-ooo-

Recoil


Part 8-1: A New World Order


[A/N: this chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]


In the Air over Jakarta
Five Miles from the Behemoth
Alexandria


Legend shaded his eyes and peered up at the sun. "Anyone got an idea of how long it's been?"

"One hour, nine minutes, thirteen seconds since Eidolon died." Rebecca spoke crisply and impersonally as a way of hiding the pain within. David had been a good friend and a powerful ally. "Seven minutes twenty-three seconds since you last asked that question." She still held his helmet under her arm; the scorch-marks on the inside were literally all that was left of him.

"Sorry, sorry." Legend shook his head and looked at Hero. "Any change in status?"

"None." Supported alongside the two fliers by a jetpack that didn't work on any principle Rebecca knew from her middle school science classes or her later reading, the world's greatest Tinker fiddled with a complicated device that gave outputs via flashing lights, cathode ray tubes, a Jacobs-ladder and a screen across which colours washed in random and unpredictable patterns. "Going by the energy readings, the creature is still in the dormant state it went into when … well, when it happened. On the other hand, the kill-field is still right there where Captain Snow said it would be."

"I'm still at a loss as to how she knew so much about it," Legend admitted. "We didn't know that much about the thing, and we've all fought it every time it showed up. It was like she was pulling the facts out of thin air … but she was right on the money, about everything."

Rebecca's lips tightened. "I'm more concerned about what she said to you guys about her suspicions of a hero accidentally controlling it, and how David apparently decided it was him."

Hero shook his helmeted head. "No, forget that aspect. What I'm concerned about is that she was right, that when David sacrificed himself, the Behemoth just stopped on the spot."

Did she know? Rebecca had the strong suspicion she was asking herself the sixty-four-million-dollar question. Did she deliberately goad him into doing exactly what he did? If so, how? How the hell could she make all those connections and figure out what needed to be done to end the menace? How did her wording push him into that so easily? She paused and made a mental note to review the video footage of the meeting, paying specific attention to Snow's body language and word choice. Shit, did she have something to do with me being unable to attend, to give her a clear run at David? She'd already known Taylor Snow was definitely an ends-justifies-the-means type of person, which only meant that the more she thought about it, the more disturbing the implications were. Exactly how far is she willing to go in order to get the job done? She suspected the answer was 'yes'. Ironic, coming from her, she knew.

"You're not wrong," Legend said quietly, his comment strangely apropos despite being unaware of her inner turmoil. "Neither of you. But what I want to know now is … what else can she help us with? If you ask me, she's absolutely proven her credentials in this field. Our passengers, no matter what insights they might grant us, are clearly blocking us from figuring out the really important stuff. We have to talk to her. Maybe even bring her into the inner circle. If we tell her everything we do know, everything Contessa knows, everything Manton knows, there's no telling what she'll be able to figure out from that."

"No." Rebecca kept her tone quiet, ignoring the chill that ran down her back at the thought of Taylor Snow knowing everything. "Contessa still can't Path Snow, but while the girl's shown a certain ruthless streak—"

Hero snorted in amusement. "I'll say!"

She waited until she was sure he had it out of his system. "As I was saying, while Snow's displayed a willingness to let the bodies fall where they may, there's a non-zero chance she'll disapprove of how we run things in Cauldron." Worse, a whimsical corner of her mind quipped. She might critique us.

"Okay, that's a possibility," conceded Hero, "but we don't have to show her everything. Just the stuff we need to know more about."

Rebecca gave him a level stare. "Given what we know she's managed to deduce from first principles, exactly how long do you expect our secrets to remain hidden from her? And with her propensity for playing blindfolded chess and winning, we'd never know what she knew or how she was using that information until she figured out how to turn it all around on us and bring the whole operation down."

Legend looked askance at her. "Aren't you ascribing a little too much agency to her? I mean, sure, she's basically Otto von Bismarck on steroids, what with the way she's been fixing the PRT from within until it runs like a well-oiled machine, but she still doesn't have any powers of her own. What could she actually do?"

Hero simply pointed at the still-immobile Behemoth, standing like the world's ugliest garden gnome in the middle of Jakarta. He and Rebecca spoke at the same time.

"That."


Contessa


I have no idea how Snow pulled that off, but she did it.

Fortuna felt a little sad at Eidolon's passing, but she'd seen so many people die in so many ways, quite often at her hands, that it no longer held any kind of significant emotional impact. It was much more important to her that the monster had been neutralized. Yes, the loss of Eidolon's powers as a force for good would be a blow for the Protectorate, but the Behemoth had murdered hundreds of thousands of people in just four appearances, and it hadn't shown any sign of slowing down.

Worse, as Ruth had once explained to her, Leviathan and the Simurgh would have caused just as much death and destruction once they emerged. Cities would have died, entire islands forced below the ocean … and Taylor Snow had ended that chain of events before it ever began. Millions would live who otherwise would've died, and they'd never know any different.

However, Doctor Mother didn't see it that way. She wanted Taylor Snow black-bagged immediately and conveyed to a remote room in the Cauldron base where the young officer would be grilled intensively to determine what she knew and how she knew it. Fortuna could even see why; looked at from a certain point of view, Snow represented a dangerous enigma. Possessed of a level of skill and capability even veteran military or law-enforcement personnel rarely achieved, Taylor Snow was only nominally under the command of her superiors in the PRT. Not much more than hints of the intent behind her extracurricular activities were available to Fortuna, via Snow's associates and friends. But even these painted a picture of someone who was carrying on an intensive campaign behind the scenes, entirely removed from her official duties.

When consulted on the matter, Ruth Goldstein had been uncharacteristically blunt. "If Taylor's doing it, it's what needs doing. And if you get in her way, she'll probably kill you and loot your corpse."

"She's so dangerous?" Fortuna had asked, wondering if her leg was being pulled.

Ruth had shaken her head. "If anything, she's mellowed from what she used to be like. Back then, she was smart and vicious, and she made her name by escalating harder and faster than the opposition. Now? She's had years to study what's wrong with the world and make her plans, and to acquire the necessary skills to carry out her goals. She even recognizes that some laws need to be followed, sometimes. Trust me, you do not want her to go back to the outlaw mindset, with what she knows now. Let's just count this as a win, before she decides it's necessary to murder Alexandria."

"You are kidding, right? I know you admire the girl, but isn't that a little out of her league?"

"I'm sorry," Ruth said, in a tone that indicated a total lack of regret. "I meant again. She's already done it once, after all."

She wasn't kidding, which was why Fortuna had told Doctor Mother that under no circumstances were Taylor Snow's efforts to be interfered with, for two very good reasons. One: they wanted to win the eventual war against Scion. Two: Cauldron couldn't afford to lose any more members.


Taylor


"I have to say, Snow, I did not expect matters to turn out like that."

"Yes, sir," I said, acknowledging Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton's words as opposed to agreeing with them. I hadn't known Eidolon would take that way out, but between the hints I'd loaded onto him and the hypnotic I'd dosed him with, it had been a fairly good bet.

The savage irony was, it would only have worked if he was at heart a good man. Otherwise, once faced with those same insights, he would've rationalized away the need to deal with the problem once and for all. In that particular case, I probably would've needed to dose his cup with something a good deal more lethal, perhaps something that induced a heart attack at some later point. Luckily, I hadn't needed to go that far.

Lacking some other way to separate him from his power, Eidolon had needed to die. But I was glad he'd had the chance to go out on his own terms. A true hero, and a martyr to the world.

Hamilton eyed me keenly from behind his desk. "Troubled thoughts, Snow? You couldn't have known he was the very one you were referring to."

"No, sir," I said. Again, I wasn't agreeing with him, but he wasn't to know that. Monosyllabic answers were very useful in this sort of situation, not least when they could be expanded on with a relative non-sequitur. "It could've been any one of a dozen of the front-runners."

"But it wasn't." I could hear the sympathy in his voice. "It's a perennial bugbear of being on this side of the intelligence equation; we give them the best information we have but once it leaves our hands, there's no way we can predict how they'll make use of it."

"Thank you, sir." I carefully didn't correct him; while I had predicted it, this needed to be one of the times when I was merely human and had failed to take all the factors into account. "Did you need me for anything else, sir?"

"I merely wanted to offer my congratulations for your sterling work but, more importantly, to check with you about the aftermath of Jakarta. How are you feeling about it, personally?"

"Conflicted, sir," I said; my first truly honest pronouncement of the conversation. "I'm glad Behemoth is no longer an issue, though I dearly wish Eidolon hadn't had to die to make that happen. I'm feeling better than I was after New York, though. That time, it felt like we'd maintained a holding action long enough for him to get bored and go away. It wasn't a victory, except maybe in hero-villain cooperation and overall morale. This time? Because of Eidolon, we won. We'll never get back the dead of Marun Field and Sao Paulo and New York, but the monster's been shut down. Hopefully for good."

A genuine smile crossed his face. "That is truly excellent to hear, Snow. What's your read on whether it might activate again in the future?"

I let my features assume a thoughtful expression. "He hasn't moved since Eidolon died. Every hour he remains like that makes it more certain that he'll stay that way, unless some idiot actually attacks him. So long as we can maintain a watch on him—say, bulldoze everything out to half a mile, and put up a wall, with armed guards facing outward—he'll be a non-issue."

Hamilton's bushy eyebrows raised just a fraction. "You do realize the thing is standing in the middle of one of the most populous cities in the world, Snow? You'd cut out nearly a square mile of urban space for this?"

"He set a fair amount of it on fire, sir," I reminded him. "Most of that square mile will already be ruined, the people who were there dead. But I'd cut out a square mile of Manhattan Island if it came to that. Wherever he is, the absolute last thing we want is for people being able to just wander up to him and either get his attention or die. The population needs to understand that just because he's inactive, it doesn't mean an act of arrant stupidity can't change that. So, we're going to need to actively keep a guard force on him forever. Making the ground he's standing into an international exclusion zone would be a good idea, too. Spread the cost of guarding him across every nation that wants the prestige of doing so."

"Sound reasoning," agreed Hamilton. "A permanent multinational guard force will be expensive, but not so expensive as losing a hundred thousand people every few months. I will forward your suggestion to the appropriate parties." His eyes twinkled again as he smiled. "I suspect they might just listen to you."

"The chances are, someone's already thought of exactly the same thing," I pointed out. "But the more of us agree on something like this, the better chance we have of making it happen."

"That's also a point." He bent an avuncular gaze upon me. "On a different topic. I understand you're acting somewhat in a mentor role to some of the young bloods. It only came to my attention when I commended Patricks on his improved work, and he cited you as the reason. In case you were wondering, I approve."

I nodded. "It's not all that often, sir, but I try to help them out and give a few pointers at the same time. They're willing to learn, which is good."

"On that, we agree." He tilted his head to one side. "Your time will no longer be taken up with ongoing matters pertaining to the Behemoth. I hope we can keep things from getting too boring for you." From the smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, I could tell he was joking.

"Oh, I believe I can find things to occupy my time, sir." I wasn't, not in the slightest. There were many issues that required my attention. Some even related to my work with the PRT.

"Good. Dismissed, Snow."

"Sir." I came to attention and saluted; he returned it with a lazy wave somewhere near his brow. Turning, I marched from his office and headed back to where my current workspace was set up.

Now that Robbie Gordon was long since removed from my immediate vicinity (and the PRT as a whole), I didn't have to keep looking over my shoulder for potential problems … or rather, I didn't have to, but I did it anyway. It was a good habit to get into, and one that had served me well. There were always more Masters and Strangers out there, after all. Just because I'd never met them didn't mean they wouldn't wish me harm anyway. Not for the first time, I wished they'd named the Snow Protocols basically anything else.

But Hamilton was right about how Behemoth being taken off the table would simplify matters for everyone, especially me. I didn't have to fake burning the midnight oil anymore, wasting hours pretending to analyse matters down to the nitty-gritty so that I could produce a believable prediction.

I know it wasn't this version of you that killed Lisa and everyone else I knew and loved, but fuck you anyway. This is for them.

Also on the upside, Behemoth wouldn't be attacking Moscow on his next go-around; more importantly, in a little under four years' time he was due to be attacking Jinzhou. He would be opposed by the CUI, who'd refuse any outside assistance, based on the premise that they were capable of handling him. This would not turn out to be the case.

So, not only would nearly a million innocent Chinese citizens not die due to their intransigence, but the CUI would fail to learn an important lesson about the relative capabilities of the Yàngbân; specifically, they suck against a single flexible, powerful foe. I was happy with them being ignorant of that for the time being. I didn't actually have any plans at the moment for opposing them, but there were years to go before I would be anywhere near finished with my self-appointed task, and situations had a habit of changing at the worst possible moment. Besides, it's never a good idea to explain to a potential enemy where he's going wrong.

Seating myself in front of my computer, I entered the password then instead of clicking the mouse on the Enter button, I clicked just to the left of it. This opened a second password prompt, which I also answered. Then, and only then, could I access my actual files.

Humming a tune that would become popular about fifteen years in the future, I got back to work.


January 9, 1995
Mount Sinai Hospital, Toronto, Canada


Andrea and I looked up as a nurse entered the waiting room. "Ms. Campbell? You can come through now."

We both got up; I captured her hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. Her fingers were trembling, which was an absolute first for her. "You got this," I murmured.

"Darn tootin'," she whispered back, and strode for the door with her back straight and chin up. I turned to Kinsey. "We'll be just down the hall," I advised him. "If anything goes sideways, I'll break something."

"Ma'am," he agreed, and stood back against the wall, hands folded in front of him. I noted once again that even in plain clothes, he looked like nothing more or less than a soldier in civvies.

Turning, I followed Andrea down the corridor, ready to step back and wait with Kinsey if the nurses said I had to, but it didn't happen.

We convened in a private room—Andrea had sprung for the very best—where a pretty young woman lay in bed holding a baby. Andrea and I had already met Jeanette and her boyfriend René, and they seemed like nice people. The sole reason they were giving Heartbreaker's last baby up for adoption was because they were essentially broke; his current job only gave him enough income to support one child (whom they already had) but not two. Once she got her acting career back up and running, this might change, but that would be years in the future.

"Hi," Andrea said, going over to the side of the bed where Jeanette held baby Alec (as I was already calling him in my mind). "Oooh, he's gorgeous."

"He is," agreed Jeanette. She looked wrung-out from the birth, but she was bearing up well under the strain. "I hate to give him up."

"You're not giving him up, exactly," I said noncommittally from where I stood near the end of the bed. "Babies need a lot of resources to care for them properly. It's not your fault that you just don't have those resources right now. And we all know you'd keep him if it was at all possible. When he's old enough to understand, Andrea will explain to him that he was adopted, and exactly why. He won't be told that you didn't love him enough, or any crap like that. After that, he'll have the full choice of whether or not to contact you."

"And in the meantime," Andrea added, caressing Alec's chubby little cheek, "I'll be sending you birthday pictures and stuff like that, so you'll know he's happy and healthy. Once he's been filled in, we might even make it a regular thing at Christmas and stuff."

René looked at me, worried. "Will he be told that his biological father was … was Heartbreaker?"

"No." Andrea shook her head definitively. "I'm not going to let him grow up with that hanging over his head."

I went over to the door and pushed it almost all the way shut. "I'm not so sure that's a good idea," I said slowly. "I saw one case involving a teenager with powers who figured out she was the kid of a supervillain but her adoptive parents wouldn't tell her who for the longest time. It messed her head up pretty good. People got hurt." I looked to Jeanette and René seriously. "Both Cherie and her brother have the potential to trigger with powers. I don't know when or even if it will happen, but the chance is definitely there. Cherie, at least, spent the first few months of her life in close proximity with Vasil, so the chances are she'll manifest emotion-based powers. This is something you absolutely need to be aware of."

They were both staring at me. Up until this point, I'd more or less lurked in the background while Andrea took the spotlight. Now, it was like I'd grown a whole extra head or started declaiming the Bible in Urdu.

"What?" René shook his head as if he wasn't sure what he was hearing. "How do you know this, Ms. Snow? Who are you?"

I sighed; it had to come out eventually. "I'm a captain in the PRT, Intelligence Division. Based out of Chicago. Don't worry, I'm not here in any official capacity. Andrea's a good friend of mine, so I took some leave and came along to lend moral support. But this is specifically in my area of expertise, so I'm giving you advice for free."

"Advice?" Jeanette held Alec a little tighter. "Will this one also … uh, trigger with powers? Will he become a villain? And Cherie?"

I waggled my hand from side to side. "He's got the potential to trigger, sure. He's less likely to go the same power route as his sister, because he wasn't exposed to the same influences as she was. On the upside, for both kids it'll be less traumatic than a first-generation cape. Downside, it's still traumatic. Any kind of sustained stress might trigger it." I took a step forward. "As for becoming a villain, that's very much a nurture over nature thing. Every villain I ever met had a crappy home life. Give Cherie a happy, fulfilling childhood, treat her right without spoiling her, and she's far less likely to end up as a villain when or if she does get powers." It wasn't a guarantee; I knew it just as well as they did. But it was better than nothing.

"You said it's not a good idea to hide it from them." René was on the ball. "Their heritage, I mean. What do we tell Cherie, and when do we do it?"

I sighed, remembering the mess of neuroses that made up Amy Dallon, even on a good day. "First off, you need to keep in mind that even though Vasil supplied the genetics and the potential for powers, that doesn't make him her father. You're her father. Be her father. In the same vein, inheriting powers from him will not automatically make her a villain. However, it'll have to be up to your judgement exactly when to break it to her. If she never shows interest, ever, then you can probably leave it go. Don't force the information on her. But if she starts asking questions, whether it's about her powers or how she doesn't look much like you, or even if someone dredges up the Heartbreaker thing … sit her down and tell her everything. Don't lie, and don't hide the truth. Nothing breaks a kid's trust like the feeling that they're being lied to."

Andrea had looked surprised when I contradicted her, but as I'd explained my side of things, she started nodding. I wondered how much she was recalling of the stories I'd told her about twenty-eleven Brockton Bay, specifically the ones concerning Panacea. "I'll be doing that too," she said. "I mean, I'll be explaining how he's adopted anyway, seeing how his hair's gonna look nothing like mine, but yeah, if he needs to know, he needs to know."

René and Jeanette looked at each other, and Jeanette nodded. "It's for the best," she said in answer to his silent query. "As is this." Carefully, she lifted baby Alec up so that Andrea could take him.

For the first time, my girlfriend cradled the child she'd agreed to adopt. There was no angelic chime, at least anything I could hear, but her face softened and her smile lit up the room. "Hello," she whispered gently. "You're the cutest thing ever. Yes, you are."

Alec screwed up his face and sneezed, and I chuckled along with everyone else. Andrea was right; even his sneezes were cute.

"So, what is his name to be?" asked René.

Andrea glanced over at me. We'd talked this over and arrived at a decision we both liked. "He's going to be christened Alexander Jean-Paul Dubois Campbell," she said. "It's a little long, but I think it all needs to be in there."

Jeanette perked up at the mention of her surname, and both she and René seemed to like the inclusion of a traditional French first name in there. "That's a good, strong name," she said. "Thank you."

René looked over at me. "Are you going to be involved in Alexander's upbringing? Explaining his powers to him, if he gets them?"

"Oh, totally," I assured him. "You've got my contact number, so you'll be able to get hold of me if Cherie needs assistance in that kind of thing." I chuckled. "Hopefully it won't be for another ten or fifteen years. And just so you know, I don't give dating advice. For that, you'll be on your own."

"Oh, the horror," he quipped.

We shared a glance of mutual understanding, then watched as Andrea leaned over the bed to allow Jeanette one last hug and kiss with Alec. Finally, she straightened up. "I guess it's time to go," she said.

René came around the bed and brushed the backs of his fingers against Alec's cheek, then whispered something in French that I didn't catch enough of to figure out. "Good luck, Andrea, and take care," he said. "And Captain Snow, please watch over both of them."

"Absolutely," I said. Left unsaid was the fact that I'd be keeping tabs on Cherie's parents as well, which at least René seemed to understand. If I were any judge, he seemed to be okay with the idea of it.

We left the room, Andrea still cooing over little Alec, and found Kinsey keeping watch in the waiting room. "Isn't he just too cute?" asked Andrea.

Kinsey raised his eyebrows. "I usually don't have much to do with babies, but he does seem to be reasonably cute, yes."

All he really knew was that Andrea was adopting a baby and I was along for the ride. Or rather, Andrea was along for the ride. We'd hired a car in Brockton Bay and driven to Toronto in one marathon nine-and-a-half-hour stint, whereupon we'd taken motel rooms and crashed for the night. With Lisa's assistance, I'd timed it for the day before Jeanette was due to give birth, of course. I didn't even bother anymore trying to tell Kinsey that I'd drive; we both knew it wasn't going to happen.

"Seems to be?" Andrea stuck her tongue out at him. "He's absolutely the cutest baby ever, and you know it." She strutted on ahead, and Kinsey fell back to walk alongside me.

"She certainly seems taken with the infant, ma'am," he murmured. "I suspect I may have done her a disservice when she first informed me of her intention to adopt. A strong maternal instinct is not something I would've suspected her of having."

"Andrea might seem to be the type of person who's entirely transparent about her thoughts and motivations," I reminded him. "But she definitely has hidden depths. Anyone who believes otherwise is in for a surprise if and when they try to take advantage of her."

"That I have no trouble believing," Kinsey agreed. "As you made clear to me some time ago, ma'am; the ditz act may be no act, but she's certainly not brainless."

"Come on!" Andrea called. "Let's hit the road! We got miles to burn!"

I quickened my pace, as did Kinsey. "Baby seat's already set up in the car?" I asked.

"Yes, ma'am," he said. "I personally made sure of it."

We exited the hospital, stepping out into the freezing winter air. "Whoof!" I muttered. "I'm still not used to winters being this cold."

"The Captain was no doubt spoiled by Brockton Bay," Kinsey said, his expression deadpan. "Chicago should be warmer, technically at least."

"Yeah, but they can keep their wind-chill factor," I groused. "I might have to look around and see if there isn't some kind of crisis I can attend to in Texas. South Texas."

We reached the car, where Andrea was already waiting. She'd made sure to pull the blanket extra close around baby Alec, I saw. Kinsey pressed the fob to unlock the car and I opened the back door for Andrea.

"Thanks," she said as she slid into the back seat, holding Alec close to her. She didn't quite stutter, but it was a near thing. "Canadian winters are ridiculous."

I closed the door for her, then got into the front passenger seat. "I would've thought you'd learned your lesson, from the time we visited Deer Lake."

"God, don't remind me." Twisting in her seat, she carefully placed Alec in his infant seat and buckled him in. "D'awww, who's the cutest person in the car? It used to be Taylor, but now it's you. Yes, it is!" Leaning close, she rubbed noses with the baby, then looked up at me. "Sorry, hon, but it's true."

I chuckled. "No argument. I've always been an also-ran in the 'cute' stakes, just saying."

"Sure, you're cute!" Andrea looked to Kinsey for support. "Jim, tell her!"

He turned in his seat and gave her a very dry look. "Andrea, the Captain is my commanding officer, and thus not someone I can call 'cute' without severe repercussions. But even if that were not the case, she's capable of beating any three average men to a pulp with her bare hands or sniping them out to a hundred feet, either hand, with a pistol. She is a formidable soldier, tactician, officer and analyst, all of which have contributed to her successes to date. You, on the other hand, are cute, and you certainly make it work for you. The Captain has her strengths; you have yours."

Wow. Damn. I'd known Kinsey had a good opinion of me—and why not, I thought very highly of him too—but that was about as blunt as I'd ever heard him get about it. "Thank you for that impromptu performance review, Kinsey," I said, trying to sound as dry as he had. "Now, I believe Andrea was correct in that we have a considerable distance to cover before we get back to Brockton Bay."

"Right you are, ma'am," he replied imperturbably, and started the car.


Brockton Bay
Andrea's New Apartment
February 21, 1995


If there was something Andrea could point at as a useful holdover from her time as a college party girl, it was the ability to function on minimal sleep for days at a time, fortified by the occasional pot of extra-strength coffee. She'd been a mother for a month and a half now, and it seemed all young Alec wanted to do was cry and sleep. Except that when he wanted to wake up and cry was when Andrea wanted to sleep.

Still, of all the crazy things Taylor had asked her to do, this was nowhere near as whacked as the Los Angeles caper. And in fact, it was kinda wholesome, particularly when her sleep schedule managed to coincide itself with Alec's, and they were awake and happy at the same time. Given the lead time before the adoption, she'd taken the time to read up on all the parenting manuals Taylor had suggested, and some of them helped … some of the time.

One such book suggested giving the infant plenty of tummy time and to spend time on the floor with them, to encourage them to crawl. She knew that aspect wasn't likely to happen for another four or five months at least, but she'd splurged for a soft, springy carpet so why not put it to use? And she personally had no problems with getting down on Alec's level so he could be eye to eye with her.

While the experience didn't exactly make her want to rush out and get pregnant straight away (as far as she was concerned, that could happen to other people, thank you very much) it was definitely giving her a new perspective on motherhood. Especially when he gave his happy little smile and gurgled at her while grabbing her hair. That basically melted her heart, every time.

She was lying on her back on the carpet with Alec on her tummy, competing for 'who could make the silliest baby noises' (he was winning, but only by a nose) when her phone rang. Reaching out, she took the cordless off its cradle from where she'd carefully placed it before starting her playtime with Alec, and put it to her ear. "Hello, you have Andrea."

Rather than Taylor's voice (which she didn't really expect, but she could live in hope) or even Danny's or Gladys' (also good to catch up with) she heard a voice that was vaguely familiar but she couldn't immediately place. "Ah, yes, Ms. Campbell? I hope I'm not calling at an awkward time?"

So of course, Alec decided to chime in with his latest (and award-winning) burbling giggle right at that moment. "Not really. Uh, who is this, exactly?" She hoped it wasn't a telemarketer; having to get up and put Alec in his crib so his delicate ears wouldn't be soiled by the profanity she'd be heaping on this guy for interrupting her 'us' time would be a real pain.

"This is Andrew Richter. From Deer Lake? I'm calling, uh, about Dragon?" A pause. "Uh, what was that noise?"

"That noise would be my son, Alec. That gonna be a problem?" Andrea tried to sound stern, but she couldn't quite pull it off.

"Ah … uh, no, no. Wait, you have a child? When did that happen?"

Andrea tickled Alec with one hand, just to make him laugh. "Hey, you have your life, Andy. I've got mine. So, what was that about Dragon?"

His awkward curiosity vanished, to be replaced by breathless anxiety. "I've done all the tests I can in the laboratory, and she's ready to meet other human beings. Do you have the headset I sent to you?"

"Aw, rats," Andrea muttered. "Yeah, I've got it. One second." The 'aw, rats' was because she now had to get up anyway without the cathartic release of unleashing her not inconsiderable vocabulary of profanity in Richter's general direction.

Gently lifting Alec off her stomach, she left him lying on the blanket she'd spread on the carpet for this precise reason, so he wouldn't get any of the fluffier bits in his mouth or nose, while she got up to fetch the parcel Richter had constructed. Opening the package revealed something a DJ might wear at an upscale nightclub, save for the extras here and there, such as a flip-down monocle lens. In her mind, Andrea upgraded it to 'something a fighter pilot might wear under his helmet'.

"Okay, I've got it," she reported, returning to sit cross-legged next to Alec as he drooled and waved his arms and legs like a beached crab that was too stoned to know which way up it was. "How do I plug it in?" There were, in fact, no cords attached to it, or even stored separately in the package.

"It's intended to be wireless," Richter explained. "I was thinking you could go outside wearing it, so that she could gain the full experience of walking among humans and interacting with them."

Andrea considered that. "You haven't spent much time associating with people, have you? If I went outside wearing this apparatus, my interactions with the public would be anything but normal. Trust me on this."

"Oh." She could almost hear him deflate over the phone. "Uh … I'll work on a less-obvious model for you, then. Perhaps built into a Walkman and a pair of regular glasses. But in the meantime, would you like to meet her?"

"Oh, absolutely." Andrea felt excitement begin to fizz within her. "I am so ready. You can put it up on my big screen, right?"

"That's what the shielded cable is intended for, yes." The installation had taken a little time and cost a lot of money, but that was okay; between her careful investments and Taylor's tips, the financial empire they had built together (and that term wasn't even the least bit facetious, these days) had quite a bit more than a 'lot' of money. "If you put on the headset, it will let you speak to her."

"Oh, right." She puzzled out which way the headset went on, then got up onto her knees to retrieve the remote from its place on the shelf. Then she switched on the TV and turned to a channel that showed only static. "Over to you, big daddy."

"Alright. Let's see … now."

With the last word, the static on the screen was replaced by a floor-to-ceiling image of Richter, peering at a camera from far too close so that his nose was blown way out of proportion. A tiny arm unfolded from the elaborate headset, pointing a camera back at Andrea. Richter's voice boomed out of the speakers. "Ah, there you are."

"Not so loud!" Andrea thumbed the 'volume down' button on the remote, even as Alec squawked and began to cry. "Now see what you've done!" Dropping the remote once the TV volume was down to reasonable levels, she scooped Alec up and began to soothe him.

"Sorry, sorry." Now he was whispering. "I didn't mean to frighten him."

Fortunately, Alec didn't take much to calm down again, though she gave the camera a glare just to make sure Richter knew he was on thin ice. She decided to keep Alec with her in case Richter did something else to trigger him. It wouldn't be deliberate, she knew, but that wouldn't help much if Alec was bawling.

"Okay," she said softly, rubbing Alec's tummy to make him gurgle happily. "Let's do this thing."

Richter hit a few keys out of sight, then the screen split, with Richter on the left and a blue square with a dot of light on the right. "Hello," a childlike voice said, the dot bouncing up and down. "Are you Andrea? You look different to Father."

"Hi, Dragon," Andrea said, raising her hand to wave to the camera. "I am different. All people look different to each other, though some are more different than others. We're still all people, though."

"Oh, wow," Dragon said. The dot of light was expanding, the bouncy motion slowing down. "The literature Father gave me says there are billions of humans on Earth. And they all look different? Where do they all live?"

"Everywhere they can. Humans are a determined bunch, kiddo." Carefully, with Alec still in her arms, she climbed to her feet. "Here, I'll show you." She knew there was at least one forward-mounted camera on the headset, probably several.

"Who is that you are holding?" Dragon's voice sounded fascinated. "Is it a very small human? Do humans come in different sizes?"

"That's my son, Alec." Andrea lowered her head so the camera could pan with ease. "He's about six weeks old, which is why he's so small. When he's older, he'll be bigger."

"Oh. Father says that when I get a robot body, I will start small as well. Is this so I can learn like a human child does?"

"Well, to be honest, that's not a bad idea." Andrea scooped up the blanket from the carpet and wrapped Alec in it, then shoved her feet into the fluffy slippers that lay nearby. For all that it was late February instead of early January, and Brockton Bay instead of Toronto, the breeze this high up still had a certain nip to it.

Pushing the sliding door open, she stepped out onto the balcony, holding Alec so her body sheltered him from the wind. "This is the city of Brockton Bay," she said, turning her head slowly from left to right. "Everything you're seeing on this camera, that's where fifty to a hundred thousand people are living."

"It's so big," Dragon marvelled, switching her voice seamlessly to the earpieces, while the flip-down monocle eyepiece powered up with the same image as on the screen. To Andrea, this proved she was smarter than Richter already, given his blunder with the speakers earlier. "Bigger than Deer Lake, by a lot. Are all cities this big? Do all humans live in cities?"

Andrea wondered just how much information Richter was withholding from Dragon, that she was asking questions of this sort. "No, hon, there are a whole lot of other cities that are even bigger. And while more people probably live in cities and towns than otherwise, there's folks who live on farms, or just out in the wilderness somewhere because they can't stand the hustle and bustle."

"Wow. The world sounds really big and really scary." The white circle became a crude approximation of a human face, with eyes and a mouth looking like cutouts in a paper plate. "Can you teach me about it?"

Andrea stepped back inside and closed the screen door. "I can totally do that, sweetheart. It might take a little while, though. Will that be okay with you?"

"Uh-huh. Father says you're a very nice lady who I should listen to, and that when I get a robot body you will take me for walks."

"Sure, we can do that," Andrea agreed, but made a mental note to request a sneak preview of whatever robot body Richter came up with, to make sure it wouldn't be as attention-getting as the Headset of Doom she was currently wearing. "So, Dragon, have you ever heard of nursery rhymes?"

"No. What are those?"

Andrea grinned. Her usual choice of ditty was a lot more salacious than what she was about to recite, but she was committed to this now and the idea of Dragon singing these songs over and over again in the laboratory was too funny to pass up. "They're little songs that children learn and sing to each other. Nice and easy to remember. Would you like to learn some?"

"Uh-huh. Yes, please." The face on the screen was gaining detail and realism; it was still cartoonish, but now the eyes were moving and blinking, and the mouth was moving in time with Dragon's words.

Drawing a deep breath, Andrea began to sing softly, as much to the infant in her arms as the burgeoning AI at the other end of the call. "Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall …"


Brockton Bay
March 12, 1995
Late Evening
A Couple Out on the Town


The cab pulled over to the curb, near the restaurant. It wasn't truly upscale, but it offered good meals for a fair price, and couples could go dancing at nearby nightclubs if they so chose. Climbing out of the taxi, the male passenger offered his hand to his date. She favoured him with a smile and a hmm of approval as she accepted his assistance with alighting from the vehicle.

It had taken a certain amount of effort to secure a sitter for their three-year-old son, but with the royal treatment she was getting from her boyfriend tonight, she was likely to forgive him his recently dwindling attention and see if they couldn't rekindle the spark they'd once had. He was certainly being attentive enough. She was looking forward to—

"Louis, who the hell is this?"

She stared as a cute redhead, maybe five foot nothing, stomped up and glared at her boyfriend. The little black dress the white woman was wearing clung to her like a second skin and left very little to the imagination.

"I'm sorry, miss, but I don't think—"

Her boyfriend's words were cut off by the petite woman's heavy sneer. "Yeah, right. 'Miss'. That's not what you were calling me last Wednesday night, when you were supposed to be at work."

Naomi felt a chill over her skin. On that night, Louis had told her he was working late.

"You're saying he wasn't?" she challenged. "So where does he work, then?"

"Hapworth Construction," the redhead shot back. "Why, do you think you're his girlfriend?"

Naomi eyed her rival with disfavour. "Bitch, I'm his baby-mama."

The redhead's eyes flared as she realised she'd been beaten. She gave Louis a dirty look. "So I'm the piece on the side, huh? Well, you might want to know what kind of two-timing piece of crap your boyfriend is. Listen hard, honey. See if this sounds familiar." Leaning in, she whispered a few phrases in Naomi's ear.

They sounded more than merely 'familiar'. Her boyfriend tended to say certain things in the throes of passion, and the redhead had just repeated them all, word for word. She took a step back, staring Louis.

"Babe," he blustered. "I don't know what she's telling you—"

"Shut up." Naomi had heard enough.

"I'm done here," the other woman announced. "You're welcome to his cheating ass." She went to leave.

"You lying bitch!" Louis grabbed her arm. "Come back here and—"

Somehow, she twisted around and took hold of his arm. His feet left the ground and he came back down again on his back, hard enough to knock the wind out of him, if the painful whoof was any indication.

Dusting her hands off, the redhead gave the supine man a look of deep satisfaction. "Been wanting to do that all night." She turned and strutted off down the street.

Naomi had seen enough. Looking down at Louis, she shook her head. "We're done."

Stepping to the curb, she raised her arm to hail down a cab. While she'd been expecting Louis to pay for the taxi to and from the restaurant district, she'd been cautious enough to bring along cab fare of her own. As for her now exceedingly ex-boyfriend, she was done with him. In fact, she was done with men altogether for awhile.

The only one she had time for anymore was Terry.


Andrea
Twenty Minutes Later


"I'm back. Was he any trouble?" Andrea let herself in through the front door and strolled into the living room of her old apartment.

The sitter she'd hired put down her novel and shook her head. "No, not in the slightest. He went to sleep as soon as I put him down." She checked her watch. "Wow, you're back early."

"Company wasn't to my taste." Andrea opened her purse and counted out banknotes. "I'll give you the full evening's pay anyway. Have a good night."

"Oh, cool!" The sitter beamed as she accepted the money. "Call me again if you ever need a sitter."

"Sure thing." Andrea watched her go, then went into the back room to where Alec was indeed fast asleep. She'd give the girl half an hour to leave, then she'd take him back to what she considered her 'real' apartment now. Much more comfortable.

She had no idea why Taylor had asked her to break up a date between one Naomi Hess and her boyfriend Louis Patton (also, the father of her young son); the only explanation the instructional letter had given was, 'I refuse to deal with this bullshit a second time'.

Shrugging, she changed out of the party dress into something a little more comfortable and less chilly, then sat down to watch TV (with the sound down low) until the half hour was up.

What Taylor wanted, Taylor got, and it wasn't hers to reason why.


End of Part 8-1