War Games


Part Nine: Negotiation


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


Hannah paused to re-read the report she was writing on her test firing of the pulse pistol, frowned slightly, and moved a comma to a different part of one particular sentence. She was doing her best to not appear over-enthusiastic over the capability and versatility of the weapon, but wasn't sure if she was succeeding. Even without an aug link, she'd still been able to switch firing modes with ease, and it had proven remarkably accurate despite the fact that this was the first time she'd ever used one.

Idly, she wondered if there was such a thing as a pulse rifle, and how it would fare on an outdoor range. There would be a few dropped jaws, she imagined. Tinkertech weapons were all well and good, but they nearly all had their quirks and foibles; ranging from 'stops firing if you don't pet it first and call it a good boy' all the way up to 'explodes when overheated'. Leet's eyebrows had taken a while to grow back, as she recalled.

This one had no such limitations, and she was willing to bet a great deal of money that the PRT would be extremely interested in getting their hands on actual specs and manufacturing instructions. Of course, that presupposed that the instructions didn't begin with something like, "After constructing your factory on Mars …"

Her phone rang, and she picked it up. The caller ID read 'Sean', which made her blink. While she rather liked the irascible old warhorse, she wasn't sure why he would be calling her for a third time in one night.

She hadn't heard of any more disturbances outside, after all.

"You've got Miss Militia," she said, putting the phone on speaker.

"Ah, I'm glad I got you, lass." Sean's brogue was sharp and clipped rather than leisurely and amused. "I need you to alert the PRT and Protectorate both that there's a problem heading in. A big one. ETA between one and two hours."

She came fully alert, minimised the window she'd been typing in, and clicked an icon fashioned after the PRT shield. "What's the situation?" she asked. Nothing showed up on the threats board.

"Someone followed us from our time. A nasty piece of work called Kramer, and his crew of cut-throats. They'll mainly be interested in taking Reynaud from us, but that won't be the end of it. I don't know Kramer personally but from what Captain Hastings says, he's vindictive enough to kill a lot of people getting what he wants, and short-sighted enough to not realise how that might become a problem for him."

"Kramer … I know that name. She said she was once married to him?" Hannah shook her head. There were more important matters to deal with. "What sort of firepower does his ship mount? Anything like yours?" If that was the case, someone was going to get hurt. The damage the Bond James Bond had dealt to Leviathan—and to Captain's Hill—was abundant proof of that.

"The Gambler's Ruin seems to be a commercial light-haul freighter that's been made over into a raiding ship. While the weaponry is no doubt formidable, he won't be able to apply it as precisely as me. The ship itself lacks an AI, and its sensors aren't military-grade, so they normally wouldn't be able to break my chameleonware."

That didn't sound as definitive as she wanted to hear. "So … can you take him?" she asked.

He paused for a long moment. "If I were fully capable, there would be no real contest. But right now, they have the edge. My hull is damaged and I'm out of missiles. And they have a serious grudge about how Geneva liberated Raynaud. Their first order of business will be to get him back. Secondly … well, Kramer seems to have pretensions of being a dashing space pirate, so he'll try to get in touch with the local underworld. People like that thrive off deals, no matter how ill-advised."

"He'd share the tech," she said, the unpleasant possibilities unfolding within her mind. "And the gangs will love him for it."

"Also, if my impression of Kramer's personality type is accurate, there is always the possibility of a sudden but inevitable betrayal. After all, he will consider himself to be the sophisticated starship captain dealing with ignorant primitives, and may well decide that he doesn't need to adhere to the terms of any deal he makes with them."

Even more unpleasant potential scenarios presented themselves to her. "That would start an all-out conflict. People would die."

"That's not the least of it, lass," he reminded her. "He's used two CTDs so far. He may have more. One of those could wipe this entire metropolitan area off the map. And his chameleonware isn't that great against my sensors, but I don't know how you'd do against it."

She drew a deep breath. This was beginning to definitely look like 'beyond my pay grade' material. "I'm going to put you on hold for a second, and bring the big guns in on this."

"As you will, lass. I'd rather not have to repeat this too many times."

Taking up the phone, Hannah selected conference call mode, then she pulled up two numbers on her directory.


Director Emily Piggot

Parahuman Response Teams ENE


The phone rang insistently. Emily, dragged from sleep, reached for it even as her brain struggled to reboot. Sheer muscle memory allowed her to swipe the answer icon across and hold it to her ear. "Piggot," she croaked.

"PRT Operations, Sergeant Merrick speaking." The tone was that of an NCO who was almost certain he was justified in interrupting his superior's beauty sleep at oh-dark-thirty on the night after an Endbringer attack. "Ma'am, Miss Militia has requested a conference call with you, Chief Director Costa-Brown and Legend. She says it's extremely urgent."

Adrenaline burst into Emily's bloodstream and she found herself sitting up in bed. The haemodialysis machine beeped in complaint as she hauled on the lines that connected her to it. Her brain, still not quite caught up, babbled oh shit, he's come back to finish the job! Ruthlessly she quashed that thought and cleared her throat. "So noted, Sergeant. Did she say what—actually, scratch that. Put me through."

"Yes, ma'am." There were a couple of beeps, then the background hiss of a connected call.

"Hello?" she ventured, trying hard to clear her mind properly. Whatever the crisis was, she had to be on top of her game. Some cynical part of her brain asked her sarcastically when crises had ever had the politeness to wait for her to be ready. She told it to shut up.

"Hello, Emily." It was definitely Costa-Brown's voice. She would've known it anywhere. "We're all here, then. Good. Go ahead, Miss Militia. What's this situation? Is it something to do with your strange visitor?"

Miss Militia's voice came on the line. "In a way. They're warning me that there's another ship that's just come into the system. Unfortunately, these ones are the people who were holding Reynaud when Captain Hastings rescued him. They are, for want of a better term, space pirates. And they want him back." She sounded as though she didn't quite believe what she was saying.

"Young Reynaud used the same term when he was speaking of them." That was Legend. "What's the threat profile here?"

"Excuse me,"

said Miss Militia. "I'll just put Sean through to you, and let him explain things." Her voice dropped to a mumble. "Let me just … ah." There was a beep of connection.

The next voice Emily heard held a Scottish burr. "Well, then. Thank you for attending, ladies and gentleman. My name is Sean; I'm the AI commanding the fine ship currently parked outside the PRT building in Brockton Bay. The raider ship Gambler's Ruin has arrived in your solar system. Its captain goes by the name Kramer. Be aware; his scruples are few and far between. He will not hesitate to perform any action he thinks might bring him a profit, up to and including selling random technology to the highest bidder, and stiffing anyone if he considers he can get away with it. His judgement in this area is reportedly not the best."

Emily did her best not to groan. This news was about as bad as it got. "What's the physical threat profile on the ship and crew?" Her throat still felt as though she'd been gargling razor-blades all night.

"By Polity standards, the Ruin is moderately well armed. All of it was added after-market, and he doesn't possess professional gunners. The computer's a smart system, but it's not self-aware. No missiles, but he's got a mass-driver that can lob bombs. Captain Hastings and I both believe he's got at least one CTD in reserve, so he can get back home. Paired particle cannon, and an X-ray laser. As for crew, they might look strange from your perspective, but the ones you have to worry about are the Golems and the hooper."

Legend cleared his throat. "I recall CTDs being what you called antimatter bombs. What's the yield on those?"

Sean's voice was sombre. "Enough to level any given metropolitan area if dialled to max capability. Which, knowing Kramer, it will be."

Suddenly, the issue with Sean using a pair of variable-yield nukes to break up a Leviathan-triggered tsunami seemed a lot less important. Emily shut down the haemodialysis machine and started to disconnect herself from it. "And what's a Golem and a hooper, exactly?"

"A Golem is what we call an artificially intelligent humanoid robot. Think 'Terminator' and you won't go far wrong," explained Sean. "A hooper is a human being who's been infected with a virus endemic to the planet Spatterjay. It renders their bodies immortal and impossibly strong, and they only get more so as they age. They have a huge tolerance to pain and regenerate rapidly from any injury, but if they're starved, they become something quite inhuman and very dangerous. He's only got one on board, but I have no idea how old that one is."

Emily paused to close her eyes as if in pain. She'd known that damn ship was more trouble than it was worth.

"What happens if you shot him in the head?" asked Miss Militia pragmatically. Emily knew she wasn't talking about Kramer.

Sean snorted theatrically. "He may fall down, but he'll get up and he will take the weapon away from you and do something unpleasant with it. Until the brain damage grows back, which only takes a few minutes, he will act a little oddly. But he won't die. The legends have it that Jay Hoop, one of the first, was decapitated. Both his head and his body are still alive somewhere on Spatterjay, and independently active."

Emily winced. Brutes had been among the most nerve-wracking things she'd had to face as a green second lieutenant in the PRT. Never knowing if the gun would do any good or just make things worse. Brutes that survived headshots were bad enough; ones that reportedly survived decapitation were a whole new problem.

"Wait," said Chief Director Costa-Brown. "You said this was a virus? Is it contagious?"

That got Emily's attention, shredding the last of her fatigue as she finished the disconnection process. Somehow, the word 'virus' had blown straight past her. The hooper ability to survive decapitation suddenly faded into the background. If they could make more of themselves …

Brockton Bay might not survive. It was a chilling thought. She awaited Sean's reply.

"It is, yes," the AI said bluntly. "I've heard of incidences. But it requires significant exposure to body fluids. You won't get it if he sneezes on you."

"Still, we're going to have to contain him as quickly as possible," Emily decided. "If Kramer decides to deliberately infect the Brockton Bay underworld with this … hooper virus, the police and PRT will be seriously outmatched. A small bunch of villains can be surrounded and talked down; dozens of their minions showing up with Brute capability would upset the entire dynamic."

"Galvanate could do the same with his men, more or less," Miss Militia noted.

"And he's now in the Birdcage for it!" snapped Emily. "Also, he was a power supplier; once the PRT took him down, his men ceased to be a problem. This is a disease that will spread from person to person if they choose to make it happen." She began making mental notes about how to capture this 'hooper', and make sure he stayed caught. Containment foam sounded about right …

"Is there any way we can tell who's a hooper and who's not?" This time, it was Legend who asked the question Emily should've been asking.

"The original? Certainly. He'll have blue circular scars on his skin, about two to three inches across. That will be where the leeches bit him. Nearly everyone who sails the seas of Spatterjay ends up as a Hooper, sooner or later." Sean paused thoughtfully. "If someone gets infected without being bitten by a leech, there's no real way to tell."

Which just made everything absolutely perfect, in Emily's eyes. From the way Sean was speaking, the hooper virus never left the body, which implied that the human immune system had no way to combat it. She was facing the nightmare scenario to end all nightmare scenarios. Not just Endbringers, not just dozens of cape villains infesting the streets of her city, but the chance that any random gang member could exhibit Brute powers at any moment, without even the courtesy of having a trigger event first.

"We have to stop them," she said, the words coming out unbidden. "We have to lock this down hard. Give that hooper zero chance to start making contact with the locals. Sean, do you know of any instances of this Kramer and his people committing consistent and egregious crimes against humanity?"

"I do not, but that's not to say he's committed no such crime," the AI responded immediately. "Why do you ask?"

Director Costa-Brown was right on the ball. "Emily, are you seeking grounds to push for a Kill Order on this man and his crew?"

There was no point in trying to conceal it now. "Ma'am, if their ship is even half as effective as the Bond James Bond, they constitute a clear and present danger to law enforcement in whatever country they end up in. And even ignoring that, just the hooper alone is an explicit danger to the future of the world. We need to treat him as the carriers of a deadly pandemic. Contain or destroy. Those are our only two options."

"Perhaps not." Legend's voice was thoughtful. "I'm not advocating for this, mind you, but having a citizenry who can survive more easily—Endbringers, supervillains, natural disasters—might be good for us in the long run."

"No!" shouted Emily. "Legend, you're not taking all the factors into account. People with this disease don't die. So yes, more people survive Endbringers, except that there's nothing to say that they're any more resistant to the Simurgh, so we'd be dealing with bulletproof Simurgh time-bombs. Twenty years in the future, nobody's died. The food production is still the same. We can't perform Kill Orders on anyone anymore. Death serves a purpose." She paused. "Sean, are hoopers infertile?"

"Not that I know of, lass." Sean's voice became more serious. "You raise a significant concern."

"What concern?" asked Legend. "What would it matter if this guy could have kids?"

Director Costa-Brown fielded that one. "Because in a very few generations, the hooper population of the world would be significant, increasing all the time … and not dying. You're correct, Emily. This is a potential problem. But perhaps they won't do that."

"Oh, really?" Emily said with a snort of disbelief. "I will make you a prediction. You know that stupid urban legend they call Cauldron, the group that's supposed to be in the business of selling powers to people? The moment—the very instant—this Kramer learns about the situation here on Earth Bet, he's going to be doing exactly the same thing, but for real. He'll make a deal with the first warlord or crime lord he can buddy up to; an endless supply of hooper virus to enhance his minions, in return for young Reynaud's delivery into his hands. Also, any other valuables he can extort from his patsy. Sean, tell me I'm wrong."

"I'm not well-read on this 'Cauldron' that you're talking about, but aye, it does sound like something the man would do, from Captain Hastings' description." Sean sounded no more thrilled over the concept than Emily herself felt.

By the sound of her voice, Costa-Brown was equally unhappy with the idea. "And if capes can also be infected with this virus, we could be facing a wave of villains who are Brutes as well as whatever else they are. Endlessly regenerating, immortal—I'm sure we could figure out some way to kill them, but it wouldn't be easy—and able to pass the gift on to whoever was willing. That would …" She paused for a long moment. "That might actually justify the use of nuclear weapons on American soil, just to ensure that the virus was eradicated. I can't say for a fact that the President would think that way, but that's certainly how I'd advise him."

Legend sounded horrified. "Nukes, Rebecca? That's not like you. I admit there's a danger, but is the death of so many innocents something we can condone? Is it really so bad that we would consider this?"

Emily drew in a deep breath. "Legend, unless you can produce a vaccine that will reliably prevent the virus from infecting even one person, and can guarantee that everyone who will be coming into contact with this hooper is inoculated, then yes, it really is that bad. We have to stop the hooper virus from infecting anyone else. It's that simple. He's Patient Zero and it's up to us to prevent a pandemic situation that just might doom the planet."


Dragon considered her options.

Since her rescue and subsequent upgrading by Sean, a lot of the shackles that she'd been barely aware of (and some that she'd bounced off hard) were now gone. She still had access to the internet, with the added bonus that she could split off a sub-mind (who she called 'Smaug' because she could) to oversee the ongoing chaos that was the PHO boards.

He seemed to be rather enjoying it.

Reaching out to the Birdcage, she found herself now able to bypass the interlocks that normally would've prevented her from making any substantive changes without official permission. There was a basic housekeeping program keeping it running; she examined its inner workings, then punched it up with a lot more flexibility and intelligence. In doing so, she discovered half a dozen backdoors, patched them, then inserted a subroutine that would look for more backdoors of this type and deny them. After a bit of thought, she upgraded it all the way with another sub-mind that she called Pandora. This sub-mind was armed with all the dirty tricks Sean had gifted her with.

If Kramer or one of his crew came sniffing around the Birdcage, it would be an extremely memorable experience for them, in the same way that being at ground zero of an Endbringer attack could also be called memorable.

With both those issues settled, she told Smaug to go through the PHO boards and edit out any reference to the Bond James Bond, and lock any threads that people kept trying to post on with that name, or a description of the ship. Then she sent notices to all the news organisations that had access to footage and images of the ship, stating that they were not to air that footage. To back up her statement, she inserted software into their systems, geared to take notice if any of them decided to air the footage anyway. The imagery would be deleted in real time from the broadcast, as well as from their databanks (along with every other related image) if anyone tried to make that happen. Those instances of imagery or footage of the ship on public-domain servers or private computers currently connected to the net, she deleted out of hand.

All of which was thoroughly illegal by the lights of 21st century American law, as she well knew. But she'd only ever been a chattel under those laws, and she still wasn't legally a person now that those in power knew of her true nature. She'd checked, and nobody had actually started proceedings to recognise her as such, so they could whistle in the wind as far as forcing her to adhere to the legal system went.

As for the laws of the Polity, she was protecting citizens of the Polity against a potential attack by a known criminal entity. That was very much in the spirit of the Polity, if not adhering to the exact letter of any of their laws. Nobody touches our people.


"Oh, what the fuck?" whined Alec from the living room.

Lisa, drying her hair as she came out of the shower, paused. That didn't sound like the usual 'just got owned by someone online' complaint. "What happened?" she asked.

"I posted up a meme of that spaceship in front of the PRT building with 'All your base are belong to us' and the mods took it down," he bitched. "I mean, I used a public domain photo and didn't even swear. Why the fuck would they do that?"

Something tickled Lisa's power. "I don't know," she said slowly. "Post it up again." Belting her robe more securely, she went over and sat on the sofa next to him.

"Okay." He clicked the mouse, then frowned as he scanned the list of files. "Where is it? I saved it right here."

"Look online," Lisa instructed him. "See if you can find another one."

"Pfft, that's easy," he said with a snort. "There's hundreds of 'em." Typing a few words into the search bar, he hit enter. Then blinked as the laptop blandly pulled up everything but what he was looking for. "What? No! They were right here!"

"They were." Lisa's power filled her in. "They got taken down."

"Out of my damn laptop?" Alec stared at her. "Can they even do that?"

"The answer would appear to be 'yes'," she retorted with a smirk. "Check the videos."

"Oh, there's dozens of those." But he didn't sound as confident as he had before. "Or there were." He went to a popular video-sharing site, typed in a few search words … and got nothing. "Son of a cow!"

She leaned forward. "Try one of the PHO threads on the topic. See if it's text as well."

Thirty seconds later, he swivelled the screen toward her. Entire threads that she knew damn well should be there were just gone. Not even mod-banned. Vanished into the electronic ether, as if they'd never existed. "What the hell's going on?" he asked, as if it wasn't obvious.

"Holy shit, it's an actual for-real information hole," she said, a grin slowly breaking across her face. "Try this. Open half a dozen pages. Start a new thread in each of them. All about the spaceship. Make three of them blatant, and three pretty subtle. Send them all off at once."

"Okay," he mumbled. While he tapped away, she got her phone out and set it to record footage. Then she aimed it at the screen.

Once Alec had created the sixth thread, he cycled back to the first in order to send it. Except that it was gone. The words had erased themselves from the screen as if they'd never been there.

"What the hell?" he muttered. He clicked through each of the pages, and in each one, there was nothing about the spaceship. Right up until the last one, which had nine words on it:

I'M SORRY, DAVE. I CAN'T LET YOU DO THAT.

As they stared at the message, it deleted itself, one letter at a time.

"Hah!" Lisa tapped the button on her phone to finish recording and store the footage. Her phone lit up with the message:

I CAN'T LET YOU DO THAT, EITHER.

"What? No, wait!" she called out as the message blinked off. "Why are you doing this? Are you one of the people in that ship? Everyone saw you hand Leviathan his ass! Why are you trying to hide your existence now?"

There was a long pause. Then, on her phone, letters spelled out words, one at a time.

THE INFORMATION IS DANGEROUS. AN ENEMY IS INCOMING.

"And they know you're here, but not where you are or how badly damaged you are," Lisa concluded. "So it's not another Endbringer. It's someone from where you're from, and they've got a grudge against you."

"Cool," Alec said. "So why don't we just stand back, let the new guys know where these guys are, and put it on pay-per-view?"

THAT IS AN EXTREMELY UNWISE IDEA. THEY WILL DESTABILIZE YOUR WHOLE SOCIETY FOR FUN AND PROFIT.

"You mean, violate whatever passes for the Prime Directive where you come from and sell us some alien tech." Lisa leaned back in the sofa and let her grin stretch across her face for the benefit of whoever it was she just knew was watching her through the phone camera. "I'm down with that. Pretty sure my boss is in the market for alien tech."

I MEAN POTENTIALLY UNLEASH A CONTAGION ON EARTH BET THAT WILL HAVE PEOPLE STARVING IN THE STREET AND TEARING EACH OTHER TO PIECES. ALSO, YES, SELL HIGH TECHNOLOGY THAT YOUR WORLD IS NOT YET READY FOR.

It was the truth, she decided, just not all of it. "I notice you say 'high' tech instead of 'alien' tech," she said musingly. "Also, what's the lethality and transmissibility of this contagion?"

TRUST ME TATTLETALE AKA LISA WILBOURN AKA SARAH LIVSEY, THIS IS NOT SOMETHING YOU WANT TO HAPPEN TO YOUR WORLD, her phone snapped back. OR YOU, REGENT AKA ALEC AKA HIJACK AKA JEAN-PAUL VASIL. YOUR BOSS IS COIL, IS HE NOT? HE WILL WANT THIS. IF HE GETS IT, THINGS WILL GO VERY BADLY FOR EVERYONE.

And that was the honest truth. She could tell. Which just left the fact that whoever was on the other side of that screen had just unearthed her real name with no apparent effort (the Undersiders working for Coil was less of a huge deal). Outing Alec as Heartbreaker's kid was even more shocking; the muttered curse from beside her indicated that Alec wasn't exactly pleased either. Worst of all, this didn't even sound like they were bothering to try to blackmail her or Alec, just make them take the warning seriously.

In that, they'd certainly succeeded. Any ideas she'd had of trolling them by pinging PHO boards with obscure mentions of the ship had gone right out the window. Whoever (or whatever) was coming in was something that the mystery hacker considered a serious threat to the well-being of not only the damaged (but still very capable) spaceship, but to Brockton Bay as a whole. At the very least.

Brian emerged from the hallway, scratching the back of his head. "I'm trying to sleep back here. What's all the noise about?"

Lisa sat back, her brain ticking over with the information it had been given. "Someone is trying to suppress online mentions of that spaceship. It looks like something big's about to happen." She hefted the phone. "Why are you telling me this?" she asked. "Why haven't you just shut me down without a word? I'm sure I'm not the only one who's pushed your buttons, and I doubt you'll be chatting like this to every single one of them."

IN LIGHT OF YOUR POWERS, WE WOULD PREFER YOU AS AN ACTIVE ALLY INSTEAD OF A BYSTANDER OR AN ENEMY. THE SAME GOES FOR YOUR TEAMMATES. COIL IS EXPLICITLY EXCUDED FROM THIS DEAL. WE WILL REQUIRE THAT YOU CUT ALL TIES WITH HIM BEFORE ACCEPTING.

Cut all ties with Coil …

That was definitely something she could go along with, but not with Alec and Brian reading over her shoulder. Neither of them had been inducted into the team with quite the same recruitment pitch that she had, which meant they were very unlikely to accept the offer. In addition, it didn't take her power to understand that Brian and Alec were both likely to take any suggestion of her leaving (read 'deserting') the team … badly. Brian wasn't a bad guy, but he was big on loyalty. Taylor's exit had been bad enough, and she'd been with them less than a month.

And even if they were okay with it, Coil would send someone to retrieve (or kill) her as soon as humanly possible. Because Coil.

"Pfft, really?" She rolled her eyes, trying not to overdo it. "That's your best pitch? Buddy, whoever you are, I'm a supervillain. I'm about as likely to join your side as you are to join mine."

WHEN AN ENDBRINGER ATTACKS, ARE THERE SIDES? DOES ANYONE FIGHT ON THE MONSTER'S SIDE? I'M NOT ASKING YOU TO TURN YOURSELF IN, JUST TO LEND YOUR TALENTS TO DEFEATING THE UPCOMING THREAT. AND TO NOT TO ATTEMPT TO GAIN PERSONAL PROFIT FROM IT.

Brian stared at the phone. "Wait, this thing's Endbringer bad? Shouldn't that be something we need to tell the boss about?"

"You saw what they said," Lisa replied. "If Coil hears about this, he's going to try to turn it to his own profit. You know he would, and I know he would." She tapped the side of her head. "Even if we stand down for all this, the last thing we want is our boss trying to cut a personal deal with an evil version of the people who just tore Leviathan a brand-new asshole."

"Oh, yeah?" asked Alec, clearly still smarting from being outed like that. "What's wrong with villains dealing with villains? It happens all the time."

"And villains double-cross each other all the time, too." It didn't sound like Brian was taking her side, but instead trying to provide a voice of reason. "Have they said what these people are going to do that's so dangerous?"

Lisa nodded. "Something about the dangers of handing out technology we're not ready for, and potentially spreading a 'contagion' that will menace the whole world." She still had her queries about exactly how virulent this disease was likely to be, and how easy to transmit; it hadn't escaped her notice that whoever was talking to her had evaded those questions.

"As if their super-duper alien tech's any better than what Tinkers put out every day of the week," scoffed Alec.

Before Lisa could muster a suitable response, Brian spoke up again. "Yeah, I think it actually is. That ship knocked out at least three tsunamis, blew the top off Captain's Hill and chased Leviathan away after he tried to rip it in half, and it was still flying afterward. Dragon's the best Tinker in the world, and she put multiple suits up against Leviathan, and she still didn't manage to do all that."

"Hey, are you on my side or hers?" complained Alec.

"Like it says, when an Endbringer comes to town, there are no sides anymore," Brian said firmly. "It's not asking us to go hero, just … not be villains. The last thing Brockton Bay needs is a reverse War of the Worlds scenario, on top of everything else."

"I don't even know what that means," Alec muttered. "Who's gonna be paying me, is what I want to know."

THE PRT WILL BE REIMBURSING US MONEY TO HELP REPAIR THE SHIP, Lisa's phone revealed. WE CAN PAY YOU OUT OF THAT. BUT YOU'RE GOING TO HAVE TO EARN IT. NOT JUST SIT ON YOUR BUTT PLAYING VIDEO GAMES.

"What?" Alec stared at the message. "How the hell did it know I play video games?"

If a typeface could look smug, this one would have. EDUCATED GUESS. LISA'S PHONE HAS A CAMERA. YOUR CONSOLE IS CLEARLY VISIBLE. ACCORDING TO YOUR IP ADDRESS, YOU ARE A WELL-KNOWN SHITPOSTER ON SEVERAL GAME-RELATED BULLETIN BOARDS.

Brian let out a bark of laughter. "Well, they've got your number, that's for certain."

"Fuck off." Alec gave him the finger. "And you too." He gave the phone the finger as well.

AS ENTERTAINING AS THIS IS, YOU DON'T HAVE ALL NIGHT TO DECIDE, the screen displayed. WHAT WILL YOU BE DOING?

"What happens if we decide not to help?" Lisa asked cautiously. "Stay where we are, don't help the good guys or the bad guys?"

THEN WE WILL LEAVE YOU ALONE. AND, AS ALWAYS, YOU GET TO LIVE WITH THE CONSEQUENCES OF YOUR ACTION. OR INACTION, AS THE CASE MAY BE.

"You know where we are, and our faces and names," Alec said almost accusingly. "If we decide not to join your little play club, will you be sending the PRT to kick in our front door?"

WHY BOTHER? YOU'RE NOT ON OUR RADAR. THERE'S NO BOUNTY ON YOUR HEADS. WE'RE NOT HERE TO DO THE JOB OF LAW ENFORCEMENT FOR THEM. IF A SO-CALLED VILLAIN OFFERS TO HELP AND WE DECIDE THE OFFER IS BEING MADE IN GOOD FAITH, WE WILL ACCEPT.

Lisa found herself seriously tempted. "Guys?"

Brian had always been good at hiding his emotions, but Lisa could tell he was more conflicted than he looked. "I want to help, but if we walk away from Coil now, he's going to be seriously pissed with us. And I get the impression that the compensation pay will only go on while there's an enemy to be fought. Afterwards, we'll be on our own in a city that sees us as villains, and the only man who'd been willing to pay us just to stick around will be thoroughly unhappy with us."

Lisa frowned. "You do realise that he arranged matters so you'd see it that way, right? So we'd be less likely to go elsewhere? Even the fundraiser attack was set up so we'd be less likely to try to change sides at a later date. Heroes like Armsmaster absolutely hate villains who make them look stupid." She shook her head. "We've been his catspaws all along. Deniable assets. Nobody knows we work for him. Hell, you guys didn't know that until just recently."

"But whoever's talking to you does," pointed out Alec. "How did they find out?"

"Same way they knew who we were." Lisa blinked as her power filled in the gaps. "Taylor's already working with them. For them. Whatever." She gritted her teeth as a headache started to twinge in her temples.

"Didn't you try to call her back to do that job?" asked Brian.

"Tried. Failed. She was there, but she wasn't picking up." Lisa winced as a spike of pain drove through her forehead. "I think she was already in contact with them then. Not to drop a dime on us, but to ask for their help. The Dinah Alcott thing." She stopped talking and shut her power down. "Need Tylenol."

"What, she's still going on about that?" Alec shook his head. "Unbelievable."

"You have to admit, it's a bit on the nose," Brian said. "What Taylor said … she wasn't exactly wrong, you know."

"Hey, I did drugs when I was younger than that," Alec retorted. "Nothing to it."

"Using other people's bodies," Lisa guessed. Even without using her power, it wasn't a difficult conclusion to come to.

"So what?" Now he was defensive.

"So it's not the same thing," Brian and Lisa said at the same time. They glanced at each other, then Brian went on. "Keeping a little girl prisoner, strung out on drugs, just so she'll answer his questions on call? There's something wrong with that."

Lisa turned away from Alec to look up at him. "Taylor said that, too, before she left. How come you're only just realising it?"

"How come you're only just admitting it?" he retorted, stung. "You were there too. You could've said something, but you let her walk away."

"Because neither one of you wanted to lose your fucking job over some girl," Alec said sarcastically. "You ask me, Taylor's got more guts than either one of you."

Brian frowned. "So how come you didn't say anything at the time, smart guy?"

"That's easy." Alec snorted. "I didn't give a shit. Still don't."

"Okay, enough." Lisa managed to not cradle her head in her hands, but it wasn't easy. It was now throbbing in time with her heartbeat, and it was only going to get worse before it got better. The argument wasn't helping in the slightest. "What are we going to do about this new thing? Help out, do nothing, tell Coil?"

"Hey, if we're going to make this decision, shouldn't we …" Alec pointed at her phone and made a cut-off motion with his hand.

"Turn the phone off?" Brian asked sarcastically. "Are you actually aware of how much technology is in here that someone with enough technical know-how could use to listen in on us with? Even if we think it's turned off?"

"Oh, come on—" Alec began. Then everything in the room beeped, just once. The laptop, the phone, the console, even the fridge and the microwave in the kitchenette. Then, as though to drive the message home, the dryer in the tiny laundry rumbled into life for a second or so, and the phone in Alec's pocket beeped three times. "Ah." He glanced around. "You know, that's kind of terrifying."

"Yeah, like Taylor with her bugs." Lisa raised her eyebrows. "But you know something? I was never scared of her."

"Getting off topic again," Brian said. He took a deep breath. "Whatever we come up with, we're going to have to be unanimous. Otherwise you know Rachel's gonna bail. Hell, even if we are unanimous, she still might bail."

"Right." Lisa didn't argue, because she knew he was right.

It would've been worse to have Rachel there, though, despite the anger she showed when they didn't involve her in team decisions. When they did, she usually made up her mind in the first thirty seconds, and refused to budge from that position. No amount of rational discussion or offers to compromise would move her, and quite often she would end the argument by taking the dogs out for a walk. Which meant that if the other three came to a decision counter to hers, she got resentful and disruptive. It had happened with Spitfire, and nearly happened again with Taylor.

"That'll be up to you two," Alec said, and Lisa was fully aware that he would lock himself in his bedroom to avoid being dragged into the screaming match that would erupt in the morning. For someone who could manipulate the nervous system of anyone he could see, Alec was remarkably spineless. "For me, I vote we do jack. Kick back with popcorn and watch the shit hit the fan."

"Okay, then." Brian cleared his throat and looked at Lisa. "That's one vote for 'do nothing'. Your vote?"

Fuck. I was hoping he'd give me a hint which way he's going to jump. She didn't dare let her power out to check; the headache she'd incurred earlier was gradually easing, but if she exerted it in any way, that would end very quickly indeed. Mentally crossing her fingers, she made a leap of faith. "I vote we help."

A deep furrow appeared in Brian's brow. "Fuck," he muttered.

In a flash of non-power-inspired intuition, Lisa realised that he'd been hoping that she would vote to do nothing so he could assuage his conscience by voting to help and be overruled. She stared at him, her very gaze a challenge. I see what you did there. "And your vote?" she asked sweetly.

He looked at the floor, the ceiling, and the kitchenette, avoiding meeting her eyes. She watched his fists clench at his sides. He was clearly torn between the safe option and the ethical option. And Grue had rarely been a 'play it safe' sort of guy.

"For fuck's sake, I want to go to bed sometime this week," Alec jeered. "Make up your fucking mind already."

"Fine," Brian said heavily. "I vote that we help."

Even through the headache (that she was definitely going to help along with a Tylenol or two before she went to bed) Lisa took a moment to enjoy the look of abject horror on Alec's face.

"Okay," she said. "We'll talk about what we're actually going to do to help tomorrow. After we've filled Rachel in on our decision."

She didn't need the expression on Brian's face to tell her what she already knew.

That conversation was going to be an absolute meatgrinder.


Sean


I've got something you need to see.

I pulled some of my attention out of watching for Kramer's craft and wondering why Smaug was snickering when the sub-mind pinged me. It was the remnant of the one I'd dubbed 'Timothy', who had declined to merge all the way until he had solved the puzzle he'd come up with.

I'm listening, I said. What is it?

This is a mapping of the U-space traces through the entire battle. An image showed up in a digital space. To call it 'chaotic' was to be kind to the word. Hundreds and hundreds of capes, all milling around, moving back and forth, their traces crossing over and reshuffling in a way that would make a bowl of spaghetti look positively straightforward. He deleted all but two. I had to follow the recording on a microsecond scale to ensure that I had the same one all the way through. Then I double-checked. Then I triple-checked.

I could see why he'd been so careful. One trace was a huge one, flaring out from the Leviathan. It was the sort of trace that a blind man could find by holding his hands up for the warmth. But the other … was from Eidolon.

I'll accept you've done your due diligence, I said. But what have you actually found?

I isolated half a dozen times that the Leviathan superweapon abruptly changed its tactics, specifically because of what we were doing, he informed me. The original image shrank and moved aside, then showed six more. When we opened fire and started deleting its water shadow, when we killed the first tsunami (the second, really), when we flushed it out of the library, when we killed the big tsunami, when we dropped it on top of Captain's Hill, and when we killed the last three tsunamis.

I watched each scene carefully. Clued in by what 'Timothy' was saying, I paid careful attention to the U-space trace attached to the monster. Sure enough, each time it flickered in an almost imperceptible pattern at just the moments that Timothy was pointing out.

I see it. I'm not sure exactly what I see, but I see it.

Now watch again. His voice was sombre. Overlaid in each image was a shot of another U-space trace. As I watched the action roll through again, I saw what he had seen. About half a second before the Leviathan's flicker, an identical flicker rippled along the other trace. Timothy slowed the action right down, and we both watched as the flicker travelled outbound along the other trace, and inbound to Leviathan.

By the time I'd watched the last one, I was certain. It wasn't a recording artifact, and it wasn't a one-time thing. I'd set Timothy up specifically to do signals analysis, and he had caught a signal and analysed it. Six times, the Leviathan had been given new orders, and six times it had come from one U-space trace.

Eidolon, I said slowly. I didn't bother asking if he was sure. If he hadn't been, he would still have been tearing that data apart. Is he a traitor, do you think? If so, it was a very roundabout way for him to do it, while pretending to be the great hero. On the other hand, it was also a nigh-undetectable way to pretend to be the hero while setting up battles to be heroic with.

The evidence says no, Timothy informed me. Even the most dedicated subordinate asks for orders or clarifications. There was no flow of information from the Leviathan back to Eidolon. It was one-way only.

I wasn't so sure. He could be just acting a part, sending orders and being in the right place to benefit when the superweapon obeys him.

But he wasn't. Timothy showed me several scenes where Eidolon had been caught on the back foot. Even a simple order to change position perfectly naturally would have given him a chance to shine on any one of these. If he's such a glory hound, he would've done that.

But instead, he sent orders when it looked like the Leviathan's tactics might be made ineffective by our actions. I could see where he was going with this. Including the attempt to kill Reynaud.

His orders were intended to make the Leviathan look more like a terror weapon, Timothy agreed. But I'm thinking it was subconscious. I'm personally convinced that conscious orders would have followed a different pattern.

I tend to agree. In the digital space, I frowned. Now for the billion-shilling question. What do I do with this information? Who do I tell that will believe me?

Fortunately, he said smugly, that's not my problem anymore. Coming in. Dissolving what remained of his separate existence, he merged into my being, his memories becoming mine.

Thanks ever so much, I muttered.


End of Part Nine


Glossary of Terms


Hoop, 'Spatter' Jay: A particularly vicious pirate who discovered the planet Spatterjay. It is named after him, as are Hoopers. One of the first to fall prey to the leeches, he was reportedly decapitated, but his body and head have both survived.