I, Panacea


Part Twenty-Six: One Thing After Another


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


Glory Girl


Amy flopped back onto the sofa and growled softly under her breath. She grabbed up the remote and jabbed the power button with her thumb as though she had a personal grudge against it. Even when the show she'd selected came on, she glowered at the screen, her lips moving silently.

"Wow, holy shit, Ames." Vicky sat up in her armchair from where she'd been idly texting Dean. "I can't even remember the last time I saw you this utterly and totally pissed. Who shat in your cornflakes? Was it Mike? Did he do or say something?"

"It wasn't Mike," Amy huffed. "Or at least, not exactly. It was Alexandria's idea, not his. He only did what she asked, after I agreed to it. Under protest, just saying."

"Well, that clears everything up." Vicky put her phone down. Dean could wait. Whatever this was, it was much juicier than some mild flirting by text. "I am absolutely all ears. What did Alexandria ask you and Mike to do?"

Amy took a deep, aggrieved breath. "I turned off a person's brain. But I needed Mike to be puppeting my body when I did it." She turned her attention to watching the cooking show she'd turned the TV over to. Vicky knew for a fact that she had slightly less interest in cooking shows than she did in ancient Babylonian funeral practices.

"Nice story," Vicky said, applauding with the tips of her fingers for effect. "Except, you know, you've left out about ninety-nine point nine percent of the details."

"Did I?" Amy got up from the sofa and stomped into the kitchen. She came back out just moments later, armed with a spoon and a large tub of ice cream. Once more, she plonked herself down on the sofa. The lid came off the ice cream with a certain suggestion of finality, and she dug the spoon in.

"Yeah, you totally did. Wait one." Vicky lofted out of the chair and headed into the kitchen to get a spoon of her own. When she returned, she lowered herself onto the sofa beside Amy. "Don't go hogging it all. And I wanna hear this one. Who did you turn off, and why?"

"Jack Slash." Amy dug out a scoop of ice-cream and shoved it in her mouth, apparently ignoring the way Vicky was staring at her.

"Wait just one Brockton Bay second," Vicky protested, once her brain kicked into gear again. "I could've sworn I just heard you say you took down Jack Slash. The Jack Slash."

"'s what I said." Amy took another spoonful of ice cream. Suddenly aware that she was falling behind in the frozen-treats stakes, Vicky took a spoonful for herself.

"You can't just leave me hanging like that," she chided her sister as soon as her mouth was clear again. "Give with the juicy, juicy deets. Where was the rest of the Nine? What did Mike have to do with it? Why did Alexandria even need you to do the deed? I mean, shit. I woulda happily broken every bone in his body from the toes on upward, and I wouldn't have needed Alexandria to ask me to do it either."

Amy dug out another huge scoop of ice-cream, then sighed and paused. "Okay, fine. I'll tell you. But then will you shut the fuck up about it? And no telling anyone. Not Crystal, not Dean, not anyone."

"Mom or Dad?" hazarded Vicky, then paused. "Yeah, no, not Mom. If she heard you went toe to toe with Jack Slash, she'd freak hard."

"Nobody." Amy took a bite of ice-cream off the spoon. "Promise me."

"Okay, fine." Vicky rolled her eyes. "I promise."

"Okay, good." Amy absently took another bite of ice-cream, then waved the spoon for emphasis. "So, Alexandria's taken down the Nine, using that information Mike gave us about them, right? She's got Burnscar and Bonesaw in custody, chucked Crawler into the sun, and she's just going after Jack Slash. But he's ten times as tricky as the rest of them."

Vicky blinked. "She actually did what he said, and threw Crawler into the sun?"

"Well, that's what she said she did." Amy shrugged. "Sounds about right to me."

That wasn't something Vicky felt like arguing over. Besides, Amy had a point. Crawler was stupidly durable, so much so that nothing anyone ever did to him would kill him for good. Throwing him into the sun was very much a situation of testing that aspect to destruction.

"Okay, granted. But Jack Slash is … well, just a guy with a knife trick, yeah?" To be honest, Vicky wasn't totally sure how the guy had kept control of the Nine all those years. Maybe he was a really, really good talker?

"Nope." Amy dug into the ice-cream again. "Mike says he was plugged into the things that give capes powers. Mike calls them 'shards'. Jack Slash could basically figure out what a cape was thinking or any power-related secrets they had, and even influence them through that connection. That 'doorway' thing Alexandria has for getting around? He managed to scam his way into that network and she couldn't get close to him."

"Oh. Oh, wow." Vicky took an extra-large scoop for herself. That was heavy shit Ames was talking. A serial killer with the power of instant worldwide teleportation? Nobody would be safe. "So where do you come into this?"

Amy glowered at the screen. "Well, he was doing it just by thinking the commands, so I had to shut down all mental activity so he couldn't think his way out of there. That was bad enough. But I also had to get close enough to touch him, and normally his power would never let that happen."

"So how … oh." Vicky stared at Amy. "When Mike is piloting your body, nobody can get a read on you with powers. Is that how you did it? I bet that's how you did it."

"Yup." Amy sighed and sat back, leaving her spoon stuck in the ice cream like a miniature flagpole. "We got doorway privileges ourselves out of it, so that's a thing. But while Alexandria was coming at Jack Slash from one side, we doorwayed in behind him and Mike walked me up behind him. Mike put my hand on his neck, and I triggered my power. Turned off every last vestige of conscious or unconscious thought in his brain." She turned to look at her sister. "Vicky, I turned him into a vegetable."

"On the other hand," Vicky said brightly, "this was Jack Slash. If there was a vote for everyone ever who deserved to be changed into a drooling idiot before Alexandria ended him—she did end him, right?"

Amy nodded gloomily and flicked the standing spoon handle with her finger. It vibrated dully. "Yeah, she snapped his neck is Mike's guess. He's dead."

"Right, right. So yeah, if there was a vote for everyone who deserved to go out that way, I'm pretty sure Jack Slash would make it with a landslide." Vicky took another spoonful triumphantly. "Justice is served, Ames. And you helped make it happen."

This didn't seem to make her sister any happier. Amy hunched down in the chair and grabbed her own spoon again. "Yeah, but my entire contribution was, 'okay, you can use my body like a puppet'. Have you ever had that happen to you?"

"You know I haven't," Vicky said, doing her best to conceal the bone-deep shudder she felt at the idea. Mental control, despite being one of the most common versions of Mastery in popular fiction, was rare on the ground in reality. It was also the type that terrified her the most, if she were being honest with herself. Losing all bodily autonomy to the whim of another, with no way to refuse … she couldn't think of a worse fate. Even though this 'Mike' character seemed to be on the up and up, she still didn't know how Amy was handling the fact that he could take over at any time.

"Yeah, well, the suckiest part was that it had to be done; I knew it had to be done. And Alexandria was just looking at me, judging me for every second I took making the decision. I mean, Mike totally understood and held off until I said yes, but I could just tell that she wanted to shake me and tell me not to be such a fucking wimp. Or, you know, order Mike just to take over and be done with it."

"Would he have done it if she'd told him to?" Vicky wasn't sure she really wanted to know, but morbid curiosity was definitely a thing.

"Nope, and it wouldn't have worked if he had." More ice-cream went the way of the rest. "Mike can't activate my power, and he knows it. Only I can do that. He didn't even pressure me the way she was. I mean, I knew he was on board from the beginning, but he just let me work my own way through it. What sort of a stupid world is it when the guy who can take over your body at a moment's notice is more considerate of your feelings than a hero like Alexandria?"

Vicky had no answer to that, so she changed the subject slightly. "So what's the next step on this grand plan?"

"Something that's really going to suck," Amy said morosely. "Something that Mike's being very careful to not pressure me about, which just shows how important it is. But I don't want to do it."

Vicky thought back over the events of the last few days. Very little of what they'd done could be considered 'normal', and Amy's nose was still tender from where Shadow Stalker had broken it. "So what do they have planned for you now?"

Amy dug out more ice-cream. "Mike says we need to get Bonesaw to play nice. Our best bet for that, according to him, is if I personally talk to her. Apparently she's fixated on me as a potential 'big sister' because we're both good at messing with living things. He's warned me that she might not be easy to deal with, which is why he's giving me my space right now."

"Wait just a fucking moment. Hold the goddamn phone." Vicky sat up straight on the sofa, staring at Amy. "He wants you to talk to Bonesaw? Why isn't she fucking dead?"

"Because Alexandria listened to him when he said we want that murderous little shithead alive." Amy closed her eyes and thumped her head against the sofa back. "And until I do talk to her, we can't actually move forward. The only good news is, it probably isn't important for me to do it right this second."

"Unless she escapes," Vicky said, because sometimes the band-aid needed to be ripped off, no matter how much it hurt.

"Unless she escapes," Amy agreed. "Anyway, there's nothing really urgent for me to do after that. The ABB is out of the way, the Empire is being defanged, the Nine's been removed, the Travelers have gone back to Earth Aleph, Eidolon's in therapy … Mike says he'll be keeping an eye on current events so he can figure out what bear to poke next. His words, not mine."

"Just gonna say, that phrasing doesn't surprise me in the slightest, when it comes to him." Vicky paused and stared. "Wait, Earth Aleph?"

"That's what Mike said." Amy shrugged. "I'm not about to try to tell him it's impossible."

"No," mused Vicky thoughtfully. "Me neither." Trying to change the subject away from Bonesaw, she playfully ruffled her sister's hair. "So, you still pissed at Alexandria?"

"Little bit." Amy dug into the ice-cream again. "Look, I get the whole 'greater good' thing, but when it's me putting my personal agency on the line for the greater good, it's different."

"But you still did it." Vicky gave her a quick side-hug, trying to cheer her up. "My sister, the hero."

"Don't feel very heroic."

Well, that didn't work. Vicky smirked, knowing something that would definitely lift her sister out of the funk she'd fallen into. It would get her into so much trouble, but it was probably worth it. Taking a spoonful of ice-cream, she paused for a second then deliberately smooshed it over Amy's face.

Wide-eyed with outrage, Amy stared at her. "What the fuck was that for?"

"You're no fun when you're all mopey." Vicky levitated off the sofa and gave Amy a challenging grin. "What are you gonna do about it?"

Thirty seconds later, Carol Dallon emerged from her office to find out what the running and shouting was all about. As she watched, an ice-cream-bedaubed Amy chased a hysterically cackling Vicky through the living room, carrying a tub of ice-cream and waving a spoon threateningly. Slowly, she facepalmed.

I wonder if other cape parents have days like this …


PRT Rec Room
PRT ENE Building
Brockton Bay


PRT Trooper Engels leaned back in his chair and sighed. "I gotta say, you guys really do things differently in Brockton Bay."

"What's that supposed to mean, Engels?" Sergeant Patricia 'Sally' LaSalle asked, raising her eyebrows slightly. Engels had transferred in not long before. He was a good troop, but he was still finding his feet among the crew. It didn't help that he had his own opinions about the methods they 'should' be using, as opposed to the ones that actually worked. Instead of taking the time to watch and learn, he tended to question first and think later.

"Nothing, really," he said hastily. "I'm just trying to figure out which side of the fence you guys are on. When I first got here, it was like the gangs were a protected species. Nobody made any big moves against the ABB or the Empire Eighty-Eight, in case you upset the precious balance of power. And that's even when you had Wards duking it out with villain capes. I mean, holy shit. If Director Franklin had so much as considered approving our Wards for going up against the Fallen …" He made a throat-cutting gesture, accompanied by a suitable sound effect.

"That's not in any way the same thing," Pat LaSalle said. "The Fallen have been known to kidnap capes, including Wards, for that insane breeding program of theirs. Keeping Wards well away from them is only common sense. Here … well, we've got so many capes out there that if they run into one on a patrol, it's not a huge surprise. Besides, the kids all wear armoured costumes as a matter of course. And the local capes pretty well know that if they want to start going for kill-shots on them, Miss Militia can and will snipe them from half a mile away if she really has to."

"Wait, what?" Engels sat up again, frowning. "That's not right. That's a Kill Order matter, and those things take time."

"Not if a Ward gets ganked." Patricia spoke with authority. "Piggot might be a hardass, but she knows what it's like at the sharp end. That shit starts going down, she'll sign off on it in a heartbeat."

"You're nuts. You're all certifiably nuts." Engels shook his head. "And I'm pretty sure it's contagious. I mean, Alexandria comes to town and the next thing we hear, she's gone after the Nine like they owed her money. Just like she went after the bomb cape, Bakuda. I mean, one day you've got more gang capes in town than hero capes and the next you've got damn-all. Is it something in the water here? Because that's one hell of a switch in attitude, just saying."

"Way I heard it, it was Panacea." That was Trooper Dunne; a ten-year veteran of PRT ENE, he'd seen and heard it all. He also liked to spook the new recruits with horror stories of the bad old days.

"Panacea?" Engels frowned. "The healer? She looks like she's frightened of her own shadow."

Dunne chuckled. "Not in the last few days. Girl's been stepping up. And things been happening."

Patricia stared at him. She knew Dunne had serious contacts all over the Bay, but this was next level. "Trooper, what haven't you been telling me?"

"Hey, sarge, it's a thing." Dunne shrugged. "I like to keep my ear to the ground. A little something-something from time to time, and they pass on things they hear to me. Gotta keep ahead of the game, y'know?"

"There's keeping ahead of the game, and then there's being downright spooky, Dunne." Patricia folded her arms. "What've you been hearing about that girl?"

"Wellll …" Dunne grinned. He had her hooked, and they both knew it. "That bank robbery with the Undersiders? She goes toe to toe with that bug controller, clocks her with a fire extinguisher, then gets put down with a baton? That's not Panacea's game. She's normally background support only."

"So she got pissed off, bit off more than she could chew." Engels gestured dismissively. "Shit happens."

"Not like that," Dunne said positively. "Not with Panacea. She doesn't get mixed up in things, and she doesn't get pissed off. If she did, there'd be a lot of gang members with their faces on backward or worse. This shit is new."

"Could be an anomaly," Patricia suggested. "Even mousy teenage girls get pissed off from time to time."

"Sure, but that's just the tip of the iceberg." Dunne ticked points off on his fingers. "See, the Undersiders did the bank thing, but I've always thought they had a powerful backer. So Dinah Alcott gets kidnapped at the same time. Timing's suspicious, yeah? Then that same night, the Alcott girl's back with her parents. They say the Undersiders returned her … and Panacea was with them. And the rumour that she was there when Coil got popped in his own base seems on the level, too."

Patricia blinked. "You're saying Panacea turned the Undersiders against their boss?"

"It's one interpretation." Dunne raised his eyebrows. "Ever wonder why Alexandria suddenly showed up in town, and ended up in Bakuda's trap?"

Engels shrugged. "I dunno. Alexandria does what Alexandria does?"

"Yeah, but what if she came to town because of Panacea?" suggested Dunne. "Anyways, think about this. She gets stuck in that time bubble of Bakuda's, then the very next day, Bakuda gets taken down by the Undersiders—who Panacea's been associating with—and left for Armsmaster. And nobody's seen hide nor hair of Oni Lee since then. With those two and Lung off the street, the ABB's got zero cape presence. And then there's that thing where Panacea went to Winslow and uncovered that shit Shadow Stalker's been into."

"It's thin," Patricia said, shaking her head. "Real thin. If that was a witness statement, I couldn't get an indictment out of it."

"Ah, but the best is yet to come." Dunne grinned. "After none other than Glory Girl—you know, Panacea's sister?—saves Alexandria, with the help of some other capes that I'm pretty sure are villains, Alexandria has a heart to heart with Panacea and the bug cape on the rooftop."

"Yeah, so?" Engels spread his hands. "Maybe she had a boo-boo from the time bubble, and she needed Panacea to look at it."

"So, this." Dunne looked at each of them, his grin widening. "I like to keep my eyes and ears open, and I take notice of weird shit happening. Such as the Canary trial falling through within forty-eight hours of Teacher biting the big one in the Birdcage. And now Alexandria takes down the Nine? I ain't no Einstein, and this whole thing could just be one helluva coincidence from beginning to end, but if any one person's got the throw weight to pull all that shit off, it would be Alexandria. Ya feel me?"

Patricia rubbed her lips with her knuckles, considering his words. "Even if all this bunch of conjecture was true, is it any of it even actionable? Or do we just stash it in the 'way over my pay grade' column and pretend we never heard about it?"

Engels rubbed his ear absently. "Panacea's calling Alexandria's shots? If that's true, then you guys do things even more differently than I thought."

"Conjecture, and not something we've remotely got jurisdiction over," Patricia reminded him. "Dunne, you tell a good story, but until we get anything that resembles corroboration, that's all it is. A bunch of unconnected stories. And anyway, it's not like we can do a damn thing about it."

Dunne chuckled and got up from his chair. "I know, I know. But it sounds pretty cool, doesn't it?" He gestured toward the coffee machine. "I'm getting a cup. Want one?"

Patricia nodded. "Yeah, that's something I can definitely get behind."

The conversation moved on to other topics, and nobody mentioned Panacea or Alexandria again. But the damage had been done.


Fortuna


Contessa leaned back in her office chair and let her mind wander.

It was official. The Slaughterhouse Nine was over. As a team, they had been systematically demolished, leaving not even one member to try to re-establish the name. Not that anyone really wanted to; during their tenure, the Nine had established very thoroughly that they didn't play nice with anyone, even those who were willing to cooperate with them or even pay for their services. Anyone else trying to put forth a new Slaughterhouse Nine, especially in the absence of Jack Slash, would face quite a bit of animosity.

But this was leading to another situation; one that wasn't serious in the beginning but could easily get that way. As a landmass will spring back upward when an ice age ends and the glaciers retreat, so too were the villains (who had previously sung low when the Nine were extant) starting to lift their heads and look around. Nobody was quite yet ready to officially strive for the crown of 'most feared' among the supervillain set—Jack Slash had left some extremely large shoes to fill—but the subtle jockeying for position was already beginning to happen.

On the other hand, while nobody was actually asking the obvious question—what happens to those gangs who've been deemed 'not as bad as the Nine' when the Nine are no longer a factor?—there were certainly people thinking hard about it, on both sides of the law.

But the bigger question that people weren't even wondering about was, what would happen to these would-be Big Names on the scene if they happened to clash with Panacea and the enigmatic Security in their reach for the top spot?

In all honesty, Contessa wasn't sure, but she was absolutely certain it would not be pretty. She made a mental note to acquire popcorn.


Elsewhere


"Elijah, dear, get your things. We're going on a road trip."

"Yes, Mama."


One Week Later
Panacea


Amy leaned back in her bus seat, eyes closed. It was a long ride from her house to the northern ferry terminal, and the roads weren't the best. And she still had a walk in front of her to get to the Undersiders' hideout.

Okay, I'm pleased that you're reaching out to the Undersiders again, but I'm not a hundred percent on exactly why. And why now? It's not like anything dramatic's happened over the last few days.

Internally, Amy sighed. It's the Bonesaw thing. You know I don't want to do it. And I know I need to.

With you so far, yeah. A mental image popped up of a well-furnished study, with a heavyset bearded man relaxing in a comfortable-looking armchair, a glass of some cold beverage in his hand.

Huh, you're getting better at that.

Yeah, well, once I figured out how to lock myself out of what you were seeing and hearing, it was a lot easier. So what about the Undersiders and Bonesaw? You know if she ever actually met them, she'd be more interested in turning them into mockeries of themselves or dissecting them than actually working with them, right?

Oh, I'm fully aware. But I was hoping you and Tattletale could compare notes. You tell her everything you know about Bonesaw, then she does her thing and gives me some guidelines on how to actually bring her to the light side.

He tilted his head and nodded thoughtfully. Y'know, that could actually work. And there's a hidden benefit there.

Hidden benefit? Amy couldn't see it, apart from the obvious.

He shrugged and grinned. It's funny as hell trolling her. Every time we switch out control, she twitches hard. I mean, I've got nothing specific against her, apart from the fact that she loves rubbing how smart she is in other people's faces. You've been on the other side of it. You know how it goes.

Yeah. I know how it goes. Amy could still recall the smug expression on Tattletale's face in the bank when she was pulling facts out of thin air, facts the blonde should not have been able to know. As much as she wanted to own the moral high ground, there was a certain amount of satisfaction in getting payback for the anguish she'd felt at the time. More to the point, it was liberating to be given carte blanche by Mike to actually take a little payback every now and again as opposed to bottling up her anger and resentment until it boiled over.

Yup. So anyway, have you put any thought into how else you wanted to stretch out your powers, keep them happy so they don't jump out and bite some poor bastard on the bum?

What? Amy wanted to giggle. She'd never heard an adult use that particular turn of phrase before, and it struck her as inordinately funny.

Something interesting to do with your powers, Mike said patiently. Have you thought of anything?

I've got some ideas, she admitted. But I'm not taking over the world's plant life. Just saying. I've managed to get this far without a kill order, and I'd like to keep it that way.

Sounds legit—whoa, what's going on?

Amy had registered the commotion too, just as he spoke up. She opened her eyes just in time to see a slender figure make their way up to the front of the bus. The long blonde hair reminded her of Vicky for a moment but the way the girl moved was subtly different, possibly because her sister never had to worry about losing her balance.

I don't know. Is she getting off the bus?

And then the person got to the front of the bus and turned to lean in toward the barrier surrounding the driver. She raised her sunglasses—or maybe he raised his sunglasses; the half-turn had revealed that the androgynous blonde had absolutely nothing going on chest-wise, less even than Taylor—and clearly said something to the driver. Whatever it was, it wasn't a request to stop the bus, because the vehicle accelerated slightly.

Right past the next stop; Amy saw prospective passengers waving their arms angrily as they were left behind.

Okay, that's weird. What did she say? Wait, is that a girl or a guy?

Your guess is as good as mine, on all counts. Amy frowned. Then the realisation flared through her, far too late. Wait, shit, I think that's—

Information on the Fallen was scarce, but she'd heard of them and read what descriptions there were available. Eligos was an aerokinetic who liked to pattern his costume after Behemoth, while Valefor was a Master who could give irresistible commands to anyone he—or maybe she—could see.

Valefor was also slender and blond. And they'd just taken off their sunglasses—

Her thoughts dissolved into warm mush. Words echoed through her head for a moment, and she could think nothing but obedience. And then she opened her eyes without any memory of having closed them.

What she saw around herself made no sense at all. She was half-sitting, half-lying on a comfortable sofa in a warm, wood-panelled room. A large bookshelf to one side held dozens or hundreds of volumes, while a chessboard table had a half-finished game on it.

She'd never been in this room before in her life. There had been no sense of time-lapse nor of movement, and she was pretty sure she hadn't been unconscious. That had a totally different feel to it. Also, there was a long low-pitched booming noise in the background, but it didn't seem relevant so she ignored it for the moment.

"Hey, you okay?" A heavy-set man with thinning hair and a grey beard leaned forward from the armchair he was sitting in, and offered her a glass of water. "Here, get this into you."

The voice wasn't the first clue, but it was the one that clicked. She'd been listening to it every day, ever since she'd been hit on the head at the bank heist. Only, this time she was hearing the voice rather than experiencing it from within. "Mike?" she asked hesitantly, accepting the glass. "Wait, am I inside my own head?"

"Got it in one," he said with a grin. "But I gotta say, I'm blanking on who you think that is out there."

She took a sip from the glass. The water was cool and refreshing, with a touch of lemon juice for tartness. "Valefor. He's a member of the Fallen."

"Oh, for fuck's sake." He actually facepalmed. "I should've recognised him. I just didn't expect him to show up this early in the piece."

"This early?" She shook her head and waved away the words. "Tell me later. Right now, we're in a shitload of trouble. He's got me under control. The PRT doesn't think he uses his power to kill people—"

"He absolutely does," Mike interrupted grimly. "The trouble is, he can order people to forget that he's ever given them orders. Including orders to commit suicide or murder according to a prearranged signal sent to them well after the order was given."

Amy didn't even consider doubting his word; he'd been right about far too much before now. "Well, that's a cheerful thought." She didn't want to think about being given secret orders that she had no way of resisting. Valefor could do that, then order someone to call her with a coded message and start her on a murder-fest once he was well away from the city; the tabloids would have an absolute field day, but they'd be the only happy ones.

He stood up and stretched. "It is all of that. The next thing we have to determine is if he's after you or if he's got some other agenda. And then we figure out how to stop him."

"Stop him?" she demanded. "Stop him? I saw his eyes! He's got me! I didn't even have the chance to fight him!" The memory of that helpless feeling struck at her again. "As soon as we go out there, I'm a hand puppet again! Only this time, he's in charge!"

"That's if it's you going out there." He grinned. "Remember when Regent tried to pull his body-control bullshit on us? The look on his face when we no-sold it was amazing."

"What, you can beat Valefor's power?" Amy was startled. Mike had pulled some serious bullshit before, but this was a whole next level.

"Hey, when you went down, I pulled you in here, didn't I? I'm the pinch-hitter, your secret weapon. You're the public face. I'm just the wizard behind the curtain." He tilted his head as though listening. "Okay, that answers that. He's told everyone to sit still, but he's talking to you directly."

She closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Of course he is. Because why the fuck wouldn't the Fallen be targeting me, on top of everything else?"

There was a doubtful expression on his face. "I can't help thinking that I'm kind of responsible for this. Because if I wasn't doing stuff and changing matters, I know for an absolute fact that they wouldn't have come to Brockton Bay until after Leviathan paid the town a visit."

Opening her eyes, she finished off the glass and put it on a side table. "Well, if your precautions work out, he'll never show up, right? So that's just one of many good things that came out of you ending up in my head."

He snorted softly but nodded to concede the validity of her point. "Okay, granted. So, quick question. What would he mean by telling you to do what Mama tells you? Who's Mama?"

Amy blinked. "No idea. I know some of the Fallen, but details are sketchy at best."

"Just like the Fallen themselves," he said with a smirk, but it faded fast. "Okay, time to do something. He's telling us that if we don't do what he says, he's going to order everyone in the bus to kill each other and themselves. Okay, brace yourself."

"Wait, he does that?" Horrified and startled, Amy stared at him, then the world shifted again.

The comfortable room morphed and fell away, and she was back in the bus. However, this time around it felt weird. Instead of being either shoved into the back seat or being fully in control, it felt as though she were … side by side? with Mike. Sharing the driver's seat (as it were) for the first time.

The slender blond was standing in the aisle a few seats in front of Amy, looking intently at her. This close, she could see the makeup on his face, with faint tattoo lines around his mouth, though she couldn't quite figure out what they were supposed to be. " … and do what she tells you," he said. His tone was impatient, as though he were unused to repeating himself.

Amy felt her head beginning to turn, though this too felt different. Instead of being able to do nothing to prevent it, she got the impression that if she wanted to, she could stop it. This time, she chose not to.

Seated beside her, where before there had been a middle-aged housewife type, was a slender woman with long wispy pale-blonde hair. Amy saw the family resemblance almost immediately, but that part wasn't important. The significant aspect was that the woman was looking at her expectantly.

"Hello, Panacea," said the woman. "My name's Christine, but you can call me Mama. You won't ever use your powers on me without my permission. Do you understand?"

Amy felt the urge for her mouth to open and reply in the affirmative. Is that you? she asked Mike, in the internal voice she'd gotten accustomed to using.

Nope. Pretty sure that's Valefor. Let it happen?

Sure. But instead of simply allowing the command to play out with a simple 'yes', Amy pushed for control. "Yes, Mama. I understand."

The woman smiled in a way Amy found supremely creepy. "Good." She put her hand on Amy's arm. Again, as Amy went to read her bio-data, she found resistance. And then Mike did something and the resistance was gone; the woman named Christine was an open book to her.

Christine looked into Amy's eyes. "You're a strange one," she purred. "I think you'll make a fine bride for my Elijah. Let's just see what's going on in that pretty little head of yours."

Ew ew ew, did she just say what I thought she said?

Mike's inner voice was equally repulsed. Nope. Just NOPE.

The outside world went away again. Amy found herself standing next to Mike in his inner room; a second later, there was a fuzz of static then the woman herself appeared before them. She blinked and looked around.

"Well, this is definitely different," she said, apparently dismissing Amy altogether, and stepping forward to peer up at Mike. "Is this some kind of invented father figure? And this elaborate setup … why? Where are your senses? I'm going to need access to—"

Mike punched her, hard. She didn't even seem to realize it was coming until his fist sank deep into her solar plexus. She doubled over, wheezing, then fell to her knees. A new expression crossed her face as she looked up at them.

Fear.

"What … who … how …" she wheezed. Her image flickered, then firmed again.

"She's trying to get away," Mike said crisply. "I'll keep her here. You deal with that shit upstairs. Go!"

"Going." Amy concentrated, and a door that she hadn't noticed in the corner of the room opened for her. She stepped through …

… and was in control once more. Vaguely, she was aware of Mike kicking Christine's mental avatar in the face, but she was concentrating on what was around her in the real world. All the passengers were sitting quietly, facing forward. The bus driver was still driving, ignoring what was happening behind him.

Beside her, Christine (there was no way in hell she was going to refer to that woman as 'Mama' again, even in her own head) had slumped down, drooling slightly, her eyes unfocused. Valefor was staring at the both of them with suspicion, his mouth starting to open again.

There was no way she would be able to get out of her seat, slide past Christine into the aisle and reach Valefor before he spoke whatever words he had in mind. But there was another way; a way she would never have even considered before she'd met Mike. Normally, she would've stopped and asked him for his input before doing something this drastic, but right now there was no time.

Clamping her hand down on Christine's left arm, she took total control of the woman's body. Christine's right arm morphed into a tentacle, explosive-growth cells lifting and rocketing the ever-stretching appendage upward and forward.

It was crude and biologically wasteful—Christine would suffer from a significant loss of mass in her right arm after this—but Amy could control the tentacle via direct alterations to its physiology rather than subtle nerve impulses. She had no idea how to make a tentacle work normally, anyway. So she did the best she could.

Valefor's eyes widened and he lurched backward, but the last foot of the tentacle whipped around his neck. She sealed it to itself, then set about bulking it out before he could pull free. He scrabbled at it; she turned off the nerve endings before his gouging nails could cause a flinch reaction. Who even grew their nails that long, anyway?

"Everyone," he choked out past the constriction around his throat. "Kill—"

Amy contracted the tentacle as hard and fast as she could, pulling him forward to where she was.

He resisted, forcing out another syllable. "—yo—"

Desperately, Amy lunged from her seat, grabbing the tentacle and yanking on it. Her free hand reached forward and slapped across Valefor's mouth, muffling his voice before he could complete the word. Without the slightest hesitation, she shut down his system, dropping him unconscious to the floor of the bus.

Panting, she stared down at him before looking at the people around her. Nobody even turned their heads. It was like nothing had happened. Valefor's orders, whatever they were, held strong.

"Okay," she said, turning back to the apparently comatose woman in the seat beside hers. "Let's see if we can't get some answers."


Half an Hour Later


The PRT officer, a Captain Schwartz, watched as the two parahumans—Christine Mathers' arm now returned to normal—were loaded onto the PRT van. Both were locked down with Brute restraints (which, just incidentally, covered both hands in their entirety) as well as full head coverings, restricting their sight, hearing and speech to effectively nil. Behind the half-visor of his helmet, he didn't look happy in the slightest.

"I've heard about this Valefor character, but what about this other one?" He looked down at the electronic pad in his hand. "Christine Mathers? She's something to do with the Mathers part of the Fallen?"

"She's the Mathers part of the Fallen," Amy said. "The head of it, anyway. Everyone else in it answers to her."

He shook his head. "I find that hard to believe. I've never even heard of her."

"Not surprising." Amy lifted her chin and clasped her hands behind her back. "She's a memetic hazard, and her son's a powerful Master. He can literally tell you to forget that he told you to forget something. As for Mathers herself, if you see or hear her, or experience her via any other sense, she can access that sense, and experience it through you. She can also control your access to that sense. Anyone who finds out about her, she can either co-opt or murder with ridiculous ease."

"And she came after you." He turned toward her. "How do you know you aren't compromised, right now?"

Because Mike. But she couldn't say that out loud. "I had time to work with them. I managed to make him order her to release all influence she had over everyone she had ever encountered, including me. He also gave her a few other commands, so she couldn't start screwing over your guys as soon as she gets a chance."

"And him? What about all the hidden commands he might have left around the place? Simurgh-style time bombs, just waiting for something to happen, or not happen?" The tone of his voice indicated a certain amount of worry.

Amy grinned. "You forget, my power makes me into a perfect lie detector. I ordered him to drop all those commands, then I might've twisted his arm a few times until he was telling the truth when he said he'd done it."

"Ah." He cleared his throat. "I'll, uh, forget I heard that bit. Mistreating prisoners is kind of illegal."

"It was a hostage situation," she countered. "There were innocents in danger." Left unsaid was the implication that she'd been perfectly willing to hurt Valefor as hard as she needed to, in order to gain his cooperation.

The details, of course, were a little different to what she'd explained in her verbal statement to the PRT. She hadn't bothered applying physical pain. The Fallen being who and what they were, she suspected such forms of coercion were borderline useless. With Mike's full assent (and a few suggestions), she'd gone a different route.

Elijah Mathers, aka Valefor, would never again be able to use his power to give a command to anyone who wasn't already a loyal member of the Fallen. Christine Mathers, aka 'Mama', would never again be able to use her power to influence or affect anyone outside that circle. Both would be literally incapable of giving orders that affected anyone not devoted to the Fallen.

Not that the PRT was aware of this. The pair would be separately imprisoned in high-security holding and serve their sentences for all the horrific crimes they'd freely confessed to her (for a given definition of 'freely'). But if they ever did escape, or were released for some reason, they'd be useless to the Fallen.

She'd made absolutely certain of it.

He nodded. "You have a valid point." He pointed, superfluously, as a gold and white figure descended from the heavens. "Looks like your sister's here. Did you have anything else to add to your statement?"

"Nope, that's about it. Thanks for your help." Amy headed over to where Vicky had just landed. "Hey, good to see you."

"You too." Vicky hugged her. "I hear you got to be the hero today."

"Yeah, I did." Amy smiled. It felt good.


End of Part Twenty-Six