“B. Alright. Which half? Again. Alright. T, u-. Alright. Ambulance? Ambush? Ambush it is. I’m going to write that down.”
My voice didn’t sound like mine, as I went through the steps. Robotic, methodical, motivated rather than cheer. No, cheer was the polar opposite of the emotion that touched my voice. Harrowed fit better. My finger shook as I moved it to the screen of my phone, to the point where I missed the ‘A’.
Beside me, Crystal rubbed my shoulder and back. “Do you want me to take over?”
I shook my head. Stubbornly, I backed out of the special characters bubble and returned to the keyboard. I hit the ‘A’ with more deliberation.
I looked up from the screen. A white cloth had been laid out in the emergency tent, between a plastic sheet and a stretcher. A black outline marked a loose human form, and the parts that had been found and identified were laid out on the stretcher. The area of the plastic sheet outside of that outlined figure was littered with rows and columns of unidentifiable segments that had been attributed to Nailfarer specifically.
“You didn’t see their faces?” I asked the segment of Nailfarer’s head. Only one third of the head sat on the white cloth, but with the way Scaffold’s architecture had impaled his head, this was one of only two segments we had that possessed its sight and hearing.
There was so much hair attached to this segment of head. It would only be shoulder-length if everything were back the way it should be, but with this part of the head being so small, it seemed like a lot.
My question was answered with two belated blinks.
“You didn’t see their faces. Did they touch you when they used their power?”
“Unsure? Alright.” It would have been so useful to know if the power had involved touch.
“Why were you out here?” Crystal asked, jumping in. “Did they invite you?”
“Hold on,” I said.
“Sure,” she said.
“Nailfarer. Daiyu. I asked these questions before and I’m going to ask again. Do you want to keep going?”
“Is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable?”
Another ‘yes’ blink.
“Alphabet?” I asked. I swiped my phone, showing her the crude drawing- A-L on one side and M-Z on the other.
Blink, and after a moment’s delay, a movement of the eye, looking off to the left of the phone.
Without turning it around I swiped the phone left. A-F and G-L. Again, a look to her left, my right. A-F.
“A, B, C- alright.” I repeated the process, ignoring the commotion as people came into the tent. “M, N, O-. ‘Co’. G-H-I-J-K-L-. Cold?”
“They set up heat lamps here, we’re getting you warmed up as best we can. After this you’ll be moved to a hospital and you’ll be warmer-”
Two blinks. ‘No’.
“You want the cold,” I said.
“It might help if it numbs things,” Crystal said.
As I turned to look at Crystal, horrified, I almost missed seeing it. I turned back to Nailfarer. “Again?”
A blink. Confirmation.
“One of us should go talk to someone in charge, then. It might be the same for Scaffold and Slingstone. Do you need a break?”
I shook my head.
“I’ll be right back,” Crystal said. She flew to her feet instead of climbing to them.
I took a deep breath, before meeting Nailfarer’s eye. “Do you want your head chilled too?”
Two blinks. No. Then there was a pause. Three blinks followed.
“After?” I guessed.
One blink, slower than the ones before.
“After, then. We’ll keep that eye of yours mobile and get the information to get these guys?”
The blink was firm, followed by eye contact as steady as anything she’d managed up to this point.
Outside, there was still a lot of commotion. Many of the body parts had been found but not identified. I was pretty sure that was what Slingstone was doing.
“Anything else you need?” I asked, putting my hand to the left, then I extended my right hand off to the side, “Or back to the questions?”
“We can stop at any time. Four blinks, I’ll know you’ve hit your limit. Anything you can provide is useful, but if you need to back out, you don’t need to worry. We have a tinker device we can try using.”
Two blinks for no.
“Do you have something to volunteer?” I asked. I still didn’t recognize my own voice. I was trying to sound gentle, but I worried I sounded like someone on the cusp of screaming or crying instead. I extended the other hand. “Or should I ask my questions?”
“I’d like to rattle off some possibilities, is that okay?”
One blink for yes.
“You were out here when they attacked. Did they bait you?”
“Did they call? Email? Leave a message? Message. Through a messenger or courier? Paper? Electronic. Electronic, alright. You had a website, I think, was it through that? Another website? Yes, okay. Parahumans Online?”
A message asking to meet with them, through Parahumans Online, baiting them here, where they were ambushed and taken apart, left alive and suffering.
I verified the information I had thus far, recapping it for her. One blink for yes.
Information confirmed by our witness, I sent a message to all cape teams in our network, warning them to be careful of anything similar. I added further instructions to warn any independent heroes they knew.
I left out the particulars of what had happened to the Navigators.
“The bait, was it anonymous? A guest account? Alright. Were they posing as a fellow hero? A person in need? A villain? Someone with information?”
One blink to confirm on ‘information’.
“Was it information on your enemies? Allies? The city? Other Earths?” I asked. Nothing. “Do you want to spell it out?”
One blink, then three. I got my phone out and set it back to the starting image in the gallery. “Tell me what you need to say.”
A yes. I could see it in her eye, how it were more active, but there was a wildness to it. Distracted.
“It’s getting worse? The pain?”
“I’ll be right back,” I said. I headed to the opening of the tent and flagged down a doctor.
The woman came inside. She looked spooked. Justifiably.
“Did Laserdream talk to you?”
“She’s talking to other doctors.”
“Nailfarer wants the heaters turned off- we’ll leave the one on by her head. She’s anxious about it.”
“Isn’t hurting her. I don’t think the individual parts can even be truly damaged at this point. But it’s uncomfortable, and she would prefer to be numb. I get the impression drugs aren’t helping-”
The doctor shook her head. “Localized to certain parts, as far as we can tell.”
“Can we?” I asked, indicating the heaters.
In the end, the answer was a ‘no’, but it wasn’t a fearful or malicious no. They were wanting to load up the three victims and get them somewhere safe. I made my arguments, and after the doctors consulted, they settled on using a collection of ice boxes.
As the ice boxes were used, I could see Nailfarer’s eye and the area around it shift and change, her face reacting in small ways. When we’d found them, they had been paralyzed by the cold. That was only part of it, however. The parts that had been thawed could move, think more clearly, and felt the connections to the other parts elsewhere, but they didn’t always have the necessary parts. Nailfarer didn’t have every muscle and nerve that would communicate to parts around her damaged tissue.
“Keep the head and the right hand out of the coolers,” one doctor said – not one I’d been communicating with.
“She’d prefer to have her hand in the cooler, I’m pretty sure,” I said.
“I want her to be able to signal and gesture to communicate. The hand has some limited mobility. If she needs something she can raise her hand.”
“I have a communication system, I can stay with her and interpret-”
“Just keep it out of the cooler,” the doctor said, brusque. “Excuse me.”
I nodded, getting out of his way.
I looked around. I saw Vista, standing off to one side, stoic. Crystal was talking to the woman in charge and some doctors. Golem and Cuff were with Slingshot.
The atmosphere was heavy. It was an entirely separate and distinct feeling from the claustrophobic feeling that had settled in over the course of the last-
I checked my phone.
-the last thirty-five minutes. It had only been thirty-five minutes?
“Are you comfortable enough?” I asked Nailfarer.
“Not with the situation being what it is, obviously. But is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable?”
“Just let me know,” I said. “I’m staying close.”
The fingers moved clumsily- not like a hand should. One finger tapped hard against the metal pan it had been laid down on.
One tap equivalent to one blink?
Crystal wrapped up her conversation, with Golem, Cuff, and Vista in the general orbit of that meeting of paramedics and police. The policewoman in charge was still organizing the grid-like search of the field and the area around the tree.
“Hey cuz,” Crystal said, sounding very tired. Not just fatigue- she was heartsick. “We should look at getting you home.”
“I’m going to stay with Nailfarer,” I said. “I think we worked out our communication system pretty well.”
One sharp tap on the metal pan. Cuff jumped.
“Yeah. Pretty well,” I said, my heart breaking a little.
“This isn’t good for you,” Crystal said.
“Doesn’t matter. They need someone to be their advocate. Slingstone and Scaffold can’t talk?”
“Not much,” Vista said. “Scaffold’s head is a mess, but he’s still alive somehow. Slingstone broke down. They tried to put him under and it seems to have worked.”
“Then I’m going to stay with these guys, see them to the hospital. I’ll make sure they don’t need anything.”
“I can do that,” Crystal said. “I know how your communication system works. I did it with- I’ve done it before.”
I saw her glance at Vista. Vista had some idea. Golem and Cuff- not so much.
“You did it with me. Yeah, I know.”
“Trust me? Let me help.”
“You’re freezing, you just came back from a classified misson, and my dad is expecting you at your apartment.”
“I’ll warm up at the hospital, your dad is in the top one percent when it comes to understanding ‘we had a hero thing’ as an excuse, and I might have just come back from a warzone-”
Golem cleared his throat.
“You didn’t hear that.”
I shook my head.
“…But a classified mission is one thing. You just picked fights with Teacher, Goddess, and Lung.”
“Holy shit. Lung?” Vista asked.
“Wow,” Golem said.
“And Goddess!” Crystal said, wheeling on them. “And a guy who was in the Birdcage for very good reasons, who is now at the top of his game! Major people.”
“Lung is major,” Golem said, defensive.
“Lung was major in our city! These people are major on multiple inhabited worlds!”
“I didn’t fight Goddess or Teacher directly,” I said.
Crystal reached out and gripped me by the front of my coat, only a few inches away from having her hands around my neck.
“If you forced me to go home, I wouldn’t sleep a wink anyway,” I said, raising my eyes from her hands to make eye contact. My voice had that harrowed quality to it again. Robotic, more emotionally dead and hollow than emotional. “I need to make sure they’re okay. Go home. See dad, sleep. Relieve me in the morning, swing by and take over.”
“Then you sleep,” she said.
“Yes. Then I get my team together, and we work on figuring this out.”
“You don’t have to get involved with it, Victoria,” she said.
“I can’t imagine a world where I’m not,” I answered.
Crystal folded her arms. I folded mine, staring her down.
“There’s something else. A complication.”
“I’ll need to find out eventually.”
“I would rather it was after you’d slept, digest what’s already happened. Or better yet, walk away from this.”
I didn’t budge, staring her down.
“There were still pieces of Nailfarer missing, weren’t there?” Vista asked.
I set my jaw and nodded.
“They were seeing if they could find all the relevant pieces, put the people back together like a jigsaw,” Vista added. “All three are still missing parts from the midsection. Heart, one or both lungs, ribs, other vitals. Slingstone couldn’t deal with it.”
“They took parts, so we can’t put them back together,” I concluded.
Vista nodded, her face grim, lips pressed together so hard they were white.
“Good to know,” I said. “Complete and utter monsters, but… it fills out the picture.”
“You couldn’t sound less honest if you tried,” Crystal said, stabbing a finger at my chest. “Filling out the picture. Don’t pretend you’re objective about all of this.”
I looked away from her, and I saw her huff, annoyed. I asked the others. “You guys are going home then?”
“It was really nice to catch up some,” Vista said. “I’m sorry it’s always sandwiched between horrible stuff.”
“We’ll meet up, do something easy.”
“Yeah, please. And take care of yourself, big V, please? If your cousin is worried then I’m worried.”
“We grew up in Brockton Bay,” Golem said. “We can make it through this.”
I shook his offered hand. I did appreciate the support.
Crazy to think he was Kaiser’s kid.
“…Even if it is fucking horrific,” he added.
“It is,” I said. I wasn’t sure I trusted myself to say more, in case I got emotional.
I shook Cuff’s hand as well.
“Keep us updated,” she said, before she let go. “This is going to haunt me.”
I squeezed her gauntlet in confirmation.
Vista began shaping the environment, pausing only to fix the cop car that hadn’t entirely receded to its original shape. A shortcut back to their area of the city.
The doctor got out of the back as I got near. She headed straight off to the other ambulances. Slingstone and Scaffold.
I entered the ambulance, and I sat beside the fold-out tray with the various pieces of Nailfarer’s head on it. The arm was on a metal tray, which in turn was on a non-slip material, which rested on the coolers.
“Whatever you need, Daiyu,” I told her, my voice low. “Let me know. I’m going with you to the hospital, and I’ll be with you for a while after. I’m your advocate and your hands until we get something better in place for all three of you… If that’s okay.”
One blink to confirm.
“Can I touch your hand?” I asked, indicating with one hand, reaching, I stuck my other hand out the other way. “Or not? I don’t want to thaw you out any faster, if that makes it hurt.”
Her eye moved in the direction of ‘touch’.
It was like picking up a mannequin’s hand. Cold, detached, strangely light. I held her hand in mine, and felt it move, holding firm.
Three blinks to ask a question. I used my left hand to fumble for my phone. A little clumsier. We worked through the alphabet, but it was quick with so many letters being at the start of lists.
“Scaffold is insensate, I think. They put Slingstone under for a while. I think they would do the same for you if they thought they could.”
Blink blink. ‘No’.
“You don’t want to. You want to answer questions?”
Such a fucking tough cookie.
A paramedic came to the back of the ambulance. He paused as he saw me.
“You know her?”
The hand moved. I held the wrist instead of the fingers, and held the hand up so the fingers wouldn’t be scraping and bumping againg the surface. The hand was heavier than the length of arm it was attached to.
She shook so much- with effort, with stress, and probably with emotion.
One thumb partially extended, fingers drawn most of the way in.
“Good enough,” the paramedic said.
Someone else got in- another paramedic, while the guy who’d been at the back headed to the driver’s seat.
The guy sitting by Nailfarer seemed at a loss for what to do for her. He busied himself making sure the coolers were secure.
“Where were we?” I asked. The emotions I’d been repressing were getting to me, and my eyes were welling up. It was either cry, or find myself in panic mode. I didn’t fight the crying, instead focusing on my phone. “By my notes, we left off while talking about what they used to bait you out.”
Hard to breathe.
I blinked, and tears streaked down my cheek. I turned to one side, holding up the phone at Nailfarer’s eye level. Daiyu’s eye level. It put the paramedic behind me, able to see the screen as I showed Nailfarer. I hoped it meant he didn’t see the tears.
If he did, he didn’t say anything.
I was quiet as I let myself in. The place was dark, but light was just beginning to stream in.
Ashley and Damsel had fallen asleep in the living room. There were two wine glasses on the coffee table, a bottle of red wine, as well as a cutting board with a quarter of a baguette, some assorted meats and cheeses, and a number of vegetables – not terribly exotic, but supply lines and international farming wasn’t what it had been on Bet. They hadn’t finished the vegetables, bread or meat, but there was a plate I was fairly sure had been set with chocolates.
Damsel had fallen asleep with her head in Ashley’s lap. Ashley had pulled four or so throw-blankets over herself, trying to stay warmer, and slumped over to the side, head leaning on the arm-rest of the couch, feet pulled up and pressed into Damsel’s belly. Clawed fingers draped off the side of the couch, curling up as much as they were able as they pressed against the floor.
The food had been sitting out for a while, but I didn’t really care. I’d managed to keep my stomach for the worst of the evening, I’d endure whatever food poisoning gave me. I hoped.
The baguette was a little stale, the cheeses tacky with the moisture that had leeched out. The meat had a crispy quality at some of the edges, when it hadn’t been cooked.
I took what I could. I thought I hadn’t made noise, but as I straightened, Ashley had her eyes open. She hadn’t moved the rest of her an inch.
“How bad?” she asked.
“As bad as it gets without being S-class.”
“You didn’t call us out.”
“Not that kind of bad. I’ll explain tomorrow, best as I can. For now, we keep our mouths shut.”
“Why?” Ashley asked.
Damsel had her eyes open now too. She didn’t move either.
“Too dangerous. It’s the kind of thing that blows up. It has to wait until we have more information.”
“Nothing’s going to happen in the meantime?”
“I warned people to be wary. All hero teams should be standing down, villains are holding off until a meeting tonight.”
“Then we have to do something before then.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m thinking I get three or four hours of sleep, then we wrangle the heroes. Organize something, see what info we can dig up.”
“Then we annihilate them,” Damsel said, half asleep. The blanket that Damsel had put over her legs was pricked with a blade-point, then moved so it covered her head, as she turned her face away from the window, still using Ashley’s thigh as a pillow.
“No annihilation yet,” Ashley replied.
“If you get around to it and you don’t send me an invitation, I’ll have to annihilate you instead.”
“Naturally,” Ashley said. She put her head back and sighed in a way that looked like she was trying to get back to a place where she could fall asleep again.
I made my exit. Back to my room, grabbing my bag and then simultaneously trying to juggle food and bag all at once. Finding it too much, I checked nobody was looking, then altered my body’s orientation to be horizontal, placing the things across my belly and lap. I swam-floated in the direction of my room and got myself set up there.
Computer, food, water. I tore off a hunk of baguette with my teeth and ate it on its own. Wood smoked, and flavorful enough that it was actually fine and enjoyable like that, even stale. I booted up my computer.
The staler end of the baguette eaten and chewed, I tore off pieces and combined them with cheese and meat from my plate.
A message from the Wardens. I’d sent something from the hospital, asking for details on the bait-message that had gone out to the Navigators.
My reply came from Dragon.
Finding the internet address the message had been sent through wasn’t the hardest thing in the world, though obfuscation had been used. Dragon could do that.
But while she and I were talking, she wrote, she had two subjects she wanted to raise. One was Jeanne Wynn’s pledge to me, that she would get me access to the files. Dragon was her intermediary in that.
She was less keen to provide details on the other. It was something that Dragon felt could only be discussed face to face.
The information. Spell it out. Trust.
Vista and Golem were in attendance along with Cinereal- and I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad one. On any other day, objective, I would have said she was the perfect person for the role. She was serious, focused, and she had an angry edge to her, but always controlled. Controlled anger was, in my opinion, perfect for the current crisis. She had been a heavy hitter in Atlanta, which hosted a major arm of Watchdog, unusual in that she didn’t tend to leave her city, even for Endbringer fights, because her power was best if she stuck to one location.
But Cinereal was scary as shit. She was almost scarier than Alexandria in pure attitude and disposition, and Alexandria had been the Protectorate’s enforcer, their scary woman in black and steel. Cinereal had no steel and wore ash grey and white. She had no spikes and no hard edges, no weapons in plain view. It was the look on her face, upper half covered with a mask, and it was in how she held herself.
I could imagine all of the angriest, most fucked up corporate capes and Wards I’d run into over the course of my adolescence. The kids who’d been angry and frustrated, got powers, joined a team, and got worse, not better. I knew that they got second chances, they were coddled to, and inordinate resources were spent on them.
Seeing the natural resting bitch face, the posture, and the natural menace, I was pretty sure that Cinereal was one of the PRT’s success stories, when it came to transforming the tougher Wards into good heroes. She’d never been meant to be a leader, much less of a major city like Atlanta, but her predecessors had died, she’d taken up the position by order of succession in a crisis, and I imagined nobody had been brave enough to ask her to leave the role, after. To her credit, she’d never given them a reason.
Still, it was distracting that I felt so on guard against her. She was as bad as Ashley when Ashley was touchy, but she didn’t rant.
I’d asked Vista to come and to corroborate, and to be our liaisons to the Wardens. All of the other hero team leaders were here. Brio from Foresight, Mayday from Advance Guard, and Moonsong from the Shepherds.
Smaller team leaders were present too. Houndstooth, Recycler, Danger Ranger, Withdrawal and Caryatid, Lark and Dido, Cacophobic, and Sweet Justice were gathered. Some had sat out. I was glad that Super Magic Dream Parade had.
I had Swansong and Capricorn with me. Capricorn sat while I stood, one of his hands casually resting on the laptop keyboard. We were connected to Lookout.
It took a while for everyone to get settled.
“This shouldn’t leave this room until we’re all in agreement,” I said. “I talked to the police deputy on the scene, and she thought it was sensible to be careful on this one.”
“The Navigators got hurt,” Mayday said.
“It was bad,” Danger Ranger said.
He was with the Wayfarers, and the Wayfarers were loosely connected to the Navigators. They’d worked together on major missions, but Ranger and his team were usually okay to play things much more ‘street level’ than gunning for America-side groups of international gangs. Nailfarer had wanted to reach out to him once things were settled. Before she’d managed to fall asleep.
“Twelve hours ago,” I explained, “The Navigators were sent a message on Parahumans Online. It was very targeted, telling them that there was a group of families that had been captured and held on a tinker vessel. They’d escaped on Gold Morning and were looking to reconnect with their families. For those of you who know the Navigators, this is like offering a million dollars to mercenaries or an international shipment of someone else’s supply to a drug lord. It’s what they’re about.”
There were some nods. Most knew this. Withdrawal was sitting in a chair, his agility frame folded up, under and around the chair so it had some spring to it, adjustable on the fly. A notebook was pressed against his knee and he took notes as I talked.
“They used knowledge about the team to bait them, and when they attacked the Navigators, they hit hard. All three members are in the hospital and we don’t know if they’ll recover.”
All faces in the room were deadly serious. Cinereal, already and always serious, drummed her fingers.
Swansong spoke up, “This was either personal or it was meant to provoke. The reason Antares is urging caution is that we can’t be baited by the provocation, and we can’t let emotions cloud our search for the personal.”
“Exactly,” I said.
“What did they do?” Mayday asked.
“They were taken to pieces,” I said. “Cut, torn, dismembered, fingers removed, teeth scattered. A power was used to preserve them before it happened. They’re aware and feel every piece, they aren’t succumbing to exposure, sickness, or blood loss.”
“They were made immortal and chopped up?” Moonsong asked, her eyes wide behind her mask.
“Chopping would have been tidy,” Swansong said. “Pieces were torn off.”
“I’ve talked to Slingstone and Nailfarer,” I said. “They both said that they were attacked by multiple individuals. They were hit hard enough and fast enough that by the time the power use came into play, they weren’t able to discern any particulars. One attacker was large, with a frame like a bear, either Changer, minion, drone, or Case-53. Another was more precise.”
I hit keys on the keyboard, showing images that the cops had taken, as well as a few that Crystal had spotted with her keen eyesight. It started with the footprints, the shovel, streaks of blood to show how far the spray had traveled, and gradually got to the full show- pictures taken of the gore.
“Dragon identified the source of two messages that went out last night,” I said. “The first was to the Navigators. The second to Super Magic Dream Parade, shortly after.”
“They’re absent,” Cinereal noted. “Are they scared?”
“They’re fearless,” Lark said.
“They’re staying in a secure location. They apparently don’t check Parahumans Online often. They found both the warning email and the message on PHO this morning, on waking up,” I explained. “The bait was a query about a magazine shoot.”
“The first issue of the revitalized Nippon Dirge,” Tristan noted.
I nodded. “Both came from a library terminal in Boston. They bounced the connection across the city, using a non-tinker hack, and by the time we traced it back to the original source, they had cleared security cameras and other footage from nearby locations. We couldn’t look back and try to trace their steps or search out anything weird.”
“It’s possible they have some connection to government, or to part of the city’s infrastructure,” Tristan said. “They knew the servers they were working with, the library, the library terminals, and they came prepared. Dragon said she didn’t see any signs of attempted and failed intrusion that had the same signatures or style. Either they jumped from amateur hour to professional or they got it right the first time. Getting it right the first time requires powers or foreknowledge and familiarity.”
“You’re ignoring the obvious clue,” Moonsong said.
“The power they used?” I asked.
“How many powers are there that fit that crime scene, with the victims left alive?” she challenged.
“The Graeae Twins, under March. Bitter Pill is a theoretical possibility. Bonesaw would be a possibility.”
“Your sister,” Lark said. “Sorry to bring it up, but if we’re covering all the bases…”
“She’s being monitored carefully,” Cinereal said. “For now she’s playing nice and organizing a balance with Shin’s governments, to get food to Gimel to help us get through the winter. For now.”
“She can manipulate biology. She could create a body double with identical DNA to her,” Lark said.
“She could make something close, but not identical,” I said. In trying to sound controlled I might have sounded pissed. I tried to dial it back, explaining, “Manton rule. If she gave something her own DNA or something close enough to it, she wouldn’t be able to affect what she was creating.”
“My point stands,” Lark said. “She could create something that looks like her and then slip through.”
Swansong snorted. Her tone was all venom as she told him, “She could make pigs fly, but I’m not going to start carrying an umbrella yet. Baseless speculation doesn’t get us anywhere.”
“Conceded,” Lark said, folding one leg over the other, placing his hands together on one knee. He wore a heavier suit than he had for our last meeting, but the expense of it was clear in how neat the creases were. His open-book-slash-bird mask with the bookspine beak dipped.
“We’re sure we have an eye on her,” Cinereal said.
Had she said it like she was saying it to me? Huh.
“Thank you,” I said.
“There’s one more possibility,” Tristan said. “But I don’t think it narrows anything down. The power fits perfectly for what we’re dealing with.”
“Who?” Danger Ranger asked.
“Barcode,” Tristan said. “They have someone who can take you to pieces without risking death.”
“That sounds pretty fucking narrowed down to me,” Danger Ranger said. “You didn’t bring this up before?”
“They’re mercenaries,” Tristan said. “If we want to figure out their reasoning, it starts and stops with the money. We’d have to get them, then get them to tell us who hired them, and they don’t do that. They set up contingencies.”
“Barcode, March’s Graeae twins, or…”
“Tinkers,” I said.
“Broad,” she said.
“Tinkers are the most complicated factor, in narrowing down who we’re after. Even if we recognize a power, we have to remember that tinkers can scan a parahuman power and adapt their tech to replicate or use an aspect of that power. They can share gear or steal ideas, which can functionally be like scanning. We have to be careful, second guess ourselves. ‘A tinker emulated it’ is just one possibility.”
“It sounds like you’re walking back what you said when you wanted to get everyone on board,” Houndstooth said.
“Which part?” I asked.
“Being strong,” Houndstooth said. “Doing this in a decisive, organized way.”
“You talked about disappearing capes,” Moonsong added her voice to things.
I couldn’t deny it. “I did. Both things may be necessary. Strength and having a way to eliminate the worst offenders from the equation.”
“Now you’re quibbling. We can’t ever be sure because it might be a tinker, or it might be… what?”
“Frame job,” Swansong said.
Moonsong shook her head. “Not good enough. You said you wanted to limiting this serious step to dealing with the worst of the worst.”
“Yes,” I said. “And we should.”
“Except this looks like the worst to me, and it feels like we’re getting a little wobbly when it comes to the follow-through. Making excuses before we even start hunting them.”
“If this is provocative, we can’t snap up the bait. If this is personal and done this smart at the same time, then we have to be smarter and cooler-headed.”
“They took some of our own to pieces,” Mayday said. “I’ve seen teammates die. I’ve seen what happens when heroes aren’t firm enough. We just set them running with our first day of organized hero work. They’re running to the same places.”
“They are meeting tonight. But if we come to a decision and coordinate in a calm, effective way, we can get out ahead of whatever they decide to do,” I said.
“The prisoner’s dilemma,” Brio said. “Isn’t it? If we play a soft hand and the villains go hard, more of us are going to end up like the Navigators. If we go hard and the villains play soft-”
“We’ve dealt with the problem,” Mayday cut in.
“We’ve eliminated the wrong people,” Brio said. “I’d rather end up like the Navigators than send an innocent man to… wherever we’re disposing of the worst people.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“You didn’t see how they were,” Danger Ranger said. “How bad it was.”
“We investigate this thoroughly,” Brio said. “That’s my vote. I trust my team to stand behind it.”
For a few moments, the retorts and the people trying to speak over one another made understanding any one person impossible. Team captains and leaders rose from their seats.
“Enough,” I said.
The word wasn’t enough. It did stop some people, but those people were more on Breakthrough’s side than on the other one. More respectful than angry.
The overlapping voices continued for a second, until the people deferred, allowing one voice to take the lead.
“Investigations are about time,” Mayday said.
“We have a time camera. We have thinkers. We’re flexible.”
“We go after possible suspects, we put the word on the street,” Mayday said. “We round them up and take action to discourage and scare them before the villains meet and decide that they want to protect and encourage the lunatics who did this.”
“Please tell me that there’s a thinker in the room who can tell us decisively that this is a bad idea,” I said.
“Speaking for Advance Guard, we’re on your team. We’re still willing to be on the network and make it work, if you’ll have us. The only point of contention here is this particular point of policy,” Mayday said. “I’ve seen too many of my Wards and Protectorate capes suffer and die. I can’t abide by it any more. Not a good team like the Navigators.”
“Give us six hours to gather information and figure out where we stand,” I said. “Make the villain meeting the deadline. Sweep up the possible culprits while they’re on their way in.”
“We’ll have this done in six hours,” he said.
Moonsong was with him. Maybe the only time the Shepherds and Advance Guard had ended up on the same page. A part of me wondered if she’d be taking the opposite tack if Tristan were on the other side of the argument.
Kings of the Hill. Too closely linked to Mayday, they were friends and they were of like mind.
And of course the Wayfarers. Friends of the Navigators. This was both personal and emotional.
All rose and prepared to go, ready to begin the hunt.
“Mayday,” I said.
“We’ll keep you in network, but you have to keep the details about the Navigators secret. If it gets out, it might encourage others. It’ll scare the public, it’ll disturb the peace, and it’ll cloud any investigation we do.”
He only gave us a nod.
When those teams left, Foresight, the Wardens, and the miscellaneous minor teams like the Major Malfunctions remained.
“We have to be neutral in this,” Vista said.
“We’ll see,” Cinereal said. “I’d rather both approaches get all the support they can.”
“Only way we course correct here is if we get out ahead of it. We investigate before they disappear someone undeserving in their own way,” Tristan said. “Yeah?”
I drew in a deep breath and sighed. I conceded, “Yeah.”
“Well, then. Game on, motherfuckers,” Tristan said.