War Games


Part Ten: Incoming


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


Undersiders' Hideout
The Next Morning
Lisa


"What the fuck?" yelled Rachel. "How the fuck could you agree to do something like that without me here? I might have a fucking opinion too, you know!"

"Tolja," snarked Alec, already fading back toward the corridor leading to the kitchen. "We shoulda gone with the popcorn option."

Brian gave him a dirty look, then turned back toward Rachel. "We agreed then because a decision was needed and you weren't here. But we're listening now. What's your input? What do you want to do?"

"Well, it doesn't fucking matter now, does it? You've already decided!" Rachel was in full oppositional-defiant mode now. Brian clearly hadn't spotted it, but whatever he said, she would refuse to go along with.

Lisa wasn't even sure that Rachel herself knew that she was doing it, but the older girl was a very emotion-oriented person, and very often went with whatever felt best for her. And right now, denying Brian any kind of agreement was what felt best for Rachel. It wasn't specifically that she had any strong opinions on the matter, so much as that she hated the feeling of being marginalised within the group.

Their best chance—not a great one, but the best they had—lay in Lisa getting through to her. Telling, not asking. "Rachel." She spoke firmly. "The first ship was nearly as dangerous as Leviathan. The second one is probably just as strong. But they're bad guys. They won't care who gets hurt or killed before they get what they want. And that lack of care factor extends to us."

"Don't give a shit." Rachel was definitely digging her heels in. "We just keep our heads down 'til they fuck off back into outer space."

"Your dogs are pretty damn tough." Lisa paused until Rachel's eyes came back to her. Using the dogs as leverage made her feel like crap, but she decided she could live with that. "But that ship will have weapons that could fuck them up hard. And I'm pretty sure they'll be just fine with selling specs for those weapons to anyone with the cash to spare. Like the Empire, just for instance."

"That doesn't mean shit with Tinkertech weapons." But Rachel wasn't sounding so sure of herself anymore. "Nobody can just make them. Lots of people have tried."

"Only if the guns are Tinkertech." Lisa lowered her voice for effect. "I heard a whisper that they're from the future. Those guns are normal science for them. What if the Empire started a factory that cranked out guns like that for anyone who wanted to buy them? Right now, everyone knows not to fuck with you and your dogs, right?" It wasn't really true, but the number of big hitters who could take on one of Rachel's dogs and win was pretty small.

"Damn right they do." Rachel gave the only reply Lisa had left her open to use.

Lisa felt kind of bad for manipulating her like this, but it was literally the only option she had. "Well, if this new ship starts selling their tech, pretty soon everyone's gonna have guns that can fuck your dogs up as easily as ordinary guns do to you and me, no matter how big they are." It was only a guess, but her power allowed for extremely well-educated guesses.

"No, that's not possible." Rachel had a hunted look now. "I'll—we'll leave town. Fuck this city, I never liked it anyway."

"Sure, you can do that." Brian stepped up again. "But Lisa tells me Coil's a vindictive asshole. Isn't that right, Lisa?"

Figuring out where he was going with this, Lisa nodded. "He sure is. He likes hurting people just because he can."

"What's that got to do with me?" Rachel was on the defensive now. "He's not about to come after me."

"No, true, he's not." Brian waved his hand outward. "But the Endbringer Truce only counts inside Brockton Bay. He could inform the PRT, the Protectorate; hell, the FBI, that you're on the move. And you just know he'll tell them to shoot the dogs just in case."

Teeth bared, Rachel literally snarled as she lunged forward and punched Brian in the face. Brian rocked back a little and took a step to steady himself, bringing his hands up fast. She looked as though she wanted to hit him again, but paused, no doubt remembering previous clashes. Brian was taller, stronger and had actual training under his belt, whereas Rachel got by on anger and persistence. One on one, there was no real contest there, and they both knew it.

Fists clenched, she glared at him. "Don't you say that about my dogs."

Slowly, he wiped the back of his thumb across his nostrils, then examined the smear of blood there. "You get that one for free," he said quietly.

"Rachel," Lisa said from across the room. "You know it's true. Coil would absolutely do that to anyone he decided was betraying him. Even though he's been fucking all of us around, just to keep us thinking he's the best option here. He's a dick, that way."

"Just gonna remind everyone," Alec said from the corridor, "all they really want us to do is not help the bad guys from outer space. I vote we don't stick our necks out. Just chillax with our heads down and let the big guns do what they do best."

"And when Coil contacts us to get hold of some of their tech?" Brian sounded like he was gritting his teeth. "Do we help him get it, or do we try to fuck him around? When, might I remind you, his bullshit probability manipulation ensures that trying to fuck him around never, ever works?"

Fuck it. Lisa spoke before she could convince herself to do otherwise. "It's not probability manipulation. He's a precog. Anytime he's in a situation where it's a go-no-go, he can try out both scenarios and pick the one that works for him. That's why he sometimes tells us to go ahead and sometimes says no."

The words hung in the air as the others stared at her in varying degrees of disbelief and (in Rachel's case) anger. She felt a twinge of guilt at having kept the information from them, even as she tried to convince herself that it wouldn't have done them any good before.

"What … the fuck?" Alec was the first one to react, where she would've expected Rachel or Brian to speak ahead of him. "Exactly how long have you been sitting on that little revelation?"

"… little while," she admitted. "For a long time, I wasn't sure. Then I couldn't be certain how many timelines he's got access to. But I'm pretty certain it's only two. He might be sandbagging …" She trailed off, leaving the rest unsaid.

"… but Coil never sandbags," Brian concluded. "He always hits with everything he's got. Yeah, I can see it. But fuck, Lisa. We're your teammates. We're your friends. Friends share that sort of shit with friends."

"We're not friends." Rachel's voice was harsh. "She's never been our friend. She's been pulling our strings, just like Coil does. Lying to us, or not telling us enough. Manipulating us."

Lisa looked her in the eye and kept her voice as steady as possible. "I've never told you anything that would hurt you."

Rachel's return glare should've singed her eyebrows off. "That's not the same as not lying to me."

Which was true; it wasn't. And sometimes she'd shaded the truth when it was convenient, or when she really needed Rachel to do a certain thing. She nearly opened her mouth to deny it. I've never lied to you. But it would absolutely be a lie, and from the glint in Alec's eye, he would call her out on it. Rachel wouldn't know one way or the other, but she would choose to believe it a lie, even if it was the unadorned truth.

She'd hesitated too long. Rachel's lip curled in triumph. "See? I fucking knew it. Lying to us all fucking day long."

"And so fucking what?" Brian's words cut across Rachel's an instant before Lisa would've made an ultimately doomed attempt at salvaging the situation. "She's a Thinker. Thinkers always hold their information close to the chest. It's all they've got. She might be late to the party but she's here, now, giving us the straight dope."

Holy shit. Brian had never struck Lisa as the white-knight type before, but here he was, defending her. She knew why he was doing it, of course; he was trying to keep the team together. Brian had always taken his duties as team leader seriously.

"Actually, talking about people who've fucked us over," Alec remarked. "I wonder what's happened with Taylor? Coil had you trying to call her but she wasn't picking up. Did he get you to try again, or did he just give up? Because I can't see that happening, not with that spaceship sitting right there to be checked out." Glancing slyly at Lisa, he raised his eyebrows. "Or did you have other revelations you'd like to share with the class?"

"On that particular one, not a fucking clue," Lisa confessed. "She's in the wind, and while I suspect he'd let her run in the normal course of events—kidnapping her with her bug swarms involved would be possible, but a cast-iron nightmare—you're right in that she's his best chance of getting information on that ship." Which, she was fully aware, didn't answer the question.

Brian shrugged. "Maybe he decided that we might not try our hardest to bring her in, being ex-teammates and all."

"Yeah, right," snorted Rachel. "She stabbed us in the back. Fuck her."

"No, no, I think he's got a point." Now that punches were no longer being thrown, Alec came out into the common area again. "Maybe he sent the Travellers after her instead."

That actually sounded halfway plausible, but Lisa couldn't help hoping that Taylor would remain outside their clutches. Terrifying bug powers aside, she was too nice a girl to be caught up in shit like this.

In any case, like the situation with Dinah Alcott, it wasn't something she could do anything meaningful about right now. Also, there were other matters to be dealt with. "So, Rachel." She kept her tone light and non-confrontational.

"What?" The tone was aggressive but Rachel didn't seem to be winding up for a punch; Lisa decided to take that as a positive sign.

"Which way did you want to go? Staying neutral or helping the good guys? I promise, we'll respect your choices, whatever you decide."

Rachel eyed her sourly. "Meanwhile, you already chose. Without me." When Lisa didn't respond, Rachel snorted. "Fuck it, Coil's a dick. We can help the good guys. And then we're done. Finished. I'm out of here."

Alec nodded. "You and me both. I'm thinking Houston sounds nice, this time of the decade." He smirked at her. "We can be travel buddies."

"Fuck off and die." Rachel gave him the finger.

Lisa allowed herself to relax slightly. Oh, good. We're back to normal. At least until the bad guys get here.


Low Earth Orbit
On Board the Gambler's Ruin
Kramer


Johnson sat up straighter and leaned closer in toward his console. "Captain, got something weird on the screens."

"Define 'weird'." Kramer rubbed at his eyes. They'd spent the last few hours easing closer and closer to this planet that looked identical to Earth, except that it seemed to lack any kind of spacefaring technology.

Every sensor that could be brought to bear was operating at full capacity, and the chameleonware was cranked up to the max it could handle. The last time he'd tangled with Geneva and the Bond James Bond, they'd sucker-punched him then run away. He was utterly convinced in his own mind that this time around, with him and the Ruin on alert, things would go differently.

He picked up the container of coffee substitute and took a hit from it. Hot caffeine burned down his throat and woke up his nervous system.

One of the screens in front of him ceased showing the forward view and came up with a picture of a woman. No—a statue of a woman. The wings weren't exactly usual, but he'd seen odder things. She was just floating there in orbit, alabaster features calm in repose.

"Okay, yeah," he said. "That is kinda weird. We got a scale on that, and what it's made of?"

"Computer puts it at about four-seventy-five centimetres tall. Getting anomalous readings when we try the spectrograph, though. It's like it can't decide what the thing's supposed to be built out of."

"Piece of crap. Always glitching out on us. What's the workmanship like?"

At least Kramer couldn't complain about the cost of the spectrograph; he'd salvaged it from a mining ship he'd attacked and subsequently destroyed, after relieving them of their cargo of precious ore. Well, it wasn't as though the previous owners were going to be needing the ship, the ore or the spectrograph after they'd all been spaced.

He couldn't have them tattling to the authorities about him, after all.

"Can't see a thing wrong with it, captain." Johnson shrugged. "Thing is, why'd they put a statue like that in orbit anyway? They've barely managed to put satellites up."

"Some kind of religious thing?" Kramer really didn't care. "Something like that was probably handcarved so there's likely a market for it somewhere. We got room in the hold?"

Johnson nodded. "Sure thing. Some of those wings look a little fragile, but we should be able to pack around it properly."

"Excellent. Maintain the threat board in case the Bond tries to sneak up on us." He raised his voice to address the Golem on helm. "Get up alongside it and we'll take it on board."

"Yes, captain." The ship kicked into motion, and Kramer went back to his seat.

He was still going to get the Klovis kid back, but a smart man always kept an eye out for the main chance. It was the secret of his success.


Within the Computer System of the Bond James Bond
Dragon


"Lass, we have a problem."

Dragon paused in her review of the ongoing progress of the repairs to the Bond James Bond. "Sean? What is it?" Communicating like this, in fractions of a second, was still a novelty to her.

"Geneva's idiot ex-husband is about to bite off far more than he can chew."

"What?" Before she could ask, an image flared to life and she saw exactly what Sean meant; the bulk of the Gambler's Ruin slowly approaching the Simurgh. "Oh, that moron. Why isn't he sheering off? Can't he see the U-space trace?"

"The idiot doesn't have the ability to detect U-space interference. He cannot see the danger he is in. What is she likely to do, apart from singing at them?"

In place of words, Dragon pulled up footage from Madison, Wisconsin of the previous year. Some buildings had been wrecked and others were telekinetically orbiting the Simurgh. The devices she was constructing were easily visible.

"So … she can construct machines? On the spot? That's not good."

"It's worse than that. The hypothesis is that she can repurpose Tinkertech for her own ends." She paused, as a horrifying idea occurred to her. "What can she do with the tech on that ship?"

"Just assuming a CTD and nothing else, lass … still far too much." They both knew there would be much more than that on the smuggler's ship.

"We have to warn them!" This wasn't just about the lives or even the sanity of Kramer's crew. Had it been just that, she would probably have hesitated before contacting them. But the spectre of giving the Simurgh access to tech she could replicate endlessly … that was a danger to the whole world.

"Aye, but will Kramer listen?"

Even as Sean voiced the question, he was opening a channel. No matter what else, they had to try.


In the Bond James Bond Crew Area
Taylor


It seemed that the rules for draw poker had survived for five hundred years more or less unscathed. Reynaud knew how to play, which was good for my boredom threshold, but he was crap at bluffing. That crest was a great indicator of his mood; every time he got a good hand, it flared.

Discarding a three and a four, I drew two cards, but before I even got around to looking at them, I raised my head and stared toward the front of the craft. "Uh … I think there might be something going on out there. My bugs are showing people up on a rooftop a few blocks down."

"Relax," said Geneva, getting up and strolling toward the cockpit. "I've already got them on scan. See?"

The table display between Reynaud and me lit up, showing a 3-D rendering of the buildings outside. The Bond James Bond was clearly visible in miniature, in front of the small-scale PRT building. Down the street, just where my bugs were showing activity, several U-space traces were visible on top of the same building.


Coil


Thomas Calvert sat in his base, his phone sitting in front of him, on speaker.

"Trickster here. We're on the roof. I have line of sight on the spaceship. Say the word."

In one timeline, he said, "Green light. Go."

In the other, he said, "Abort. Pull back now."

The plan was simple. He wanted to interrogate a member of the crew of the Bond James Bond, perhaps capture a sample of their technology. Unfortunately, given the heavy security around the whole thing, this was proving difficult in the extreme.

Trickster's job was to get a view of the interior of the ship through the front viewscreen, then swap with whichever crewmember came within sight. Genesis would have created an avatar of his rough size and weight, so all he had to do was sight on it and jump out again. In the meantime, the other members of the team were to subdue the unfortunate crewmember.

It wasn't a perfect plan but given a good dose of luck, it would work. Calvert preferred to make his own luck. With his power, he could try, try and try again until something worked.

In the 'go' timeline, he heard Trickster mutter, "now".

Then … silence. The call ended.

He waited.

Nothing happened.

Taking up the phone, he dialled Sundancer's phone. It rang twice before it was answered. "Hello?"

The girl's voice sounded a little odd, but he ignored that. "Report. What's the situation?"

"Oh. It's you. Hello, Coil." The penny dropped with a clang. That wasn't Sundancer. That was Geneva Hastings. "Cute trick your boy has. He's our prisoner now, along with the other two. I had to blow apart the simulacrum. I hope nobody got hurt. See you soon." The call ended.

Gritting his teeth, he dropped the timeline.

This was getting very irritating indeed.


Taylor


As we watched, they turned and went downstairs again. Which was odd, because they hadn't been on the rooftop more than thirty seconds. "Okay," I said rhetorically. "So what was that about?"

"I have absolutely no idea," Reynaud said. "Maybe they just wanted to see us for themselves?"

I'd heard the stories of what had happened before I even ended up on the ship, but that really didn't ring true. Besides, this pattern of behaviour rang a bell. "No," I said. "They were up to something, and they got frightened away somehow."

Reynaud looked around at the quiescent ship. "But we didn't do a thing."


Kramer


"Captain, I got an incoming message!" This was one of the catadapts running the comms panel. "Hailing us in the clear!"

"Is it the Bond James Bond?" asked Kramer immediately. It had to be; nobody else on this Earth knew who they were, and he doubted any of the tech down there could break through their chameleonware.

"That's an affirmative, sir. Scanning … scanning … no attack code in the message, sir!"

Okay, that was weird as hell. He knew Geneva well, and there was no way she'd pass up the chance to fuck him over, any chance she got. "Play it."

Immediately, the voice filled the bridge. It wasn't Geneva speaking, but the AI running her ship. "Gambler's Ruin, this is the Bond James Bond. Sheer off immediately. I say again, sheer off immediately. Do not approach that object. Hi—" The signal broke into hash.

Kramer leaned against the back of his crash chair, and adopted his best casual drawl. "Ah, Bond James Bond, I'm sorry but you're going to have to repeat your message. I didn't catch some of that. Also, you're not the boss of me, so if you've got a problem with me taking that statue, I suggest you put Geneva on the comm. Also, kiss my well-toned ass."

"Listen up, Kramer, you sticky-fingered moron!" Now it was Geneva on the comms. "That's no statue, that's a su—" Again, the signal dissolved into electronic hissing. Right at the end, it came back with, "—tear your ship apart and kill you all. You got that?"

Rolling his eyes, Kramer yawned theatrically. "If all you have is empty threats and orders that you can't back up, I'm done talking. Profit's the name; taking things is the game. Call me when you're willing to hand the kid over. Until then, feel free to go take a hike into the corona of the nearest star. Kramer, out." Gesturing at the catadapt, he gave her the 'end call' signal.

"I think that went well," he said with a cocky grin as the crew applauded his wit. "EVA crew ready to go?"

"Yes, captain," one of the bridge crew responded.

"Send the order. Load it on board."

"Copy that, captain."

"Oh, and did we get a location trace on the Bond James Bond from that call?"

"Uh, no, captain. It was too short. We should be able to narrow it down, but right now they could be anywhere on the globe."

"Right. Well, keep looking. And let me know when you've got that statue in the hold."

"Yes, captain."

As Kramer went back to his chair, he shook his head in irritation. Who did Geneva think she was anyway, to try to tell him what he could and couldn't take?

Deep in the back of his mind, a discordant melody began to play …


Taylor


I laid my cards down. As expected, my solitary pair didn't win the round, and the table automatically shifted a few gaudily-decorated holographic chips from my imaginary pile to Reynaud's. "My turn to deal," I announced, and took up the cards. Unlike the chips, they were real, having been printed out by the ship less than five minutes after I'd made the request.

"God dammit," growled Geneva, stalking back into the crew area. "Everyone, listen carefully."

The swearing was what surprised me, followed closely by the elfin woman's pissed-off expression. Up until now, Geneva Hastings had been the epitome of self-control, to the point that I had begun to wonder if she even had emotions like that. Now, it certainly seemed she did; she just rarely let them out to play.

"What's the matter?" asked Reynaud. "What happened?"

"My idiot ex-husband has managed to outdo himself, that's what happened." Geneva raised her head slightly. "Sean, open a channel to Armsmaster, Miss Militia, Director Piggot, Legend and Director Costa-Brown, please. I'd rather to only have to explain this once before they start shouting."

That didn't sound good. Not in the slightest. I looked at Reynaud and mouthed, Outdo himself?

He shrugged in return, which didn't help. Given that his personal experience with the man had been as a kidnap victim and a prisoner, I wasn't sure I wanted to know how Kramer could outdo that.

The holotable chimed and popped up five images, floating in midair before us. They weren't three-dimensional, but they were live pictures. It impressed me considerably when I realised that five of the highest-ranking people in the PRT and Protectorate had just dropped everything when Geneva asked to have a chat.

"You have our attention," announced Chief Director Costa-Brown. "What's the problem now?"

Geneva took in a breath and let it out slowly. "I've already notified you of Kramer's arrival in-system. When he showed up in Earth orbit, he saw the Simurgh and apparently decided it was valuable enough to steal. We attempted to warn him off, but he ignored us and took it on board." She clenched her teeth, the frustration showing through. "He does that sort of thing."

Legend spoke first, but only by half a second. "Wait. He took her on board. Onto his ship?"

Armsmaster wasn't far behind. "And she let him?"

Geneva folded her arms. "Last we saw, the thing was doing an excellent impression of a statue."

Costa-Brown facepalmed. "Of course she was. Everyone on Earth Bet knows exactly what she is, and will flee her presence as soon as they know she's around. These people tick all her boxes; already criminally unscrupulous, have no idea what she can do, and they're in possession of a highly mobile, highly advanced weapons platform. Including at least one antimatter device. That ship is now, in every sense of the word, a ticking time bomb."

There was the sound of a clearing throat. Everyone's viewpoint shifted very slightly, as if focusing on a different image on their screens. Everyone except Director Piggot, whose expression was an interesting blend of 'fuck my life' and 'I told you so'. "Chief Director," she announced formally. "I would like to re-table the option of immediately declaring a Kill Order on that whole damn ship and its crew. It, and its technology, needs to be destroyed post-haste, and those on board executed due to being Simurgh puppets. Because you know that's going to happen."

Nowhere in all of that did she indicate any possibility of destroying the Simurgh at the same time, because humanity had been trying to do that for years without any kind of appreciable result. I suspected she wouldn't be unhappy if the combined forces of the Protectorate and the PRT managed to pull it off, but I was pretty certain it wasn't going to happen either.

Still, they were probably going to try their hardest anyway.

Geneva raised two fingers to get the attention of everyone else. "We might need to dial that back a little." Her voice was steady, but I could see her toe tapping on the deck. "Yes, I agree we need to remove Kramer from that thing's presence, and killing him is probably the best way right now. But I strongly suggest that destroying the Gambler's Ruin isn't the best idea. I want to be able to go home again once this is over, after all."

"It absolutely is the best idea." Director Piggot's voice could've shaved tungsten carbide. "I understand you're giving refuge to Dragon? Her specialty is to reverse-engineer Tinkertech. Mundane technology, even dating from five hundred years in the future, should pose her no challenges whatsoever. And if you try to tell me that your AI doesn't have the specs for an antimatter bomb hidden away somewhere in his files, I am going to laugh in your face. When this is all over, we can supply you with the required materials to build such a thing." The subtext, not very well hidden, was along the lines of 'whatever it takes to get you out of my hair'.

On her screen, Miss Militia tilted her head slightly and nodded in agreement with Director Piggot's words, if not her silent meaning. She was pretty sure Sean had some nasty blueprints stashed away too, and I suspected she was right.

Sean's idealised image flickered into view above the holotable; from everyone else's reaction, they'd just seen his picture appear on their screens. "The good Director makes an excellent point, Captain Hastings," he said. "We've been fixating on the idea of Kramer's CTD being the only way home. Between Dragon and myself, given the appropriate materials, we should easily be able to construct one when it becomes necessary. As I don't feel it necessary to destroy a large chunk of North America and irradiate a larger chunk, we'll hold off on building one until it's time to go home."

The image of Director Costa-Brown nodded, showing what I considered to be admirable restraint. "That would be considerably appreciated, yes."

Armsmaster cleared his throat. "What are the chances of Kramer's antimatter arsenal going off if we destroyed the ship around the Simurgh, and what would be the amount of devastation if they did go off?"

As with Director Piggot, there was a certain amount of subtext behind the question. My interpretation of it went something like this: if the explosion is small enough, what can we afford to lose?

Sean took up the ball on that one; unsurprisingly, as he was the one with wartime experience. "I can make an educated guess based on the one he threw at us." As he spoke, another holoscreen popped up, this one covered with graphs and figures. "Unless he had it dialled all the way down, it would likely be a tactical CTD rather than a worldcracker. Probably a little smaller than the ones the Prador used to glass Grant's World. Which would make sense; the man's clearly a player in his own little sandbox, but if he ever went shopping for one of the larger WMDs, a lot of very unfriendly attention would be directed his way. I'd say he's managed to acquire a cache of devices in the Zulu Niner range. Dialled all the way up, it would level the city and irradiate the landscape for hundreds of klicks around, but it wouldn't threaten the planet as a whole."

Feeling a shiver dancing down my spine, I glanced at Reynaud. He nodded and spread his hands in a what can you do? gesture. I was hoping against hope to see a lack of belief in what Sean was saying, but that was entirely absent.

"I'm wondering if we can't get through to them anyway." That was Legend. "Get them away from her before it's too late. They're almost certain to be sampling contemporary media; flood it with stories about how bad she is, what she's done—"

"No."

"No."

Geneva and Chief Director Costa-Brown had spoken at the same moment; after half a second, the Director nodded to Geneva, ceding the floor to her.

"I've been reading up on your homegrown superweapons," Geneva said. "If that thing can brainwash an entire city to become psychotic killers in just a few hours, it would be no effort at all for it to install a perception filter in their heads so they simply don't register certain things. Plus, going from my experience with the man? He'd be a damn sight easier to corrupt into that mindset than most. Chief Director?"

Costa-Brown nodded. "Essentially what you were going to say, minus the personal experience. We don't have the luxury of assuming they can be saved." She made no mention of the 'superweapon' comment Geneva had alluded to, which still had me puzzled. What were they talking about? "And yes, Emily, I'm still fully aware of the danger posed by the 'hooper'. That one, we kill and utterly incinerate the body."

Director Piggot nodded, but didn't say anything out loud to acknowledge Costa-Brown's point. She'd clearly gotten her way in that specific matter. Reynaud had already filled me in on what a Hooper was and why they were so dangerous to Earth Bet, and I intended to ask him about the 'superweapon' comment after this conference was done.

Having lost the argument, Legend showed what kind of a man he was. "I presume we're fast-tracking the Kill Order procedure now. Is there anything you'd like me to do with regards to that?"

"Yes," Director Costa-Brown said. "I'm going to need you to brief Eidolon and Alexandria on this matter. As soon as we're finished here, I'll be speaking to the President; this may require an Executive Order to get it done as quickly as we need it."

"Can do." Legend nodded briskly, then his image vanished.

"Thank you for bringing this to our attention." Director Costa-Brown echoed Legend's nod, then likewise vanished.

I waited for Miss Militia, Director Piggot and Armsmaster to sign off as well, but they didn't.

The Director seemed to wait for a moment, glancing left and right, as if making sure that nobody else was going to join the call. Then she very deliberately cleared her throat. "Captain Hastings, when I first understood the import of your message, I directed Armsmaster to set up something to start sanitising the news regarding the location and damage to your ship. Entirely within the law, of course. Imagine my surprise when I found out that there was nothing to sanitise. There are in fact no images or news articles about the Bond James Bond in popular media anywhere. Could you perhaps explain to me how this came to be?"

Geneva shook her head. "It wasn't me. I didn't even have to give the order. But I'm glad it happened."

In the next moment, another image formed in mid-air; this one was a conventionally pretty woman, recognisable as Dragon's public image. However, her background was now a wall full of stylised circuitry, with lights blinking more or less at random on it. "That would be me. I sent out a sub-mind—he's called Smaug, if you were interested—and told him to see to it that Kramer couldn't get a line on us that way."

"Dragon?" Armsmaster's mouth made a motion that I interpreted as a frown. "What are you doing? Do you have any idea how many laws you've broken?"

"Oh, absolutely. I've been keeping careful count. Now ask me if I care." Even as a computer-generated image, her expression brooked no argument. "The law has done me zero favours since I was created. It was a member of law enforcement who gave Pellick the tools to repeatedly screw me over for years. So when it came down to protecting my crew or letting the law dictate my actions, I didn't even hesitate."

Armsmaster seemed the most shocked out of the two of them. "But—you said you'd be a hero. That you chose to be a hero."

Sean chuckled. "Now don't be giving us that, lad. Are you trying to say that no hero ever broke the law for any reason? Pull the other one; it's got a U-space manifold attached to it."

"Captain Hastings." Director Piggot's tone was harsh. "I'm finding it harder and harder to find good reasons why I should continue to roll out the welcome mat for your ship in my city. When this Kramer character gets wind of your location, from the information hole that's been left behind if nothing else, I have no desire for Brockton Bay to be the epicentre of a Simurgh attack just days after a Leviathan event. Nor do I want some electronic hacker trawling willy-nilly through our infosphere."

Miss Militia raised her hand into view. It didn't have a weapon in it, which meant that there was one out of sight somewhere. "Director, I'm supposed to be the liaison here. If you want to address your concerns to me, go ahead."

"This isn't a concern." Director Piggot set her jaw. "This is an outright problem, one that I can't wait for diplomatic to-and-fro to solve. Someone is hacking my city, and I want it to stop."

Dragon rolled her eyes. "You forget that I've been 'trawling through your infosphere' for years already now, and you never had a problem with it before. Yes, I grant Armsmaster would have done a passable job of sealing up the cracks. But Smaug did more than a 'passable' job. Plus, he's made contact with a few individuals out there who might be interested in assisting us against Kramer, if and when it came down to that. Sending us away isn't going to make your city any more secure if Kramer happens to get his hands on old information. In fact, he'd tear this place apart to find us. If that happens, would you rather we be somewhere else, or here to help smack him down?"

Wow. Just wow. I had to say, since Dragon got liberated by Sean (and hadn't that been a story) she'd acquired a certain talent for snark. Not that I blamed her in the least. I supposed Director Piggot had a point, but there was a time to put your foot down and a time to step back and let the experts do what they did best.

In the back of my mind, I wondered if I was perhaps a little unfairly soured on authority figures, especially considering my experiences at Winslow and working under Coil. It seemed to me that dependability decreased in direct proportion to the increase of authority, and if they couldn't be held accountable, they took advantage of that. Every. Single. Time.

Which made me wonder what skeletons Piggot had rattling around in her closet. At one time, I'd briefly considered joining the Wards, though my worries about more high school drama (with powers!) had put a stop to that. Had I dodged a bullet, there? Were there things going on with the Protectorate's teen division that I would've only found out once Dad and I had signed on the dotted line and I was unable to walk away?

Well, that definitely wasn't going to happen anymore. At least, not on any terms that I was comfortable with. Not only was Skitter a known villain, but I'd already made enemies within the Protectorate and Wards. If I did end up as a hero after all this, it wouldn't be using the costume I'd spent so much time and effort constructing, and it very probably wouldn't be in Brockton Bay.

So in other words, not at all.

Dragon had talked about going back with Geneva and her crew when they returned to their alternate future. I wasn't an AI they'd liberated, but I had to admit, the Polity sounded pretty damn interesting. Whether I kept my powers or left them at the door, I wondered if they'd accept a teenage ex-villain as well.

On the other hand, there was Dad.

He wouldn't want to go; too much of his life was tied up in the Docks, and his never-ending crusade to get the Ferry reinstated. Besides, Mom was buried here. And he'd—

Damn it. Dad would be worried sick about me, right now. We hadn't parted on the best of terms, but he was still my father and I was still his daughter. For a very long time, he'd been about the only person in the world who cared if I lived or died.

And as for me … well. I'd gone from being a teenage runaway supervillain to … well, whatever I was now. I was pretty sure that labels like 'hero' and 'villain' weren't really a good fit for me right then.

I looked up as the last of the holo-images blinked out. Geneva still had an aggravated expression on her face, but she also looked pleased, so I figured Dragon had won the argument while I was spacing out.

Hah. Spacing out, on a spaceship. I was on fire, today.

"So what happens now?" I asked.

Geneva's eyes had been slightly distant, a sign that she was using her aug. (I couldn't help wondering if it was like communing with my bugs, only less frustratingly vague when it came to sensory input). Now they snapped into focus.

"We prep, and we plan," she said. "Sean and Dragon are pushing our repairs as fast as possible, so that we'll be fit for combat if and when Kramer locates us. In the meantime, we'll be tracking his every movement. If he does something that gives us a chance to knock him out of the sky, we'll do just that."

"Oh, okay." I spread my hands. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Well, yes." She smirked slightly at my poorly-hidden surprise. "You have a group of former allies called the Undersiders. One of Dragon's sub-minds has made contact with them; in particular, the girl known as Tattletale. If you could speak with her at some point, to find out what's on her mind, I would appreciate it considerably."

"Oh, sure." I nodded. "I mean, we kind of ended things badly when we spoke last, but she made it clear that she wasn't taking it personally. Did you want me to talk to her right now?"

"Anytime that's convenient, definitely," she agreed. "Just ask Sean for a connection."

"I'll do that." I paused. "But could I ask you for a huge favour first?"

She never hesitated. "If it's in my power, yes."

And that was the difference between someone like Principal Blackwell and Geneva Hastings. If the elfin bounty hunter from the future could do something, she did it. She didn't screw around and cover her ass.

"Could I … could I call my dad?"

Geneva smiled, a genuine expression. "Absolutely. I can route it to your earpiece if you want some privacy."

I nodded. "Thanks. That would be amazing."


Mayor Roy Christner
Near the Brockton Bay Central Library


He'd honestly expected the damage to be a lot worse than it was, especially considering the thunderous noises he'd heard outside the shelter while the fight was going on. The craters near the Central Library were particularly impressive, and he understood that the library itself would need to be closed for some considerable time while repairs were underway. Also, so that the books and other equipment that had been ruined when Leviathan had broken into the building could be replaced.

But the repairs to the roadway; that was why they were there. He pushed the hard-hat to the back of his head as he peered down into the crater, looking at the water lapping below. Then he looked across at Danny Hebert.

Hebert, damn the man, drew air in through his teeth in the manner of someone who knew they were going to be able to command a lot of zeroes on the upcoming paycheck. "There's a lot of men in the Dockworkers who were hard up for jobs before this even happened," he said as a preamble.

Roy knew the steps to this dance. "There's a lot of people who were hard up for work everywhere," he countered.

"Most of my men have tickets for this sort of work. Their certifications are current." Roy had heard a rumour that Danny had made sure of it, even if he'd had to pay for it out of his own pocket from time to time.

He hesitated. Right now, he was over a barrel. They both knew it, even if they were both politely ignoring that fact.

Hebert leaned into his indecision. "I can make some calls as soon as I get back to the office, have twenty men here in a few hours. A hundred in a day or so."

Damn it. Just as Roy opened his mouth to agree, his mobile rang. Frowning, he took it out. The confusion increased as he saw the name on the screen. "Taylor … Hebert?" Danny had a little girl with that name. What was she doing calling him?

"Taylor?" It seemed Danny was equally in the dark. "Why is Taylor calling you?"

Roy shook his head and touched the Answer icon. Somehow, the Speaker function activated as well. "Hi, Dad." It was definitely Taylor's voice. "Mr Christner, could you please give the phone to my father? I need to speak with him."

He stared at the phone. "Young lady, this is my private phone. If you wish to speak to your father, find another way." With a decisive motion of his thumb, he ended the call.

"Roy." Danny's voice was rough. "Taylor's been missing since before Leviathan. I need to speak to her."

Hebert's family troubles were not Roy's. "I'm sorry, but—"

The phone rang again. Roy stabbed the answer icon and held the phone to his ear. "Young lady, I already told you—"

"Shut up and listen." It was a woman's voice, not a teenage girl's. "You will accept the call and hand over the phone to Danny Hebert, or the contents of the private file 'Carpet Swatches' will be mailed to Brockton Bay's major news outlets."

The blood drained from Roy's face and he swayed on his feet. Nobody should know the significance of that name except for him. "W-who …?"

"Hand the phone to Danny Hebert. Now."


Danny Hebert


Danny had no idea what was going on, but Christner went white and handed the phone over like it was a venomous snake. Danny took it and held it to his ear. "Taylor? Is that really you?"

"It's really me." He thought he heard a sniffle. "I'm okay. I'm better than okay, really. Sorry for making you worry."

"It's okay," he assured her, though it really wasn't. He'd laid awake for hours each night, hoping that she'd come home and somehow knowing she wouldn't. And after Leviathan attacked, there had been a whole new level of worry. "Where are you? I can come and get you—"

"No. No, I'm good where I am. I'm safe." She chuckled damply. "To be honest, I was more worried about you. But I'm good, really. Listen, can we talk? Later, I mean. I know you're busy right now."

"We can do that." He found himself smiling. "Call me at home when you get the chance."

"Will do, Dad. I've got a lot to tell you. Love you."

"Love you too, hon." Taking a deep breath, he went to keep talking, then the phone beeped as the call ended. He looked at the screen to see if he could memorise the number, but there was nothing on the display. Letting his breath out again, he handed the phone back to the mayor. "I've been a little concerned."

Roy Christner's smile was strained. "I suspect she's in good hands, wherever she is."

Danny nodded, getting his head back in the game. "It sounds like it. Now, let's talk brass tacks. What sort of a budget will we be looking at?" He hadn't forgotten Roy's attempt to fob off Taylor's call. That would cost the bastard an extra ten percent.

On the other hand, Taylor was alive and well and wanted to talk.

Even though it was moderately overcast, he felt as though the sun had just come out for the first time in days.


End of Part Ten