Alea Iacta Est


Part Seventeen: Speed Bump


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


Taylor


"Okay, so Oni Lee's out of the way." Dad gave us all a serious look, which was a little impressive given that he was seated in an armchair with Andrea lounging across his lap. "This does not mean taking down Lung is going to be easy. Just not impossible."

"Yeah, I got that." And I did understand it. Lung had gone head to head with an Endbringer. This wasn't going to be like that Saturday morning cartoon I'd once seen when Mouse Protector had threatened Mr Metallic with a plastic sword to trick him into believing he'd lost his magnetic powers. In the real world, villains didn't just give up so readily.

"Janet," said Kayden thoughtfully, "just how complete is your control over water?"

"That's a hard question to answer," Janet replied. "What do you want me to do with it?" Her wary expression underscored her dislike for using her power too much.

"If you surrounded Lung with water, literally put him in a bubble of it, what's he going to do?"

Janet looked at Kayden, then at the rest of us, as if she suspected a trick question. "He's going to heat up the water until it boils away." Duh, she didn't quite say.

I saw Lisa's face light up at the same time Kayden asked the follow-up question. "But what if you stopped it from boiling? You can make water precipitate into rain right across the city. I've seen you do it. Could you hold the water around him anyway, no matter how much he tried to heat it up?"

"I … I don't know," Janet said quietly. "I've never tried. Especially against someone who can just throw more heat at the problem."

I shrugged. "I bet I know how we can find out."

Janet looked dubious. "I know your dice are very reliable, but ..."

Smirking, I glanced over at Dinah. "You know the best way to test it, don't you?"

She gave me a dirty look. "Of course I do."

Janet looked between us suspiciously. "What am I missing? What are you two up to?"

Dinah rolled her eyes and stood up from where she'd been sitting. Marching into Kayden's kitchen, she grabbed the electric jug, checked the amount of water in it, then carried it to the sink. Just as she started filling it with water, Janet clicked to what she was doing.

"Wait," she said. "Are you going to boil water right here and now to see if I can do it?"

"Well, why not?" asked Lisa. "Better to do it here and now under controlled conditions, than trying it out in the field and having to deal with a pissed-off rage dragon if we fail. Right?"

"Well, I suppose," Janet conceded, a little reluctantly. "But what if I succeed with the kettle and fail with Lung?"

"You won't," said Dinah. "Fail with Lung, I mean. When I asked my power just now who was best suited to the job of dousing Lung's flames, you're the only one whose name came up."

"Well, doesn't that mean I don't have to do this now?" Janet made a throwaway gesture. "If I can do it, I can do it."

"No, no, my power says you've also got to do this." Dinah shrugged. "Don't ask me. It just says it's the only way to get it right."

"More to the point," Andrea said perceptively, "why don't you even want to try?"

Janet ran her hand through her hair, making her look somewhat frazzled. "I … I don't know," she confessed. "I held back for so long from doing anything with it, trying something new is scary."

"You did lots of new things with it when you took down Coil's bunch and Oni Lee," Annette said, tilting her head like she usually did when something didn't add up. "Why's this one new thing different from everything else?"

Lisa cleared her throat, in that smug I-know-the-answer way she had. "Because everything else was just moving water around, or actual weather manipulation, which she already subconsciously knows how to do." She gave us a grin. "Making water not turn into vapour when it boils, that's a whole new ball game. If she can succeed in adding or subtracting heat, turning water into steam or ice at will, that'll change things up for the whole team. Especially if she can control the steam or ice like she can with liquid water."

"I'm really not sure I can do that at all," Janet said. "Making it rain's different. I just … well, a really crude explanation is that I just bash the water vapour together until it wants to rain. But I don't even do that manually. It's just a thing that happens because I want it to. I'm pretty sure steam is different."

"I wouldn't think too hard about it," Dad advised. "I've never heard of any capes losing the ability to use their powers because of the Centipede's Dilemma, but there's always a first time."

Dinah frowned. "What do centipedes have to do with water control? Is that a reference to some cape I've never heard of?"

Andrea chuckled. "You shouldn't confuse the kids like that, hon. They aren't used to the classics. But I bet Taylor knows what you're talking about."

I did; the poem he was referencing was one Mom had taught me years ago, partly because I was scared of bugs and she wanted to make them less frightening. I'd never actually seen a centipede in the wild, so I wasn't sure how effective it would be, but millipedes were a good enough illustration of the principle.

"Yeah," I said. "Basically, it involves thinking too deeply about something you normally do automatically. Like asking a centipede which leg it starts off with. In the poem, it gets confused and falls over in the ditch."

"Oh." Janet grimaced. "So if I overthink it, I could get it wrong? Wow, that is not the way to make me feel better about all this."

"Hey, it's alright," I assured her. "You'll do just fine."

"I notice you didn't roll any dice before saying that," she said, raising her eyebrows. "Is that you making sure you don't have to lie to me?"

"A little bit, maybe," I admitted. "Also, questions about powers are tricky. Ambiguous answers are the worst. Asking 'can X do Y' is all well and good, until I get a 'no', which leads to total confusion when they do it anyway, until I find out that they couldn't do it then but they can do it now."

A gurgle and a low pitched whistle from the kitchen got our attention. "Okay," announced Dinah. "The jug's boiling. Janet, can you feel the water?"

Uncertainly, Janet nodded. "I can. Do you want me to try to stop it from boiling?"

Dinah nodded. "If you could, please."

Silence fell over the living room as Janet concentrated. I listened hard to the sound of bubbling water, willing it to stop. If Janet could pull this off, stopping Lung would be a whole lot easier.

The jug continued to boil. Janet's expression became intense, her hand in her lap balling into a fist until the knuckles were white. She clenched her eyes shut; I could see the strain on her features.

After about thirty seconds of effort, during which time the jug continued to bubble away unabated, she opened her eyes and let out a long gasp. "I can't," she said in defeat. "The water's there and I can manipulate it. I can even feel the temperature. But I can't change the temperature, and I can't stop it from becoming steam."

"Can you still control the steam?" I asked, curious.

"Oh, sure." Janet pointed upward, and I saw a swirling white cloud up near the ceiling. "It's still pretty warm, but spreading it out lets it lose heat fairly quickly. But no, I can't force it to stay liquid or even keep it below boiling temperature. Sorry, Dinah. I guess your power's wrong for once."

"What if it isn't?" Theo asked unexpectedly from where he sat with Aster on his lap. I looked over with interest; he was still pretty shy about expressing an opinion, but what he said was always worth listening to. "Dinah, what exactly did your power tell you?"

"That Janet's power made her the best person for dousing Lung's flames," Dinah said promptly. "Why?"

He suddenly seemed to realize that everyone was looking at him, and visibly backpedalled. "Uh, nothing. I was just wondering … well, what if there's another way to do it? Just a thought, that's all."

"Hmm." Kayden looked at him a moment longer, then returned her attention to Janet. "Theo's got a point, you know. We were all fixated on the idea of you brute-forcing Lung by holding the water in place and not letting it boil. You know your power better than we do. There might be other options that we haven't thought of."

Janet didn't look convinced, but she nodded anyway. "Okay, I'll think about it some more."

"Good," said Dad. "Back to the main topic at hand. Does anyone see a problem with moving on Lung by this weekend?"

"Nope, but it never hurts to check." I held up my dice. "Now that Janet's considering new and interesting ways to introduce Lung to all the water, I might have another look at our chances of taking him down." The dice rolling tray was at my elbow, so I let the polyhedrons fall. They clattered to a stop, and I did a double-take. "Ah. This isn't good."

"Not good? What's not good?" Annette got up to check on the dice, while everyone else more or less leaned over toward me. I saw Lisa beginning to frown; she was the only one other than me who could reliably read my dice.

I pointed out the numbers. "Twelve point seven five three percent chance of success. My last roll was in the high eighties, guys. Something's gone seriously wrong."

"Oh, shit." Janet's expression was stricken. "Whatever it is I decide to do is going to backfire and wreck the whole plan. Should I sit this one out?"

"No," Dinah said at once. "My power still says you're an integral part of the plan. Taylor, what are the chances if Janet takes no part?"

I shrugged and rolled the dice, then blinked. "Wow. Seven point nine three one two percent."

"Well, it's not Janet then," Andrea decided. "What's gone wrong? What's happened?"

Lisa raised her head. "Guys … why was Lung out of town?"

I had my alphabet dice ready to hand. Using two hands, I picked up ten of them—all I could hold—and let them fall, all at once. They thumped and thudded all over the tray, then came to a halt. I studied the result. "Okay … it says N-E-W-space-B-A-K-U-D-A."

"He's recruited someone new called Bakuda," Dad said, getting in just in front of Lisa. "But who's Bakuda?"

She gave him a dirty look and pulled out her phone. "Let's see if they've made the news elsewhere."

I picked up the dice again. "Who or what is Bakuda?" Thud thud thud went the dice.

There were no spaces this time, but I didn't need them. "Oh, shit," I whispered.

"What?" asked Dinah, Annette and Kayden all at once.

I stared at the dice. They stubbornly refused to change what they said.

B-O-M-B-T-I-N-K-E-R.


Danny


With the hint from Taylor's dice, Lisa had been able to quickly narrow down who Bakuda was; specifically, the main suspect in the Cornell bombing spree. Authorities were offering a reward for information regarding the whereabouts of an Alice Takawara in connection to this. Apparently, the FBI were treating it as a terror attack.

Danny wasn't sure if they'd officially give up once Bakuda made herself known as a member of the ABB under Lung, or keep looking under the pretence that they hadn't made the connection. He'd heard rumours from people he knew in the Dockworkers that the PRT didn't get along too well with the other three-letter agencies at the best of times. This wasn't a surprise, considering how more and more resources that were signed over to them every year, with the ever-increasing number of parahumans out there.

The question was, would the Feds opt to share information to the PRT, or try to apprehend her themselves? Interdepartmental jurisdiction was a thorny question at the best of times, and he knew damn well that before all this parahuman crap had started, a simple mask and assumed name would have done zip-all to dissuade the FBI from performing a much-needed arrest. From what he understood now, though, there was a kind of unspoken agreement that a supervillain's secret identity was ironclad until they were arrested and officially unmasked. Also, the PRT (and their affiliates in the Protectorate) were automatically assumed to be the experts in dealing with parahuman crap. Even when they weren't.

But fortunately, this was getting beyond the point. Right now, all the team needed to know was how to deal with her as well as with Lung. Oni Lee was in custody, which would help tremendously, but the next step was to decide whether to focus on Lung or on Bakuda.

"We can't let her get too established," Lisa insisted. "You know how they say, 'never attack a Tinker in their base'? If her thing is bombs, she can carry them everywhere. She might have a dozen different offensive powers ready to go at a moment's notice. So, we've got to hit her from surprise. We can't let her see us coming, or she's likely to retaliate. And someone who's willing to set off bombs in a university isn't likely to be squeamish about targeting civilians. It's got to be a hard takedown."

"Amy is the best option for doing that without killing her," Dinah said at once. "If she can bring Vicky in on it, that's two options." She gave Kayden an apologetic look. "No offence, but your blast is likely to splatter her across several city blocks, and we don't want to get a reputation for killing indiscriminately."

"None taken." Kayden lifted her chin. "But if it looks like she's about to kill one of the others, I reserve the right to protect them."

Danny nodded. "I think we can accept that. Where is Amy, anyway?"

"Team appearance, with the rest of New Wave," Andrea said at once. "She said she'd be along later."

"Good," said Dinah. "We'll fill her in then." She looked at Kayden. "Just by the way, I do have a role for you when we're dealing with Bakuda. Once we make sure there's nobody in her workshop, your blast would be perfect for demolishing it at a distance."

Taylor grinned. "While the rest of us watch the fireworks from a safe distance."

"With popcorn," Annette added, draping herself over Taylor's shoulder. "Don't forget the popcorn."

"The popcorn's your job," said Dinah without missing a beat.

"What?" asked Annette. "Come on, your power couldn't have told you that. It didn't tell you that." She paused. "Did it?"

Dinah grinned at her. "You'll never know."

That was actually pretty funny; Taylor laughed out loud, and Lisa joined in. Andrea giggled, and even Kayden chuckled at the over-the-top look of outrage on Annette's face. Danny just shook his head with a grin of his own.

"Okay, being serious now," Kayden said. "Lisa's right. I hate to say this, especially after we were all hyped up to beat Lung, but Bakuda is potentially the greater danger here. If I know the villain mindset, she's going to want to make her mark. If we want to keep casualties to a minimum, we're going to need to stop her before she even gets going."

That was when the buzzer sounded.


Taylor


Almost reflexively, I scooped up three of the alphabet dice and rolled them, asking a question in my mind. They came up Y-E-S.

"It's Amy," I announced out loud, half a second behind Lisa. She wrinkled her nose at me, and I poked my tongue out at her.

"I'll go let her in," Annette said hastily, undraping herself from my shoulder. She hustled over to the door before anyone else could get their first. "Heyy, how's it going?" she crowed into the intercom. "C'mon up."

"How'd you know it was Amy?" I asked Lisa as Annette hit the button to let Amy in. "It's a buzzer. No clues."

She gestured to the window. "I caught a glimpse of Glory Girl dropping her off. Which you could've too if you'd been paying attention."

"Cheater," I accused her idly.

"Says the girl who can make dice come up any number she wants."

"I don't do that, not in the game." I was very careful not to. My character sheet had a pencil-drawn circle for the d20 to end up in; and another, slightly larger circle for the damage dice to land. Any roll I made outside of those circles simply didn't count.

"Yeah, yeah, sure, sure."

I considered bopping her on the end of the nose with a tossed die (which would then bounce back to the dice tray), but then the door opened and Amy walked in. Annette went to glomp her (which was standard practice between the two; Amy, interestingly enough, had zero problem with this) but stalled when she saw Vicky standing behind Amy. "Oh, hey," she said, then glomped Amy anyway. Self-consciousness was not something Annette was big on.

"Hey, 'Nette," Amy said, giving the redheaded girl a return hug. "Everyone, I decided to invite Vicky over today, if that's okay?"

Vicky stepped inside and looked around, her eyebrows raising when she saw the number of adults in the room. "Okay, this is not what I expected. Is there some kind of event going on that I should be aware of?"

Dad shared a glance with Kayden, then another with Andrea. I didn't see any kind of overt signal pass between them, but he shrugged resignedly. "How much have you told her?"

"Nothing, really," Amy said hastily. "Just that I wanted her in on this."

He pressed his lips together. "Really, you should have talked it over with one of us before doing this."

No shit, Sherlock. There was a reason we were keeping Vicky out of the loop. Well, until we were ready to ask her for help.

I met Lisa's eyes, then picked up half a dozen alphabet dice and rolled them, just as Vicky looked around with exasperation. "Well, to be honest, it would help if I knew what 'this' was. Is this some sort of live-action roleplaying game thing? Is that why that one girl's rolling dice there in the corner, where she thinks I can't see her?"

The question in my head had been, Is bringing Vicky in going to cause drama?

One by one, the dice rolled to a halt. I easily read off the result.

L-I-L-B-I-T. Little bit.

Lisa leaned over and glanced at them, then snorted with amusement. "Coulda told you that," she murmured.

Well, a 'little bit' of drama didn't sound too bad, and Lisa and Dinah weren't throwing off 'danger danger' vibes, so I gave Dad a cautious nod.

He sighed and nudged Andrea gently. Rolling her eyes, she uncurled like a cat and stood up from the chair. "I'd much rather more forewarning about this," he said as he got up as well, whereupon she promptly claimed the chair for herself. "But Taylor and the others seem to think it's okay. I'm guessing this was a spur of the moment thing?"


Vicky


"Well, yeah," Amy admitted. "I just asked her to hang around when she brought me over. I thought she could be a part of it."

Vicky breathed deeply, then let it all out again. This was getting more and more irritating, and the way they were talking over her head didn't help in the slightest. "Part of what?" she demanded. "Ames, someone better tell me exactly what's going on, or I'm outta here!"

For some reason, everyone seemed to look to the brown-haired kid on the sofa—Dinah, if Vicky had it right. Nodding as though in resignation, Dinah stood up. "What's going on, Glory Girl, is that we're all part of a superhero team. Your sister has been working with us on a part-time basis, and she's clearly decided that she thinks you're a good fit for the team as well."

Nothing physically changed in the room, but Vicky had the distinct impression of having watched a jigsaw puzzle come apart and reform in a totally different pattern. All of a sudden, the guarded looks from the people around the room made perfect sense, as did all the double-talk and obscure references. "What … the … hell?" she demanded. "You're all capes? Even the rug rat?" She gestured to the baby, currently cradled in the arms of a chubby teen. "Was this whole roleplaying game thing and babysitting thing a huge con? And where do you get off, Ames, joining another team? When were you even gonna tell Mom?"

The petite mousy woman—Vicky thought her name was Kayden—stood up and took a step forward. "First, please lower your voice and watch your language." Her tone was pure mom, and she looked ready to push back hard if Vicky wanted to make a thing of it. "Second, no, Aster is not a cape. The babysitting and gaming aspects were real. A convenient cover, but real. Some of us here are capes, and some are not. We are all part of the team. Amy?"

Vicky watched as Ames wriggled around in the hold of the red-headed girl without actually making her let go. This was the most physical contact she'd ever seen her sister endure from anyone she wasn't healing, which made her day just that little bit more surreal. "Vicky, I'm with this team because they asked me to join rather than just assumed I wanted to be part of it, and basically made it clear that I could do a lot of good by working with them. More than I'm doing with New Wave, to be honest. I think you could help us do good too, which is why I asked you along."

"Which is actually kind of convenient," said Dinah, as though they practised this kind of segue all the time. "We were actually just talking about how useful it might be to bring you along on our next mission, and I was wondering how to suggest it to Amy." She looked at Amy and shrugged. "You know, without making it look like we were trying to replace you with your sister. Because you're absolutely a valued member of the team."

Amy chuckled ruefully. "Huh. Well. Wish I'd known that then. I wouldn't have made an idiot of myself now."

The red-haired girl ruffled her hair fondly. "You might be an idiot, but you're our idiot." Surprising Vicky utterly, she planted a kiss on the tip of Amy's nose. What was even more astonishing was the way Amy didn't shove her away. In fact, she seemed to almost melt into the girl's embrace with a silly little grin.

Forcing herself to disregard everything that she was going to have to corner Amy about later, mentally filed under the heading of what the hell, Ames? When did you start liking girls?, Vicky took a deep breath. "Okay, got it. New team. You've somehow managed to poach Ames, and now you want to bring me in as well. So hit me. What's so great about your team? What've you done, recently? Why should I even give you the time of day?"

The blonde woman, who'd been standing back with her arms crossed, tensed as a couple of them glanced at her. "It was an accident," she insisted. "I mean, okay, I meant it, but only because I had no choice."

Kayden sighed and turned to face Vicky. "What she's referring to is something you've undoubtedly heard about. Remember how Kaiser died? That was her."

Vicky blinked and stared at both women. "I heard he stuck a metal sword in the air during that thunderstorm. Got struck by lightning. That wasn't an accident?"

"He'd stabbed me," Kayden said firmly. "When he raised the sword, he was going for a decapitation strike. She didn't have a choice."

"Wait." Some pieces of the puzzle had finally clicked together for Vicky. This wasn't stuff she was officially supposed to know, but Dean was bad at keeping secrets if she wheedled him the right way. "I did hear about that through the grapevine. But the person he stabbed was supposed to be Purity."

"It was," the woman confirmed. "He was going to take Aster and Annette away. I wasn't going to let him."

Vicky stared at the unassuming woman who had just admitted to being one of the most potent flying Blasters in the city … and also a neo-Nazi criminal. "You're Purity."

"No, I'm Kayden." The woman gave her a hard stare. "Don't even go there. I'm reforming. Going hero. Ma-Kaiser laughed at me when I said I wanted to do that. Nobody here is laughing."

"Vicky." It was Amy's voice, from behind her. "I want you to think really, really hard about what you say next. These are my friends. You're my guest. Don't mess this up for me."

It was the pleading note in Amy's voice that got to Vicky. She looked at each of the people in turn, then slowly nodded. "Okay, I'll bite. What's your team called?" Because she certainly hadn't heard of any new teams on the scene recently.

"We haven't got a public-facing name yet, because we haven't gone public." The tall lanky guy held out his hand. "Danny Hebert. That's my daughter Taylor, over there. She's a cape, I'm not. You already know Dinah, that's Lisa, Janet, Andrea, Theo, and the one hanging all over your sister is Andrea's daughter Annette."

Vicky blinked as she shook his hand. "I'm probably gonna need some reminders on those. So apart from calling down lightning on Kaiser, which I really want to know more about, what else have you done …" She paused, staring at Kayden. "The PRT thing with Coil! You were there! Were you working with this team then?"

Andrea—Vicky thought she had it right—rolled her eyes. "Well, duh. She's been one of us basically from the start. And you shoulda seen what she did to Hookwolf."

"Wait, wait." Vicky held up her hands for a moment. "So all that stuff that's been happening, the gangs all being taken apart, that wasn't just random shit? That was you guys?"

The blonde girl with the green eyes and mischievous grin nodded. "If by 'stuff that's been happening' you mean the Merchant takedown and Oni Lee being brought down like a wimp, yeah. That was us. We set 'em up and knocked 'em down."

Vicky still couldn't wrap her head around it. "Okay, I got it. But how can you be sure you can trust Purity? She's a villain, simple as that."

"Wow, yeah, because it's totally impossible for anyone to ever learn how to not be a villain." The girl rolled her eyes, then whipped out a mask and placed it over her face. "Totally." Reaching up behind her head, she ran her fingers through the neat French braid, throwing her dark blonde hair into disarray.

It took a moment for Vicky to recognize the style of mask and the vulpine grin below it. What clinched it was the way the girl was giving her the finger with the hand that held the mask in place. "Crap, you're Tattletale!"

"Who?" Tattletale whipped the mask away and gave Vicky an outrageous wink. "Never heard of her. She must be a figment of your imagination."

If it wasn't the last straw, it was close to it. Running her fingers through her own hair, Vicky clutched at two handfuls of it and let out a groan of exasperation. "What the he—uh, heck's going on here? Amy, what've you gotten me into? What've you gotten into?"

"A team that actually does stuff, rather than spending more time looking for good publicity," Amy retorted. "Lisa and Kayden are one hundred percent invested in the team. Lisa, because she joined up to help us take Coil out of the picture, and Kayden because she's got Aster and Theo to worry about now. We were looking at going after Lung next. Are you in, or are you out?"

"Ah yeah, about that," said Danny. "Annette, could you do us a favour and fill Amy in on the change of plans?"

Annette—the redhead currently draped over Amy—grinned and managed to somehow crack her knuckles without letting go of Vicky's sister. "So here's the skinny," she said. "While Lung was out of town, he picked up another cape …"


Taylor


Following the explanation, Amy seemed willing to take it in stride while Vicky was distinctly on the back foot about the whole thing. Unfortunately, this only served to make her more belligerent. "Oh, come on," she said with a dramatic eye-roll. "How do you even know so much about this newcomer cape? She hasn't even hit the public eye yet and you all know her name, her cape name, her powerset, everything."

Amy sighed. This apparently wasn't her first rodeo when it came to her sister being problematic. "Seriously? That's your biggest problem with all this? That we know too much about the people we're going to be facing before we ever see them?"

"Well, yeah." Vicky spread her hands. "Who even does that? I bet all that stuff isn't even in PHO yet."

"We do that." I realized a second later that I'd spoken up. "We're a Thinker heavy team, with exactly two heavy hitters." I held up a handful of dice. "I'm a precog, Lisa's an intuitive and Dinah's an organizer. As soon as we realized she was going to be in the picture, we started figuring out how to deal with her. Which reminds me." I put down the number dice and picked up the alphabet dice. "Can she detonate her bombs remotely, or does she need a timer?"

The ten dice thudded into the tray. For the benefit of those in the room, I read the reply out loud. "Does both."

"Ah." Annette held up a finger. "How does she set them off remotely?"

"Ooh, good question." I gathered up the dice again. Ten of them were just about all I could hold at once, and I hoped it would be enough for this answer. Dropping the dice into the tray, I observed the answer. "Huh. Toe ring L."

"Toe rings on the left foot," Lisa filled in. "Okay, that's definitely something that would've given me headaches."

"Oh, come on!" Vicky interjected. "How reliable's all that, anyway? You're literally throwing dice and interpreting the result!"

Well, they were certainly correct about the 'little bit' of drama, I thought with an internal sigh. "It's my power. I have to toss dice or other things to actually show the answer. The other part of my power is that I can toss anything with absolute accuracy. Once my power gets the answer, I can make the dice do whatever I want." That was a little broad, but I was starting to lose patience with her.

"Bullshit." She folded her arms. I suspected she half-believed me, but she was so invested in opposing what I said that she had to dig her heels in no matter what.

"Fine," I said, nettled. "Call a result. I'll do it."

The challenge had been thrown down. She stomped over to where I sat, and examined the dice in my tray; five d10s and ten alphabet dice. "Okay," she said. "All those dice, stacked on top of each other, on the table."

Looking her dead in the eye, I stood up and gathered half a dozen alphabet dice and three of the d10s, all by feel, and turned away from the table. Then, still holding eye contact, I tossed them over my shoulder toward the table. Grabbing the rest, I did the same again. We all heard the clatter as they landed. I allowed myself a smile as I turned to look.

The flabbergasted expression on Glory Girl's face as she beheld the fifteen-die tall stack—interspersing two alphabet dice with one d10, all balanced on a single d10—was a thing of beauty. "Oh, no way," she muttered as she leaned closer, then she saw the piece de resistance; the bottom d10 was balancing on its point, supporting the dice above it on the other point … while spinning in place.

Her jaw dropped and she was clearly lost for words. "How …"

Well, almost lost for words.

I shrugged. "You called it. I pulled it off. Now do you believe me?"

"Well …" I could see her trying to figure out some way to explain what I'd done.

"Oh, for god's sake, Vicky," snapped Amy. "Stop being such a dumbass! You're embarrassing me in front of everyone, here!"

Where a thousand reasoned arguments may not have done the trick, that one got through. Vicky looked from the stack of dice to me, then to her sister and everyone else in the room.

"Okay," she said quietly. "If Amy says I'm being a dumbass, maybe I'm being a dumbass. What is it you need me to do?"

"Well, before you got here," Dinah explained, "we were having a strategy session on how to deal with the ABB. We'd just about agreed that Bakuda needs to be taken down before we make our move on Lung, because of the danger she poses. And that's where you and Amy come in."

"Wait, why aren't we hitting Lung first?" asked Vicky. "He's a lot more dangerous than any Tinker."

"That's not necessarily the case," Lisa corrected her. "What's the one thing every Tinker needs in order to be truly dangerous?"

Vicky shrugged. "Parts? Tools?"

"Given the chance, any Tinker can assemble parts and tools," Theo said unexpectedly. "What you need to starve them of is time itself. Time that might be spent building new devices, acquiring hard to get materials and in general consolidating their position." He ducked his head as we all looked over at him. "That's what my father used to say, anyway. He never felt it was fair that the Empire lacked Tinkers."

I nodded. "If we take Bakuda down, Lung will know for a fact Oni Lee was no fluke. But he can't stay in rage dragon mode forever. Bakuda, on the other hand, is likely to feel amazingly threatened if we capture her new boss, and Tinkers who feel threatened may be even more dangerous than the regular type."

"And Tinkers who focus on bombs have a way of passing that threatened feeling on to everyone else around them really effectively," Lisa pointed out.

"Um …" Annette said, raising a finger. "I have a question."

I took my dice tray over to where the stack of dice was just beginning to wobble, and held it in the right place so they all fell into it. "Shoot."

"Anyone can make a bomb," she said. "I mean, if you look on the right place online, you can get detailed explanations for building anything except maybe a nuke, and I'm not even certain about that."

"Including a nuke," Lisa corrected her. "I went looking once."

Annette rolled her eyes. "Yeah, that makes me feel a whole lot better. Anyway, my point. What's her Tinker deal? What does she do to make bombs special? Firecrackers that demolish whole buildings? Bombs that don't make noise when they go off? Bombs that just go bang don't exactly require a Tinker to build."

"That's a really good question," I said slowly. "Okay then, let me get set up here. Lisa, I may need you to interpret."

I made myself comfortable in the chair, put the d10s to one side, and poised myself with the alphabet dice. "Okay," I said out loud. "What do Bakuda's bombs do that's out of the ordinary?" And then I tossed the dice.


Several minutes later, Dad was still scribbling in a notepad. "Turn … people … to … glass," he murmured. "Okay. Any other new and horrifying revelations?"

"You got the black hole and the pain bombs?" Lisa asked; at his grunt of assent, she nodded. "All good for the moment then."

"No, not all good," Kayden said. "This person is going to start tossing bombs around in my city that turn people to glass? We need to stop her yesterday." A glow started building up around her hands.

Vicky grimaced. "Much as I hate to agree with Purity, yeah, that's what we need to do. Okay, I'm totally on board. What's the plan?"

I met Lisa's gaze, then brought Dinah in on it too. "Time to do what we do best."

Dinah grinned. "I'll get the map."

Lisa cracked her knuckles. "Oh, hell yes."


Bakuda


Brockton Bay wasn't Boston, Alice decided as she climbed the stairs to the roof, or anything like it. Her hometown had an air of faded gentility about it, while Brockton Bay was more like a gangster who was trying to convince everyone that since he'd gotten out of prison he'd turned over a new leaf. While asking if someone would like to buy a second-hand watch.

Interestingly enough, the fearsome reputations of the Brockton gangs didn't quite seem to live up to reality. Even in Boston, she'd heard rumours that the PRT was scared to go after the Empire Eighty-Eight and the ABB because of the backlash this would incur. The white supremacists alone had more capes than all the hero groups in town, and they weren't all second-stringers either.

But now that she was in town, things were different. Lung had gotten her back to the Bay only to find out his trusted second in command Oni Lee had been snatched up by the PRT after a battle with a mysterious foe. This had put a distinct dent in the air of infallibility that he was clearly trying to foster with her.

She knew it couldn't be the Empire, because they were having their own problems, starting with Kaiser himself being made over into crispy fried racist on the roof of an apartment building in a thunderstorm. Events had snowballed from there; one of the big hitters had quit the team (after, rumour had it, being stabbed by Kaiser). She'd then murdered another big hitter (Alice hadn't bothered remembering the name; all those white racists looked the same to her) before going off to do her own thing, leaving two more of the gang to get captured by the PRT.

All this had been before the Oni Lee grab. In fact, they'd waited two weeks until Lung was specifically out of town to recruit her before they made that move. Which said to her that someone was making a move, but they were being careful about it. But one thing was certain; whether it was some bunch of villains looking to clear the way before they moved in or the heroes being more subtle than normal, there was no way she was going to tolerate that shit on her watch.

Whoever it was, no matter how carefully they'd planned for Lung (and she had no doubt they probably had a whole dossier on him by now) it was obvious from the fact they'd waited until he left town that they knew they couldn't match up to him when he had anyone by his side. And barely anyone knew she was in the city; even the regular gang members had only seen her face and heard her name. As Bakuda, she wasn't known anywhere else. She hadn't even demonstrated any of her specialized bombs for them.

The sun was just rising as she stepped out onto the rooftop. She stretched and yawned, unfavourably comparing the bay with Boston's waterfront, and giving the PRT headquarters in their converted oil rig the finger while she was at it. That was just begging for a bomb she'd been thinking of, that gave steel the consistency of taffy for about ten minutes.

Whoever was going after the gangs knew nothing about her. Which meant that if anyone made a move on the ABB once she'd had a chance to get some more bombs built would be in for a horrible—

The punch came out of nowhere, smashing into the side of her jaw like a runaway truck. Spinning around, she went sprawling to the rooftop. One of the eyepieces of her gas mask shattered, but that didn't matter; a couple of seconds later, while she was still trying to regain her scattered senses, straps were snapped and it was yanked off her face. Flopping onto her back, she stared up into the face of a cheerful blonde-haired teenage girl. "Surprise!"

Who … what … where … how …

Gravel crunched, and another teen knelt beside her. This one had brown frizzy hair and freckles. "Welcome to Brockton Bay," she said. "I'll be fixing your broken jaw now. You may feel a little numbness. This is perfectly normal." A hand was laid across her cheek, and then she was out like a light.


Panacea


Coming to her feet, Amy dusted off her knees and gave Vicky a dirty look. "'Surprise'? Really? That's the best you could come up with?"

Vicky shrugged. "Hey, it worked, didn't it?" Kneeling next to the villain's legs, she worked the left boot off, and then the sock. "Hey, looks like Taylor was right on the money. Toe rings on the left foot."

Amy rolled her eyes. "What did you expect?" A noise caught her attention and she turned her head. "I think someone's coming up to the roof."

"Okay, let's go." Expertly, Vicky picked up the unconscious villain. "Get the mask, will you?"

"Get the mask, get the mask," muttered Amy. "Igor, fetch the brain." With the mask in hand, she allowed Vicky to put an arm around her waist, and in another second they were up and away.

"So, where to?" asked Vicky.

"There's a spot in the driveway behind the PRT building that the cameras don't cover," Amy instructed. "We'll drop her there and send in an anonymous tip."

"You know she'll probably be able to describe us." Vicky sounded pensive. "Mom's gonna go batshit if she finds out we've been doing hero stuff out of costume."

Amy shook her head. "Nah. When you broke her jaw, you also gave her a concussion. She's not gonna have any short-term memory after coming up out of that roof exit. She'll have no idea what just happened."

"Huh." Vicky flew on for a few more moments. "You know she hasn't committed any crimes here in Brockton Bay. What are they gonna hold her on?"

Amy grinned. She'd already asked Taylor that question. "The Cornell bombings, for starters. With that as leverage, they may even try to recruit her."

"You're shitting me."

"Hey, don't look at me. That's what the dice said."


Lung


Kenta climbed the stairs to the roof of the building he was using as a base for the moment. He wanted to talk to Bakuda and make sure she understood the consequences of failure under his leadership. It was good that she was an early riser. This meant she would be able to get much work done.

He opened the door and stepped out onto the roof, already opening his mouth to speak. The words died on his lips as he surveyed the empty expanse. "Bakuda?" he called. "Where are you?"

Only the wind answered him. He strode out onto the roof, looking around with mounting puzzlement. Had she fled his employment so quickly? This made no sense at all. He hadn't even paid her yet.

An object caught his eye, and he went over to see what it was. A single discarded boot, with a sock partially hidden under it. Picking them up, he stared at them.

Why did she take the boot off? Or if someone attacked her, why did they take it off her?

Nothing made sense here. What the fuck is going on?


End of Part Seventeen