“I beg your pardon?”
“You’re acting on feeling, not fact. If we do as you suggest, people will die,” Jeanne Wynn said. She stood from her seat and used one hand to slide a laptop across the long table, until it was in front of Mr. John Druck. She fixed the angle of the laptop, then stood back. “These are the travel times for the supply trucks, these-”
She leaned over and struck a key.
“Are the production rates for the farms and the expected yield. When we asked, the agriculture groups were conservative. We asked others and did an independent estimate. Our numbers are less conservative, but we’re still cutting it close. We don’t have enough to feed people, and we don’t have enough to shelter people.”
“The workers need protections,” Sierra Kiley said.
“We do,” Mr. Druck said. He leaned back in his seat.
“Absolutely,” Jeanne said. “Speaking for Mortari, we’re not against labor law. We have some notes on future proposals for you to take home, which you should like.”
“Should I? Will I love it?” Mr. Druck asked.
“Not love. But you’ll like it fine. Everything cascades, Mr. Druck. One thing leads to another. We like a lot of the things that fit into the labor protection and we need to be mindful of some of those cascading factors. Shorter working hours improves health, and health is something that is going to rear its head before we’re done dealing with war and winter.”
“The specter of war, not the reality. Don’t try to scare us, Mrs. Wynn,” Sierra Kiley said.
“It’s a reality,” Jeanne said. “But it’s not what I want to focus on right now. Refugees reaching us from Bet are coming with some severe health issues. The worker surveys you were complaining about last week are giving us information today. People are reporting severe fatigue. It looks like your workers are sick, Mr. Druck. They need to account for that, because it’s not going to get better, they haven’t been getting paid while they’re striking, and the weather is getting colder.”
“Of course your surveys are giving you convenient points of data,” Sierra Kiley said.
“What kind of sick are you talking about?” Mr. Druck asked.
Jeanne reached down to the keyboard and moved the cursor before striking a key.
Mr. Druck stared at the screen.
“Show me?” Sierra asked.
Mr. Druck slid the laptop closer to her.
“Is it the power plants?” Mr. Druck asked.
“No,” Jeanne said. “Believe it or not, most nuclear power plants are remarkably safe. Capes and countermeasures were ready to handle most of them the moment we knew what was going on with Gold Morning. There is a radiation problem in Bet and it’s not from that.”
“Because of him?” Buckner asked. The man was prematurely graying, but attractive. He was also the man in charge of most of the news media, new small screen endeavors and new movie projects. In the next year, his work would start to see fruit.
He’d asked about ‘him’. Scion.
“We thought it was industrial contaminants, but it may be deeper than that. Some of it might be how Scion decided to use his power. More of it is the sheer damage he did to the planet itself. There’s a degree of it that’s impossible to know for certain, that has to do with the Class-S phenomena. Portals to other worlds, tinker tech left to molder. It’s not only the radiation either. Methane levels are rising, food stockpiles on that side are dwindling fast, and the people there are getting sick for a variety of reasons. We’re facing some immediate sacrifices if we want to keep the remaining people in Bet alive,” Jeanne said.
“I’m always leery of those who say others need to make sacrifices,” Mr. Nieves said.
Jeanne raised an eyebrow. Gary Nieves was a little on the portly side, and if he wasn’t at least forty, he certainly looked it. Otherwise, the man looked after himself and portrayed a good face to his constituency. Of the five people contending for mayorship over the city, where roughly half of the North American survivors of Gold Morning were staying, he polled in fourth place.
Still, of the five people in the running, he was one of the three who were present and discussing things. In a sense, really. He was slow to provide workable solutions and quick to criticize. In another era, he might have been a politician who rose up by being an effective critic of the incumbent. In this era, there was no incumbent.
“We’re all going to need to make sacrifices,” Jeanne said. “You can see our proposals online. The reception is strong. I can give each of you the first look at what we’re looking at doing, so we can all be on the same page. Anyone can visit our website and see the roadmap we laid out. This, what we’re talking about today, with labor law. It will improve employee health by one stage of separation. General happiness, satisfaction, keeping the peace, lower crime, all are minor factors or two steps or more removed.”
“That doesn’t mean they’re insignificant,” Mr. Druck said.
“Not insignificant. I would say…”
“Relatively less significant,” Jeanne’s assistant and husband Kurt said. He had his own laptop in front of him, and his eyes didn’t leave the screen, peering past thick-framed glasses that faintly reflected the image on the glowing screen. The sky beyond the window was dark, even with it being the middle of the afternoon, and the lights in the meeting room were off.
“Thank you dear,” Jeanne said.
Mr. Druck’s expression twisted. With Jeanne standing beside him, he had to push his chair back to take her in in full. He growled out the words, “Relatively less?”
“Compared to projected deaths in the millions,” Jeanne said, gently. “You can push us on this, but I think you’ll find that when the bodies start stacking up and people start finding out that their loved ones still on Bet are suffering or coming back with cancer, people will start asking why we weren’t more ready. You won’t have people on your side if it comes to that.”
“You’re going to suggest they ask, aren’t you?” Sierra Kiley asked.
“No. But I don’t know what Mr. Buckner will do,” she lied. She glanced at the media mogul.
“The news would report the truth, of course,” Mr. Buckner said.
“Of course,” Sierra said.
Jeanne moved her laptop, sliding it to her end of the table. Kurt handed her four ring-bound booklets without her asking.
She paused, laying one hand flat against the booklet on top of the short stack.
“Our proposal,” she said, returning her focus to the room. She distributed the booklets to Mr. Nieves, Mr. Buckner, Ms. Kiley, and Mr. Druck. “Read it. It’s our suggestion for worker protections and remediation, to go into effect in April of next year. If there’s an aspect of it you don’t like-”
“April?” Mr. Druck interrupted.
“-You may want to see our website. You can add and subtract factors and adjust the numbers, and it will note the effects, based on peer reviewed study and the input of some great minds. You don’t have to agree with the numbers, but they may help you predict our responses.”
“April,” Mr. Druck said, with more emphasis. “They’re not going to stand for this.”
“You riled them up, Mr. Druck, or you allowed them to be riled up,” Jeanne said. “This is in their best interests. Have them return to work. If they work themselves to the bone, lives will be saved, and they could be heralded as heroes in their own right.”
“A tainted word, hero,” Mr. Nieves said.
“People aren’t machines, Jeanne,” Sierra Kiley said. “They’re not numbers on a spreadsheet. They won’t want to go back to work without any incentives.”
“I’m trying to save as many people as I can. If people are reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet here, it’s because we have to work on that scale, we’re doing it in the best ways we can, for their benefit.”
“People are irrational,” Sierra said. “Brockton Bay and New Brockton are platinum standards when it comes to rebuilding after a disaster. Trust me when I say that people don’t act in their own best interests. Especially when it comes to making sacrifices.”
“The only way we save those millions –tens of millions- is if we bring them from Earth Bet to here and give them the care they need. We have to let the remaining refugees in before winter takes hold and before war necessitates barring passage. It means throwing paperwork out the window and focusing on transporting them in, and it’s going to be hell. It’s also going to need people to help it happen.”
“Mr. Druck’s people,” Sierra said.
“And yours. New Brockton is important in this. Talk to your workers. If the ones who were in Bet too long start working now and get sick, they’ll be protected financially. It’s in the proposal. That’s your incentive.”
Ms. Kiley and Mr. Druck leaned together, whispering.
Jeanne took a seat next to Kurt, situating her laptop back in front of herself. She checked her messages. The attack on the Fallen was underway. There were already deaths, and it would get worse before it got better.
No other news. It was the other news that concerned her most. Others were playing a different game, and their perspectives were… distorted. They might have said the same for her, even with her ongoing efforts to maintain some objectvity.
“I think this may be my last day sitting in on these meetings,” Mr. Nieves said, interrupting her thoughts. She noticed that he hadn’t opened the booklet she’d placed in front of him, or even moved it from the position.
“Why?” Jeanne asked.
“I serve a dwindling base. Every day that passes that we don’t go back to Bet to rebuild is a day I lose the faith of my supporters.”
“We’ll be sorry to see you go, Mr. Nieves,” she said.
“No you won’t,” he said.
“Your perspective has always been valuable. A dissenting voice is valuable,” Jeanne said.
“An ineffectual voice, if an essentially critical one,” he said. “Don’t flatter me. I’m not interested, and I don’t want flattery from you.”
The tone of those last few words saw Ms. Kiley and Mr. Druck stop talking and start paying attention to Mr. Nieves.
“I thought we got along fine.”
“I’ve always wondered about these booklets and your computer program. Others wonder too.”
Website, not computer program, Jeanne mentally corrected. “Wonder?”
“The exacting numbers, the complexity. This was made by parahumans.”
“We consulted them, yes.”
He pushed the booklet her way. “This is parahuman, not human.”
“All of us are in this together, Gary,” Jeanne said. “Human and parahuman.”
“It’s as if we’re locked in a cage with a wolf,” Mr. Nieves said. “Except I have to wonder about the ‘we’ part of it. Ms. Kiley is a vaguely familiar name. Not to her credit, but familiar. I could believe she’s not a parahuman. I don’t think she would be a good leader, but she’s not one of them. You, though.”
Not a trailing thought, not a question. A statement.
“We believe in using every resource we have to do the greatest amount of good,” Jeanne said.
Gary Nieves stood from his seat. He picked up the book, holding it by one corner. He looked like he was going to say something, then stopped. When he did speak, it was with a different expression- sadder than angry.
“Sitting at this table, being a part of discussions with other Earths, talking to the Wardens, everything else, it affords us a privilege the people don’t get. We have to hear how bad it really is.”
Sierra spoke, “I’d phrase it as ‘we get to hear’, not ‘have to hear’.”
“It’s an opportunity to help,” Jeanne said.
Mr. Nieves shook his head. “Every time I come here, I hear about new disasters. Machinery that should never have been built, now with dead owners, still running. People that snapped with the end of the world. Broken quarantines. Every time I come, three to five days a week, something new. Today I hear about a war outside of New Haven, and innocents will die, many will come out in body bags.”
“The straw that broke the camel’s back?” Mr. Buckner asked. The media mogul sounded more casual than anything.
Nieves didn’t sound casual. “It’s one more thing. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it’s the parahumans. It’s wolves people like me are trapped in a cage with, and they’re gathering into packs and reverting to their feral programming.”
“Wolves were domesticated to become dogs,” Jeanne said.
“These wolves killed billions,” Gary Nieves said. “I don’t think we can afford to give them more power over us. We don’t have that much left to spare.”
“What would you propose as an alternative?” Jeanne asked. “If you’ll read the booklet, I think it’s sound and there’s nothing especially strange in there.”
Gary’s smile was tight, fighting to become a sneer, because of the feelings he was holding back. Disgust. “I’ve talked to people about it. Ex-PRT, police, scholars. Those conversations were back when I thought I could get a foothold here, when I thought people might see what you’re doing and where it comes from.”
‘What are we doing?” Jeanne asked.
“Using powers. I asked about these proposals and I got a lot of answers and information about powers, the push toward violence and the dramatic, the loss of the human in the midst of it all. There was a time when many people with powers wanted to use their powers for mundane things. Rogues. It kept going wrong, didn’t it?”
“We could have a discussion on that,” Jeanne said. “If it’s a concern, I’d like to address it, because it’s nuanced.”
Nieves shook his head, expression twisting again. “If you know, then you know. When powers are used to produce materials, generate powers, there are traps, aren’t there? The powers don’t want to be used for simple, stupid things like nine to five jobs or manual labor. They want to fight, to hurt, or to cause chaos.”
“Many of them do, yes,” Jeanne said.
“Even when they seem tame, it ends in disaster. Hidden catches, or materials that were conjured from nowhere start to go back to nowhere after months or years.”
“Other worlds, not nowhere. But yes.”
Gary Nieves threw the booklet across the table. “What’s the catch? Where’s the trap?”
“There’s a subset of powers that seem to buck the trend, Mr. Nieves. That’s what I’d like to discuss with you, if it’s a concern.”
Powers derived from other sources. Powers bought and bartered for.
But to say it here, with people like Mr. Druck and Mr. Buckner at the table? Too dangerous.
“I’m done,” Mr. Nieves said. “You don’t need to worry about me anymore. I’m not a general who can handle this war that seems so inevitable, and I’m not someone who can come up with computer programs that break something this chaotic into something deceptively elegant-”
Kurt sniffed slightly.
“-And frankly,” Mr. Nieves said, “It fucking terrifies me that you’re one or both of those things.”
Those were the man’s parting words. Mr. Nieves gathered his things, including an umbrella, and marched from the room that was far too large for the table in its center.
“We’ll look this over and we’ll discuss,” Sierra said.
“I’ll discuss with people, sound them out,” Mr. Druck said.
“Thank you,” Jeanne said.
“I’ll talk to some people about it as well,” Mr. Buckner said. “I’m going to go before there’s any rain.”
“What we discuss here stays off the record,” Jeanne said.
“Yes, yes. Off the record, but still important.”
A power player of another sort, but at least he was cooperative.
Mr. Druck and Mr. Buckner left. Two very different people- the working class spokesman and the master of media with his expensive suit. They talked as they went.
Kurt, Sierra, and Jeanne remained.
“Any word?” Sierra asked. “You were looking at your computer.”
“Seven fatalities. Both villain groups had guns. I haven’t heard about any of your… compatriots being hurt.”
“Citrine-” Sierra started. “Jeanne. There was an occasion about three days ago that I was updating them on our meetings here. Tattletale said that Cauldron once told the Undersiders that they had no interest in being in charge.”
“I’m not Cauldron,” Jeanne said.
“It looks to me like you married in,” Sierra said.
Jeanne looked at her hand, then at Kurt’s. The bands were Damascus, not gold. Hers had a yellow diamond inset into it. Gold had seemed crass, but a yellow gemstone had seemed essential.
“And,” Sierra said. “I couldn’t help but notice you haven’t denied you want to be in charge.”
“Humanity is wounded on an extradimensional, macro level,” Jeanne said. “Finding solutions for this kind of damage requires the perspective of people with a sense for the big picture. The biggest kind of picture.”
“But do you want it? That position, where you’re finding the solutions and looking down on things from that high a seat?”
“Yes,” Jeanne said.
“You might be the only person that really wants it,” Sierra said.
“We might be the only ones who can do it,” Jeanne said.
“Gary’s right. That’s spooky,” Sierra said.
“I don’t think that’s fair.”
Sierra nodded. She gathered her things. No umbrella or raincoat. Jeanne had always felt Sierra was more the type to walk in the rain and let it pour down onto her than to be wearing business casual in a room like this.
The book was the last thing Sierra picked up. She looked at the cover.
“Want another copy to give to Tattletale?” Jeanne asked.
Jeanne tapped her power, covering the table’s long surface with a yellow tint. In a second mind’s eye, she could see that slice of space as a world unto itself. There were around sixty thousand variables that Jeanne was aware of, but she had to look for them to grasp them. Friction. Tuned… seventy five units.
She gave the book a push, and it sailed across the table like an air hockey puck, rotating. Sierra stopped it with one hand.
One of Sierra’s fingers tapped the cover. “Accord?”
“Spooky,” Sierra said, again. She collected the book, putting it with the other, and gathered her bag.
Jeanne continued to feel it wasn’t a very fair assertion. She sat back down beside Kurt, at the empty table in a hall that could have hosted an elegant ballroom dance, with tables at either end, a bar, and more room for groups to gather by the windows and socialize.
She poked at the key on her keyboard to refresh the page.
She moved over to the side of the keyboard to hit the key combination to switch windows, and her fingers met Kurt’s. He was already there, reading her mind, switching the window for her. She hit the key to refresh that page too.
More deaths. Tattletale had broken away while the other Undersiders had ventured into the fight, and Jeanne had no idea why. What was Tattletale doing?
Her fingers knit together with Kurt’s, but backward, knuckles crossing knuckles. The smooth surface of her ring grazed his finger.
Holding her knuckles like that, he raised her hand up to his mouth and kissed her palm, then her wrist.
“You’re worried about something.”
“The Wardens didn’t ask us before they signed off on this, yet they have people devoted to idiotic things like rescuing people from time bubbles and loops. Tattletale is maneuvering and I don’t think she has a good perspective when it comes to the big picture. There are monsters like the self-styled Goddess out there.”
“The Blue Empress of Earth Shin.”
“Sleeper is still parked in Zayin. I wanted to tell Gary Nieves that Cauldron capes are stable. We have the power and we’re not as driven toward violence and drama. We’re safe.”
“Safer,” Kurt said.
“Safer. Yes. None of the others are that safe. They threaten to weaken us at a time we can’t afford it. This idiotic business with the Fallen could leave us without enough people watching the portals. Earth-C could attack and having critical people in an asinine fight could be what leaves us vulnerable.”
“If you wanted it, you could seize the reins. The others are down or out. You could take charge and start making decisions.”
Jeanne leaned back in her seat. She surrendered her defenses, for one fleeting moment. She gave Kurt a look, worried, momentarily insecure.
Kurt was the only person she’d ever allowed herself to show that insecurity to.
He leaned over and gave her a brief kiss. He looked her in the eyes, and he said, “I know where you come from, Jeanne. Somehow, I don’t feel like I’m a species of one when I’m with you. Don’t doubt your ability to do this.”
Jean slouched in her seat. All around her, people were talking with lawyers, with parents, with family and friends. There were only fifty girls at the institution, all wearing navy blue sweats, or sweat bottoms and white t-shirts. Guards were stationed at points around the room.
Every week, it seemed, someone left, and someone came back in.
“Do you know who I am, Jean Brown?” the man sitting across from her asked. He was young, but short.
Jean shrugged. “Someone my parents hired?”
“I’m someone that hires, not someone who is hired,” he said. “I own several businesses in Boston.”
Boston. She made the connection and immediately started paying more attention. She sat up, gripping the seat with both hands to push herself up to a sitting position.
“I’ve been made aware that you recently had an altercation with a girl from Boston.”
“Yes,” she said. “Yes sir.”
“Tell me how that went.”
What was she supposed to say or do? Tell the truth? Beg?
He seemed like the no-nonsense type. For perhaps the first time in her life, she decided to play things straight.
“When they brought me in here, I was given the tour by another one of the girls in juvie. They pointed out Lindsay. They said everything had to get run by her.”
“Phrasing,” he said. “‘Get run’ is not proper English.”
“What are you, my teacher?” she asked. Reflex.
He leaned forward, meeting her eyes with his. “I may end up being one, Jean Brown. Keep in mind that some lessons are more final than others.”
She felt the thrill of terror as she heard that. One of her hands slipped from the edge of the chair she was gripping and she adjusted her position in the seat, hands clasped together and pressed down into her lap.
“Continue,” he said.
“I didn’t want to run things by her. She was telling us when we could get ourselves- when we could get commissary, and when we could go to the bathroom. Right away, I knew I didn’t like her.”
“This dislike and frustration led to you pinning her down, cutting her lower eyelid off, and lacerating the other eye?” He arched an eyebrow as he asked it.
“I would’ve cut all of the eyelids off without cutting the eye itself if she hadn’t thrashed so much. Either way, I was placed in S.T. and they brought me out to see you.”
“She was mine, Jean Brown. She did me a favor and that favor led to her confinement here. She interpreted one of my instructions too loosely, and that is why she was to spend the one year here before she turned eighteen and graduates out, instead of finding her way out right away. She had a position waiting for her. Now I have to figure out what I’ll do with her… and I have you to deal with.”
Jean swallowed, and found it harder to swallow than she wanted. She tried to look nonchalant.
“She’s not the first person you’ve grievously injured. You have several more years here and after that you’ll graduate to an adult prison to see out the remainder of your sentence.”
Jeanne looked away.
“Look at me.”
“I’ve noticed the pattern behind your actions here, and I’ve identified it as a desperate grab for standing. It was crude, rising up by cutting people down. You used a razor on a classmate’s face and attacked a teacher.”
She hesitated, then asked, “Sir?”
“Yes, Jean Brown?”
“Can I ask why you’re talking to me instead of having someone hurt me like I hurt her?”
“You may ask,” he said.
When he didn’t follow up, she connected the thought, and asked, “Why, sir?”
“Because, Jean Brown, I understand the desire to rise up and desperately make sense of a world that seems so senseless. I read every file that can be found about you, and I don’t believe you ever had a chance to be civilized.”
“Please speak and inquire in complete sentences. I know who your stepfather is, I know who your teachers have been. Your judge remarked on your privileged background, but you were the last file he looked at after an overworked day. He hadn’t had a vacation in five years and his retirement was imminent. He was lazy and he didn’t see you.”
Jean felt a thrill similar to the fear that had run through her earlier. This time, however, it was at the realization that maybe this man sitting in front of her saw her, like the judge hadn’t.
“A lawyer will take and appeal your cases. Lindsay will change her mind about who attacked her, and your other cases will be addressed. You will be out shortly. You’ll get and accept a scholarship for a private school in Boston and then you will rise to the top of the class. You will make no fewer than five friends of standing and class, and you will attend private tutoring classes after school that will round out your education in other things.”
Her head spun with the paradigm shift.
“This will be far more difficult than juvenile prison, and even more difficult than being a newly minted eighteen years old in an adult’s prison, Jean Brown. You will want to do as I instruct, regardless of this difficulty.”
She wanted to ask why, and her instincts told her that she couldn’t and shouldn’t.
Failure wasn’t an option.
“You get one chance, Ms. Brown.”
“Ms. Kiley’s polls are down,” Kurt said.
“The spike was because of how closely New Brockton is affiliated with industry and construction. It was always going to be short lived. I think she knew it, when she walked away today. Mr. Nieves is gone, Kiley is out. Russel isn’t really trying.”
“Leaving only Mrs. Songmin.”
“She hasn’t attended any of the meetings or discussions. She’s campaigning, but that’s all there is.”
“She is a politician. She knows how these things work.”
“She’s a contender, but not a concern,” Jeanne said. “I’ve never run for any seat or position, but I’m more of a politician than she is.”
Kurt laughed, head going back. The laugh echoed through the empty room.
“You know it’s true.”
“Oh, I do know. I like how succinctly you put it.”
“Being succinct was essential to surviving among the Ambassadors,” Jeanne said.
“I did like Accord,” Kurt said. “Peculiar, but he was an asset.”
Two hours had passed, and neither of them had left the hall or their seats at the table, except to bring a cup of coffee to the table or to use the facilities. The laptop screens glowed and the light from overhead was more mood than office lighting. The rain poured.
Hours ago, things had turned for the worse, in that localized war outside of New Haven. Those things, to an extent, had little to do with them. When they got back to their home and business, they would get the full update on the dead and lost. Documents would be updated, and some plans would be shifted around.
Every five to fifteen minutes, Jeanne checked news and cell feeds to see if there had been an attack from zealots or another crisis taking advantage of the distraction. That possibility concerned her more than the death of Tattletale, the swelling of Fallen ranks by way of mind control, seizing most of the survivors, or any other hypothetical scenarios she might imagine.
Kurt had fallen silent, as he checked his information. His screen was a tide of numbers and account balances for several moments. He refreshed a page, then turned his laptop for her to see. With black text on a white page, and the room so dim, it was glaring, and her tired eyes had to adjust to interpret.
“We found him. The thief.”
“If I found him, others might have too,” Kurt said. He stood and closed the laptop. The acknowledgement that they would have to act was left unspoken.
Others. Jeanne knew who they were.
Jeanne stood as well. Laptop closed and placed in a messenger bag, joined with the booklets and papers she’d brought with her in case more showed.
There were no portals. They couldn’t speak a word and request a doorway to any place or alternate earth. The act of getting to the old headquarters was… arduous. The way to the old Cauldron headquarters was to travel to Cote D’Ivoire and use the spare portal there. It was easier to situate themselves in the city.
Besides. The old base had been commandeered.
Kurt had his phone out and at his side, his thumb typing.
“You’re requesting your brothers?”
“The pair. I’ll reach out to several of the employees. It might be overkill to call in a favor.”
“Worthwhile overkill if it helps us deal with him.”
The car was waiting outside. Every other car on the road was a dark shade or dark gray, but her sedan was yellow. She had a weakness for finer touches like that. She preferred to drive, but she acknowledged that it was better if Kurt handled it, for instances like this. Again, the unspoken communication between them had him going straight to the driver’s side.
He peeled out, with no regard to speed limit or the vagaries of traffic.
Kurt spoke, “Friction, plus fifteen, one hundred feet ahead, in five, four, three, two, one.”
She placed the effect of her power. The car turned, wheels skidding. The nose of the vehicle grazed the back bumper of a truck that was slower to make the turn. She knew there wouldn’t be a mark.
“Forty three minutes away,” Kurt said. “With up to one minute added time for maneuvering around traffic.”
So many things were reliant on resources. Money- they handled money and they had money. Kurt had arranged the trading dollar and he’d made it work. A city couldn’t run on barter, and a megalopolis was far more involved than a city.
People were another resource. They had people, but it was scattered. She had seen and worked out the state of Cauldron over the years, after taking over Accord’s position as head of the Ambassadors. She’d known it to be a very large place with very little staff. That much remained true now. When they needed it, as they did now, they could tap their scattered group and make things happen. It was the nature of their group and the people they collected that when they gathered together, they worked together like a perfectly engineered machine.
Knowledge, they were keeping something of a handle on knowledge. Information on friends, on enemies. They still talked to Tattletale now and then because she was a prime source of knowledge, albeit of the uncertain sort.
Things grew more difficult, past that point. Time was a harder resource to obtain.
Nine minutes into their trip, time and people converged as elements. Kurt rolled down the back windows of the sedan. The windows were barely rolled down when lithe forms slipped into the back of the vehicle, as it tore down a forty mile an hour road at seventy-five miles an hour.
“Thank you for coming,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” Kurt’s younger siblings said. They’d cleaned up, and loosely matched Kurt in presentation, though they’d gone for something more fitting for teenagers. Both wore the thick-framed glasses, however.
Kurt became annoyed with them very quickly, so it had ended up being her responsibility to corral them and give them direction.
If she ever had a doubt that she was Kurt’s type, the fact that his clones were so bad at hiding their fondness for her would have banished the thought. It never failed to put a smile on her face.
“Red vehicle. Wind shear slow, type three, offset by three feet left. Make it a minus five, whenever you please.”
She produced a brief field to encompass the left side of a red truck, causing it to pull to one side. Kurt navigated between two vehicles, her sedan centered on the dotted line as it squeezed between the two. The red truck saw them and braked suddenly, pulling further to the side. She canceled out her power before another vehicle could intercept it or the red truck could be forced off course. Kurt picked up speed once he was clear of the gap.
“Could you give the engine special treatment? I know effects on moving things are hard to maintain, but I can keep the speed constant.”
“Time is of the essence,” she said.
She placed the power over the engine, focusing to get it centered. Acceleration.
“This would be easier if we had Fortuna,” she said.
“She gave her all to get us this far. It would be asking a lot, for her to give us the remainder of her years. We’ll see ourselves the rest of the way. She can live her life as she sees fit.”
Jeanne privately disagreed, but she didn’t make a point with it. Not with Kurt’s younger selves in the car.
There was one more resource, time aside, that they were critically short on. Not power, specifically; it looked as though she had a mostly uncontested path ahead of her to the leadership over Earth Gimel’s largest population.
Powers, though? Any authority over powers themselves would be dangerous in the wrong hands. That kind of authority threatened to wipe away any kind of meaning when it came to money, people, knowledge or time. She knew because she leveraged it.
It was an arm’s race to maintain that leverage and it was ruin to lose it.
Which led them to the thief, wheels barely maintaining the necessary traction on the road. They’d started forty-three minutes away and they took twenty minutes to get to their destination.
They came to a stop and the wheels of the car smoked.
“He’s still here?” she asked.
“He hasn’t owned a car in all the years we kept tabs on him, and I had systems set to freeze all transportation. Knowing his usual habits, he’ll know something is wrong and he’ll be running out into hills. More help is arriving. We’ll save time if we wait.”
“Who are we after?” one of the two boys asked.
Kurt rattled off a series of numbers, for facial measurements and metrics.
“We’ll go ahead?” the other boy asked.
“Don’t stray far. Go out that way,” Kurt said.
The two left.
“I never did that,” Kurt said.
“They’ve picked up other things. I don’t know if it’s because they copy me when they see me or if it’s because they’re getting it in other ways.”
“You should have studied more about powers,” Jeanne said. “I think it’s the latter.”
“You seem annoyed if they’re dissimilar to you and you’re annoyed if they’re similar.”
“I’m offended they exist,” Kurt said.
“I like them. I see them and I’m reminded of how I used to be. We traveled similar journeys, didn’t we? We were vicious once, and now we’re civilized.”
“We’re still vicious,” he said. “Good grooming doesn’t clean that slate, nor should it.”
“Fair,” she said. “Who are we waiting for?”
“A handsome fellow known as Barfbat.”
“I know Barfbat. He took us out to eat, remember? The restaurant had chickens in cages just outside the door.”
“Was that him? Right. Well, speak of the devil and he’ll appear.”
Barfbat winged his way down. Tumorous, fluid-filled growths deflated and his wings retracted.
“Hi Barfbat,” Jeanne said.
“It’s nice to see you, Jeanne. This is really it, Number Man? I’m done?”
“This will be the last favor we ask of you, and your contract from June 1998 will be considered finished,” Kurt said.
“It’s about time,” Barfbat said. “Decades of my life spent keeping a phone nearby.”
“We’ve helped you out along the way, as payment for having you in reserve. But time is of the essence. Can you sniff out our man? I think he’ll be scared.”
Barfbat nodded. A slit appeared down the center of his face, and then it parted in layers, each layer adding to a flower-like bloom that was a comprehensive nose that obscured eyes and ears both. Tumors swelled and filled with fluid around his neck and shoulders, stretching out until the skin was transparent, veins standing out where the light hit them.
He broke into a run, arms extending until he could use them to help run, and Jeanne and Kurt both followed. As they reached the outskirts of the little town, they caught up with Kurt’s younger ‘brothers’.
Barfbat had an augmented body, but Kurt and his brothers had efficient movement. Jeanne was fit, she exercised and ran every day, and she could use her power to help traverse obstacles or reduce wind resistance, but it was still an effort to keep up.
They caught up with the thief. It didn’t take long. The terrain was hilly, and that slowed their quarry more than it slowed any of them.
‘The thief’ was a middle-aged eastern Indian man, forehead creased in concern. He’d grown out a beard and his hair was long, tied into a knot at the back. He dressed simply, ready for the outdoors.
“Balminder,” Kurt said.
The thief, Jeanne thought. The Dealer. He absconded with as many vials as he could take. Kurt had said that along with Manton’s defection, it was one of a series of betrayals that led to Cauldron keeping their roster small and disconnected.
Kurt waved the others back. Barfbat and the two boys backed off, keeping a respectful distance, so the conversation would be quiet.
“I make one mistake,” Balminder said. “Less than an hour later, you’re here.”
“We’ve always known where you were and what you were doing, Balminder,” Kurt said. “The time has come. You have a fair amount left. Give it to us.”
“You’ve hunted me for half a decade.”
“We kept tabs on you for three years and hunted you for the last two.”
“Why not take me right away, if I was so easy to find?”
“Because, Balminder,” Kurt said, “You were plausible deniability and a scapegoat, if we needed one, and you were one of a dozen pieces we kept in play, as people who could be arranged to rescue Cauldron if it was ever lost, if we gave someone a power that gave them absolute control over us. It was good to have some vials out there that would take concerted effort to find.”
“It was a small supply,” Balminder said.
“I know for a fact this ‘small supply’ was not exhausted. You have some left over. It should be a hundred and thirty to a hundred and forty vials.”
“The number is zero,” Balminder said. “They’ve been claimed. I thought they were you.”
“Zero is my least favorite number,” Kurt said, in an uncharacteristically dangerous voice.
“Don’t kill him,” Jeanne said. “We can get answers out of him.”
“We know what those answers will be.”
“We’ll ask,” she said.
Kurt deferred, stepping back.
“Claimed,” Jeanne said the word. “Explain.”
“By a man. A month or two ago. He called himself Teacher. I didn’t even slip up, he just- he appeared. And he had a small army of people with powers with him.”
“A small army,” Jeanne said. “It’s good to know.”
“It is. Thinkers and tinkers, Balminder? Negligible powers?” Kurt asked.
“Not just those. Not negligible. I know my powers, Number Man. I know my shit. This wasn’t trifling.”
“Maybe not an Ingenue tweak,” Jeanne observed.
“He has other avenues of access, then,” Kurt said. “He has the old base, and what was empty is now fully staffed. Now he has an army.”
“We might have to revisit the truce we made,” Jeanne said. “We thought the Undersiders knocked him down enough pegs that he wouldn’t recoup fast. It seems he’s more resourceful than that.”
“Teacher’s Cauldron,” one of the two boys said.
“The Cauldron is fractured,” Kurt said. “Like so many things. We can’t afford the resources to mend the divide or deal with this army, small or otherwise. The city would fall while our backs are turned.”
It might fall nonetheless, Jeanne thought. It was possible to do everything perfectly and to still fail, and try as they might, they wouldn’t get everything right.
“We’ll take the city,” she aid. “No use delaying now. If he has Cauldron, we’ll take everything else. If we take the city, we can control the Wardens. If the Fallen come out ahead, we’ll control them.”
“Um,” Balminder said.
“You can come with us or you can go and keep your mouth shut,” she said. “We’re a splinter of Cauldron, but we could count it as you coming back into the fold.”
“We were never upset,” Kurt said. “Not really.”
“Think on it,” Jeanne said.
She and Kurt walked a short distance away and let Balminder do his thinking.
“You sounded almost as if you hope it will happen,” Kurt observed. “The Fallen winning.”
“Not hope. But I think it’s more likely than not, so I’m planning accordingly.”
“I don’t disagree. Anything to deal with Teacher, is it? Even deals with the devil.”