The car doors slammed with a kind of finality. Sveta went to my side, supporting the Old Man, while Tattletale emerged and walked around the front of the car, which had its headlights on, engine left idling. Snuff leaned over the top of the open door.
“I’ve been a bad friend,” I told Sveta.
“I haven’t backed you up enough, and I’ve been lost in my own head enough that I didn’t connect to the fact we were coming here.”
Sveta looked up at the narrow building, not so different from others on the street. The differences were subtle, the front face of the building a little further into the sidewalk, the peaked roof with its golden solar panels extended a little higher than any of its neighbors. Unlike the other Wardens Headquarters, the building didn’t advertise what it was.
“I’ll deal with it,” Sveta said. “I think it’s important to show that I can deal with it.”
“You’re within your rights to have a day, a week, or a month where you focus on dealing, or feeling, or… anything.”
“A right isn’t an obligation,” Sveta said.
“It- isn’t,” I said, changing my mind mid-sentence, ending the statement awkwardly.
The break in the conversation was marked with a flurry of snowflakes from above, with the flicker of amber streetlights on the wide, snow-dusted, one-way street, and by the background noise of Tattletale talking to Snuff. I caught the word ‘Roadkill’.
Arranging dinner for Lookout and the others. I hoped Lookout was doing okay, outnumbered and wrestling with family dynamics.
I hoped Sveta was okay. That any and all of us were okay.
“Whatever’s happening with Weld, if we really are breaking up like this, that doesn’t change that he’s a role model for me.”
I nodded at that, a slow nod as I digested the thought.
“Maybe not a relationship role model, but Weld-as-a-hero? Absolutely.”
“Absolutely,” I echoed Sveta. I wanted to say more, but I’d been dwelling, and now I was trying to pull myself up and out of it, take care of what needed taking care of. My mantra of doing what it took to avoid regrets was still in effect, if it wasn’t in effect more so because I was out of it, frustrated, and closer to the me of the hospital room than I had been in a while. The words didn’t come, leaving me with just an echo of her statement.
“I want to keep that going. If I quit on the hero shit now then aren’t I just saying I only did it because I was dating him, or because of him?”
“You’d be saying you cared about him and you needed to focus on you for a little while. The rest of it doesn’t matter. Nobody who matters is going to judge you.”
“I matter,” Sveta answered.
I gave her a look, tilting my head to one side, then tilted my head further. “Can I give you a hug?”
She didn’t answer, instead putting her arms around me. The agitation from earlier that had led to her hurting me, if very little, seemed to have passed. I could feel the give in her shoulders, the pushback from tendrils that held them in place, the lack of structure to her upper body, and the weight of her arms. I was aware that tendrils were supporting the Old Man a couple of feet from us. He seemed remarkably okay with it, though he might have still been dazed by the fall down the stairs.
“I don’t get to act on my emotions,” she said. “At best, I’d go to my- Weld’s apartment, my old room, lock myself in and relax my control. But I don’t have a room to go back to.”
“Yeah,” I said.
A thousand thoughts went through my mind, and I felt as though I could have sorted and filed them, putting things into an order or priority, if the day hadn’t started with my meeting with Jessica and ended with Teacher’s power move.
“You’ve got a ten thousand yard stare there, Antares,” Tattletale said. My eyes went to her, tracking her as she walked around the car. Snuff pulled away.
Sveta broke the hug. She gave me a curious look.
“You sent Snuff away?” I asked Tattletale.
“To get food for the sprogs. I’m going to break my promise of being back for dinner, so I might as well feed them. Besides, what’s he going to do if the Wardens decide to unilaterally arrest me? Fight Dragon, Defiant, Vista and Narwhal? He’s good but I don’t think he could beat any of those guys.”
“True,” I said.
“At this point the only reason I’d bring him along would be to protect me from you two bullying me, and he’s done a piss-poor job of it. He’s got a long way to go before he’s a proper Jeeves.”
“A little conspicuous for a hypercompetent butler,” I noted.
The other car had parked a little further down the street, and the trio were approaching. Engel glowed in the dark, and the glow- I had to look away. She looked like music and the smell of flowers. Synesthesia. It was deeply uncomfortable.
“Come on,” Tattletale said, winking at me. “Let’s see how fucked you all are.”
She really didn’t have to word it that way.
The trio joined us, following a little ways behind as we entered the building.
It was late enough that the lighting had inverted inside the Warden’s headquarters. Earlier, the light that had shone down and inside had been from the windows, diffuse and soft. Now it was light from the walls and corners, starting from the places that shadows had been earlier, while the windows and surrounding areas were dark. This light was sharp and stark, with fairly clear distinctions on the walls between where the beams touched and where they didn’t, the ‘didn’t’ catching only the diffuse, dull reflections, and only where the gleaming wood grain was raised.
This lighting fit the way we’d disposed of the four prisoners this morning, and disposed of the other prisoners earlier in the week. It somehow fit that mornings were the time we ended up doing most of them; capes stayed up late and slept in, really slept in, in the case of Ratcatcher and her ilk, and our nine in the morning was the equivalent of two in the morning for ordinary people. It was also possible that my feelings about mornings were because I really wasn’t a morning person.
There were staff members inside, including a receptionist and a few people in business formal clothing. They were tracking the news, crowded around a phone. It was possible they’d been on their way home when the details hit the media.
Multiple sets of eyes turned our way. I had to convince myself that there was no way that details of the diary would have been disseminated and shared yet, that it was more about Engel, Egg, and Scraping than about attitudes and resentment.
No, those feelings would come soon, I was sure, but not now.
I stopped by the receptionist’s desk.
“Can I help you, Antares?”
“Heavy question,” Tattletale said, quiet enough I wasn’t sure the receptionist caught it. I avoided reacting.
“Can you page the office? Antares, Tress, and Tattletale coming in with a… I guess a prisoner and three guests who might have useful information. Tell them our prisoner is Case Twelve, they should know what it means, and tell them he’ll need medical care. Um, I think it’d be best if we took security precautions.”
“Precautions?” Tattletale asked, behind me.
I’d hoped she was far enough back to not hear me. Good ears.
“Um,” the receptionist said, tapping a few keys. There was a hint of nervousness there. “Precautions.”
Her hand moved to one corner of the keyboard. The F-keys. The lip of the counter around the receptionist’s desk blocked Tattletale’s view of her hand.
“Yeah,” I said.
“The power grid is overloaded. Can you wait a minute?”
“It’s fine either way,” I said. I saw the receptionist relax.
So, apparently, did Tattletale. “Coded question and answer? I approve.”
It was one of four special codes that had been shared with me, but there were apparently six in total. ‘Can you wait a minute’ translated to ‘should I hit the alarm?’ and any yes or no answer was confirmation. It was good that she’d asked, faced with an unfamiliar situation and faces she didn’t know.
Really annoying that Tattletale had caught it so quickly. Now we’d have to change it up.
The receptionist typed for a few long seconds, then paused. I could see the change in what was on the screen in the tint and brightness of the light that reflected off of her glasses.
“Lobby, stairs, or elevator to an upper floor?” she asked.
I looked around the lobby. I was wondering exactly what she meant when I saw her hand hovering over that corner of the keyboard.
“Stairs,” I said. “Thank you.”
Without a smile, the receptionist nodded.
We headed to the stairwell. The lighting was even more focused there, halogen bright, highlighting stairs and wall without shining into our eyes at any point.
“Come on,” Sveta told the Old Man. “Lean on me. You’ve fallen down enough stairs today.”
“Funny girl,” the Old Man replied, humorless.
Egg, Engel, and Scraping were utterly silent, but they followed. Our progress was slow, because the Old Man was hurt but he didn’t want to be outright carried.
“Curious,” Tattletale said, walking with her gloved hands clasped behind her. Her coat flapped around her legs as she ascended. “You say we’re ‘going in’, but then she brings up the lobby. Another code, but I didn’t get this one.”
“You’re being annoying,” I told her. “Surprisingly annoying.”
“Very,” Sveta echoed.
“I’m just being me,” Tattletale said.
“Is it a thing where you get cranky and ramp it up?”
“No. On a day this lousy, we need to find joy in the little things. This is interesting. The heart of the heroes.”
“I can’t help but wonder if you revel in these lousy sorts of days,” I observed. “I remember the Undersiders doing quite well when Brockton Bay was at its worst.”
“Ah,” Tattletale said. There was a gleam in her eyes as I glanced back. “I sense a teeny tiny bit of resentment there.”
“You’re not wrong. I like picking up the pieces and puzzling them back together. Is that the dark line of thought that’s been eating at you for the past fifteen minutes? Resentment? Thinking about how the troubles in Brockton Bay started with Coil doing something similar?”
“No,” I said.
“Can’t puzzle you out right now.”
We reached the first landing. I looked up, and I spotted the security camera.
“What?” Tattletale asked.
When I reached for her, she was already pulling back. Sveta took my cue, grabbing Tattletale and keeping her from retreating.
I raised a hand, waving at the security camera.
The appearance of the hole in reality wasn’t as noisy, with the work Lookout had done earlier. I wasn’t even sure the people in the lobby heard. There was a snow-dusted landscape on the far side.
“Not funny,” Tattletale said.
With Sveta helping, I chucked Tattletale through, then raised my hand again.
The portal closed.
“A little funny,” I whispered to myself.
Sveta, by contrast, had body language that betrayed her worries. Tendrils reached out of the sleeves of her patchwork coat to help wring her hands. They ran along the backs and fingers of hands where the wrinkles and textures of flesh weren’t quite right, and where fingers didn’t end in proper nails, with stick-on nails pretty clearly stuck on. She glanced back at the other case fifty-threes.
“Same methods as Cauldron, Sveta?” Egg asked. “Dimensional doors, snatching people.”
“Fuck off, Egg. I’m really not in the mood.”
“Calling it like I see it.”
“The catchphrase of assholes everywhere,” I murmured to Sveta, as I put a hand on her shoulder and led her to the corner of the landing that was furthest from the other group. “You okay?”
“Yeah. You’re sure?” she asked. “About Tattletale?”
“Can’t have her looking at our security apparatus,” I said. “The way she’s been talking, she might actually figure something out. That’s bad. But she might also press buttons and let us know she knows, in which case everyone freaks out. This is simpler. Let her cool off.”
“Let’s hope this isn’t so much of a routine shift that it screws up the password procedure,” I told her.
The Old Man was looking so out of it I wasn’t even sure if he’d registered everything that was going on.
“You okay?” I asked him.
“I’m looking forward to lying down,” he said. He visibly tried to straighten to his full height, something he hadn’t even been doing when working at the counter in the Lodge. He swayed slightly, was steadied by Sveta, and seemed to realize he was doing it, because he managed to stop. As much as he presented more of an image of strength, he conceded, “I’m worried.”
“What we’re doing right now, we’re doing to protect you. Feeding people parts of yourself is gross and concerning, but it’s not our priority right now.”
“I’ll cooperate,” he said, smiling.
He had a bit of a creepy vibe. It sucked that my feelings about the guy were so mixed. On the one hand, creepy reverse-cannibal. On the other, he was a survivor of a kind we really didn’t have enough of. Every minute, hour, or day he lived, he was blazing new ground, as far as I knew. Raising the bar for all of us.
“Don’t touch the diagrams. Follow behind Sveta,” I said.
“What happens if we don’t listen?” Egg asked.
“Alarms go off, battle-ready parahumans come storming in from all directions. You get interrogated. It changes the attitudes they have toward you.”
“Do not,” Engel told Egg. “I want to make a good impression.”
Egg scowled, face cracking in twenty places, but he acquiesced.
We walked up the stairs, and the hallway lit up with its two dimensional shapes, running along the wall and floating through the air. Piecing together the password required using the fragments around me to make the image appear right from my perspective. Step one was the five-sided snowflake, bracket moved toward the hollow square, greater-than sign moved to another corner- I was missing the middle part, and I found it on the wall, touched it, and slid it in the direction I wanted, until it was three-quarters of the way down the hall, but centered in the image in front of me.
Step two for my password was what I’d committed to memory as the ‘upward hourglass’. Triangle, triangle, diamond for the center, then brackets moved and rotated to top and bottom, the ‘prongs’ of the brackets all facing skyward.
I cleared the five stages of the password, walking forward at a steady, casual rate, and the portal opened at the end of the hall. Beyond, I could see the bunker. The Warden’s headquarters, illuminated with spotlights at the exterior. Areas under construction were decorated with yellow ribbons and sashes, blocked off with gray tarps.
“Into the belly of the beast,” the Old Man grumbled. It was possible that the interdimensional stuff was far enough out of his wheelhouse that his composure was cracking. Pain and hurt might have played a part. That the bunker was a little bit on the imposing side might have played another.
Defiant waited outside the headquarters. On seeing us, he approached, footsteps not heavy in the ground-shaking, clumsy way that I tended to associate with the word, but solid, leaving no room for ambiguity.
“Case Twelve,” Defiant said.
“Apparently recognized from a decades-old case file,” the Old Man said.
“Who?” Defiant asked, finger extended toward me, Sveta, then a general gesture for Engel’s group.
“Me,” I told him.
“Good,” he said.
“Tress helped,” I added. “Kept him in one piece after the villains were provoked. Tattletale thought it was a maneuver from our culprit.”
“Tress. You’re one of Armstrong’s,” Defiant said.
“I- yes. Kind of.”
“I like Armstrong. There was a time I had my eyes set on Boston, and I imagined him and I making a good team, complementing each other’s strengths. I’m… now glad I didn’t get that position, having learned more about who I am.”
“He mentioned you once or twice in passing, I think. Even years later.”
“I hope it was flattering,” Defiant said. “Tell me, is our Case Twelve an immediate concern?”
“No,” the Old Man answered for me.
I answered, “Only his health, as far as I can tell. Little Midas pushed him down the stairs to score points with the more violent villain faction. Tattletale said something about wanting to check him, or see if they scanned him to inspire tinker tech they’re using.”
“We stuck Tattletale in the prison world so she wouldn’t crack our passwords.”
“I know, and that’s good,” Defiant said. “We put her in area Z-X. Z-Y and Z-Z are being used for storage. But what do I need to know before bringing her out? Is she a concern?”
“She’s cooperated, played ball, and she has a pretty good sense of what’s going on.”
“She usually does. They’re discussing the situation inside. Some of the details are private. I’ll have to ask our guests here to wait while you two go in. I’ll open the door for Tattletale and fill her in on what we can.”
“That sounds perfect,” I said.
I felt a bit of trepidation at going inside. On my last visit, I’d found out that Jessica no longer believed in me, and that Dragon had been sitting on a very ugly perception of who I was as a person. False, but the kind of false that hewed close to reality.
He might have noticed me hanging back, because he said, “Once Dragon started believing you, she started investigating. We think her searches tripped a switch, which prompted the attack.”
“Tattletale said something similar,” I noted.
“Dragon is sorry,” Defiant said. “We all are, I think.”
That idea, ‘we all’, it suggested more than him and her. I wasn’t sure it included Jessica. I could imagine talks being had, about whether I was a problem.
“No need for apologies. Makes sense to do, right? Got to keep an eye on things. There’s no PRT keeping tabs on dangerous parahumans.”
“You can be sorry even when wholly justified in your actions,” he said.
“I think so.”
Was he talking about his time as Armsmaster, and his retirement of the name and role after the Endbringer fight? I’d heard the rumors and reports from the other Wards, once upon a time. The statement didn’t quite line up with it.
It was Sveta’s hand on my arm that helped get me moving. I pulled off my mask and lowered my hood. To be more open, to be less threatening, to people I’d explicitly threatened.
Door locks clicked and let me in. Scattered members from various teams were present. It wasn’t even leadership, it was too soon for that. It looked like it was whoever had been closest. Dragon, Legend, and Valkyrie were at the head of the room. I saw Vista, Golem, and Cuff, Rescue, Effervescent, Houndstooth, Lark, and Mayday. Moonsong’s friend with a name I couldn’t recall was taking notes.
No Weld. I could see Sveta relax a fraction.
No non-parahuman staff, it seemed.
“Welcome,” Dragon greeted us, as we passed through the door. “Let it be known for transcripts that Antares, AKA Victoria Dallon, and Tress, aka Sveta, neither of whom have secret identities, have entered the room.”
Vista had a laptop with her. Carrying it in one hand, she brought it over, setting it down on the table. She paged up to show us what we’d missed.
Situation handled, security breach repaired. Temporary moratorium on all online communications and downloads bought time to patch the damage and run damage control. The mayor and her husband were working on the business and interdimensional relations front. Conflict was not expected but they were planning to be ready regardless.
Dragon’s presenting style seemed to be to start from the general and then hammer in specifics. That was the general.
Specifics: the security breach wasn’t a thing. Yes, some redundant security code had been used, yes, it was flawed, and they suspected the culprit was why. It was groundwork laid weeks in advance. But it had been spotted and ninety percent fixed. The culprit had pushed the false story regardless. Proving the falsehood would require a lot of businesses and groups to share private data on how they’d managed things, and that was going to be an uphill battle.
The brief internet blackout had been fought and delayed, forcing use of actual munitions to enact. It had led to minutes passing before the blackout took effect, after which point the adversary had ceased fighting. Speculation: they’d wanted those minutes, nothing else.
I skimmed other, lesser details, with lists of businesses and groups that may have been more explicitly targeted, but nothing jumped out at me, and Legend’s words were more interesting.
“We think this is more groundwork, a platform that lets them launch further attacks. If details, emails, personal information or secrets are leaked in coming weeks, then people won’t ask who. They’ll be interested in what, because their curiosity is piqued.”
“We should do everything we can to keep this from being named,” Lark said. “If it gets coined as a term then it moves us even further from the ‘who’. We should also pay attention to the initial details they share. If this becomes a battlefield where we’re painted as the bad guys, quote-unquote ‘leakers’ will be held up as heroes. We want to combat that, and it’s going to be hard.”
I found myself nodding along. I didn’t like Lark, he’d been scummy and and tried to use me to get Amy into Auzure, his corporate team, but there was no denying that he and Legend knew their PR and image stuff.
“We agree there,” Legend said. “We’ve already seen some hints of how subtle this can be. Dragon?”
“Once I found the telltale signs, I uncovered two incidents, in addition to Antares’ case. I hope you don’t mind my raising the subject, Antares.”
“No,” I said. I hadn’t seen mention of my diary in the transcript.
“They manufactured months worth of falsified diary entries and planted them on Antares’ computer, put in key phrases they knew would trip my alarms when Antares shared files with me, and led me to think poorly of Antares for weeks.”
“What kind of thing are we talking about?” Rescue asked.
“Diary entries with zero alibis, matching times I was online. Filled with details suggesting I’ve been watched every minute for weeks or months. They fit how I’d write and almost fit how I’d think. Except it’s twisted. Talking about using my teammates as pawns, manipulate them, hurt them for my own goals. It’s me if I was a manipulator playing the long game.”
“Yes,” Dragon said. “The two other entries I found before other things demanded my attention dated to when the villains were lashing out violently. One was a false piece of surveillance, suggesting one group had been more violent than they were. It impacted decisions we made and how we signed off on Super Magic Dream Parade going all-out against those villains. The other incident was an exchange between local law enforcement and capes in Advance Guard. The outgoing message was altered to be more dismissive and aggressive. It may have played a part in police not cooperating as fully as they might have.”
“Antares mentioned something might have happened with Foresight,” Effervescent said.
“There are a few more incidents,” I noted. “They disrupted recruitment efforts for Foresight, driving off Ratcatcher and Big Picture. All of the attacks we’ve tracked down so far are two-pronged, hurting multiple parties at once. Ratcatcher’s move was to pull her away from the group while hurting Countenance’s reputation. Big Picture was a ploy to deny Foresight a recruit while simultaneously denying a colleague of Big Picture the ability to use Foresight’s resources to gather information. Protecting themselves.”
“You know who they are?” Valkyrie asked.
“They’re Teacher’s thralls, acting on Teacher’s behalf. We’re almost positive. The long story short is that he fully staffed Cauldron’s old base and is staying out of reach. Tattletale can explain the breadth of this to you better than I can. She’s talking to Defiant for now.”
“Then let’s skip a few sections and move straight into need-to-know,” Legend said. “That will let us get to where we talk to Tattletale sooner. The way this is set up, we can expect they will make moves in coming hours, days, and weeks. They’ll reveal secrets and mix falsehood with fact, saying it’s what they found or downloaded in the minutes that we weren’t able to bring things down. I can already anticipate three major angles of attack.”
“Scion,” Mayday said.
“It’s possible. People still have questions. Breakthrough opened the doors to that when they appeared on Hard Boil, and we’ve all done our parts in sharing necessary pieces of information. Changing the narrative, twisting it, or incriminating people or groups could be devastating, given how close to home this is. The other possible angles are sharing just how bad things are elsewhere. The Machine Army, the rising rate of broken triggers, the wars over footing that we’ve been engaged in, among other things.”
“And the last?” Lark asked.
Legend looked at Dragon.
“Some of you know this. Many don’t. I am not human,” Dragon said.
I felt a chill creep over me. Okay, my ‘oh no’ might have been understated.
“Not human how?” Mayday asked.
“I was created by a tinker, who is now deceased. I was made with heavy restrictions and I live by several of those restrictions today.”
“That’s why I can’t read you,” Effervescent said.
That’s the least concerning thing, Effervescent. There’s so many cases of things derived from powers going sour or getting screwed up.
“I’m an A.I., and people will panic when they find out,” Dragon said. “Some of you might feel the need to panic or be concerned now. Please trust me when I say I am the same person who has been fighting on the side of the heroes since I was created. Nothing has changed.”
The chill redoubled as I recalled Tattletale’s phrasing around Dragon. She knew. Dangerous knowledge to have.
“For what it’s worth, I give my full faith to Dragon,” Legend said. “She’s a true heroine.”
She was. Just… it really sucked that it was one of the best of us who had such a glaring weak point for our enemy, now.
Dragon went on, “I won’t push for immediate answers, but I want people to know we should be open where possible. Share what you think is necessary, so we know and can come to terms with it before there’s a bigger problem.”
“Then I’ll be upfront,” Lark said. “I planned to share this before anyone mentioned anything. Auzure got started after Gold Morning with illicit funds. Nothing too worrying, but when we contributed to the Navigators’ work in dealing with human trafficking, it was because we realized our role in one specific incident, and we wanted to make amends. I lost sleep over it. I still do, if I think about it too much.”
“He’s being honest,” Effervescent said. “There’s stuff we need to cover from Foresight, but I have to run it by the boss first.
Secrets, lies, and dirty laundry.
I could wrestle my head around Dragon being what she was. By deed, by action, and by the impact she’d had on the world, she was a heroine. I didn’t trust powers and I worried about anything big that came from powers, but… I could look past that.
But Effervescent’s comment was followed by Mayday talking about a settled lawsuit, which made me think of my history as Glory Girl. Too violent, too rushed, people got hurt. All was happy in the end, but it was the kind of thing that could be put in a very ugly light.
“Anything else?” Legend asked. “Most of you know my history. Those who don’t, you can talk to me after.”
I heard a faint creaking, and saw Sveta clenching her fist.
“If there’s nothing else, we should bring in our guest.”
“Guests,” I said. “We brought two case fifty-threes and their colleague. They’ve seen Teacher’s installation. I think Tattletale is holding off on questioning them because she’s worried about being overheard.”
“We should be safe here,” Legend said.
Nobody else had any dirt to volunteer, so Dragon turned her head to the window. Her voice wasn’t loud enough he should have heard. “Defiant?”
Some other kind of communication.
Eerie, in context. What was Armsmaster or Defiant in light of this?
Tattletale grinned at me as she entered, like she thought being unceremoniously chucked into a prison dimension was a good laugh, or because she was trying to nettle me. Egg gave Sveta a dark look.
Defiant followed them in, then stood at the door.
“Thank you for your cooperation,” Legend said.
“Start us off?”
“What we talk about here doesn’t leave this Earth,” Tattletale said. “Teacher can’t see us here, he can’t hear us, and if we’re going to get out ahead of this, it means being careful and decisive. We brought some help for figuring out the layout and context of what’s going on, I already know a few ways we could potentially get in there… it requires less energy and manpower to leave a door open than to constantly open and close them, and having an emergency way in and out gives Teacher security if he loses his horde of tinkers. There’s a way, but it’s not an easy one.”
Sensations swam around and through me. Tastes, smells, touches, and visual patterns. Engel was barely doing anything. It wasn’t ‘love’ as an emotion, or else I’d have some defense against it, but it was something approximate, a dizzying, thrilling, sublime set of fucking sensations I wanted nothing of.
Being around Engel was getting to me. I’d already spent most of the car ride here in a dark place, in part because Engel had set me on the road there, but in combination with the lingering feelings I had about the way Dragon and Jessica had treated me, I wasn’t sure I had this in me. The main room of the Wardens’ bunker was spacious and it still felt claustrophobic. Effervescent was giving me a look.
“If it’s alright, I’m going to duck out for a breath of fresh air,” I said. “This is a retread of stuff I’ve spent the day investigating, and it’s been a long day. I’ll read the transcript after.”
“Not at all. It’s understandable. Thank you for your contributions, and your efforts to uncover what’s going on,” Legend said. “Tattletale, can you start by walking us through what you know?”
“I can,” Tattletale said, smiling.
I didn’t really trust myself to speak. With everything going on, knowing he’d left Cauldron in a tumultuous time and that there were reasons for that, it had still felt good to hear kind words from someone as big as Legend.
“I’ll be right back,” Vista said.
It was only after the glass-like door had shut behind me that I felt like I could breathe again. Sveta and Vista had followed me out.
“Sword of Damocles poised over our heads. A threat of blackmail or losing all standing at any point in time,” Sveta observed.
“If we can’t beat Teacher, we might have to make hard decisions,” I said, still trying to get to grips. I was aware of Engel behind me.
“Hard? I don’t follow,” Sveta said.
“Whether we take our lumps, play nice, and trust that people will turn around… or if we stop treating them like they’re a consideration?”
“Them?” Sveta asked.
“Victoria, no,” Sveta said, sounding genuinely horrified.
Vista was silent, serious, and utterly unsurprised. I wondered if the idea had already come up in some fashion. Had it been discussed among the Wardens?
“I don’t want it either. There’s always been a divide, and it just got wider. Getting back to a comfortable or even slightly uncomfortable middle ground is going to require a hell of a lot of effort not just from us, but from them. From the civilians. And I’m not sure if they’re ready or willing to meet us in the middle.”
“I want to say you’re wrong, that… neighbors and friends and people I took a cooking class with have all been decent to me,” Sveta said.
She wanted to say it, instead of just saying it.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s not the option, it’s a option. It won’t be easy, either way.”
Vista was quiet, “Saying we don’t care what you little people think, we’re going to do what we need to do… or trying to be friendly while some asshole out there stokes fears and makes us out to be monsters.”
I looked up at the starry sky above. My eyelid flickered as a fat snowflake hit it. Sveta, at the same time, looked down at the ground.
“This isn’t turning out to be a breath of fresh air,” I said. I didn’t feel better after leaving that claustrophobic space, Engel pressing in on my every physical sense.
“Can we walk?” Vista asked. “You wanted to know how our mission went earlier. Foresight and the Wardens had our team-up. We succeeded.”
I couldn’t even remember what I’d asked her about. I just nodded my agreement to the walk. Putting distance between us and the ongoing discussion.
The route she led us on should have clued me in, but I was caught up in thinking about implications.
The row of cells. Parahumans awaiting sentencing. Lights were on inside, illuminating cells.
I saw the Old Man first. Two doctors were in there with him. Sufficiently private, maybe. The door had been left open. Defiant would have warned them about not ingesting his fluids,which might have been why they wore face masks with clear plastic panes.
And in the other hallway, I saw Colt and Love Lost, both awake. Jessica stood outside Colt’s cell. She’d already noticed me.
I approached, my heart hammering.
“Victoria,” she said. “Sveta, hello. Vista.”
My hand touched my visor, where it hung from my belt. I looked around.
“I am so sorry about earlier,” she told me.
Same thing as Defiant. Same answer. “You had every reason to think the worst of me.”
“I could have handled it better, at the very least.”
I shrugged, looking at the cells.
“Is Precipice around?” Colt asked, raising her voice.
I shook my head. “No.”
“I’ll see him soon, I guess. I’ve lost track of what time it is.”
Jessica said something to Colt, then walked our way. So we wouldn’t have an audience.
My backup, Sveta and Vista, didn’t leave.
“Can I have a word with Victoria alone?” Jessica asked.
“It’s up to Victoria,” Sveta answered.
I knew she loved Jessica, that Jessica was one of her favorite people and one of the very few people she’d ever had in her corner. That this had to be a really hard line to draw.
It meant a lot. I needed to make it up to Sveta.
“You can go. Thanks,” I said. “But stick around?”
“Sure,” Sveta said.
Vista and Sveta walked off a bit.
It was cold, the path down to the prison area was the same slope and cliff edge that seemed to bring the cold air down while letting the warm air get lost. The path was lit by bulbs on sticks, the prison and the more distant bunker itself illuminated more by lights on the outside than by anything on the inside. The spotlights and lamps caught drifting snowflakes and turned them into water droplets, which mottled the light.
“I don’t know what to say,” Jessica told me.
“You’re fine,” I responded. “It’s the nature of what we’re up against.”
“It doesn’t feel fine to me. It feels fine to you?”
“I know it’s not an excuse, but for context, I did not handle being cast away very well. Sent to another dimension with some of my most difficult patients, knowing what was at stake, that I was abandoning my patients. I tried to do too much after coming back and I struggled- failed on multiple counts. I failed you.”
“Is it kind of messed up or unfair that I can remember you walking me through the process of how to go about an apology, when I wanted to address all the people I hurt as Glory Girl? And now it feels a bit bullet-pointy that you’re hitting all the usual notes? Acknowledge blame, get a response, promise to do better, yadda yadda?”
“It doesn’t mean the apology isn’t genuine. I really do mean it. Feeling some resentment is entirely fair.”
“No, it’s just-” I started, stopped. “I don’t know what I can say here, that isn’t lashing out. I already regret what I said just now, about apologizing.”
“Don’t. Some lashing out is fair.”
“I’ve tried to take care of that team. Look after the people. If they’re a little banged up, missing, or in tougher spots, it’s because of what’s thrown at us. Not because I think of them as pawns or anything.”
“I know that now. I know we’ve differed in opinion on some things, Victoria, but it was always my impression that you would treat them with kindness, care, and concern. You kept Rain alive when people wanted to kill him and they’re in custody now. You found out about Kenzie’s parents, something she kept a secret from me, and you got her into a healthier place.”
“Different, not necessarily healthier. She’s spiraling again, I think.”
Concern crossed Jessica’s face. “How badly?”
“I feel like three or four really difficult conversations and a very watchful eye will cover it. Not sure though.”
“I’ll trust you there, and I’ll send a colleague her way. Are you aware I’m taking a leave of absence?”
“I’m aware.” It had come up in passing earlier in the day.
“I can’t be a good therapist as I am now. I can provide some advice and perspective, but that’s all I’ll be doing. I’ll be available for absolute emergencies, if you need me.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Take care of yourself.”
“I’ll try,” she said.
So formal, so rote. All so careful, like neither of us wanted to step on the other person’s toes.
“Are you here to talk to Colt or Love Lost?”
I turned toward the prison, looked at the rows of high-tech cells, glass and chickenwire, all see through walls with only some panels up for privacy. Vents seemed to direct warm air into the individual cells.
“In part,” I said. “Partially to get away. Other stuff.”
“Do you want company?”
I shook my head.
“Good excuse for me to go home?” she asked. She made it an offer, light, friendly.
“Yeah,” I told her. “Safe travel, you know? It’s messy out there.”
“It’s going to be hard, and it’s going to be tense, as we see how this unfolds. I hope it doesn’t hit you too hard.”
It already hit pretty hard. I feel like a lot of relationships and connections have been fucked with, even though people are ninety percent sure it’s fake, now.
I didn’t say it. Instead, I told her, “Tattletale is dishing on what we uncovered today. She’ll have details she’s figured out that she hasn’t shared with me. It might be worth picking up a copy of any transcripts.”
“I’ll do that,” she told me. “Good luck with Colt and Love Lost.”
“Thank you,” I said. I thought for a second, then impulsively added, “Mind telling Vista and Sveta to stay put for a minute?”
She gave me a quizzical look. The sore spot where I’d been doubted so much still smarted, even from that simple look.
“It’s for a good reason,” I told her, even though I wasn’t sure.
“Then I will,” she said.
She walked past me, toward the headquarters and the two girls. I walked past her to the prison.
Being deceptive felt shitty, especially leveraging her guilt. But Jessica didn’t need more to deal with, and I was worried she’d stop me if I told her the unvarnished truth.
There were guards on duty, but they were caught up in their own business. One or two looked at me as I made my way down the hall, but my interaction with Jessica or Vista vouching for me seemed to give me a pass. They didn’t stop me either.
“Hi,” Colt said.
“Hi,” I replied.
“I have a court appointment tomorrow,” she said. “Mrs. Yamada thinks I have something in my powers messing with my head. If it’s true, it might change things.”
“Good luck,” I said.
In these sterile rooms that were more window than wall, I saw the beds and the stainless steel combination toilet and sink that made me think of the asylum. Locked doors, therapists, guards.
I couldn’t trust Jessica with this because of a fundamental difference in our philosophies. It wasn’t a pretty difference, and that difference had been clearly marked out for me in the diary. Being here, I was closer to being the Victoria of the diary than the Victoria I was so sure Jessica would want me to be.
Jessica wanted to get us to a place where we were dealing. Where we were equipped with the skills to battle our own issues, to handle conflict and confrontations.
I’d tried that. I was so, so weary of it. The game. The back and forth. Consideration, when none was extended back. It was so hard, so difficult. I was so tired of dealing. I wanted to at least consider what we needed to do so things were dealt with.
“I want to make a transaction,” I said.
I’d walked past Colt, down to the end of the row. One of the prisoners had changed into his prison outfit, letters marked down each leg and the side of the costume. He was a skinny guy with styled hair and a beard a little too long and frizzy to be stylish. Brown hair, brown beard, a long face, and rectangular frame glasses. On the end of the bed, a uniform was laid out, black coat, bodysuit, and pants, with silver branches worked into the design.
Across from him was his partner in crime. Blond, tousle-haired in a way he’d tried to do with styling gel, but looked forced, still wearing his white bodysuit with black branches. He’d only taken his jacket off. His eyes and nose were red, cheeks wet, his face a perpetual scowl. I couldn’t imagine not removing a costume with those hard branch bits. Maybe he was denying his new reality.
“What’s the transaction?” the one with the beard and brown hair asked. He stood from his cot, adjusting his glasses.
I didn’t answer right away.
The two of them were Orchard. Ex-Boston. Apparently people Ashley had crossed paths with, in a former life. Slave peddlers who used their individual powers to alter slaves in mind and body, to fit custom orders. Vista had said the Wardens and Foresight had been successful in picking them up.
There was a slot for file folders built into the door. I picked them up, paging through.
If everything else hadn’t thrust me into a bad place, the pictures here would have. Before and after pictures. Abducted people, then what Bonesaw would have called art. What my sister would have decried as a mistake. A young man made to have the heads and legs of a dog, only the trunk of the body normal. Three women, apparently abductees from overseas, made to look identical, the ‘after’ picture showing them sitting in a row, smiling the same smile. A Mr. Sheppard had paid for a Mrs. Sheppard, wife, to be changed into an old woman, paying forty thousand dollars for the procedure, and another fifty thousand for the mental changes to go with it. There was a picture of Legend, same features, hair, build, and costume. An exact likeness bought and paid a dizzying price for by villains trying some obscure scheme. It hadn’t worked.
There were others. One to four jobs a year brought in enough money to keep this pair living comfortably. There had been a two-year hiatus after one had been injured when capes came after them. They’d escaped overseas.
Just being near them made me feel nauseous. The files also gave me names to put to that ugly feeling and creeping horror. The one with the beard, now in his uniform, was ‘Mr. Bough’. The other with pale skin, pale hair, and red eyes and nose was ‘Mr. Drowsing’. Cape names.
“Mr. Bough, you’re going away for a long time.”
“It’s probable. No court, no justice. Just… this, I suppose?”
“Not even,” I told him. “We have a place to send you. Because you’re dangerous, we’ll put you somewhere especially remote, so any other prisoners in the same world aren’t likely to find you.”
“A prison world. Pushed through a portal like the one that brought you here, with a pallet of supplies. Then you fend for yourself.”
“Oh Lord,” Mr. Drowsing mewled. “Oh god.”
“You’re offering me a way out?” Mr. Bough asked.
“Fuck that,” I told him. “Fuck no. But I think a guy who lived the kind of lifestyle you did is used to his comforts. I helped uncover a conspiracy today. I have some clout, or favors I can pull in. We can provide some comforts-”
“Victoria!” I heard Sveta.
She and Vista raced forward like there was a danger. Some of the guards stationed outside an empty cell a few cells down rose to their feet.
They weren’t rushing because they were worried about me. This pair was so scummy, I imagined, that it conjured up imaginings of deals with the devil, as though any shake of the hands could doom things forever.
“Vista explained what you were after,” Sveta said. “These guys are supposedly utter monsters. What are you even doing?”
Mr. Bough stared at her, studying her, even approaching the corner of his cell that put him nearest to her.
“She wants me to fix you,” he said.
Sveta looked at me.
“You… you despise this stuff, Victoria. The unquestionable monsters, biokinesis-”
I looked away.
“-You can’t even hear it without flinching! What are you doing?”
“I’m asking about options,” I said.
“Why? You don’t have to.”
“I do have to,” I told her. “I have to do something so I’m actually changing something for the better, for people I care about. We’ve been fighting against this slow grind and dealing and we’re getting worn out and worn down. I want permanent, good changes. I want to get at least a few things dealt with.”
“All at once, today? Why?”
“Not today,” I said. “I’ve been asking around and looking at options for a little while now. Uh, options for the Capricorn brothers, asking a power specialist. I talked to someone about placing Lookout, given her special needs. Sent out some emails about hand tinker stuff and changers who modify their hands, to see if it’s useful for Rain or fixing up Ashley’s hands, or helping you.”
“And talking to biotinkers, despite everything else that’s happened, for me.”
“You more than anyone,” I told her, with some emotion in my voice. “Because you’re my best friend.”
“I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t ask if you’d do this for me.”
“But you want it,” I said.
She didn’t respond, emotions crossing her face. When Vista touched her arm, more of a support pillar than I was, Sveta came free of the train of thought, nodding.
“There are other reasons,” I said. “For me looking into this for you, specifically. I knew some of what was going on with Weld-”
I saw the pain in her face at that.
“-And I wanted to bring it up somehow, but I didn’t know how. I thought- if I could find a good, safe way to give you something good, maybe that would help on a level, if and when he went forward with it.”
“How long did you know?” she asked.
“Fuck it, Victoria. What the absolute fuck?”
“I don’t want to watch you hold this in, and I don’t want to watch you struggle with forces outside of your control. And I know this is stupid, it’s a long shot, and it’s probably retreading old ground you or others have looked into, but… I wanted to try.”
“Try? Are you aware of happens if we try and fail?”
“More than anyone,” I said.
“Not that,” Sveta said. “Not what Amy did to you.”
I floated back a half-step, involuntary.
“I’m saying it, blunt, because that’s what we’re talking about. You can’t offer me hope and have it be for nothing. That would hurt more than anything.”
I nodded. “I did tell Jessica to tell you guys to hang back a minute.”
“She did,” Vista said.
I’d originally planned to include her from the beginning, but when Jessica had been leaving, and I’d been faced with the decision to bring Sveta along or not, this way had felt more sensible.
After a pause, Sveta seemed to accept the line of thought, though it was a far cry from accepting everything.
“I want good things for you,” I said, meeting Sveta’s eyes, my own eyes moist. “You backed me up when it counted and I want to do the same, but I can’t even give you a reassuring hug on days like today.”
Sveta blinked a few times, trying to be angry, but getting teary instead. The tears were black, welling in the inner corners of her eyes.
Vista pulled out a tissue from her belt, which Sveta took. She was remaining the mostly silent ally to the both of us. A referee. I was aware guards were close enough to hear, and so were the two prisoners.
My heart pounded as much as it had in any fight. I hadn’t handled this well. This… it came from black thoughts in the car ride. From thoughts of indulging in monsters, wading into murkier waters. It wasn’t familiar ground, and now I was repeating Jessica’s mistake from earlier in the day.
“Show me?” Mr. Bough asked.
Sveta turned his way.
“Show me what I’d be working with.”
She stared at him for what might have been twenty seconds, before reaching up. She undid clasps and removed her dress, then shed her wig. As if to be more imposing, to scare him away from what he might say if he were insecure in the least, she raised herself up and stretched out.
“What do you want?”
“To be human again,” Sveta told him. “To have my body again.”
“I can think of ways. I can try.”
“Trying isn’t good enough,” I told the man behind the glass and chickenwire barrier. “If you can do it, we can talk special dispensation while you’re locked up. I pull favors, get you something to send you on your merry way. Television, solar panel, something to play movies, or-”
“Regular,” he said. “Regular visits. Once every week, something smaller, books, supplies. Check on me, ensure I’m well.”
“We can look into it,” I said, glancing at Vista.
“There are people who we put in remote places, bolt down their supplies to the rock,” Vista said. “Ensure they can’t roam, make it harder for them to get help if we check on them. Some of the minors. We have a precog check the coast is clear, and if it isn’t, the plan is to just leave them to rot, count them as dead.”
I looked at Mr. Bough.
“Works,” he said. “No recruited help. Just… give me enough to stay in touch with things.”
“Twenty dollars in value, once a month,” I said.
“Stingy. I’d be changing a life. I’d-”
“Can you?” Sveta asked, interrupting.
I cut in, “And don’t say ‘try’. Because if you try and fail, I will personally pulverize one of your legs in my hands before we drop you in another world. Be sure.”
Mr. Bough smiled wide, showing some silver-capped teeth. “I have ideas.”
The statement seemed to shake Sveta, to the point she wasn’t holding herself up at an imposing height anymore, or even at my height.
Seeing that and the latent nausea of having to deal with a biotinker and every mental picture associated with them was enough to get to me too. I reached out to Sveta to stabilize her and for stability.
“Being a case fifty-three is a big part of who I am,” Sveta said. “Even if it worked, which it isn’t guaranteed to…”
There was nothing I could say to that. It was hard to fathom.
“…I don’t even have a community with my kind anymore. So why do I cling to it?”
“Because it’s what you know,” Vista told her.
“You said they’re the worst kind of monster, Vista,” Sveta said.
“We’re not that bad,” Mr. Bough said.
“Shut the fuck up,” I told him.
“So it feels wrong,” Sveta added. “Going easier on them to get a selfish favor.”
“You struggling feels wrong,” I told her. “You lost your prosthetic body because I failed you, and-”
“No I didn’t, you moron.”
“-Because I could have pushed harder against what I saw as a bad idea, when we split the groups. I didn’t want to be a tyrant, bullying people and pushing for my ideas, and I let us take a bad route, and you lost your body because of it. I felt guilty about Weld and I wanted to help somehow, and… this is entirely the opposite of what I wanted to say. What I mean is you suffering feels wrong, because you’re one of the best people I know.”
Tendrils reached up to wring her prosthetic hands, and touch my hand where I held hers.
“I need to think about it,” she said, but as she said it, she was unconsciously bobbing her head, nodding in agreement to her own internal arguments and thoughts without even realizing it.