I’d crossed the ‘everything is fucked’ threshold, by my personal measure, which was by no means official, considering it came from a fourteen year old.
Back when I’d been in high school, Amy had drawn a lot of initial attention when she’d triggered and got her power. A friend, excited, had shared an anecdote from her dad about health issues: you knew that health problem that had been nagging at you for a while was serious when you woke up simultaneously shivering uncontrollably and drenched in sweat.
That was the general metric, when your body ceased making fundamental sense. When I’d technically slept a full night but felt exhausted.
When I’d had a hot shower an hour ago and felt scummy and cold now.
When I’d had someone in my arms an hour and ten minutes ago, and felt cold and empty now.
When I was ravenously hungry, with maybe the best chicken dish I’d had in my life in front of me, lightly fried chicken strips with none of the moisture loss I tended to associate with frying, with spices I’d never had before, salsa utilizing new, better vegetables I’d never had before, and a dollop of sour cream to dip in.
And I felt too nauseous to eat.
I’d walked away from the situation room and the Amy situation wanting to climb into bed and pull heavy covers up around me. Not an option. I needed to do what I could here, or I’d regret it forever.
I wanted another shower, but it would have felt weird, and my skin always prickled and itched if I showered too much in close succession. If my skin did that now then there was a good chance I’d drag nine fingernails through it until it stopped or I didn’t have skin anymore.
I’d needed to get out, and my instinct was to meet my basic needs. Late morning, roughly time for lunch. There were cafeterias in the Wardens Headquarters.
It was supposed to be me coming up for air. That was what the situation room was becoming, for me. Being pushed beneath the surface, a brief, furious struggle, victory, a gasp of air. Pushed beneath again.
I wanted out and away. Actual freedom, extending as far as my fist, stopping at the enemy’s face. The Wardens were suppressing me.
But… stretching out that metaphor, I was aware that the drowning could latch onto rescuers, even fight them in their desperation. Another case of our bodies and biology being counterintuitive, uncomfortable or dangerous. I was acutely aware of the contradictions and hints that surrounded me and myself now. Extending myself to offer Amy that benefit of a doubt meant I had to extend the doubt to myself at the same time, sans benefit.
I ate the chicken, despite my body sending me five different signals saying I shouldn’t. Too full. No you’re not, stupid body, you ate a light dinner last night and had a meal barely bigger than your fist this morning. Nauseous. You’re being stupid. Overwhelming. It’s mild, actually taste it. Unfamiliar poison! The Wardens wouldn’t poison everyone on site by serving something dangerous in the cafeteria. Probably. Slimy. No, shut up internal voice, it’s a motherfucking delight of texture.
It was a policy of mine to never throw away food that an animal had contributed its life to, even if it was two strips of bacon on an egg sandwich.
I kept my mind busy, mulling over what I needed to go over with, with Tattletale. There were two key areas that were high-risk, if I was discounting Amy as the principal threat. Those areas had overlap. Contessa had blind spots. Dinah did too, but they seemed to operate differently, and Dinah had seen more clearly through the end of the world than Contessa had. According to Dinah.
For Contessa, it was blind spots. The biggest threats, giants, portals, and areas powers had maximal sway. There were a few capes who she couldn’t get past, and some were explicit, ones that were officially on the record, like how Teacher’s doorway to the source of powers had blocked her vision. Mama Mathers was explicit too. A whole area that even Contessa couldn’t turn her attention toward.
Other blind spots were implicit, threats that I had to assume were still threats because they were major and she hadn’t eliminated them yet. But that got hinky. It wasn’t as cut and dry as that, and my mind ticked over the various files and major cases, class-S threats… and there was a lot to unpack. A lot to consider, and dimensions to consider when weighing why Contessa hadn’t tackled them.
Then there was Dinah. The other circle in my little venn diagram. She was better at seeing past blind spots, as far as I could tell. But she had to ask. No solutions were neatly handed to her.
Which raised the question: what was insignificant enough to avoid being asked about or get attention, but capable of lurking close to a blind spot? Were we underestimating someone? Missing a signal or sign?
Eating was mechanical, bringing myself to put meal to mouth, chewing, acknowledging that the texture was top notch, the taste better. That it was good, that I was hungry.
How much of this was my body rebelling because this whole mess was taking so much out of me, and how much of it was that I’d ceded more ground to my partner in this partnership? If I had to analyze I had to wonder about its tastes, its feelings about sleep. Surely my fragile, violent partner wanted me to be well rested, thoroughly and warmly fucked, assured, and nourished. Surely these things were qualifiers for me being a capable and efficient host for the power it laid across my brain like a queen might lay a sword on a knight’s shoulder.
Meaning it was me.
My phone ringing was a relief. A distraction from that thought process.
Unfamiliar number. Tattletale?
“Hello?” I asked.
“You up and disappeared,” Eric said, on the other end.
“Am I needed?” I asked.
“You’re not not needed,” he said. “Where are you? We were going to debrief on that situation. Discuss your part in it.”
It made sense that they’d catch on.
“I thought my part in it was to advise, fill you in on my team, my family, answer any questions. You decided you didn’t need me. That’s fine.”
“It would be appreciated if you came in. We accessed your login, looked at your computer activity.”
Up to you, Kenz. Trusting you.
I picked up a chicken fillet, layered with salsa, a daub of sour cream at the end. I took a small bite, waiting, swallowed. He hadn’t followed up. “Sorry, I thought you were going to add something more.”
“You were doing a lot of typing, we saw your notes and they don’t add up lengthwise.”
“Deleted everything that wasn’t relevant. You wanted full writeups if I was going to contribute anything,” I said. You didn’t really. You wanted to shut me down and pretend to let me help while not actually allowing any contribution. Which is fucking stupid when the stakes are what they are. I took a drink of iced tea. “Whenever the scene moved beyond what I’d typed, I deleted it down to notes I could provide if something came up. What was it, notes on Fallen, the prisoners who moved to Shin, my team, my sister?”
“Yes,” he said.
He didn’t elaborate. I didn’t fill the silence.
Who broke first? If Eric wanted to play that kind of little dominance game, he was in for a fight. I had four give-a-fucks left and Eric didn’t deserve one.
I was convinced he’d hang up on me when he ventured, “Good notes.”
Were they in front of him now?
“Your dad is on the line.”
“Oh, good. Kind of expected that. Can you patch him through?”
“We’d rather you come in for a chat.”
“Soon. Dealing with my sister is hard for me. You’ve read all the files, right? You know what happened?”
“I’m taking ten minutes. If you could connect me to my dad it would be appreciated.”
He didn’t immediately answer. It was quiet enough on his end that I could imagine he’d muted his end of the call. Asking question?
What else are you going to do? Not allow thorough communication about someone who just attacked one of our hero teams?
Hero teams around me were huddled at their tables, talking. A few isolated capes sat alone. Heroes that had never attached to a team, but who wanted to help. The mood was one of a forest fire, all hands on deck, people waiting to be deployed to the latest area that was getting out of control, hoping to get things back down. Keep it under control for long enough, we pretended, and maybe the fires would burn down. Things would be okay. The healing would start.
I ate another chicken strip. The peppers were small and heavy enough that they’d piled up toward the bottom of the salsa. They weren’t ones I’d ever had before, but they nicely captured a bit of earthiness, like a root vegetable, with a bit of smoky heat, like barbecue over charcoal. The tomato in the salsa balanced it out. The sour cream cut straight through the worst of the capsaicin heat.
With no fanfare, response, or further communication, the phone clicked, buzzed for a moment, and then rang once.
“Victoria?” was the familiar voice.
“I just talked to Amy.”
“Can you get her to that therapy appointment?” I asked, closing my eyes. “I’ll work something out.”
“I’ll try. I wanted to tell you that I’m proud of you.”
I felt numb. I didn’t trust my instincts, not when I couldn’t be sure if I trusted my appetite, desire to sleep, or my desire for human contact. I had no idea if I could trust my dad’s words, or trust myself to accept them. What was he proud of? That I’d reached out? Found a way? Faced down the monster?
I felt angry at the words and I shouldn’t have. Proud of me?
“What are you doing, dad?”
I felt like he’d expected the question. His response came faster than it would have for ninety percent of people who got a response like that. “I don’t know. Wishing it was ten years ago, so I could do everything differently.”
“Ten years from now, assuming we’re all still around-”
“Don’t even joke about that.”
“-Are you going to be wishing that you could go back to now and do this differently?”
“Possibly. Probably. I’ve felt like I was at least one step behind things my whole life. Like a conversation with friends and family, but every time you’re ready to speak, people have already moved on to the next topic. Except… events.”
“Can you do anything about it? Take a minute, figure out a game plan? Refocus your priorities, figure out what the biggest priority is, target the problem and tackle just that one thing?”
“I can. Absolutely,” he said. He even sounded energized as he said it. “I’m an expert at that.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond to that.
“That’s the cycle. Being one hundred percent convinced I can do better this time, putting in the effort, falling back into old ruts and routines. Falling behind. Coming away from it with regrets both sharp and dull.”
“Like an alcoholic, but it’s not booze.”
“It’s people, I think.”
“Is it the enemy or the ally that’s the problem?” I asked.
“Enemies absolutely. This is the time I can get the Empire out of the south end of the towers. This is the time we make enough of an impact that the heroes rise in prominence and the villains suffer. Maybe then that kid who is on the fence about joining her neo nazi family might instead decide to reject hate and be a contributing member of society. I don’t know. Ally? Hm.”
“Hm,” I echoed him.
“Not ally. Family. Family absolutely a part of the problem. I have a complicated relationship with your mom. She has her own struggles. If I stay close to her I’m validating decisions and behaviors I don’t like or respect. Her treatment of Amy. Of you.”
“But, holy hell, Victoria. I love her. She brings out the best in me, and I think my being close to her helps her good side shine. When I’m not with her I don’t feel like a whole person. So I tell myself that this time, I’ll push her harder, draw a firmer line, call her out. But it takes resources I don’t always have.”
“Same with Amy. But I won’t get into that.”
“Yeah,” I said, quiet. In a way, I wanted him to get into that. I wanted explanations. Those explanations could wait. “Thanks.”
I hadn’t really heard my dad go into stuff like this before.
“The only time life makes sense, the only time it feels right, is when your mom and I are on a battlefield together. Lights in the darkness. I almost never have regrets or dread when it comes to that.”
“I tell myself every day that we fought as hard as we could, because we had to. But Neil and Eric still died.”
“I’ve had the same thoughts. Dean too.”
“I’m getting distracted from what I wanted to say. Which is that I’m proud of you. You’re the only family member that I don’t harbor that kind of regret about.”
I wanted him to have regrets, because I had my resentments. My dad had been the one to escort me to the asylum. Riding with me all the way. Talking to me. He’d visited with regularity, paying for a motel room, coming in daily.
But when he’d found out I was aware, that I could communicate, the visits had tapered off. He’d moved back home. I had no idea how conscious that was. If it came down to having someone he could take care of and support with no real obligations, and that had been spoiled… or if it was because communicating was hard and involved a deeper look at the problems I was dealing with. More personal stuff. Or if it was just coincidence.
But as he’d tapered off his visits, went home, only came every once in a while, my mom had stepped it up. As I became more able to communicate, she had visited more regularly. Never enough, but she’d come. Never looking me in the eye enough, or talking directly to me enough. The doctors had been a safe proxy. She’d studied the paperwork and documentation, the treatment options and she’d listened to the doctors.
But if my dad had stuck it out, tried a bit harder, faced the hard stuff… maybe she and he would have met. Maybe it would have been possible to drag them into therapy. Maybe we could have established boundaries, found a framework, and been able to deal with Amy when she re-entered the picture.
But he hadn’t, so that hadn’t happened. Was it a slim chance? Yeah. But it was a chance. All of us had shit to deal with. But so often it felt like I was the one going the extra mile to wade through the shit to the far end, stick my hand out. To fucking try.
I wanted him to regret that. That he hadn’t.
“You have so much of your mother in you, and so little of me,” he said, in response to my silence.
The image that jumped into my head was of my mom and Uncle Neil kissing, hands finding the zippers or buckles in their old Brockton Bay Brigade outfits.
Holding the bottom end of the phone away from my face, I bit into the chicken strip, past the fried crust into the meat. It had gone lukewarm, the salsa soaking into the fried part, and made it soggy. Which was easier. It made it easier to reconcile my body’s reaction with the meal, which made it easier to eat.
“What are you doing, dad?” I asked, again. “Right now. What’s the goal?”
“I’m trying to keep her from going off the deep end.”
“She came close. She attacked Sveta.”
“I know. Well, I didn’t hear about Sveta, specifically.”
“Dad, if you’re over there, we need more. Forewarning or steering the car she’s in away from the cliff’s edge. Or put on the brakes. Something.”
“I’m one voice out of ten that are talking to her. Three different factions in Shin, Marquis, Hunter, Dot, Lab Rat, and then me. I’m one voice. I’d like to think she wouldn’t have stopped when she did today if it weren’t for me. I know that sounds feeble-”
“Dad,” I said, stern. A few heads nearby turned. “…Give me a minute. I need to step away. There are a few people in earshot.”
I took part of that minute to finish the chicken, standing from my seat as I ate the last of it. I disposed of it, then left the cafeteria.
It took me another minute to find a spot where I was comfortably out of earshot of any bystanders. A hallway that had been damaged in the raid. Lights in the ceiling were ninety percent gone. There were a couple here and there that flickered but spent more time on than off.
At the far end of the hall, I could see two capes taking a moment. Two guy capes, one with two left wings, both of which were folded around his… boyfriend? Husband? Said partner had his head on the winged guy’s shoulder. Just holding each other.
It was so sweet to see that my chest physically hurt.
I missed Dean.
To give them privacy, and to ensure nobody approached while I talked, I leaned against the wall with one shoulder, my back to them.
“I’m here. Waiting for you to verbally tear me down.”
I could have. Letting Amy build those giants without stopping her?
But if my dad’s issue was dwelling on the past and always being a step behind… maybe we could take a tack where he thought more about what was to come.
“Dad, academic question.”
“That’s not the direction I thought you were going with this.”
“No. Academic question. You’ve been there for various steps in the process, overheard stuff, I imagine.”
“The giants, yeah. What happens to them if Amy dies?”
There was a telling pause.
“I think they die, eventually. They’ll need upkeep. They can’t eat. They burn through power. But eventually is a long time. Maybe a year. They can do a lot of damage in the meantime, and I don’t know if they can be controlled.”
“How are they controlled?”
“What’s your line of thought, Victoria?”
“How?” I pressed.
Four give-a-fucks left, my dad didn’t get one either. Even if he cared enough to call to say he was proud.
“I don’t know. I think that lies with Lab Rat. Remote piloting. Implants. From what Amy said, some would have to be biological imperatives. Like instincts, but more focused. Salmon knowing they have to swim upstream, even if they haven’t done it before. Can I ask what you’re thinking, or are you going to do what your mom does when she’s agitated and bulldoze right past me?”
“Working out our emergency measures, in case things take a downturn.”
“I’m hoping they don’t.”
“If they do… if Amy won’t go to therapy like she agreed? If she prepares to make more giants? Could you bring yourself to kill her?” I asked.
Constantly holding the phone up was hard, especially with the fierceness I’d been gripping it. I adjusted my hold, then brought my hand down, rubbing at the soft part between thumb and index finger, cracking my knuckles individually, then doing the same with my other hand, fidgeting.
Because the horrified silence was almost as bad as the words that would inevitably follow.
“You were saying something like your role there is aimless. You regret what you didn’t do in the past and find yourself feeling lost in the present-”
“That isn’t even close to being the most important thing here.”
“If you have a job to do, if you pretend there’s a job to do, even, with a chance of following through. Doesn’t that make it okay to be where you are, feeling behind, feeling like you don’t have a voice? You’re being vigilant. Watching her like heroes at a quarantine site keeping an eye out for any leaks or cracks in the wall. At those sites, they have big red buttons they can hit if things turn ugly. Burn the area with fire, call in the big guns. Because that’s the danger.”
“Don’t depersonalize her, Victoria. I know you have your trauma. I know she has her problems. But you said she was a person.”
“If a person has the potential to drop a biological weapon on humanity that wipes out the population, I’d hope someone out there is capable of putting a gun to their head and pulling the trigger.”
“I took her to her first day at school. I brushed her teeth, I read her stories at bedtime. I took her to her first day at school, holding her hand. I went to the sports days, attended her grade school and middle school graduations, chaperoned her middle school dance.”
Your, our, I mentally corrected. It was always her and me at the same time. Me going to the middle school dance, dragging Amy with. Me who was invested in the sports days.
“She’s not that little girl anymore,” I said. “You can’t go back to ten years ago, dad.”
“I can’t- do that. I can’t take a gun and hold it to the head of a girl I helped raise. A girl I carried. When she was small enough I could comfortably hold her in my arms. Does that make sense? I can’t pull that trigger.”
“I was thinking more like a light-bomb at her feet. Maximum power. You can put holes in concrete walls. You can make it quick. You’d pick your moment, drop a bomb where she can’t see or kick it over. She’d be gone in one moment. Dealt with.”
“You’d have to run, after. Because Shin, and her team. Or surrender. Their criminal justice system is pretty forgiving. Some corporal punishment, but forgiving.”
“You’re- you’re running away with this idea, Victoria. I can understand the desire for an out. I need you to understand that this isn’t a good or fair way of going about things. For one thing, Shin, who you brought up, they could get in the way. They may stop her from leaving. I expect them to.”
“I expect you to do whatever’s necessary to get her to therapy. Flashbang the guards. Force Amy. Manipulate her. Because the alternative to making her is dropping that grenade at her feet and extinguishing her. That’s how important this is. I fought like hell to even get that admission out of her, dad.”
“I know you did. I’m proud of you.”
“Then act on it, fuck it. Follow through. Grab the baton I’m extending your way, run with it. Help to carry this the rest of the way. To her sitting in an armchair talking her way through that stubborn maze of self-deceptions in her head, or to bits of that little girl you carried and took to school being cleaned up with a rag.”
His shout was loud enough to almost hurt my ear, coming through the phone. Rather than risk damaging my phone by reflex, I dropped my forcefield, let it fall, and caught it with my hand.
That couple at the end of the hallway- I glanced to see if they’d seen. They had their eyes closed.
I didn’t bring it back up to my ear right away. When I did start to raise the phone, I saw the notification. A call from another number, a minute ago. I hadn’t noticed the buzz.
“-side of you I don’t like,” my dad was saying. “I know this is hard, believe me. I respect you so much for enduring it as much as you have. And I know exactly what it’s like to think about escape routes, options to get away from it all or magical solutions. Sometimes that’s all you have. But we’re not there yet. We made progress today, and I’m so proud of you for making that progress. Don’t fixate on that ugly kind of outcome.”
He wouldn’t do it. He couldn’t.
“I’d do it. I reached out to her again. I had no obligation to do it, and I would have been entirely, one hundred percent within my rights to fly out there and wipe her from the face of the earth. I’d accept any jail time. I’d accept the fight it brought with Shin’s parahumans and monsters. Because it’s still a better outcome than what she wants to do.”
He didn’t immediately reply. “…I know you would.”
“Dad. These are the stakes. This is where we’re at. Fight to get her to that therapy appointment, come home and look after momm-”
I’d almost said mommy, like I was a little kid. I dropped my eyes to the floor.
“-because she needs you. Or out of respect for the other little girl you took skating, gave baths to, took to school, helped with her homework, read stories to at bedtime… stop Amy, so I don’t have to. Any one of those three things, and I’ll forgive you.”
“Forgive?” he asked, like the word was as startling as my murder request.
“I’ve got to go.”
“Am- Victoria. We need to talk about this.”
“I’ve got another call. I’ve said what I need to say. I love you, dad.”
“I love you too, but-”
I hung up.
Not wasting any more energy on this, I thought.
I checked my phone, and tapped on the notification for the missed call. The phone auto-dialed.
“Hey, kiddo,” Tattletale said.
“Yeah, maybe don’t call me that. It’s better than Glory Hole but not right now.”
“Whoa ho,” Tattletale said. “What were you doing before my call came in?”
“I was asking politely.”
“Yeah but there’s a lot of emotion beneath the surface there, hon. Is ‘hon’ okay?”
There was noise in the background. A voice I was pretty sure was Imp crowing ‘Tattletale has a hon!’.
“Sure. If you have to.”
“I get it, you’re just barely tolerating me. I won’t take it personally.”
“I’m just barely tolerating everything right now,” I said.
“Which is why I won’t take it personally. I get it. I know if my dad called, I’d be pretty pissed during and after,” Tattletale said. “Also, hi, I’m looking at you through a camera.”
I looked and spotted it.
“Yep, that’s the one. Lookout has a thing running, making it appear to the camera like your lips aren’t moving and your arm is at your side, not holding up your phone. Which is good, because she says you’re being watched by… thirteen people, right this second, myself not included.”
I sighed. “Tell her thanks.”
“She hears. As for us, we can talk.”
“Good. Typing was inconvenient. Thank you for your help back there. The warnings about the dangers, so my friends didn’t walk into traps. The little word changes that probably made a big difference… sainthood and intensities and alienation. You got the ‘second generation’ trigger wrong, though.”
“In my defense, I was typing fast. Keeping up with speech while processing what my power gives me can be hard.”
“It was good. I’m grateful.”
“Wow,” Tattletale said. I heard a chair creak. I also heard commotion that might have been kids running around. Or dogs. “You’re trying real hard to be nice, aren’t you?”
“Try really hard to let me be nice without making a big deal of it or using it to be a festering pain in my ass.”
“Will try. No promises.”
“Kenzie’s safe? The kids are good?” I asked.
“Safe, fed, and given a mood-altering quantity of double-chocolate cookies, with Candy going the extra mile to look after your kid. Most of the five-feet-tall-and-shorter gang is watching the feeds and listening in on conversations. It’s like putting a normal ten year old in front of the television with streaming t.v., complete with them accidentally catching the PG-13 and R-rated stuff.”
I winced. “What stuff?”
“Byron and Tristan regaling Golem and Ava with the story of Tristan’s almost first kiss. The gay chicken story, if you’ve heard it.”
“Is this a ‘cock’ joke?”
“Truth or dare thing, where mean middle schoolers single out-”
“Hm? Oh, mean middle schoolers. Yeah. Well, the idea is they single out the homophobic or closeted members of their friend group and dare them to one-up each other in pretending to be lovers, until one gets too embarrassed to continue and gets the punishment game instead.”
“Ahh. That sounds like it could get uncomfortable.”
“It was a good almost-memory for him, I think, which is nice. But it got a bunch of mischievous Heartbroken brains into a particular mode and mindset. I recommend no sleepovers at Aunt Rachel’s for a while. If they do happen, it’s at your place instead, and you deal with the aftermath. I recommend extra hands on deck.”
I missed my team.
“No sleepovers, then, I don’t think I’m jumping on top of that particular grenade,” I said. “Good warning, that. Though I have to wonder how Rachel would even handle that kind of mess.”
“Stable duty,” Tattletale said. “You should see the way Amias and Nicholas stopped dead in their tracks when I said those two words.”
Small voices piped up in the background, unintelligible.
“What the hell are we doing, Tattletale?” I asked.
“Right now? I know it’s not what you’re really asking, but for now we’re talking civilly. What’s important is getting you calmed down enough that you can go back to that situation room you’re avoiding right now without… I don’t know. Dropping something on that Eric fellow from a great height? That seems to be a recurring theme with you.”
“You gotta go back. After that, we’ll be mulling over options and where we need to allocate our resources. First things first, bureaucracy was the issue?”
“Yeah. Twat named Eric is shutting me down at every turn. I don’t suppose you could dig up some dirt on him or get him off my back?” I asked. I stopped for a second to consider. “How dangerous a question is that to be asking? Like, in terms of what could happen to him?”
“Not too. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that Lookout over there is looking into him. Ooh, look at that. Kid shoots me a guilty look.”
Kenzie’s voice cutting into the call was startling, not too loud, but still an input I wasn’t expecting. “Do you want the dirt? I’ve got dirt on him, Larue, Pearce, a couple of other names around the table. Mauk, Hicks, Cabezas. I found surveillance camera footage, home PC stuff…”
I leaned against the wall, looking up at a flickering light. Fuck.
“Not unless he’s a Cheit plant or anti-parahuman agent or something equally nefarious.”
“Nope. He is really opinionated about the old PRT, though, instead of the current Wardens-”
“Lookout,” I said. “Reiterating: you shouldn’t give it to me. You shouldn’t go get that stuff of your own initiative. It makes enemies, it’s invasive, it’s not right. Not unless we have more of a clue there’s something nefarious at play.”
“Okay,” Kenzie said, sounding crestfallen.
Crestfallen was okay, when she was getting a lecturing for breaking the rules.
“Remember what I said. Follow the law, do what’s right, reach out, minimize regrets.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Gonna go do stuff now. Sorry.”
“Thanks for the help with Amy. Let’s work on the other stuff.”
As far as I could tell, that was the point she was off the call. Probably still listening in.
“Threats,” I said. “What are we chasing?”
“That question? That’s you procrastinating, hon. You and I are focusing on getting you back into that situation room. Because networking with the Wardens and having full access to them is important. We can’t rely on our backdoor.”
“Entertain me,” I said. “Threats. I’m thinking they’re… blind spots for Contessa, and-or they’re threats so minor Dinah hasn’t thought to ask questions about them.”
“Okay, walk me through it. I’ll fact check. Blind spots.”
“Mama Mathers. Soft blind spot. She can look but doesn’t want to.”
“They are a factor. So is the epicenter of the cracking, city’s heart, near the old Wardens HQ, but we’re lucky because that’s where the Simurgh is, too. We can ignore it.”
“Powerful capes. Valkyrie.”
“We have eyes on Valkyrie, and she’s self-aware that she’s a possible crisis point. So are her flock members. Only, like, five percent higher chance of being our breaking point, but, y’know.”
“Restless but still around. Earth Zayin in the palm of his hand. He started to emerge, Legend faced him down.”
“Leveled about thirty square kilometers of city.”
I nodded. “He’s dormant now?”
“For now. If he had motivations for making one attempt, he’s going to budge again soon. But I don’t have the instinct he’s our threat. He’s background. Someone else’s problem.”
I nodded. This was good. Well, not good, but this was progress. “What am I missing?”
“For other blind spots? Teacher’s tech. His portals, a lot of the cracking, and a few traps he set using tinkered replications of Mama Mathers-”
“Nothing like you’re picturing. He had tinkers scan her, copy her power, and work out stuff like… quantum tripwires, tripping when you look at them.”
There was a commotion, with a rustling of the phone microphone. I heard Tattletale’s protest.
“Hi!” a more unfamiliar voice said. I heard more indistinct grumbling from Tattletale in the background.
“Imp here. I thought it was important to notify you that whenever Tattletale says ‘quantum’, she is talking out of her ass. Every last syllable is enunciation by way of butt.”
“Okay,” I said. “Duly noted. I’d really like to get back to the conversation, though. It’s kind of really important.”
“Aww, that’s sweet,” she said, before handing the phone to Tattletale.
Not sweet. Necessity, I told myself.
“Sorry about that. There’s a reason I hole myself up in an office for days on end. It’s because this lot plus a thinker headache add up to a quantum headache,” Tattletale said, sounding like she was speaking in a direction that wasn’t to the phone.
“Not a thing!” I heard Imp.
For all her complaints, Tattletale sounded more like the cocky, confident villainess I tended to imagine than she had since our… reunion in New Brockton Bay, for lack of a better word.
“Quantum tripwires,” I reminded her of the conversation.
“Yes. Devices that trip in response to being observed. With big flashes that stick in your vision or mind’s eye. But mostly it’s the portals. Contessa is on her way back from Cheit. She’s got a captive Teacher with her. She led a group in there and leaned on them pretty heavily to get around the special countermeasures he put in place.”
“She’s got Teacher, so he’s out of the picture?”
“You dealt the knockout blow. Reset his thrall network, took away the addictive impulses of being under his sway. His thralls took him hostage and kept him while fending off inquiries from Cheit government. Custodian and Ingenue are still in the wind, one of them literally”
One off the mental checklist.
“Any other blind spots?”
“Only that Contessa is still malnourished, with slight atrophy of the limbs, it’s slowing her down. She’s also slowed down because she’s having to reset her layers of defenses. Stuff she’d ask herself regularly, to guard herself against every eventuality in the days and weeks. After her trauma of being captured during her one taste of freedom and independence, I think she’s being extra slow and extra careful. Not blind spots, but factors.
“Okay,” I said.
“Moving on to Dinah?”
“Before that… still on the subject of Contessa.”
“Big threats. There’s a lot of shit that a precog of her caliber could have gone after, right?”
“A few things. Machine Army?”
“Stuff like the Machine Army. It’s hard to ignore the evolving, endlessly reproducing machine hellscape that’s encroaching on our front door, so I think the Wardens have that base covered.”
“Fair,” Tattletale said. “You want to make sure we’re leaving as few stones unturned as possible.”
“Yeah,” I said. For what it was worth, I was happy to be focusing on the task. I felt more me than I had when trying to sleep, showering, eating, or playing the secret commander and shot caller in the situation room. “Okay so… my mind goes straight to the files.”
“Imp told me about your little library.”
“Yeah, uh, don’t remind me of that. I’m still pissed about the kerosene she poured on my stuff. And the fact she tried to burn down Swansong’s apartment. So- okay. Quarantine sites are a starting point when you want big and problematic, while still being easy to forget about.”
“Not something I ever dwelt on.”
“Most of the quarantine sites around America became places to send the PRT capes who weren’t palatable for public consumption, or the ones who couldn’t play nice with others. Tall walls, patrols, specific duties. Right?”
“Sure. Armsmaster could have ended up there, if they hadn’t found busywork for him. Maybe. They might have thought he’d rebel.”
“Pastor. I was just thinking recently, when Sveta was getting care, it would have been great to take the guy out of commission or bring in for study, because he would have given us a ton of hints about broken triggers and case fifty-threes. Which makes me think-”
“We’re in the right department. Dead.”
“There was Ellisburg of course; Nilbog.”
“In custody. Cooperating. Effectively retired. Turns out that living off of cupcakes made of goblin puke and having next to no mental or social stimulation kind of grinds you down.”
“We don’t know about Flint. Nobody knows about Flint.”
“Between Dragon and Jeanne Wynn, I got access to almost everything and there were details in there. A cape popped up who made a lot of people in their vicinity develop coronas and trigger. They’d organized a villain group put together from as many of their triggers as they could, and that villain group had mutinied, deciding to slay the goose that laid the golden eggs, cut it open, and see if they could find what ticked.”
“Oh. I see where this is going.”
“Not even that metaphorically a carving up of the golden goose. They cut the cape up, each member of the villain organization took a literal pound of flesh. With a lot of members, it was a lot of pounds of flesh. Teeth, eyes, ears, limbs. Everything taken with care, to keep the cape alive just in case it was important. And they’d scattered, and they’d gone after victims to force-induct into their fucked up villain group.”
“I remember them. Didn’t know about the, er, what, pound of flesh placed near the victim? Induced triggering?”
“Or fed to them along with the forced trigger situations. I don’t know. But it worked for at least a few years.”
“But that’s before our time. The dark decade after the Siberian murdered Hero,” she said.
Uncomfortable to think about.
“That’s about it, for North American quarantines. A lot of the unquarantined Class-S threats died in the fight against Scion. Uh.”
I could have elaborated on motivations, but I felt like that might have spoiled our little hero-villain truce here.
“Yeah,” Tattletale said. “Intentional, I think. As much as anything was, then.”
I had so many frigging questions on that subject, but… no. Again, it would have spoiled things.
Khepri had let them die while fighting Scion. Tattletale agreed with the hypothesis.
So many questions.
“The Blasphemies, if you want to go international,” Tattletale supplied.
“My files don’t go that international. It’s mostly PRT stuff and what I was able to dredge up online.”
“A group of tinkers get a spark of inspiration, dig up the resources and start building. Each one of them builds something almost perfectly identical.”
“But,” Tattletale said, with dramatic flair and what I imagined was a smug grin at knowing something I only had situation and battle notes on. “Here’s the thing. They’re each in a different country. A few thousand miles apart, in one case.”
“Talking online?” I asked.
“Nope. No contact. They weren’t even very similar tinkers.”
“Three coincidental builds. That to me says something about the agent’s network, the landscape we saw, interplay…”
I trailed off, expecting Tattletale to pick up the slack.
“What?” I asked.
“More than three. We think it was eight, but it could have been ten. They required specific materials to make. Once the first two showed up, the heroes started getting ahead of the tinkers. Two tinkers weren’t very experienced, one died around then, one got arrested. One made it past heroes to build the third. Five were foiled in their robbery attempts.”
I nodded to myself. Good fucking job on the heroes part. The notion of there being five or seven more spooked me.
“Are they active?” I asked.
“They were active but aimless, in our general Gimel-Europe area. Operating separately. Now they’re together again. As of the last week. Make of that what you will.”
Make of that what I will?
“To me, that sounds like a symptom of overall weird agent behavior.”
“I don’t disagree. Thing is, none of those are really considerations, Vic,” Tattletale told me. “Except the Machine Army. Except the Blasphemies. Where does that get us, except you procrastinating on going back into that room to not blackmail the lacrosse player in the purple shirt who may or may not have a powerful relative who got them into the same University you applied to.”
I pulled the phone away from my ear, halfway hoping I could see a video image of Tattletale’s face.
“You read the dirt?”
“The point is that you’re procrastinating.”
“I’m stopping to think,” I said.
“Emphasis on the stop. Don’t get me wrong, hon. Not faulting you. Sometimes I need to shut off the lights, send the kids away to muck stables or be horrible to each other, and retreat from the world. Just don’t pretend that’s not what you’re doing.”
“Emphasis on the think part,” I stressed. “Collaborating with you. If we think about those guys and how they existed in the first place… there’re questions.”
“You’re doubting her. I heard about the Kid Cassandra’s accusation. Now you’re back to that?”
“It’s hard to ignore, isn’t it? You have to ask a few different questions when you consider that those people and things existed. One, the obvious answer, is that they’re blind spots. Too powerful, too messy, whatever.”
“Certainly applies. They give me headaches, and I’m seeing this stuff in sudoku-vision.”
“The second answer is… she’s Cauldron. She was. Might still be, in some way.”
“I don’t think you make Cauldron-level decisions for three-quarters of your life and then move on without carrying some of that with you,” Tattletale said.
“How many of those threats were allowed to go on being threats not because they were blind spots, but because they were useful to Cauldron or their goals?” I asked. “They made case fifty-threes, for fuck’s sake, and speaking on behalf of my best friend, it was an evil thing to do to people. To children, sometimes.”
“Our focus is on the present, not on the past. Do you think she’s still keeping some useful pawns on hand?”
“I think we start by asking if she’s even on the same page as the rest of us. If she even wants to stop this calamity. Then we start asking what she’s using in the way of pawns.”