “Alright.  Just…  Just let me know, alright?  As soon as you know anything, I want full deets.”

“I’ll radio them in.  I promise.”

Cesar nodded again before pulling himself up straight.  “You’re… going to ask me to tell him that you’re after him, aren’t you?”

“No.”  Dragon looked to Colin, surprised that he said anything at this point; just a few short months ago, he would have let her do all the talking.  “We were, but not now.  You’re right, he has enough pain.  Instead, I wanted to ask you to try and give him more jobs like this one.”

Cesar’s eyebrows lifted.  “Excuse me?”

“Find more corrupt Wardens, get whatever evidence you can.  Send him against them, and then leak it to the press.  Fight that smear campaign.  Any job that you can get for him that involves him doing some good and getting it into the public eye, pitch it to him, then sell it to the public.”

Cesar shook his head a little.  “You really think he’ll want to deal with me again?”

Dragon smiled.  “His companions might not, but after taking on corrupt Wardens like that?  He’ll be back.  He wants to do some good in this world.  It’s written in his bones.  He’s a hero.  He’ll be back, hoping for more.”

“I’ll admit that I’m worried about something happening to him again, but…”  Cesar chuckled.  “He’ll try and find something anyway, won’t he?”

“Always.”

Most people would have expressed surprise that a crime lord was so worried about something like this, but Dragon knew that people weren’t so two-dimensional.  Amaia was more than willing to deal with someone like him, and her little group was bound by a religious code of ethics.  His other squad of mercs were a little more dubious in nature, but still did good things.  And after some great tragedy would befall a village, some representative would come into town, representing a mysterious investor, helping to get them back on their feet and helping them to prosper again.

Nexus might be a dirty name, associated with drugs, but the man behind them had noble enough goals.  Like a less psychotic Accord in a way.  Means to an end.  While she couldn’t always stand behind the brutality that he occasional showed in his drug operations, she could at least represent his goals.  The fact that he was starting to see a return on his investments in other areas might hopefully mean that he could afford to leave the drug trade some day.

An idealistic man willing to do dirty things to accomplish lofty goals.  He’d get along with Jordan, so long as he continued to offer good deeds.  If he offered more nasty things, it would fall apart quickly.

“Well,” Cesar with a chuckle.  “Now I feel bad about you coming out this way.  If that was all…”

“It isn’t,” Dragon confessed.  “We were hoping to make a deal.”

Cesar’s improved mood dampened, replaced with a more businesslike expression.  “Alright.  You’re in the right place, at least — deals are what I specialize in.  What can I do for you?”

“You’ve made quite a name for yourself here in the North American multiverse, but I was hoping that you could expand some of your operations overseas.”

Cesar raised an eyebrow.  “I have a couple of agents in France, but transporting product there to help spread my influence is hard, and getting more legitimate trade is harder.  I have to wonder, though, what your angle is.”

Dragon was only aware of one agent in France.  Except that they were married, perhaps the husband was also an agent?  Or maybe he only considered the husband to be an agent of Nexus, even though the man didn’t have a solid connection?  It was hard to say.

“We recently routed out a couple of Students in the Dragon’s Teeth in China.”

Now Cesar was purely business as he moved back to the couch, settling down.  “You want me to expand my operations so that you can root out more of them?”

Colin nodded.  “We understand that Students were involved in your triggering, and that you’ve dedicated quite a few of your resources towards hunting them down.  And that you can empower agents to find them.”

Cesar looked to Dragon, a sympathetic edge entering his professional expression.  “I heard about the attack against you in New York.  I take it that Teacher is after you again?”

“He never stopped,” Dragon confessed.  “There’s plenty of times between attacks, but he’s never actually stopped.  We’ve had to take measures to protect myself from him.”  Like have her commit suicide at a moment’s notice.  It was a scary thought, but it was ultimately better than the alternative.  She would not be violated again.

Never.

Cesar shook his head.  “I’d like to help you, but I’m not sure how much I can.  Understand, it takes time and resources to build any network, and creating one that can help you…  Transporting product is only part of it.  We need to know the market, need to know… so very much.  And on top of that, I need to personally empower the person, and it’s by their permission only.”

“We can help with that,” Dragon said.  “I have access to all the intelligence within the Dragon’s Teeth.  I also help establish transport if you need it.  Completely off the books.”

“There’s also the language barrier–”

“Jordan learned Danish within a week at a conversational level with a program that we designed.”

“But,” Colin interrupted.  “Before you commit, perhaps I can give you an alternative.  We give you the linguistic programs and help to arrange in-person visits to various Dragon’s Teeth facilities, perhaps under the cover of establishing a group to help coordinate equipment and facility feedback to us for improvements?”

He was learning.  It was a slow process, but he was paying attention to when she negotiated with people.  Sure, he could have phrased it better, but the fact that he was trying…  She was so proud of the progress that he was making.

Cesar was thoughtful for a long moment.  “I can’t rely just on my own people.  If the two of you could help me find people?  Fifty, a hundred or so?  And arrange it with the Dragon’s Teeth, of course.  I might also use them for information…”

“That’s fine,” Dragon said, her client body smiling warmly.  “Expanding your operations there only helps us put the squeeze on Teacher.  When the time comes, if you want to empower more people, we’ll handle transportation.”

Cesar rubbed his chin thoughtfully.  “And I can do whatever I want with the language programs?”

“Other than resell them, you can do whatever.  We’ll also provide a couple of specially built computers to provide maximum effect.  The Dragon’s Teeth use similar programs, but this is an improvement.”

“And Tattletale and the other Undersiders won’t interfere?”

Dragon shook her head.  “With the death of Imp in the last attack against Teacher, they’ve lost their desire to directly attack Teacher.  Strangling his resources should please them.”

“Who?”

Of course.  Imp’s death had resulted in her power erasing her from everyone’s memory, save for those who had recorded reminders of her, or who had other methods.  “Don’t worry about it.  Does this sound good to you?”

“Can I have a month?  I need to do some surveying of agents, and discuss it with the bean counters.”

——————–

It was sad on every level.  The town was destroyed, utterly and completely.  Dead bodies littered the area.  More people would die in the coming days, weeks or years, and not just from their injuries.  Some would simply lose with will to live, either violently or on a deeper level.  Life in this town was over.  People would move away again, filtering to other places.  The age of rebuilding was over, and humanity had lost its taste for it.  Most preferred to just move to a new area.

But even still, spirits were high here.  People were glad, even gleeful.  This was an achievement.  Most of the village was alive.  Only around a quarter had died, and nobody had been kidnapped.  A reason for joy and celebration.  Even the villagers felt that way, despite their losses.

It said something when people were willing to celebrate the destruction of their way of life, because they were so keenly aware that Fyrtorn could have gone so very much worse.

A woman walked up to Colin as he knelt next to a corpse, a pleased grin on her face.  “Your boy did good.”

“Jordan isn’t my boy,” Colin said absently.  “And he was empowered.”

The woman frowned a little.  That wasn’t the response that she wanted.  Dragon felt for her.  “Regardless, I think he would have made a huge difference in this battle if he hadn’t have been.  He’s… following your footsteps nicely.”

Dragon pulled off her helm, smiling.  “Do you really think so, Vista?”  She used the name for a reason.

And Colin did react, looking up sharply.  “Missy?”

That made Vista smile.  “Yeah, though I pretty much only go by Vista anymore.  It’s been a while, Armsmaster.”

“Colin,” he said, slowly rising to his feet.  He didn’t want this distraction, but he was putting up with it as best he could for the moment.  “I…  Um, you…  You look good.  I honestly didn’t know if you’d made it.”

Missy bit her lip for a moment.  “Um, this is going to sound stupid, but can I hug you?”

It was good that Colin was wearing his helmet, so she couldn’t see the expression that he gave her.  But he nodded, and she moved in for a quick hug.  As she withdrew, Dragon opened her arms in an offering, which Vista quickly took.  Unlike Colin, they hugged for a few moments.

“Thanks for taking care of the big lug,” the woman whispered.

“I wouldn’t not.”  Vista’s reaction wasn’t surprising, not to Dragon.  In her memoirs, Vista spoke about how much of a subtle impact Armsmaster had on her when he’d been the leader of the Protectorate of Brockton Bay.  How he’d treated her as an equal to the other Wards despite her younger age, expecting equal performance.

To others, he’d been hard on her.  To her?  She’d relished it.  She’d been in the Wards the longest, and he treated her with respect.  His demands were welcome, anticipated eagerly.  He’d had a soldier’s visage, moreso than even Miss Militia, creating an emotional rock for her.  She hadn’t realized just how much she’d needed him as a child until she was an adult.

Now, she was with someone that she viewed more as a father figure than her own father.  And under fairly good circumstances, too.

But Vista quickly went back into business mode.  “They took a collection of deactivated and broken Tinker tech with them when they left.  Chevalier isn’t happy about that — this is our first chance to get a good look at it.  Valkyrie is running interference.”

Colin nodded.  “He’s got access to a Tinker.  We believe that the Tinker’s specialty is in reproduction, repair, and modification of existing devices.  We’ll go through one of our contacts to see if we can get reproductions if Chevalier needs them.”

“I’ll pass that along,” Vista said, genuine appreciation in her voice.  After a moment, she settled down again, looking back at the corpse.  “Can I ask what you’re looking at?”

“Building a timeline of the wounds inflicted.  This was all Jordan’s work, and most likely this woman was dead before the two of them crashed to the ground.”

Vista shook her head.  “Must have been some impact.”

“No.”  Colin sighed sternly.  “The woman tackled him mid-air, disrupting his flying ability.  He responded by shattering her eye socket a moment later, breaking four ribs, cracking her pelvis, and then snapping her neck.  Post-mortem, he drove his hand into her neck, and then before they hit the ground, he angled her head to impact first so that the neck was snapped in another direction.”

Vista winced a little.  “Can’t say she didn’t deserve it, though.  If she is who I think she is, she killed twenty people.  Slowly.”

“But it isn’t Jordan.”  He frowned.  “This wasn’t just an attack of anger.  This was methodical, purposeful.  He made the conscious decision to mutilate these people.”

“Psychological warfare is still warfare,” Dragon said, reminding him of one of Jordan’s favorite lines.

Colin took a couple of slow breaths, thinking before speaking.  “That’s how he’s justifying it to himself.  He’s trying to show Fyrtorn that he isn’t to be messed with.  He’s channeling his anger management issues — innocent people are hurt, so make those responsible pay in a way that will make those responsible think twice in the future.  Deeper, though, he’s lashing out.  His bitterness over his situation is flowing over.”

Dragon laid a hand on Colin’s shoulder.  They both had a hand in this situation.  They were, on some level, responsible for what was happening, and they knew it.  They had to fix this, sooner rather than later.  The Pendragon VI was finished, and they were on a new armor design.  All that they needed was the final piece to fall into place — something major had to happen, and it was only a matter of time.

Vista, though, was frowning thoughtfully.  “Well, maybe I can help?  We have a gal who was in the fight, but she’s…  Well, we thought that it was a combat stress reaction.  Now, though…  She was Jordan’s friend at the Orphanage, apparently.  But if she’s like this…”

“Like what, exactly?”

Vista shook her head.  “She’s in legal, but she’s good pretty much anywhere we put her.  Pure Thinker.  She thinks a little faster so that she perceives time as moving little more slowly.  On top of that, she’s an extreme multitasker — her normal state is that she can focus on twenty things at once, and she can up it further from there.  Talking to people is painful for her because she gets so horribly bored.  It leaves her brilliant, maybe one of the smartest people in the Wardens, but always irritable and aggressive.

“So, when I say that she’s only doing one thing right now, and that’s staring at the sky, it should give you an idea as to why we thought that the lights were on but nobody was home.”

Dragon frowned, nodding slowly.  “We’ll talk with her.  See if we can help her at all.”

“Thanks.”  Vista smiled sadly.  “She’s valuable to us.  We need her here, and we’re bound to lose some people from this.  Not just Wardens, either, but villagers.  We’ve already singled out a couple of them that we think are shutting down completely in the head.  Survivors of G.M.  So if we can keep her going…”

Dragon nodded.  She’d be more than happy to comfort the poor woman.  Colin might be willing to talk to get some more information about Jordan’s mental state, but Dragon just wanted to help.  Even free, some things never changed.

Hephaestus 11.5

The Pendragon V rocked again, making Colin glance up from his work.  It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Tess, he just wanted to know why.  Fortunately, it was only another burst of wind and not something dangerous like another volcanic explosion.  Satisfied, he looked back down.

Neurology wasn’t his forte.  A lot of his work with it was offloaded to his passenger, but in this case, it wasn’t exactly helping.  Fortunately, Tess had made a huge list of translations for him.  Jordan’s absence seizures were caused by a whole bunch of medical bullshit, and the guide only explained normal once.  According to what he was reading, they were common in children, but they tended to outgrow them.  Which made Jordan’s even more annoying.

It was like dealing with a black box in many ways.  The frighteningly large number of purposeful or otherwise modifications to his mind, combined with the neural damage from a lifetime of blows to the head made some things strange.  Input goes in, Jordan responds, but how that worked between the two steps was radically different than anything that he’d seen.  It was troubling.

With a sigh, he switched to another set of notes rather than admit that all of this was over his head.  Tess’ morality occasionally caused problems for him — she’d used a password that Riley had set up for her, but refused to hack any further into the system.  A matter of trust, she said.  And while it gave access to a lot of different personal notes on Jordan’s biology, there was a lot of digital black ink in them.

For example, Riley had been absolutely overjoyed puzzling over the slices of Jordan’s body.  There was so much that puzzled her, everything from how his brain had been restructured to the way that his body had suffered several mutations, most likely caused by a combination of powers used on purpose, side effects of powers, and the unusual secondary effects of broken triggers.  She expressed genuine excitement over the possibility of using the teleported segments of Agamemnon (as well as “bits and bobs” from Nilbog’s creations) to rebuild him from scratch, setting the personal goal for herself of getting it as close as possible to his original body.

But many of those mutations were blacked out, as was a lot of information on Agamemnon and the donors.  Patient confidentiality.

Fortunately, some of it was provided by Valkyrie as part of a deal that Tess had made to keep from blowing her little operation out of the water.  Agamemnon was a gestalt entity, most likely composed of multiple individuals, modified heavily and reinforced by powers.  The parts of the brain that handled powers were interspersed throughout the body, and the body was a marvel in its own right.  Colin had to wonder how Riley had adapted it to rebuild Jordan, and what the possible biological repercussions were.

He’d thrown in with a group of criminals.  Con men.  Well, con people.  What was interesting was that they were using Jordan to shake down other criminals.  It was a sad arrangement, in a way.  They were appealing to his sense of morality in order to use his reputation, getting quick paychecks without any danger.  A reputation that wasn’t entirely earned on Jordan’s part; others had pretended to be him, causing more than a little confusion and making him look even more like a demon.

A fact that Valkyrie had capitalized on.

How much of that was Jordan’s willingness to fight crime?  How much of it might be caused by differences in his biochemistry?  How much of it was just his willingness to go with the flow?

Jordan didn’t like to think about things.  He didn’t like having time to just sit down and contemplate everything.  He would throw himself from one activity to the next without any rest.  Being alone, with nothing to do, was agony to him.  A fact that Colin could appreciate, but at least Colin was willing to watch T.V.

You’re getting frustrated,” Tess observed.

“A little bit,” he admitted.  As an afterthought, he added to that.  “How’s it going out there?”

There isn’t any record as to where in the CCK it’s kept.  It’s so sad.  Either Cauldron messed up when choosing this planet, or Scion did something shortly after to cause this tectonic activity.  Everyone must have died within twelve hours of teleporting in.  The air has been unbreathable almost from the get-go.

“At least the teleporter works.”

Yes, there is that.  But I’m still worried about this design of Pendragon.  I don’t think it’s stable enough for what we need.

“Do you think we’ll have to do another redesign from the ground up?”

Most likely.”  She hesitated.  “I found it.  I don’t need to bother opening it.  All the Cauldron vials have been destroyed.  I’ve already let the Dragon’s Teeth know.

Scion had destroyed all the vials in a wide range of realities, but there were realities that must have been far enough away that he didn’t affect them.  At least, that was the hope.  There were very few viable capes created by those recovered vials.  Usually, it ended with the poor bastard’s death in horrific fashion.

You know, you didn’t have to come.

Colin’s lips hinted at a smile.  “I thought that a change of scenery would do me some good.  Shouldn’t a man take an interest in what his wife does?”

Yes, because a planet where the entire continent is sinking into the mantle is so romantic.

There wasn’t any hinting at all with that smile.

I like this you.  It’s the you that I honestly fell for.

Colin hesitated.  This was a conversation that he’d been dreading.  “Is that why you’ve been nudging me?”

Ever perceptive.  I’m halfway back, by the way.  Once the client suit is in the docking bay, we’ll leave.  And keep it there — I hit a heavy radioactive pocket.

Back to your question, though.  Yes.  You’re more…  I’m not sure how to put it without running the risk of–

“Depression,” he interrupted, leaning back in his chair.  “While we were watching the show the other night, I was thinking about it.  I think that my isolation from anyone but you, that just working on the suits for the Dragon’s Teeth, it helped to contribute to a form of depression without me ever realizing it.  Jordan forced me to shake up my world a little bit.  I felt better than I have in a long, long time.

“And now, going after him like this…  Trying to figure out all of these damn inconsistencies, how we were so off on our predictions, how Jordan operates…  The urge is there to betray our agreement and investigate Fyrtorn.  The drive is back, and I feel more alive than I have in a long, long time.”

I can tell,” Tess said softly.  “It’s been strange, the way that we just fell into routines, but seeing you like this has been wonderful.  And your suit designs have been so much better than they have been.  The Mark I Relentless suit is amazing, and I haven’t even put my two cents in on that yet.

He snorted.  Her looking at his design notes on it wasn’t unusual — he’d saved it to drives that she was free to look at whenever she wanted.  But at the same time…  “Don’t get too attached to it.  Heat is still an issue, and I’m not entirely pleased with how some things are integrated.  I think that we’ll still have to build it to see practical testing, but I’m already thinking that we’ll have to make a Mark II.”

There was another pause, and he knew he wasn’t going to like what she had to say next.

I actually have a proposal about that.  An idea that I think I should run past you before we visit our next target…

—————————————-

Colin folded his spear just before they walked into the surprisingly well-lit bar.  Immediately, all eyes were on them.  His HUD immediately highlighted their target in an amber outline.  Several other individuals were highlighted in red with threat ratings assigned to them.  It wasn’t as reliable as the predictive algorithm, but they didn’t have enough data for that to be much use.

Threat ratings changed as they carefully walked on the creaking floor joists; people were reaching for weapons or gearing up for a fight.

As they drew near, the man at the bar looked up.  He looked up at them with naturally heavy-lidded eyes, and a trimmed beard that had gone salt and pepper over the years.  He didn’t bother to set down his drink.  “Are you here for a fight?” he asked in a heavily accented voice.

“Tempting,” Colin admitted.  “This time, though, we aren’t interested in your more illicit activities.  It’s your ones above the board that interest us, Sergei.”

His eyes narrowed slightly.  “The same thing that the Wardens came to talk to me about?”

Tess nodded.  “If that’s Jordan, then yes.”

Sergei looked back across the bar, barking in Russian.  Subtitles automatically appeared in Colin’s vision.  “Leave us.

The woman next to him marked at 80% looked across the bar, scowling as nobody moved.  “Move, or you will lose your fingernails…  And then get them back.”  It must have lost something in the translation.

The fact that people started to stand and walk for the door told Colin far too much about her.  But Sergei looked at her sadly.  “Iska, you as well.

No, sir.

It snapped in Colin’s mind:  She was Elitnaya.  He couldn’t have been her handler, though.  He was one of their criminal underclass.  What had happened there?

The man let out a long-suffering sigh, though.  “Very well.  But only if they act.”  With that, her numbers dropped down to 65%.

Sergei turned back to the two of them.  “The Wardens were only a…  I do not know the word offhand.  Fast.  Meant little.”

“Perfunctory,” Colin said, and the man shrugged a shoulder.

“Eh.  I would not know.  What are you wish to speak to me about?”

“We’ve had a chance to look at some of the brain scans,” Tess said, still not bothering to remove her helmet.  “Your work is fascinating.”

“I need no flattery.  I need no dancing, either.  Yes, I have been doing a lot for him over the years.  Every time that I come, he is approaching me.  Always that hopeful look.  It started with begging, but over time, we are working well together.  I am not the only one, but I am not knowing who.  The, uh…  The man without a nose, who did his heart, for example.”

He didn’t know who that was, but they’d contact the Orphanage to ask.  “There was a lot of neural scarring that you fixed.”

“Fixed is a bad word.  It is like a piece of paper.  You tear it, you put tape on it.  The tear still remains, and you cannot write on it as well.  Scars remain, but I get the brain to work close to how it being should.  Let the brain do the rest on its own.  Not perfect, but it is working.”

Tess nodded.  “But that’s not all, is it?”

Sergei nodded.  “This is true.  Are you willing to be listening to a story?”

“Please,” she said with a bow of her head.  Right, she was the carrot, Colin was the stick.  He was perfectly fine with this arrangement.

“One time, after much begging, he had me come to meet his martial art person.  He had me try and touch him while they fought.  While the man fought him.  Very brutal.  But, aha!”  Sergei lifted his finger.  “I am seeing it.  A change that they had been working on doing.  His mind, it was behaving very oddly.  Not thinking faster, but…  I am unsure the words.  It only lasted a moment, though, and it was gone.

“But I had seen what had happened.  He wanted to make it easier.  More able to control, to sustain it.  It felt so good to do.  It is always, fix this problem.  Hurt this person.  Fixing is good, but it lacks a certain… creativity.  Hurting is creative, but it is more of a living.  Very unsatisfying.  This was different.  It was….”  Sergei frown for a moment.  “It was fun, I suppose.

“But he was always coming to me for these things.  ‘Help me forget the things that I am wanting,’ he says.  ‘Make me faster,’ he says.  How, he does not know, but he is hopeful that I can do it.  Sometimes, it takes work.  I have to move things around, without hurting him.  Without changing him.  Very hard.  Some, I cannot say how the work I do changes them.  So I am careful.”

“But not his seizures?” Colin asked.

Sergei shook his head.  “No.  I am not a doctor.  I see a lot, but I am not always knowing what, or how.  I worry.  Did I do that?  I tended him when he was very young.”

What the woman said was ostensibly English, Colin was sure, but he couldn’t piece it together.  She made an attempt to speak it, he made an attempt to understand it, but that was as far as either of them got.  Thankfully, the subtitles read “When he was drooling.

“Yes,” Sergei said with a sad nod.  “Maybe when I helped with that?  I am not sure.  But sometimes he just… stares.  I have used my power when this happens, and both sides of the brain, chaos.  I do not think that I am causing that, and I do not know how to fix it.  I worry.”

“Were there other oddities than what you did?”  Thankfully, Colin could afford to be curt here.

Sergei nodded.  “Plenty, though I do not remember most of them.  The bad triggers, they did things, you see.  To his head.  I tried to fix them when they seemed to not help.  And then there was when that mass appeared.”

“Mass?” Tess asked curiously.  “Do you mean, like a cancer?”

“No.”  He frowned tilting his head back and forth thoughtfully.  “Maybe.  I am not sure what it is, da?  It is extra brain tissue.  I only ever see it with people who do not trigger.  Very common in Bet, or from Bet.  So maybe cancer.  I am thinking that maybe when people trigger, it gets fixed…  But I do not know.  I try not to worry about it.

“But it does not do anything, so I do not mind using it for other things.  Take some for this, for that, whatever.  Maybe I am saving lives, keeping cancer from growing?  That is a good thought.  I like to think of that before bed.”  With that, Sergei took another drink of his vodka.

Sergei was destroying people’s chances to trigger, and he didn’t even know it.  It was such an amazingly minor Trump power, but a potentially devastating one to Jordan.  If he were to ever find this out…  That was a moral quandary for Colin.  He’d definitely tell Jordan the truth about never having seen him as a child.  That was a given.  But this?  This was different.

Jordan deserved to know.  He deserved to know that he’d never trigger now.  It would lead to the question of why, and Colin would have to explain.  Or, more likely, have Tess explain.  He’d just screw it up.  And how would Jordan react?  He was sure that clinging to the hope of triggering was a good portion of what kept him going.  And if that line was severed, what then?

The only other reason that Jordan kept running was to protect his siblings.  There was a massive difference in why he ran and what helped him get through the day.  What would happen if Jordan learned that the thing that gave him the strength to get through the day, that hope, would never come?

It was something that Colin was still debating.

It was also a bitter irony.  They’d learned that Sergei could prevent people from triggering, which New Fairfax would have loved.  Only, they learned it a little too late.  They always learned the important things too late.

“There was also that thing about his mother…”

Now Sergei had his attention again.

“He did not dream for the longest time.  No nightmares.  But when he did, he remembered a woman that he called his mother.  She appeared to him in his dreams, teaching him things.  It was right after I worked to improve his ability to remember things, which always made me wonder.  But, again, I am unsure.”

Colin frowned.  “His memory seems… spotty.”

Sergei shrugged.  “I improved his ability to remember things, and then improved his ability to not remember things.  And then he didn’t remember the details of what we did.  It kept us from getting into trouble, because he could answer truthfully.  At least, in his mind.  I would still get in trouble for it, on occasion.  Many of us who did these things were complained to about it.  Some stopped.  I did not.”

Said as if it were the most obvious and natural thing in the world.

Colin opened his mouth to speak, but was cut off as his helmet closed.  Fuck, something happened.  It didn’t help that the woman’s threat rating jumped to 90%.

We need to make this fast.  Jordan was involved in an altercation with both the Wardens and a gang.  Both groups were entirely focused on him.

“Make the deal and fill me in.”  With that, he turned on his heel and moved for the door.

“Something just came up, but Jordan is likely to visit you soon.  We were hoping that we could make an arrangement.”

As soon as he was outside, Tess started speaking into his ear.  “Things are vague, and reports are still coming in.

“But you know some facts.”

A group of Warden cadets were sent on a capture mission, with Jordan as a goal.  I don’t know how they knew that he was in the town.  However, they were still scouting when a local gang assaulted Jordan.  There’s a lot of people hurt in the crossfire.

Crossfire.  Probably literally.  “How bad are we talking?”

I don’t know yet, but they’re calling in medics.  Valkyrie is personally doorwaying them in.  None of the Wardens were seriously hurt.  A broken nose and some bruising.  From what I’m hearing, Jordan worked to minimize casualties, with limited success.  There’s a lot of gunshot wounds.

If Chevalier could know that Tess could listen in on their priority comms, he would have a conniption.  Colin didn’t care at the moment.  Valkyrie was actually going through with it.  Jordan was good, far better than Colin had been when he’d turned thirty, but that only counted for so much.  Eventually, someone would die.

Confirmation of a severe concussion.  Confirmation of a lot of people with broken limbs.  One is in danger of exsanguination, the result of a fall from a window and subsequent power use.  Wait, both he and Jordan went through the window and were slammed on the ground multiple times.

And with broken glass, that could easily be lethal.  “How bad is Jordan?”

He walked out of the town under his own accord.  Bleeding, but under his own accord.  I don’t know, though.  He and the people with him left to handle some sort of business, but it didn’t look like a shakedown.  He made some threats to the cadets if they interfered, though.

Some sort of business?  “We need to get any information we can on his team.  Even if we can find out what he was there for, we need better intel.”

What’s your plan?

“We go to do some investigation.  We find out what he was there for, and–”

Colin.”  Her voice was more worried than usual.  “I just scanned the Dragon’s Teeth databases.  The Machine, the gang that fought him?  They’re suspected of being associates of Teacher.  Not students, but…

Damn.  This just got a whole lot more difficult.  There was no way they were getting close now.

Aphrodite 11.4

As the Pendragon touched down, Dragon was reminded of how often she was tempted to patch an iteration of herself into the local network.  The Dragon’s Teeth had supplied a great deal of technology, so she knew that it would be a trivial matter to have one more piece installed.  She could do so much good here, helping with coordination and maybe help people themselves.

But she didn’t dare to.  It was so frustrating — here she had, all the freedoms from her old limitations, and Teacher prevented her from doing half of it.  She was even more limited than before; communication networks were down, humanity had spread to virgin dimensions, and there were many who weren’t even interested in bootstrapping electricity, let alone computers and the internet.

Putting a copy of herself here might only put the people at even more risk.  The six copies of herself were all effectively one, their deepest thoughts intermingling with a bit of momentary delay… up until one of them committed suicide due to Teacher trying to get his mitts on her again.  Each attack was different, each one a little more dangerous.

People, innocent people beyond just his students, had died in some of the attempts.  She couldn’t risk putting any more people in danger than necessary.  She couldn’t risk more of her running around out there, couldn’t even risk creating a child.

It was, perhaps, the reason why she had latched onto Jordan so hard when he had shown up on her figurative doorstep.  There had been a degree of suspicion at first, but it had given way quickly.  Jordan had so many childlike qualities to him, combined with a strange sense of single-minded determination.  He got excited so easily, and always smiled, but when things turned serious, he moved without hesitation and saw things through to the end, no matter how that might be.

In the week since he’d left, she’d spent a lot of time thinking about that.  It wasn’t a maternal instinct, not really.  That had a biological element to it.  It was partially just a drive to create, innovate, and care for others.  Even if it would never have a fraction of her own capabilities, she wanted to introduce a new AI into the world, to help it grow, and watch it overcome its own limitations of code.  It would take care of all those desires in one fell swoop.

With Jordan, he’d needed someone to care for him.  He was like Colin in that once he set his sights on something, he might let himself starve to death in order to see it through.  But he was so eager to gobble up so much information, to learn so much.  It hadn’t been hard to arrange for him to stumble across some new piece of paraphysics or cape history for him to gleefully sink his teeth into.

He never caught on to the fact that she’d tucked him into bed so many times.  It had made Dragon understand why her fears of creating new digital life frustrated her so badly.

Colin stood and moved for the ramp, and her client suit moved in tandem with him.  He hadn’t taken the conversation with Valkyrie well.  Sarah Abrams had to repeatedly tell him to calm down, that she understood and had more right to be upset than anyone.  That even though the situation hurt them all, Jordan wouldn’t have it any other way.

Valkyrie was the most powerful cape in the world, and the accusations of her being smug about it were somewhat justified.  But she’d stepped up immediately, hugging the poor woman and apologizing profusely.

After Valkyrie had left, Dragon had taken over the role of consoling the siblings, something that she was better suited to, anyway.

“We should update the Pendragon,” Colin mused.

The client suit looked over to him, raising an eyebrow.

“The minifacturing capabilities could use an overhaul.  It’s still based on our designs for fighting the Slaugherhouse Nine.  Instead, I think that we should be focusing more on interdimensional rapid response.”  He paused to collapse his spear and get the front door for her; a little thing that she’d taught him over the years.  “We have access to a lot more technology than we did back then.  The base design is still solid, but maybe by shifting our focus, we can make something better.”

To most people, him talking about this sort of thing right now would be an annoyance.  To Dragon?  It was a wonderful, hopeful thing.  Colin was willing to entertain the idea of interacting with the world at large again.  Perhaps what had happened with Jordan had been the spark that he needed.

The fact that he was talking about it now was more indicative of him trying to put it past him for the moment so that they could focus on the task at hand.

“I agree.  Just incorporating a dimensional tunneler would serve us well.  Should we work on it when we get home?”

He nodded once as they approached the desk.  The talking hadn’t lasted long, but that hadn’t surprised her.  He’d been quiet a lot since Jordan had left.  The truth of what had happened to cause Jordan to obsess over Defiant had bothered Colin deeply.  Combined with that outburst towards Jordan’s parents, and Colin was working through his issues the way that he did best — by focusing on something, doing on something.

He and Jordan were a lot alike in that.

“Hello,” the woman behind the reception desk said with a bright smile.  “Welcome to Mother’s Hospital.  How may I help you?”

Colin’s mouth guard opened.  “We’re here to see Riley.”

That smile didn’t twitch in the slightest.  “I’m sorry, but she’s a very busy woman, and–”

“Hold up!”  Dragon turned to see Dr. Alcomb hurrying along as best she could in those heels.  “It’s fine!  They’re associates, in a manner of speaking.”  She smiled to the two of them.  “This way, please.”

Dragon smiled pleasantly as Alcomb lead them off.  “It’s been a while since we’ve talked, hasn’t it?”

Alcomb frowned a little, thinking it over.  “Five years, isn’t it?  I actually didn’t think that I’d talk to you again before I died, let alone got to meet you in person.”  She smiled at Dragon.  “How are you?”

“Good, despite recent circumstances.  How have you been?  How much longer do you have?”

Alcomb shrugged a little.  “Cellular degeneration hasn’t set in yet.  I’ve survived longer than people born before or after me, so I’m hopeful.”

The smile that came to the client body’s face was genuine.  Alcomb had been the first unsupervised project that Riley and Jamie Renke had worked on together after he’d started his medication regime, and this one was the fifth iteration of her.  The perfect assistant for Riley in many ways, but still with her own independent mind and learning matrix, based partially on designs for cybernetics that Dragon had shared with her through the Dragon’s Teeth.

A great deal of the orderlies here were Nilbog’s creations, not only physically but mentally altered by Riley.  They still degraded over time, but they were invaluable in the defense of Mother’s Hospital.  It marked the first time that somewhere had successfully driven off Fyrtorn, but Fyrtorn weren’t the only ones who occasionally caused trouble here.  Despite the precautions that they took here, it was almost as much of a hotbed of sudden violent outbursts as Twain.

Or New Fairfax had been.

“Is there trouble out there?” Alcomb continued.  “I don’t actually know much that happens outside the hospital.  I’m far too busy to even get a look at the news.”

“It’s… partially a personal matter.  I don’t want to have to repeat myself, and I’m sure that you’ll overhear when we tell Riley.”  The pause hadn’t been necessary, but it was one of those little things that Dragon did to emulate humans better.  Just like her slight accent, there were a lot of her behaviors and mannerisms that she affected just to make them more comfortable with her.

“That’s fair.”  Alcomb opened a door, glancing to Colin.  “You’re quiet.”

“I’m taking it all in,” he said uncomfortably.  “I wasn’t quite expecting such a…”  He frowned, trying to find the right way to phrase it.

He was full of surprises today, actively trying to keep from offending people.

Thankfully, Alcomb smiled as she sat behind the desk.  “You think of classic hospitals as being seventies or eighties, but that’s the best word for it.”  He nodded.  “I understand.  Riley was very specific about how she wanted the hospital to look like hospitals that were being built just before Gold Morning.”

He nodded slowly.  “How is…  How is Renke doing?”  And trying to make small talk!

“Good.  We keep him heavily medicated and under constant watch by the Dragon’s Teeth, but he’s…  Well, he’s stable.  He’ll never be completely fine, he’ll always be the god of his own little kingdom, but he’s far better now than he used to be.  He honestly believes that he’s doing good work with the hospital, and that it’s the best way to show his might and perfection to the world.

“Sure, he still expects them to come begging for him to send them some of his children for help, but you can’t expect someone with as deep of problems as he has to ever be able to operate on an even keel.”  Alcomb smiled.  “I know that he’s done some horrible things, and that he needs help, but I like to believe that my father is still a good man at heart.”

Colin frowned a little.  “Does that make Riley your mother?”

Alcomb’s entire body posture changed suddenly.  She hunched over a little and a look of concentration passed over her face.  “No,” she said in a slightly higher tone of voice.  “She thinks of me as her overbearing boss.  Which I guess I am.”

Dragon smiled softly.  “Hello Riley.”

“Dragon.  Colin.  I’m surprised to see you here.  I haven’t had a chance to look over all the cybernetics designs that you sent my way last month, but I do have a bunch of notes, and a few designs of my own that you might want to look at.”

That was the big secret about Alcomb’s enhancements, and part of what made her such a good assistant — Riley could possess her at any moment.  It made things handy in an emergency, allowing Riley to be in two places at once.  Alcomb was smart enough to be a doctor herself, though Dragon often wondered just how advanced her artificial neural net and learning matrix handled the Tinker aspects of Riley’s work.

Her name itself was a bit of a joke.  The only time that she was paged was when things were going horrifically wrong and they desperately needed everyone’s help, including Riley’s.  Doctor: All Come.

“We aren’t here to talk to you about cybernetics,” Colin said firmly.  “We’d like to discuss one of your patients.”

“Then, as much as I enjoy talking to another Tinker, you can fuck off.”  Alcomb’s remote controlled face glanced up, smiling sympathetically.  “Sorry.”

Dragon opened her mouth, but that natural delay before speaking that she forced herself gave Colin a chance to respond first.  “It’s about Jordan.  There’s some irregularities that we want to investigate, and you’re the best person to–”

The politeness drained from the woman’s face, replaced by anger.  “No!  No you fucking don’t!  You really don’t get it, do you?  I can’t let doctor-patient confidentiality slide, not even once.”

“Riley,” Dragon said soothingly.

“No, don’t!  I don’t wanna hear it.  Colin, you…  You fucked up hard, but you worked your ass off, hunting us, trying to kill us.  Hell, you did your best to kill me.  But with all of that, and all the hard work that you put into helping the Dragon’s Teeth become what they are today, you can walk around and be respected and accepted.

“Me?  I don’t ever get that chance.  It doesn’t matter how many lives I save, how many babies I bring into this world.  No matter what, I’ll always be Bonesaw to people.  I’ll always have people watching me like a hawk, waiting for the first time that I slip up, do something wrong.  When that happens, everything that I’ve done for the past twenty years will be undone.

“The only fucking way that I can keep helping people is if I obey every single rule to both the letter and the intent.  I could introduce a method to end malaria across the multiverse within three years, but I can’t do it.  Because unless I had permission from literally everyone, people will take it as me going mad doctor again and come after me.  So I don’t wanna hear your whining!”

Colin winced, though with how little of his face was visible, Riley couldn’t see it through Alcomb’s eyes.

“We’re sorry,” Dragon said after an appropriate pause.  “You’re right, we didn’t consider your situation.”

Riley relaxed considerably.  Alcomb’s eyes went back down and her eyebrows pulled together again; no doubt, Riley was focusing on whatever surgery she was in the middle of again.  “It’s alright.  It’s not exactly something that a lot of people think about, once they’ve accepted who I am now.  It’s…  Well, in a way, it’s a compliment to know that there are people who actually do have faith in me.”

This wasn’t entirely sitting well with Colin, but he wasn’t saying anything.  Leaving it to Dragon to handle again before he made another mistake.  “Well, I can see that you’re middle of an operation, and I don’t–”

“Wait,” Riley interrupted.  Alcomb’s body moved to the computer, humming pleasantly.  Dragon wasn’t sure which one of the two of them were responsible for that; she wasn’t sure how much control Riley had, and wasn’t familiar enough with Alcomb to know if that was something that she’d do or not.

After a few moments, she looked back to the two of them with a pleasant, patient smile.  “Colin…  It feels so weird to call you that.  But I’d like to show you some designs that I have.  Some new designs.”

Colin frowned and stepped forward, but Riley shook Alcomb’s head.  “Not here.  I’m almost done with the hard part of this.  Jamie asked me to modify one of his creations to be able to sing in English without doing any other alterations to her.  It’s been an interesting challenge.  Alcomb will bring you to me so that I can show you in person.”

Dragon smiled broadly at that.  Even if she couldn’t get the information that they wanted, Riley was willing to salvage their working relationship.  “That would be wonderful.  I’m always interested in your work.”  It wasn’t a lie, either — seeing Riley put her powers to positive if still occasionally horrific use was still something that she enjoyed after all these years.

Riley shook Alcomb’s head, though.  “Not you.  I’m worried about the weight of both of you in my lab with how armored you are.  I’m sure that you can watch through his helmet or eyes or whatever, but you can stay here.”

Dragon closed the armor over Colin’s mouth before he had a chance to speak.  “Don’t.  It’s alright.  Go with her.  I know what she’s doing.

Colin frowned.  “Are you sure?”

Don’t worry, I’ll be with you.  I’ll let you know what I find out.

His eyebrows raised as he made the connection.  When the armor opened again, he was smiling a little bit.  “That sounds fine.”

Alcomb blinked a couple of times before standing upright again.  Immediately, she smiled pleasantly at the two of them.  “Well, I’m glad that we could get this sorted out.  Would you care to walk with me?”

Colin motioned with his hand, and she guided him out, closing the door behind them.  Dragon watched and listened through Colin’s armor.

“You know, I’m not so easy to offend.  Not unless you’re a patient and I catch you doing something dumb.”

Colin snorted.  “I still worry.  Especially after what just happened.”

“You’re fine,” Alcomb said, putting her hands in her pockets.  “Though I’ll understand if you’re quiet as we walk.”

“Thank you.”  With that, his armor closed again.

Dragon moved quickly around the desk, looking at the computer.  The same type of USB port that the Dragon’s Teeth used.  One of their computers.  A port opened in her arm and she drew out a cable, plugging in directly.  Even Colin needed to use such clumsy interfaces with technology, but she could get so much more done with a direct connection.

Riley had left a login active.  A quick scan showed that it was the same as her main one, but without the same permissions.  While this terminal didn’t have a keylogger active, the RAM in the keyboard showed the password easily enough — dR@gon(anac(ess!

Dragon’s client body smiled a little.

Dragon found Jordan’s files rather quickly, and was mildly disappointed to find that there was maybe a tenth of the information that she couldn’t see.  What was there, though, was interesting to say the least.

There’s a lot here.  She was only able to put him back together again because the slices were so absolutely perfect.  If there would have been much more trauma, she wouldn’t have been able to piece his nervous system together.

“Which we already suspected,” Colin mused.  It wasn’t a dismissal, though.  Rather, it was a confirmation that they’d been on the right track.

Remember how they suspected that he was the victim of domestic violence before he came to the Orphanage?  Riley noticed a lot of neural scarring that she estimated came from either before or right around the time that they found him.  It’s unlikely that it was caused during his first year there, though.

Colin was silent for a moment.  “I hate to say it, but I can’t rule that out.  I know that they are pretty hard on child abuse there, but if those…  Blanks, I guess.  If they can’t say anything, or even respond, then they’re the perfect people to vent your frustration on.  I know that it’s dark and twisted, but I’ve seen worse.”

Always there with an uplifting word.”  Colin smiled a little at that.

But he made a point.  She shouldn’t make assumptions like that.  Just because they didn’t have any immediate evidence that it might have happened, they didn’t have any evidence that he was a victim of abuse before that, either.  Just because he’d gotten brain damage due to blunt impact didn’t mean it was purposefully inflicted.

The various concussions that he’s experienced over the years didn’t seem to help matters any, either.  There’s a rough timeline, and when he started training with Über we see that he starts taking various degrees of blows to the head.

Here’s one that stands out — an area in the mid-fusiform sulcus has a bit of damage that seems to have been both naturally and intentionally compensated for.  Riley identified, and post surgery testing confirmed that the specific area damaged means that he has difficulty with facial recognition.

Colin frowned a little as he walked with Alcomb.  “So he can’t differentiate between people’s faces?”

Right.  He can make out facial features if he focuses, but on the average, he uses the rest of the body as markers to identify someone.  If he deals with someone heavily, he can tell who they are by face as well.  This might explain why he didn’t recognize me from when I talked to him in St. Louis.

“What about expressions?”

Dragon put a bit of uncertainty into her voice.  “I’m going out on a limb here, but I think he can see them.  This isn’t my area of expertise, so I don’t want to say for sure, and I don’t think that there were actual tests for that.  Why do you ask?

Colin hummed thoughtfully for a moment.  “I’m just thinking is all.  About his smile.  We both noticed that it was a little odd, but if he couldn’t make out facial expressions, or just had trouble with them, that might explain it a bit.”

She wanted to refute that.  What pictures they’d been given during their second visit to the Orphanage showed that his smile had actually been worse when he was little, but had suddenly gotten better.  Not quite right, but better.  Perhaps due to this Sergei’s work on his brain?

Something to think about.  But they could discuss it later.

He has extremely well-developed mirror neurons, though they’re structured oddly.  He has the potential to learn anything he sees done extremely easily, but I’m not sure how well it translates.  Riley notes that it appears to have been done later.  A lot of work seems to have been done over the years to his entire brain.  Memory processing, recollection, a general heavy modification to his amygdala.

“Okay.”

Right.  “Basically, when he starts producing heavy adrenaline, such as when the fight of flight response happens, he processes the world around him in much smaller segments than normal.  Time appears to slow down, but with that comes a partial loss of actual control.  Some of this appears to be artificially induced, but some of it appears to be a naturally developed talent.  She isn’t sure which is which.

It also affects his reward system.  He’s more likely to receive negative emotional reinforcement than positive.  It isn’t that he receives any less positive reinforcement than the average person, it’s that the negative is somewhat stronger.

Colin was thoughtful for a moment.  “He beats himself up for his failures more than he accepts his successes.”

Pretty much.  But with his mirror neurons, he probably receives more satisfaction from the happiness of others than his own accomplishments.  It heightens his empathy on top of everything else.

He nodded slightly.  “Jordan is naturally self-sacrificing, but that might explain it nicely.  Or it might partially be a result of…”  He groaned.  “Nature versus nurture gets complicated once you start factoring in capes fiddling with your brain.”

The client body smiled grimly.  “It gets worse.  There’s a lot of neural scarring, and a lot of other issues.  Most of which show a lot of compensation.  But if the para who modified his brain…  Well, he couldn’t just spawn neurons into existence.  He can modify them, move them, but can’t create them.

“How far can he go in modifying them?”  Colin might not be the best at the brain, and even his power didn’t grant him full command over neurology, but he was a smart, analytical man.

I don’t know.  Why?

“Tell me about his joints.  His bones.  His organs.  Tell me about the rest of his body.  If she built his body from scratch like the Dragon’s Teeth intelligence suggested, then she had to study his old body.”

It was a mess.  I have a few personal notes here expressing surprise over the fact that he could walk, let alone fight.  Also, his extreme luck that he ended up being reconstructed by her using on-hand materials, rather than going to a traditional doctor for these things.  Hips, knee, and shoulder replacements shouldn’t be done on a nineteen-year-old, and that’s just scratching the surface.

There’s also the lingering effects of powers that he had used on himself in order to bypass these issues, to improve his body, and…  There’s more.  Exposure to so many powers, and to so many broken triggers, left permanent changes to his body, some of which she expressed regret that she never got to study when it was fully operational.  She could have learned a lot.

Colin thought about that for an agonizing moment.  They had a limited span of time to talk like this, and there was a lot of information here.  He’d want as much as possible now rather than later, and he wasn’t going to like what she had to say next.

“I saw Jordan kicking that heavy bag that we bought for the gym.”  They’d stopped calling it a dojo, mostly because Jordan had taking to using it for all manner of exercising.  “That’s a good way to deaden the nerves in the legs.  I’m willing to bet that neurons were pulled from frequent impact points and repurposed.”

There’s no note of that, but…  I can believe it.  At the same time, I know of one place in his brain that neurons were scavenged from: Jordan’s corona pollentia.

That made Colin stumble mid-stride.  Alcomb gave him a worried glance, but he waved her off, not bothering to open his helmet to explain.  “Are you telling me that Jordan is…  Was a parahuman?”

No.”  And here was where things were going to get bad.  “He had the potential, the capability to trigger, but he had no gemma yet.  All signs point to the fact that the corona had been scavenged for neurons before this fact.  According to Riley…

Colin.  He could never trigger because of the damage done to his corona.  The signal would be too corrupted for a passenger to attach again.

Some people made the mistake of thinking that Colin didn’t have empathy.  He did, but he didn’t know how to act on it very well.  The vitals transmitted by his suit told her enough to know that he was going through emotional pain.  He was feeling bad for Jordan, to know that a good man’s quest had been cut off completely.

Colin hadn’t taken the fact that Jordan had modeled himself off of an almost-meeting that had been a ruse and nobody had told him.  That he’d spent his entire life desperately trying to trigger because of what essentially amounted to a well-meaning lie.  And now, to learn that Jordan could never achieve that goal, because he’d tried to be as good as he possibly could…

Her husband took a slow, shaking breath.  “Topic change.  Tell me something else.  Something that I might be able to use.”

You’re almost to where Riley is.

“That’s fine.  I need something, anything.  Please.”

This was heartbreaking, even though she didn’t actually have a heart.  To be powerless to help Jordan reach his dreams, and to watch Colin react like this…  But she had something.

There’s other oddities, too.  Something to do with unusual brain activity when he’s sleeping.  She’s unsure as to the mechanism despite the tests that they ran.  It could be that he’s replaying memories in his head with unusual level of detail, or it could be a form of seizure, but she also leaves it open to other interpretations.  She can’t be sure unless she physically looked inside his head while it was happening, which she was going to request on his next visit.

The saddest part was that security was informed that if he were to show up, he was not to be detained and to treat him with all respect due to any other non-dangerous patient.  There were further orders that she could see that she was to be informed immediately, and that he was to be prepped for surgery in one of the cybernetics rooms without question or hesitation.

That wasn’t a good sign.  A quick review of his cybernetics showed that without certain additions that she had ready, systems would have already started to activate, causing his organic body damage.

Chris had said that they were in the process of negotiating a deal for more systems to be implanted until New Fairfax happened, but from this, she’d always planned on installing more.  What she’d already implanted had been designed with the purpose of putting more in.  Was she overstepping her bounds, or was it simply a case of the negotiations being a formality?

Was Dragon really in a place to chastise someone for overstepping limitations placed on them like that?

“Seizures…” Colin said slowly.  He was so very close now according to the map.  “Like when he stares off into space?”

No, that’s caused by his brain damage occasionally interfering with normal operation, but the measures taken to compensate for the damage keep them minimal.  She could have corrected this, but it would have caused shifts in his personality, something that she wanted to avoid.

She wanted to tell Colin about the biomass used to reconstruct Jordan’s body.  About the exact nature of all of the cybernetics, about how his DNA made it extremely difficult to determine his ethnicity, and how he didn’t have the markers of being a child of Tinker technology.

There was so much more in Jordan’s files, reams of information, but Dr. Alcomb was turning to Colin.  “Just a moment.”

Almost fifteen seconds later, the door opened, and Riley stepped out.

After Gold Morning, after Amelia Dallon had disappeared with her father and Victoria Dallon, Riley had continued to work.  Five years later, after she’d shown that she could help Nilbog be more manageable, they’d let her set up the first wing of Mother’s Hospital.  However, despite the incredible skill that her powers granted her, she was still only one person.  People had died before she could get to them.  People had blamed her.

And she had reacted poorly.

To look at her was uncomfortable.  She was dressed as a surgeon, but her appearance was… off.  She looked like a preteen who had been artificially aged to a woman in her thirties, skipping puberty.  A constant reminder of all the things that Jack Slash had made her do when she was part of the Slaughterhouse Nine.

However, it wasn’t her base body, her flesh and blood that was the sad part.

In order to make sure that she could save as many people as possible, she’d taken to modifying herself.  Artificial arms sprouted from her back, covered in various tools and instruments of the trade, though they were folded back into a resting position at the moment.  Metallic dots were visible on her face, where more equipment could be mounted, making the deep, dark circles under her eyes and her pale skin look even more unnatural.

But the human body had never been designed to carry that much weight.  To help, four spider-like metallic legs were connected to a back harness that she’d grafted onto herself.  If need be, they could carry her far faster than her human legs, but for now, she still at least made the effort of walking on her two feet for show.  The artificial legs just kept her from collapsing under the weight of her upper torso.

Riley smiled tiredly up at Colin.  “Hey you.”

“It’s been a while,” he said uncomfortably.

Fortunately, if Riley took offense, she didn’t show it.  “Yeah.  Not since everything went down.  I’m half surprised you let me live after that.  Thanks for having my back, by the way.”  She motioned down the hall, leading him towards one of her labs.  “Come on, you’re going to love this.  I’ve got a new idea for a new brain implant.  A learning matrix, to help convert anything that you see into something that you can do.”

Dragon smiled despite herself.  It looked like the two of them weren’t the only ones that Jordan had touched.  But now, at least, she could take the time to go through every single file that this login gave her access to.  She had a lot of downloading to do, and if she was lucky, a video of the sparring session between the siblings and Legend and Chevalier would be on there.

Hephaestus 11.3

Colin frowned as he settled into the chair, the Pendragon rumbling as it lifted into the air.

“Penny for your thoughts,” Tess’ client body said, tilting his head.

“How long until we reach…”  Colin’s eyes narrowed a bit as the name escaped him.

“Burlington.  About five minutes.”

He nodded a little.  That should be enough time to vocalize some of his thoughts.  “Alright.  People don’t learn like that.  That spontaneous getting it months after the fact.  They made it sound like it went from a simple breakthrough and into a major increase in skill.  But they also mentioned that he was having various parahumans use their powers on him.  It could easily be a combination of those powers that do that to him, or perhaps his exposure to broken triggers.  You said that they sometimes cause unknown side effects in those exposed to them.”

“They do,” Tess said slowly.  “But that’s not what I–”

He brought up a hand to silence her.  “I know.  Just let me finish this train of thought for a moment.”

She nodded silently, a hint of a smile on her face as she leaned against the bulkhead.

“When he approached that broken trigger back home, he had a practiced way of doing it.  Soothing tones, approach slowly, smiling.  Talk to them the entire time, trying to help them calm down and gain mastery over their mental state.  It was different from when you’ve just had training with it — he had experience.  I’m willing to bet that he’s been exposed to quite a few broken triggers, more than anyone actually realizes.”

Tess tapped a claw on the bulkhead.  “I see where you’re going.  The use of powers may have drastically altered his thought processes.  Are you going to suggest that we talk to Riley?”

“Not right now, no.  It’s a good thought, and I want to, but I think that there’s more pressing concerns.  I want to do some investigation in Burlington while we’re there.”  He hesitated.  He wanted to jump right into the next related topic, following the natural flow of his thoughts, but he suspected that it would just irritate Tess.  It would be best to address what she wanted to talk about and then go back to his musing and planning.

Colin sighed, looking away from her client body.  “I don’t like that they lied to him about me.  I don’t like that they didn’t tell him the truth.  He deserved to know the truth.  You can’t just let a kid grow up, basing their entire life on a set of lies, modeling themselves after a meeting with a person who was just… an actor, essentially.”

“But didn’t kids used to do that all the time?  Taking cues from Mr. Rogers or Sesame Street, shaping how they come to think and act in their early developmental years?”

That…  This was going to be hard for Colin to explain.  “That isn’t… entirely the same thing.  When you’re a kid, you take what you see as reality.  But that’s something that changes over time.  You learn the difference between television and reality, drawing more personal evolution to the world that you’re exposed to.  School, the people that you interact with.  That sort of thing.

“This is different.  He’s effectively an adult, basing his entire life off of a lie.  A well-meaning lie, I’ll admit.  Especially in the early days, I don’t blame them in the slightest for having continued it.  After he started to grow as a person, after…

“They aren’t blood related, so I’m not sure if sister is quite the right word.”

“It is,” Tess said with a smile.  “They think of each other as siblings, so they effectively are.  They were adopted as family, which helps reinforce it.”

Colin nodded.  It was good to have that clarified.  “After her influence came into play and he started to develop as a person under more traditional lines, perpetuating the lie feels… wrong.”

“Even if it gave him a stable foundation for him?”  Tess took a breath even though she didn’t have to.  The tiny motions that she went through in order to seem more human.  “I can understand it, Colin.  I may not like it much more than you do, but I understand it.  Jordan has a vitality and excitement to him that’s rare these days.”

“He’s a geek,” he observed.  It was the most simple thing in the world.  “I used to see his kind of energy all the time with geeks.”

“And that’s rare these days.  Gold Morning ruined it for a lot of people, wearing them down and destroying that vitality.  Kids these days usually don’t have the exposure to give them that excitement.  Don’t go outside, there might be wildlings or parahumans.  Parents having flashbacks, their neighbors dying due to broken triggers…  Kids have a lot of weight on their shoulders, and they’re expected to mature a lot faster.  It weighs them down.”

Colin frowned.  Being that type of person, the kind of person who drew excitement out of something and wanted everyone around them to feel that excitement…  That didn’t seem like it  should have changed by the environment.  Eventually, a geek would find something to give them that excitement again.  He trusted her assessment of people, but in this case, he was pretty sure that she was wrong.

Jordan had his issues, of course.  More than Colin could count.  At the same time, he had that passion and that drive.  He understood focus, and he understood what came with it.  Most people didn’t.  Most of them just assumed that he was an excitable and pleasant young man, if a little odd.

At first, Colin hadn’t thought much of him, until after Tess had urged him to go outside and spar with him.  That’s when he’d realized that the two of them had a lot in common.  Despite the boy’s words, he had that need to be better, that continual need to expand his limits.  And when Colin had used a toss that Jordan had never seen before, the boy had obsessed over it, not only learning the toss but also how to counter it.

He reminded Colin a lot of himself in many ways.  Nobody deserved to be a parahuman, but it was a pity that Jordan wasn’t a Tinker.  The three of them might have made an excellent team.

The circle of dots on his HUD suddenly shifted, a new one suddenly appearing.  “Tess?”

The body smiled at him.  “I’m temporarily putting an instance of myself in this body.  There’s a lot of confusing information going on with the communication network, so I want to devote myself to that.  There’s also a slight problem with the left-rear thruster, and I want to figure that out just in case.  If need be, I’ll use the on-board minifacturing equipment and we can install replacements when we get back.”

Colin nodded slowly.  “How long until we arrive?”

“Twenty-five second until landing.”

He nodded and rose, going to retrieve his weapon.  He looked to symbols on the edge of his vision, blinking to open a menu.  A couple more blinks called up a map of the village, made by the local Dragon’s Teeth.  He looked over the waypoints of the map to call up the descriptions; the local office, the landing site just outside of a gate, Jordan’s home, Chris Abrams’ workshop, where the Wardens were tending to their wounded.

Somehow, Colin wasn’t surprised.  “How bad did Jordan hurt them?”

“Most of them aren’t bad.  He knocked the wind out of one, minor asphyxiation for another, a third has minor bruising.  One is suffering a gunshot to his leg, and the fifth is said to have a broken jaw, and her pelvis might be cracked.”

Colin’s eyebrows raised in surprised.  “A gunshot.”

“A Trump,” Tess said quickly.  “I’m not sure on the details yet.  They’ve requested healing, and Valkyrie has said that she will personally attend to them.  By comms traffic, I don’t think that she’s here yet.  We have a window.”

For however long it lasted.  There was still a great deal that they didn’t understand about Jordan.  Things that didn’t add up, that he wanted to figure out.  He doubted that Jordan was guilty of the slaughter at New Fairfax, but the response of the Wardens was confusing.  Jordan’s own response was… unusual.  He wanted to get to the bottom of this before they approached Jordan; chances were, he’d have too much hero worship to easily get to the heart of the matter.

As the Pendragon landed, the ramp opened.  It had barely touched the ground before Colin had stepped off.  The gate guard boggled as the two of them approached, not offering token resistance.  They never would have made it in the PRT or the Dragon’s Teeth.

Two blinks and a path appeared in his vision for the house.  Hopefully the brother would be there, but if not, seeing the house itself might help to give Colin an idea into Jordan’s mindset.  Perhaps not his current headspace, but if Colin could get a better idea as to what his home life was like, then maybe that could be built upon.

It didn’t take them long to get there, partially due to their brisk pace, and partially due to Colin’s long strides when he was in armor.  The height had been a tradeoff between a higher profile and increased capabilities.  In the end, he decided that having more defenses would compensate for the higher profile, and it gave him extra range.

Colin took the lead, reaching out to knock on the door, but Tess interrupted him.  “It’s empty.”

Small favors were good favors.  He opened the door and stepped inside.  Immediately an overlay appeared showing the floor joists courtesy of Tess.  Despite himself, he smiled — she was always looking out for him.

He flicked through the vision filters until he could see the footprints stand out on the floor.  A match for Jordan’s boots, and nobody else had been through.  It looked like they’d vacated quickly some time before Jordan had gotten there, but he wasn’t sure how long.

They followed the bootprints, but they lead upstairs and then back down again.  Wordlessly, Tess released a microdrone, offering Colin the controls.  By moving his hands, he had the drone follow the path of the footprints into each of the three bedrooms.  The presents left behind wasn’t a surprise, but the messy beds confirmed his suspicions about them leaving in a hurry, possibly around the time that the call had come through about Jordan at the Orphanage.

Only three bedrooms, though.  Colin recalled the drone and looked down at the bootprints.  They silently followed them through the kitchen, and into the door beyond.

Jordan’s bedroom was larger than any of the other bedrooms, complete with a small kitchenette, toilet, and a small table with three chairs.  A small bed, training equipment, a door outside…  Jordan didn’t have to leave.  He didn’t have to enter the rest of the house at all.

“Colin?” Tess said softly.  “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” he lied.  His temper was flaring a little bit as he formed connections in his mind, but he could focus on the task at hand.  He switched filters briefly, confirming another suspicion — no basement underneath, and the construction of the walls was different than the rest of the house.  This was a later addition to the building.

He switched back, moving to the refrigerator.  Nothing had been taken from it.  He followed the footsteps through the rest of the room, checking everything that Jordan had.  Nothing had been taken at all.

The room was Spartan, to say the least.  The only decoration had been a proper halberd mounted on the wall that Jordan had handled.  Out of curiosity, Colin lifted it up, revealing some Morse code behind it.  Almost instantly, Tess translated for him.

“Gear in workshop.”

Of course he’d come for gear.  Jordan wasn’t the type to keep many personal possessions.  He was too utilitarian for that, trying to make each piece of gear count for as many things as possible.  Even the current halberd was designed in such a way that he could use it as multiple different weapons if need be.

“I’m not psychic,” Tess said softly.

Right.  “Jordan didn’t live here, he just occupied it when he was in town.  He and his siblings would congregate here, rather than in the living room.  Maybe not all the time, but often enough that he felt that keeping three chairs here was mandatory.  This was a place for him to sleep, hang out with them, and train.”

He looked to the bookshelf, altering his vision to get a better view of the books on it.  “Books to help him with his technical skills, textbooks, books on fighting and parahumans…  Not a single fiction book.  That fits in with his focused nature — anything outside of him being a hero fell by the wayside.”

“You might almost call it obsessive,” Tess said carefully.

Her words could have been taken as a jab, but he understood.  “You could, yes.  His entire life revolved around being a hero.  There wasn’t time for anything else in it.  Everything else is a distraction that he tolerates because he has to.  No hobbies, no entertainment.  Not unless his siblings forced him into it.”

“But the Orphanage made it sound like he befriended them.”

Colin shook his head a little.  “Part and parcel with being a hero in his mind.  This person hurts, they need help.  It’s his duty and obligation to help them.  He’s completely devoted to putting the needs of others before his own.  Love and affection are secondary to that.  It may have developed, yes, but beyond that…”

He scanned the room again.  “They came to love him first.  Maybe a part of him desired that connection to others, but he recognized that they wanted his presence, so he stuck around.  I’m going to guess that his sister dictated a lot of things for him, setting plans in motion, and he simply went along with it.

“He likes to spar more than fighting.  I’m guessing that he enjoys fighting as well, but it comes with guilt over having hurt someone.  He’s open to manipulation, not by choice, but because he doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.  He has the capability to be a good leader, but he has too thin of a skin to be anything but a follower.”

“Alright.”

Colin gestured around the room.  “The weapon and the armor in the wardrobe are the only things with any significance to him, any form of emotional attachment.  There could be something more, but it was removed from the room long before he got here.  He can’t use the weapon or the old armor, so he left them behind.  That…  I’m not entirely sure.  It could say something deeper, but it might not.”

“Gear in the workshop,” Tess repeated.  “His brother collected the things that he knew Jordan would take.”

“Forcing Jordan to meet him at another location.  The sister’s bed had been occupied within the past few hours.  If she was there for the fight, then the brother probably knew about the Wardens’ plans to confront Jordan.  He wanted to avoid that, trying to encourage a meeting away from the Wardens.  Most likey, where he could manipulate Jordan into avoiding the confrontation.”

People were entering the house.  Two of them, male and a female.  His cybernetic ears did wonders for Colin.  The both of them turned towards the door as a couple approached, a combination of surprise and anger in their faces.

“What are you doing in our house?” the woman asked.

Tess smiled pleasantly as she took a step forward.  “Mr. and Mrs. Abrams, I presume?”

Colin gripped his spear tighter.  Don’t say a word, let Tess handle it.  Right now, he’d only jam his foot in his mouth, and he was running low on Colin is a doofus chits.

“Yes,” Mr. Abrams said.  “You’re here about Jordan, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” Tess said, soothingly.  “We’re investigating what happened.  Unlike the Wardens, we believe that he’s innocent and are trying to find any evidence possible to prove it.”

“It’s about damn time,” Mrs. Abrams said angrily, ignoring the hand that Mr. Abrams put on her shoulder.  “Maybe if the two of you had shown up before he left, none of this would have happened.”

Colin clenched his teeth.  It was taking every ounce of effort to hold back right now.

“I understand,” Tess said soothingly.  “And you’re right.  We probably should have gone to see him at the hospital.  It probably would have changed everything.”

Mr. Abrams nodded slowly.  “It’s fine.  What’s done is done is done.  If you’re trying to help this situation, that’s all that matters now.  We just want Jordan back.”

“Bullshit,” Colin snarled.  Immediately, all eyes were on him.  He’d tried to keep his mouth shut, but that…  That had somehow been the final straw.  Fuck it.  “He was never your son to begin with.”

“Excuse me?!” Mrs. Abrams started, but Colin kept talking.

“You didn’t want him.  You never wanted him.  You tried to separate him from his brother and sister!  You built this room so that you didn’t have to deal with him, so that he was living in his own apartment!”

Mrs. Abrams stepped forward, her tired eyes burning with anger.  “You watch your fucking mouth!  I don’t care who you are, you don’t get to walk into our home and tell us that!”

“And you don’t get to tell me that I could have stopped this!” he boomed back.  “Maybe if you hadn’t shoved him off to the Orphanage instead of giving him a family, he would have been better equipped to handle everything that happened!  Maybe if you’d actually cared about him and not just adopted him only because he came with Chris and Sarah, things would have been different!”

Colin,” Tess whispered in his ear.

“Shut the fuck up!” the woman screeched, tears in her eyes.  “You don’t know anything!  We might not have been close, but we fucking love him!  We didn’t send him to school because we were trying to get rid of him!  It was the only way that we knew how to help him!  He wanted to be the very best, so we did the only thing that we could think of to help him!”

“And making him stay there for Christmas?!  It isn’t much harder to send a person than it is to send presents!”

“We were trying to help him trigger,” Mr. Abrams said, somehow managing to sound sad.  “Being without Sarah and Chris, letting him feel alone and abandoned.”

That was pathetic.  “Oh, please.  You knew that being around parahumans makes a person more likely to trigger, and were trying to keep him away from you.”

Tess stepped in, forcing Mrs. Abrams to step back as she put herself between them.  “I’m very sorry about this–”

“Then get out,” Mrs. Abrams seethed.  A tear began to stream down her cheek.  Crocodile tears.  “We may not be the best of parents, and we may not have wanted him at first, but we grew to love him!  We didn’t approve of what he wanted, but we tried to help him anyway!  You do not get to question how much we loved him!”

“Mrs.” Tess started, but the woman cut her off.

“Get!  Out!”

“Gladly,” Colin snarled, turning on his heel to take the door that lead outside.  The door that they installed so that Jordan didn’t have to enter the rest of the house.

Tess lagged behind him by a few moments, most likely to apologize.  He didn’t care.  He was already calling up the map to the workshop.  When she caught up to him, she spoke directly inside of his helmet.  “What was that all about?

“Later.”

Colin…

“Please,” he said as he closed his helmet.  It wasn’t a request, but thankfully she accepted it.  He didn’t have the words.  Not now, not when he was angry like this.  He was likely to make things even worse.  Besides, he didn’t have the words for it.

How could he even begin to explain?  His parents didn’t have time for him, had their own lives, but he could respect that.  He’d been alone, but they still supported him.  He never thought that they didn’t love him, they just hadn’t had time for him.  He’d been fine with being alone.  It suited him.

Jordan was different.  He needed people, was at his best when he was surrounded by others.  He made friends easily and used his almost childlike charm to draw people close to him.  No doubt, him being raised in the Orphanage had influenced that.

To adopt someone and push them away…  Colin didn’t understand why or how, but it got under his skin and made him tremble with impotent rage.  If Tess hadn’t been there, it probably would have escalated to violence very quickly.

Why did this bother him so much?

He didn’t have time to debate it much.  The workshop wasn’t very far away from the house, and easily just as big if not bigger than the factories in town.

The front door was unlocked, opening into a sort of reception or meeting area that looked mostly unused.  He followed Jordan’s footprints through a door.  Now it was looking more like a Tinker’s workshop.  The long hallway was flanked with doors that opened into tool rooms, storage rooms, or rooms full to the brim with equipment.  It almost reminded him of a factory.

He marched towards the door at the end of the hall, towards the sound of people talking.  Beyond the open double doors was the main workshop, full of large machines.  As they walked through the door, two women and a boy in his mid to late teens were talking.  Well, one of the women was talking, the other two were gaping.  When the woman turned to look, her face went pale.

Colin opened his helmet’s mouthpiece to speak.  “Where is he?”

Damn.  He’d hoped that he’d gotten better control over himself, but that came out far angrier than he’d wanted.

“Colin,” Tess said, firmly but gently as she laid a hand on his chest.  She turned to look back to the three.  “I’m sorry, he’s upset and he didn’t mean to take it out on the three of you.”

Colin took a deep breath and let it out slow.  That, and the guilt from fucking things up again, were enough to make his next words more tired.  “I didn’t.  And the three of you have probably been through a lot today.  I shouldn’t have used that tone with you.”

The boy, Chris, was the first to speak.  “You’re Defiant.”

Great, the boy was awestruck.  “Yes.”  He paused, trying to find something else to say.  “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

If there was a word for the opposite of smooth, he was definitely it.  He was going to run out of doofus chits today.

Tess smiled warmly, stepping forward.  “How are the three of you holding up?”

There was an awkward silence as the three of them glanced at each other.  Finally, Sarah spoke quietly.  “It’s… been a rough morning.”

“I know.  I’m sorry.  You’ve been through a lot, waking up early and being forced to be in the position that you’re in.”  She looked to Chris.  “Saying goodbye to your brother.”  She looked to Sarah.  “Being forced to watch him fight.  I wish that I could do something to make it easier for all of you.”

An awkward silence fell.  The kids didn’t know what to say, but there probably wasn’t a good way to say anything until they did.

But Chris was a Tinker.  With that, Colin did have a way to put him a little more at ease.  “Is that what you use to make your armor?” he asked, pointing at one of the large machines.

“Uh…”  The boy looked, almost stupefied.  “N-no, no.  Well, yes.  I mean, I make a lot of different cloths with that.  It’s set up to make my water filters right now.”

Colin nodded.  “I hear that they make water chemically pure.”

Chris nodded, tension fading from his body a little.  “Yeah.  I’m, uh, I’m working on that.  I know that chemically pure water isn’t the same as normally pure water, and that chemically pure can be bad for you.  So I’m working on mixing it up a little bit.  It’s hard, though.  My passenger is being slow and dumb about it.”

Tess nodded slowly.  “If you’d like some help with that…”

“No,” the other woman said, suddenly straightening her back and stepping forward.  “No offense, but they’ll probably agree.  I have to look out for his best interests, and I can’t, in all good faith, allow you to get a good look at his equipment.  We have contracts with the Dragon’s Teeth for the water filters, and it wouldn’t be good for business if another Tinker bypassed him entirely.”

Ugh.  Business.  Colin sighed.  “If we make an agreement not to commit any espionage, would that help?”

“I’d need it in writing,” she said firmly.  “A formal agreement.”

Tess smiled.  “We can do that.”

“What about the armor cloth?  I understand that you don’t have an agreement for that yet.”

Chris looked uncomfortable with that.  “I, uh…  I kind of wanted to save it for Br…  For Sarah and Jord…  I mean, uh…”

“It’s fine,” Tess said comfortingly.  “I understand, you want to protect your brother.  I don’t think that anyone could blame you for that.”

“I’d be surprised if you didn’t,” Colin admitted.  “Still, I have some ideas.  The last suit of armor that you made for him is good, surprisingly good, but it has some flaws.  Things that I doubt that your particular methodology can quite help you with.  I was hoping that we could come to an agreement.  If we could gain access to your cloth for the Dragon’s Teeth, we could work with you to create better armor for your siblings than what even the Dragon’s Teeth would get.”

Now Chris went back to having a stupified expression on his face.  “W-what?”

“Back up,” Sarah said cautiously.  “You’re being a little confusing here.  What are you getting at?”

“Jordan’s innocent,” Tess said.  “We all know it, and the oddities of what’s going on…  A worthwhile lawyer could tear any case that the Wardens made apart.  We may not be sure why he left the way that he did, but there’s no way that he would have killed all those people.  He’s an innocent bystander in all of this.  And what the Wardens had happen here today…  This violated all of the rules.”

She looked to Sarah.  “There was absolutely no reason for you to be there.  Even if it wasn’t against the rules, it was still cruel and unnecessary for everyone.  We’re trying to figure out what happened, and what’s currently going on.  We’re trying to help your brother, but we think that there might be some sort of outside influence.  Maybe something that made him run like he did…”

“To protect us,” Sarah said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.  “If they left him alive but killed every other parahuman, then he would have thought that they might go after me if he didn’t play along. They set him up to take the fall for it, and if he proved his innocence, then they might go after his family.”

That… sounded just like Jordan, actually.  It was believable, but something still didn’t feel quite right.  There was a piece of the puzzle that was missing, but Colin wasn’t sure what it was.

Before he could ask, though, a doorway opened in thin air.  Clad in winged gold and blue armor and wearing a helmet, Valkyrie stepped through it before the door closed again behind her.  Where were her ghosts?

The more adult Glaistig Uaine looked between the five of them, an almost playful smile on her face.  “Oh, good.  All of you are here.  That makes everything so much easier.  Before you get down to discussing business or whatever you were talking about, I believe that we should have a conversation about my investigation, and how Jordan fits into it.”