Part Nine: Sweet Release
[A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]
Director Emily Piggot
The three-way video call was conducted under the highest of security protocols. Emily locked her office doors, blanked the polarisation of her windows, and activated the white-noise jammer to prevent the opportunistic gathering of data by bouncing a laser off those same windows. Finally, she sat down at her desk, muted her phones and logged into the secure call.
The split-screen that came up showed the Chief Director on one side and Dragon's avatar on the other. This gave her a hint as to which way this was going to go, but it didn't ease the production of butterflies in her stomach any. Talking with one's boss about highly sensitive matters was never a situation that led to happy thoughts.
At least, she thought sourly, the hostage had been rescued and the bad guy had not gotten away. Virtually nothing else had gone to plan, though.
"Director Piggot, Dragon." Costa-Brown seemed almost chipper, a state of affairs that indicated someone was due a very bad day. "I understand you both have news for me."
"You first, Director Piggot," Dragon said formally. "Mine isn't about to change anytime soon."
So that was the way it was. Emily cleared her throat and resisted the temptation to check her appearance in the tiny image of her in the top-right corner of her screen. As she'd been advised long ago, she focused her attention on the camera while she was speaking, letting her peripheral vision cover the faces of her interlocutors. It wasn't as though she was going to get any important information from their expressions; Dragon used the same computer-generated image she used everywhere, and the Chief Director never gave anything away that she didn't intend to.
"Panacea has been rescued, alive and well," she said bluntly, putting the best news right out in front. "Saint, who was holding her captive, was killed when he refused to release her and then threatened to harm her. His body was unrecoverable, but DNA testing of the fragments found after the fact point toward him genuinely being dead."
She knew damn well Costa-Brown would've been filled in on exactly who had obliterated Saint so very thoroughly, but the woman sat expressionless, neither asking a question nor filling in the blanks.
Dragon, on the other hand, showed interest. "Not that I'm debating your methods, Emily, but reducing him to fragments while he was already wearing a powersuit seems to indicate that a certain level of overkill was involved. Which of your heroes pulled that one off?"
"It wasn't one of our heroes, exactly." This was the part she hadn't been looking forward to, not in the slightest. "Her name's Purity. She's a known member of the Empire Eighty-Eight. What she was doing there, and why she took Panacea's side, we're still trying to figure out. As far as we know, there's been zero connection between the two before tonight. Panacea has certainly never espoused white-supremacist leanings."
Dragon's avatar looked pensive. "Perhaps she didn't want to see the healer get hurt? Some villains aren't as dedicated toward hurting people as others."
Sourness twisted in Emily's guts. "I'll grant you that she isn't as much of a mad dog as Hookwolf, but she's been Kaiser's big hitter for years now. The Empire doesn't do 'nice'."
"Hmm." The Chief Director looked thoughtful. "I believe I read a report recently that said Purity was trying to rebrand as a hero, and that she was focusing her ire on the ABB. Do you perhaps think this was her way of trying to reinforce that image?"
Where Costa-Brown had gotten that report, Emily would never know. She was damn sure she'd never issued one like it. "I'd take any report like that with a grain of salt, Chief Director. Unless and until Purity is ready to give herself up and face justice, she remains a criminal at large, and the PRT will treat her as such. She doesn't just get to walk away from all of that."
"And yet she stepped up anyway, when she had every reason to stay away," Dragon pointed out. "I'm not trying to pre-empt you on how you do your job, Director Piggot, but perhaps that rates some level of consideration?"
"I'll take that under advisement," Emily said, though she didn't mean a word of it. Dragon didn't live in her city, and didn't have to deal with the ration of shit that she had to wade through on a daily basis. Purity was a villain; trying to evade justice for her documented crimes by attacking the people she normally would've been fighting anyway did not rate a free ride to becoming a hero. Yes, Panacea was safe, but from the way that suit had been collapsing at the end, Glory Girl probably would've gotten her clear no matter what.
Still, the death of Saint only solved half the problem. "What do we do about Teacher? He has to have left other disciples here and there. Saint was only the first. How long before the next one shows up and tries this same stunt again?"
Dragon cleared her throat. "Uh … that won't be a problem. Teacher's dead. Marquis executed him about fifteen minutes after the standoff was resolved."
"You mean 'murdered'." Emily's tone was harsh, even in her own ears.
"Executed." Dragon's voice was firm. "Director Piggot, they're in the Birdcage. Their human rights were legislated away so that they could be locked in a box where we have consistently denied them virtually every convenience of modern civilisation, including the benefit of law enforcement. We cannot then complain when they make and enforce their own rules, or even arrange for their own conveniences. In there, might makes right. Teacher thought his words held more sway than Marquis' bone blades, even after his 'student' had threatened Marquis' daughter. He could not have been more wrong."
The Chief Director nodded thoughtfully. "I can see where that could be a problem. It sounds like he couldn't see past his own arrogance. Not an uncommon failing among Thinkers."
"I wouldn't know," Emily said dryly. "We don't have any dedicated Thinkers on the team here." She glanced at the notes she'd made to herself. "Not to change the topic, but did either of you happen to see from the footage at the scene how drastically Saint's powersuit failed at the end there?"
"I did." Dragon's tone was thoughtful. "It seemed as though the metal and plastic had simply rotted away. I thought you might know the reason for that happening."
"Somehow I doubt he used substandard materials in his suits," Costa-Brown mused. "Could it be something Panacea herself did? After all, there are organisms in nature that attack metals and plastics. Could she have created some, just for this purpose?"
For some reason, that particular chain of reasoning hadn't occurred to Emily. Panacea was the nice safe fluffy healer who everyone seemed to forget about, even when she was known to be able to cure cancer at will. She wasn't edgy, she wasn't dark; even her name sounded like the sort of medicine that tasted unpleasant but you took it anyway because it did you good. Everyone knew who she was, kind of, but the only ones who really cared belonged to the infinitesimal fraction of the population who had an illness or an injury that only she could fix. Name recognition wise, she sucked.
Now Bonesaw, everyone knew that name. It was evocative. Whenever the Nine attacked somewhere, it was easy to see what Bonesaw had been doing. Her picture was everywhere, usually with the words "Kill Order" attached. It was getting so that girls with curly blonde hair were getting dye jobs before going to school, and nobody wore that cutesy style of dress anymore. Her name recognition may have been entirely negative but it was out there, in spades.
The idea that a nonentity cape (and wasn't that a contradiction in terms) such as Panacea could create and disseminate bugs at will that were able to eat plastic and metal, and hadn't informed the PRT that she could do it, was fundamentally terrifying. A mental image of Brockton Bay crumbling into dusty ruins, the PRT building falling apart beneath her, rose implacably in her mind. It was only by an effort of will that she didn't start planning the evacuation of the building, starting immediately.
"If … if she could really do that, why wouldn't we already know about it?" she asked, trying to sound mildly curious rather than severely rattled.
"Perhaps she never really bothered before," Dragon ventured. "Or maybe she didn't know she could until she tried. She only really heals people, doesn't she? Cures diseases, fixes injuries."
"Well, that's all she's done up until now," Emily confirmed. Though she was damn sure going to be keeping a much closer eye on the wallflower of New Wave from here on in. "Maybe it was a reflexive action?"
"That doesn't actually make me feel any better about it," the Chief Director said dryly. "What if she does that every time she feels threatened?"
Emily didn't like that idea in the slightest. A moment later, her memory was jogged and she shook her head. "No. She was caught in a bank robbery just a day or so ago. Somehow she got into a physical scuffle with one of the robbers and was hit on the head. We would've been informed if there was any signs of plastic or metal deterioration in the bank. Which means it's deliberate. It has to be. She can create them at will." All of a sudden, she realised she liked that idea even less. "Oh, god. Her father."
"That's what I was thinking, too." Dragon's voice had a tinge of concern, which Emily thought was a little overwrought. It wasn't as though the Tinker had to live in the same city as Panacea. "She's already expressed concern that we might be stonewalling her. If she decides that this is the case, knowing that we could return her father to her and are simply choosing not to … we may be facing a somewhat worse case than a simple end to quick and easy healing."
The mental image of Brockton Bay crumbling around her returned. It wasn't a pleasant one. "Chief Director, any suggestions?"
The Chief Director didn't look any happier than Emily felt. "On the one hand, she's an exemplary hero who's helped many people and has never had even the slightest scandal against her name. However, on the other, she now wants something from us that we're reluctant to give her for several very good reasons. Worse, this new revelation means she has us somewhat over a barrel. Instead of just losing the option of convenient healing for our respective Wards and Protectorate heroes, a continued refusal of her request means we face the potential threat of sending North America straight back to the Stone Age as our technology crumbles around us." Costa-Brown steepled her fingertips before her. "Of course, we could simply checkmate her by incarcerating her in a facility where she can't use her powers to escape without killing herself in the process. We still lose the healing, but we also get to keep our society intact."
"You're talking about Birdcaging an innocent girl for a crime she hasn't even threatened us with yet, much less committed,"Dragon said tensely. "Without so much as a trial or any kind of representation? The outcry and backlash would be catastrophic."
One perfect eyebrow rose. "If it becomes necessary, the rest of the world needs never know what actually happened. The PRT's public facing records say what we want them to, and no more."
Dragon shook her head, her lips tight. "You misunderstand me. Such a thing would be illegal in so many ways I'm not bothering to count them. There would be outcry and backlash, and it would. Be. Catastrophic."
The message was clear. Dragon would scuttle any such attempt to Birdcage Panacea. Emily wasn't sure whether to be relieved or unhappy that the option had been taken away.
From the twitch of Rebecca Costa-Brown's eyelid, she may have been irritated. However, she covered it up well. "Understood," she murmured, her voice only barely being picked up by the microphone. "I'm not even going to bother positing a Kill Order, then."
Emily spoke before Dragon could. "Even if you did, I'd never sign off on it. No matter the sins of her father, she's innocent of all his wrongdoing. No more heroes are getting murdered on my watch, if I can help it." Fleur had been bad enough. If the PRT simply decided to execute capes because they were too scarily powerful, when would it end? And what if the capes decided to strike back?
"Which leaves us with the sole option of releasing Marquis," Chief Director Rebecca Costa-Brown said. "With all the attendant fallout that entails. You do realise that once we open this can of worms, it will never be closed again, yes?"
Emily took a deep breath. "Chief Director, when I took this job, I knew damn well that hard choices would be part of it, and sometimes there'd be no good option. So I'm taking the least bad choice. Yes, I know there'll be fallout from people learning that it's possible to get out of the Birdcage. But if Panacea's life or freedom is the cost of keeping that secret under wraps, it's not one I'm willing to pay. We're just going to have to put on our big-girl pants and deal with it." She paused for effect. "Ma'am."
"What she said," Dragon added unexpectedly. "This will change little, really. There have been conspiracy theories for years that people could be released, but nobody can simply use force to compel me to do the deed. And if anyone does try …"
The Chief Director nodded. "We can Birdcage them instead." She raised her eyebrow again. "Unless you have a problem with that, Emily?"
"Not in the slightest." Emily snorted, happy to be back on comfortable ground. "If they want to ask for trouble like that, they deserve everything they get."
"In that, we're agreed," Dragon stated. "I'm just glad we don't have any other prisoners related to potentially problematic heroes. One is far more than enough to deal with."
Emily snorted. "Just be glad you don't live in the same zip code as her. Now I've got one more reason to go to bed every night wondering if the damn city will still be there in the morning."
"Well, we've exhausted all the other alternatives," Costa-Brown said. "We're just going to have to make the best of this one."
By 'we', Emily knew, the Chief Director meant 'you'.
Because that was the way the world worked.
"Well, I wasn't sure what I expected, but that sure as hell wasn't it," Max said. Bending low over the golf club, he tapped the ball and sent it rolling along the expensive carpet toward the waiting coffee mug. "What were you thinking? That maybe she'd see the light and join the Empire Eighty-Eight?"
Though his tone was mostly sarcastic, Kayden knew better than to treat it as a joke. "No," she said, just as the ball clinked into the cup. "We met on the Boardwalk, out of costume. She's a nice kid. Aster likes her." She decided not to mention Amy's issues with Kaiser, in case he decided to try and take advantage of them. Because of course he'd go there. Taking advantage of perceived weaknesses in others was his ground state of being.
"Well you saved her, so there's that." He tapped the cup with his foot, causing the ball to roll out again. Using the putter, he sent the small white sphere trundling away across the office floor, then nudged the cup so it was lined up again. "Now New Wave owes us a favour. Nicely done."
"I didn't do it for that!" she snapped, her temper starting to rise. "I see her as a friend. You don't hold things like that over the heads of friends."
"Well, I don't consider her a friend," he said flatly. "And like it or not, your name's still linked to ours. As far as everyone knows, the Empire Eighty-Eight just saved Panacea's life. I'd be a fool not to capitalise on that."
"You'll be a fool if you try," she retorted. "Panacea's not stupid. She'll be fully aware that it wasn't at your behest that I saved her."
He took his attention off the golf ball and raised his eyebrows. "Wait, are you saying you unmasked to her?" Before, he'd been playing with her. Now, she had his full attention. "Do you have any idea what damage you could've done to the rest of us?"
"No, I didn't unmask, you idiot." She shook her head. "But we talked for hours, and I helped her up after she stopped a guy from stealing my bag. If she can see what's wrong with someone, she can see my corona pollentia. It wouldn't be a huge leap of logic from there. Especially after I went and helped Glory Girl save her from Saint, afterward. But at the same time, that makes her far less likely to rat me out. Because she's a decent human being. Unlike some people I could name." She glared at him, daring him to refute her.
He grimaced, utterly ignoring her insinuation. "Damn it. Still too much of a danger. What if she's as smart as you think, and she adds two plus two and gets 'Max Anders is Kaiser'? She doesn't owe me her life …" He paused, frowning.
Oh, shit. What's he got in mind now? "Max, whatever scheme—"
Suddenly, he brightened. "Actually, you know what? She really does owe me her life. If she's as honourable as you think she is, we can hold that over her."
Kayden shook her head; his thought processes were too twisty for her to follow. "What the hell are you talking about? She owes you nothing. But if you'll just listen to me—"
"Oh, no, she owes me everything." He grinned, showing his teeth, and pointed at her. "You need to speak to her. Let her know that if I hadn't told you about the standoff, you wouldn't have known to go there. I saved her life."
"So, just because you accidentally acted like a decent human being for once in your life—" she began acidly.
"Do we really want to go there?" he interrupted. "If she outs me, then there will be backsplash on you, no matter whether she puts the finger on you or someone else does the same math as I just did. You just know the first thing they'd do is take Aster away. So, while this is all up in the air, it might be better if I take her for awhile. I've got family she can go and stay with out of the line of fire, after all."
She glowered at him helplessly. He always knew how to set his verbal traps, and she always walked into them with her eyes wide open. "Okay, fine," she said grudgingly. "I'll talk to Panacea."
"Good." He beamed at her. "I'm glad we could come to this arrangement without any kind of unpleasantness."
I'd like to show you 'unpleasantness'. Just for a moment, she fantasised about powering up and blasting him across the room, but he no doubt had a precaution set up against that as well. So, like she always had, she nodded in agreement with him. "You promise to leave Aster out of it, and I'll make sure Panacea doesn't spread anything around about you or the Empire."
"That should be perfectly acceptable," he said, and bent over to address the golf ball again. "Close the window on the way out, will you?"
One of these days … But today wasn't to be that day. "Sure, I can do that."
By the time she was out on the window ledge, he was fully engaged with the putt. Closing the window harder than was absolutely necessary in the vain hope of putting him off his shot, she powered up and stepped off the ledge. Normally, she would've been looking forward to getting in touch with the teen healer again, but Max's demand had made even that feel just a little grubby.
It was, she mused as she flew off, typical of the man.
Something dramatic had taken place in Brockton Bay the night before, and Thomas Calvert didn't know exactly what it was. He wasn't referring to the Tinker bomb spree perpetrated by Bakuda; that was something he had a depressingly large amount of information about. His Undersiders had fought Bakuda the day before, and Skitter (as the PRT had dubbed her) had been injured by one of her Tinker tech devices. Tattletale had called it a 'pain bomb'.
With their leader behind bars, the ABB should by rights have backed off and quieted down. They didn't have access to the sheer weight of manpower the Empire Eighty-Eight could call on, and Bakuda (despite her unnervingly widespread bombing campaign) could not project the same power and menace that Lung could. But they weren't, and he suspected he knew why. Bakuda was planning to spring Lung from captivity before he could be sent to the Birdcage, and the ongoing unrest was cover for that.
After all, that was how he would've done it.
As a serving officer in the PRT, Calvert knew his duty lay in reporting these suspicions to a superior officer, so that adequate precautions could be implemented. Of course, he was going to do nothing of the sort. His personal ambitions overruled any duty he technically owed to the PRT. So the ABB wanted to cause havoc across the city? Let them. Even if Lung was broken free, it still served his purpose of making the PRT ENE office under Emily Piggot look weak and ineffectual.
But all of this still did not explain why Saint of all people had made a solo trip from wherever he normally laired in Canada, just to abduct Panacea for several hours. Or why none other than Purity had shown up to assist with the rescue, which the after-action reports had described with dry language that translated to "turned him into a crater". Or why some of the troopers on site had mentioned Alexandria showing up while others hadn't. Or what she'd done when she did turn up, if it wasn't to help rescue Panacea.
None of it made any sense, not even the bit where a couple of troopers had reported Saint was apparently trying to hold Panacea hostage with the aim of having Teacher released from the Birdcage. Where Saint had gotten the idea this was possible (or that it was even a good idea) or why he'd picked this night to do it, Calvert didn't know. The most irritating aspect was that he knew there was information that had been redacted from the after-action report he was cleared to see, but he couldn't make out the shape of it from what was still there. Someone had done far too good a job at sanitising the information for his liking.
Still, that was why he'd spent good money assembling his Undersiders as a team. Tattletale could be excessively irritating at times, but her Thinker talent had proven invaluable to him time after time. She just had to be managed properly.
Bundling up the after-action reports, including the few photos that had made it in—stills from trooper bodycams—he sent the whole file to her, with a concisely worded instruction to find the missing pieces of the puzzle. He could've tried to hack his way into a higher clearance bracket, but he wasn't actually a hacker. As a final resort, he could abduct and interrogate someone who was in the know, then discard that timeline—he'd done it before, more than once—but that was time-consuming, and torture for actual information was less fun than it sounded. Having Tattletale dig up the information for him was both a good way to keep that agile mind busy, and freed him up to do other things.
In the other timeline, he saved the information to a thumb drive, stored it in his pocket and carefully deleted it from his computer, then contacted Tattletale and set her to finding out the same information but without the datapacket getting involved. If her queries drew official attention, he was better off not being in the line of fire. He hadn't gotten this far without cultivating a certain amount of paranoia as a survival trait.
Tattletale would get back to him when she had something. He set himself to other tasks. A PRT strike squad didn't run itself, after all.
Sitting at the kitchen table, Amy carefully prised open the cell-phone packaging and extracted the handset from within. They usually had half a dozen of these stocked in the house, given that superhero work could be hard on phones. Carol had worked out a discount deal with the supplier, allowing them to use New Wave's name in their advertising.
Using her fingernail, she teased out the tiny drawer that held the SIM cards, then picked up one of the two cards from the table beside her. She'd extracted them from her phone before she sabotaged it to screw Saint over, because all her numbers and most of her phone data were on them. The metal and plastic eating bugs had worked better than she'd expected in the end, and she'd spent a couple of anxious hours watching and listening for news that the ferry terminal was collapsing into the ocean, but it seemed the killswitch she'd built into the bacteria had worked just fine.
One at a time, the SIM cards slotted into the drawer then she closed it again, sticking her tongue out just a little with her concentration. The almost inaudible 'click' when it slid into place was music to her ears. Then she plugged the phone in to charge and pressed the startup button.
The phone lit up, indicating that it had over sixty percent charge, which worked for her. Smoothly, she navigated through the menus, making sure to designate different ringtones for the two SIM cards. One was her private number that she only gave out to people she trusted, and the other was her public number for charities and the like. She was always careful when answering the second number, because there seemed to be an endless supply of whackos out there. Even when she gave the phone to Vicky or Carol so they could scream at the person on the other end, there was always a new creepy stalker in a week or two.
Finally, she was done. With a sigh, she got up from the table to make herself a snack. The phone stayed where it was, still plugged in and charging. She'd just got the bread out of the fridge when the phone rang.
Amy paused, frowning. That was kind of odd. It was her 'friends and family' number, and everyone in her family knew she was home at the moment, recuperating from last night's kidnapping ordeal. While there were still people in the hospital who'd been hurt by the bombs, she didn't think it was them calling her. Once she'd prioritised the ones that the doctors had no way of helping and the basic medical cases were all that was left—shrapnel, burns, crush injuries, broken bones—she'd gone home. While she could help them, so could the doctors, and they were usually pretty good at respecting her space.
Putting the bread away again, she went back to the kitchen table where the phone was still ringing away merrily. One glance at the screen cleared matters up somewhat, but not totally.
Why is Ms Russel calling me now?
Several answers came to mind; she'd been hurt in the bombings, she knew someone who'd been hurt, she wanted to make sure Amy was okay …
The phone rang again. Amy picked it up and swiped the green icon across. "Hello?"
"Hello, Amy." She recognised the voice. "It's Kayden, from yesterday. How are you feeling?"
Kayden was being cagey, Amy realised belatedly. While Amy had made the leap of logic to connect Kayden to Purity with relative ease, the older woman had to suspect but couldn't know for certain. She doesn't want to accidentally unmask herself if I hadn't already figured it out.
"Oh, I'm fine now," she said, then paused deliberately. "Thank you." Yes, I know. No, I'm not going to do anything about it.
The pause that came across the line told her that the message had been received loud and clear. "Oh, that's good." Kayden was clearly a past master at disguising gratitude as enthusiasm. "Listen, I wanted to have a chat in person about something. If that's okay, I mean. Are you busy? I should have asked that first."
"Sure, I'd love to. No, I'm not busy." Amy thought for a moment. "Where do you want to meet? There's Challenger Park near my place. I can be there in ten minutes."
"That sounds perfect," Kayden says. "I'll bring Aster. I know she'll love seeing you again."
Amy smiled. "The feeling's mutual. See you there."
She ended the call and scribbled a note to leave on the fridge.
Just gone down to Challenger Park to meet a friend. Back later.
That essential chore taken care of, she filled a plastic water-bottle and picked out a light jacket because the weather was warming up, put her sneakers on, and headed out the door. The stroll to the park was pleasant, a gentle breeze countering the warmth of the sun. She took the time to wonder what Kayden wanted from her but decided that she wouldn't judge until she'd heard the older woman out. While she was certain Kayden Russel was Purity, she also knew the older woman was a loving mother and had put herself in danger of capture to save Amy.
I'll just wait and see what she says.
When she got to the park, there was another family there already, but Amy quickly dismissed them as being anything to do with Kayden. There was a father and mother with three small children who seemed to be fascinated with the plastic slide, scrambling up and zipping down with shrieks of glee. Glancing around, she went and sat on one of the swings, idling pushing herself backward and forward a little as she pulled out her phone and checked for new messages. Nothing as yet, which was good.
Kayden didn't arrive as a blaze of light from the sky as Amy had been half-expecting, but in a very suburban-mom style station wagon. So mundane was the vehicle that Kayden had gotten out and was lifting Aster's carrier from the back seat before Amy recognised her.
Amy got up and went to meet her, smiling at the sight of Aster's gurgling face. "Hey," she said, then bent down to greet the infant. "And hello to you, gorgeous." With the side of her index finger, she wiped drool from Aster's lip, a gesture she knew full well was futile at best. At the same time, she checked the baby over. As expected, Aster was in good health; not overly hungry, and she wouldn't need her diaper changed for awhile. "Have you been good for your mommy?"
"She's my little angel," Kayden said with a smile. "She slept well last night. Being down at the Boardwalk must have tired her out." She started over toward a picnic table, and Amy followed her.
Glancing at the other family, Amy saw that the children had moved onto the now-unoccupied swings. They were definitely too far away to be able to overhear anything if she and Kayden kept their voices down. She picked a bench and slid into it; Kayden put Aster's carrier on the table and sat opposite Amy.
"I guess now is the time where you say, 'I suppose you're wondering why I called you here'." Amy gave Kayden a grin. "Because I'm not gonna lie, I am kinda curious."
Kayden smirked at the reference, but Amy saw there were stress lines around her eyes. "I came here to ask you a huge favour." She paused, then facepalmed. "Sorry, I keep forgetting that you must have about a thousand people a day, asking you to do them the favour of healing their hangnails or something like that."
Amy nodded. "It's not quite that bad, but I have gotten so many of those in the past that I've had to cut them all off. 'Nothing personal, but nothing personal', as Carol puts it." She wasn't quite sure why Kayden's eyebrows went up at that, but suspected it was because she referred to her mother by name instead of 'mom'. That was fine; so long as Kayden didn't ask, she didn't have to answer.
"I can totally understand." Kayden sighed. "People think capes have got it made, and they just don't understand the pressures on us, do they?"
This, too, was a test. If Amy hadn't yet figured matters out, she would've said something like, what do you mean, us? But instead she nodded. "All they see is the power, and not the person behind it. Do you ever feel that way?"
"Oh god, do I ever." Kayden rolled her eyes expressively, then took a deep breath. "So. You've figured out who I am." It wasn't a question.
Amy met her gaze squarely. "Unless I've totally missed my guess, you're Purity."
Kayden nodded. "Yeah." The word came out in a gusty sigh. "So. The favour."
"That's what I've been trying to figure out," Amy admitted. "Who in the Empire Eighty-Eight is so injured that Othala can't fix, that you think I'll agree to help out?"
"Nobody." Kayden leaned over the carrier and brushed some of Aster's hair away from her eyes. "I'm not affiliated with the Empire anymore. I'm trying to cut ties with them. Turn hero."
Amy's jaw dropped. "So that's why you teamed up with Vicky to take on Saint last night!"
Kayden shook her head. "No. That's not why I did it." She reached out to boop Amy playfully on the nose. "I did it for you. Because you're conflicted and you still try to be a good person anyway. I really enjoyed our chat down on the Boardwalk, and I don't have many friends outside the Empire."
"Oh." Amy blinked a couple of times. "Well, truth be told, I don't have many friends outside New Wave, so I guess we're square on that regard."
"We are a pair, aren't we?" Kayden chuckled sadly. "Both of us pushed into a niche, and trying to force our way out of it." Aster started to fuss, so she retrieved a bottle from a pouch and gave it to the infant. "There you are, sweetie. That's right. Better?"
Amy took a deep breath. "Okay, if healing someone isn't the favour you wanted to ask, what is?"
After taking another moment to ensure Aster was okay with the bottle, Kayden looked up at Amy seriously. "I want you to do nothing. Specifically, with my identity."
"What?" Amy shook her head. "I wasn't going to tell anyone anyway. I think you're a great mom, and Aster's a beautiful baby. There's no way I was going to call the PRT on you."
"But would you call them on Kaiser?" Kayden raised her eyebrows. "You don't owe him anything."
"Well, no, but … oh. Oh." Amy finally got it. "You and him … you two were actually together while you were second in command of the Empire Eighty-Eight? If I looked into it, I could figure out his identity from yours?"
"We were married, yes." Kayden nodded. "I'm not telling you anything you wouldn't have figured out for yourself. I'm just asking … don't follow it up. Or if you do find yourself with that information, don't tell anyone. Please?"
Amy nodded. "Right about now, I'd say something about the unwritten rules, if I thought Kaiser cared about them for half a second."
That scored a wince from Kayden. "I'm sorry about your aunt. That should never have happened."
"No." Amy had been too young when Fleur died to know her all that well, but the memory still raised a pang. "It shouldn't have." She wondered if the punk who'd done it—they'd tried him as a fucking minor, for fuck's sake—was still strutting his stuff in the Empire Eighty-Eight. Making himself out to be a big man, when all he'd done was kill an unmasked cape by surprise. Or had he spoken out of turn to the wrong guy, and ended up in a shallow grave? She guessed she'd never know.
Kayden didn't say anything. She just watched Amy's eyes, probably trying to figure out which way Amy was going to jump on this.
Before she replied, Amy glanced around. The family was still playing on the swings, the kids calling to their father to push them higher.
"I should be cutting Kaiser no slack at all," Amy finally said. "Yeah, I know he wasn't the one who actually murdered Aunt Jess. But if Kaiser had half an ounce of the honour he pretends to have as leader of the glorious Empire Eighty-Eight ..." She paused to catch her breath. This had been a sore point with her family for a long time.
Kayden nodded sympathetically. "I understand. Someone who does something like that should have no place in the ranks of the Empire. But just between you and me, Kaiser is a big believer in lip service over the real thing. He's all about the big speeches, but there's remarkably little substance when you take a closer look." She grimaced. "And I would agree; to hell with him. But he's got leverage on me. And if I step too far out of line, he'll use it."
"Leverage?" Amy frowned, puzzled for a moment, then caught Kayden's glance down at Aster. "Ah. He's able to take Aster away from you? Can he do that? Legally, I mean?"
"He's her father, and he's got a dozen lawyers on retainer who could paint me as the second coming of Elizabeth Bathory." Kayden shook her head. "And that's just if I told him to go to hell without outing him. If he's outed and I've got anything to do with it, Aster either gets taken away by the authorities or by Kaiser himself. He's got people he can place her with, where he'll be able to raise her according to his own twisted standards."
Amy looked down at Aster who was now peacefully dozing, the bottle discarded to the side. She imagined the baby's distress if she were to be suddenly separated from her mother, never to see her again. It was a scenario that cut a little close to home for her. Purity was known as a supervillain, but she was trying to become better than that. Dad's a supervillain too, and he's willing to walk away from that life for my sake.
Taking a deep breath, she looked up at Kayden. "Okay, I won't look into him. But if I ever get a chance to get to him in any other way, I won't hold back."
Kayden smiled. "I wouldn't expect you to."
"Oh, he's got to be kidding." Looking over the images in the data packet, Lisa shook her head. There was information to be gleaned there, but whoever had done the sanitising had been very, very thorough. This meant the information she was trying to pry loose had been deemed secret at the very highest echelons in the PRT ENE building.
This was the very worst possible time for Coil to send a puzzle her way. With the ABB causing problems on the streets, they couldn't go out and so she didn't have anything to distract her from going down some problematic rabbit holes. Worse, everyone on the team was walking wounded; Rachel was suffering from fractured ribs at the very least after being used as a punching bag, and Taylor was laid up at home with the concussion and the aftermath of the pain bomb. Alec and Brian had also suffered their share of battlefield injuries. She herself had a lingering headache due to overuse of her powers.
In addition, if she tried to follow up on any leads by tapping into PRT databases, there was a better than even chance that they would have enhanced computer security looking for just such an intrusion. She'd have to rely on her native skill, not her power, for a lot of it if she didn't want to risk a crippling migraine. And with the traceback software that Dragon could no doubt supply, Armsmaster would be kicking in the door before she was halfway finished the hack.
Long story short, she was going to have to slow-walk this if she was to a) gather anything resembling actionable Intel, and b) not end up in a cell. All of this with Coil breathing down her neck, looking for results.
Heaving a sigh of resignation, she started going through the after-action reports.
"Explain it to me like I'm an idiot," Cinderhands said quietly. His tone was respectful, but he was being more persistent about it than Marquis was comfortable with. "You beat Teacher fair and square, for … whatever reason you had for kicking his front door in. We all thought things would go back to the status quo, with maybe Teacher paying you tribute to not do it again. But then you murdered him."
"I had my reasons." Marquis didn't look up from his book. There was a certain greyness to the page that intrigued him, and he didn't want to miss whatever was coming next.
"Yes, we get that." From the tone of his voice, Cinderhands was starting to lose a little of his patience. "But then you just … walked out of there. Left them leaderless. We could've kept Cell Block T if we'd known you were going to do that. Gotten in on the ground floor. Now everyone else is pushing and shoving to establish a foothold in that block, and we could've been there first. I just want to know why. Why did you do that, just so you could throw it all away?"
The greyness was moving now, forming words. Spelling out the plan. It wasn't a plan he was in love with, but at a certain point one had to make a leap of faith. Carefully closing the book, he stood up and stretched. "Perhaps I have come to a realisation," he said quietly.
"A realisation? What sort of realisation?" asked Cinderhands.
"We're rats in a cage," Marquis stated, gesturing at the room around him, and by inference the Birdcage as a while. "Very intelligent rats in a very complex cage, but rats in a cage all the same. Have you read about Calhoun's work on rat populations, putting them in a closed system and watching their societies evolve? It's quite chilling."
"We're smarter than rats," Cinderhands said; in Marquis' opinion, a reflexive statement.
"Are you certain about that?" Again, Marquis indicated the prison around them. "We all knew this place existed … well, most of us did. And yet, a good number of us still committed crimes that got us placed in here. So much for vaunted human intelligence." He shook his head. "No. When it comes to reacting socially to others, we're no smarter. Calhoun placed his rats in a closed system with ample food and water, and room to expand. Seven generations later, the colony went into an inevitable decline as they drove themselves to extinction with self-destructive social behaviours."
Cinderhands spread his hands. "Okay, so what does this have to do with you killing Teacher and then letting everyone else grab the scraps?"
"Maybe I'm tired of every day being like the last one," Marquis said. "Maybe I don't want to be part of the inevitable decline. Maybe this was the beginning of my inevitable decline. I decided that Teacher had to go down, then I decided he had to go all the way down. And do you know what I learned from this?"
"Tell me." Cinderhands watched him carefully.
"That nothing I do in here matters. Certainly, we could've kept Block T. We'd be staving off others from attempting a run on W as well as T, and we'd be watching the survivors of T in case they tried to sabotage us from the inside. In the end, it would solve nothing. There are no prizes. We would still get our supplies." He shook his head. "I'm so very tired of the endless treadmill."
"Listen, maybe you need to step back and take a breath. Go and get a woman, get laid." Cinderhands was trying to speak casually, but Marquis could tell he was concerned. "Sleep on it. You'll feel better in the morning."
"Yes. In the morning." Marquis could hear the sarcasm in his own voice. "I don't even know if morning is actually 'morning' anymore. Hell, I'm not entirely sure what year it is." He took a deep breath. "I'm going to my cell. Pass the word. Nobody is to disturb me."
"Boss—" Cinderhands stepped toward him, concern on his face and in his voice.
Marquis hardened his tone. "I said, I am going to my cell. Did I stutter?" He hated doing this to his old friend and subordinate but there was only one ticket out of the Birdcage, and he was riding it all the way to the end of the line.
Cinderhands flinched. "Okay. You got it, boss. See you later."
Marquis nodded once, curtly. "Yes."
He turned and left the common room, striding along the corridor toward his cell. People peeked out, but his air and attitude were sufficient to ensure that nobody bothered him. As he stepped into the space he called his own, he ran his hand up the doorframe, feeling the smoothness of the metal doors embedded in the concrete frame.
There were doors in the Birdcage, but none that could be operated by the inmates. All doorways were open by definition. The only way for a door to be triggered was if the exterior of the Birdcage was breached—which it could be, with almost ridiculous ease—and exposed that area to the vacuum outside. Or at least, that was the running theory.
He'd heard stories of people trying to break out through the cell wall; these had invariably ended with the steel doors sealing off that cell. When the doors retracted once more (usually within twelve hours) the cell was once more pristine, and there was no sign of the inmate.
Some had proposed hopeful theories that the inmates had actually escaped, but very few put stock in those.
And yet …
Stepping into his cell, he surveyed the sum total of his worldly belongings. A few bone sculptures he'd liked enough to not destroy (and which would be useful if anyone attacked him in his sanctum), a couple of pen and ink drawings of Brockton Bay, and a bookcase he'd fashioned from one of the crates. Nothing he'd miss, when it came down to it.
There was a line of bone across the floor, just inside the doorway. He exerted his power over it, and formed a latticework across the doorway that would give people the illusion that he'd sought privacy. Then he opened the book again, holding it so that nobody outside the cell could see what he was doing.
The words had changed again.
Closing the book, he placed it on the bookcase. Then he took a deep breath, held it for a moment then let it all out. As he generated bone plugs within his ear canals, he inhaled again and again. Continuing to hyperventilate, he held out his hands. Bone spikes grew out from his fingers and intertwined into a haft which then formed a large head on one end.
Curling his fingers around the haft of the warhammer, he swung it against the outer wall of the cell. The tremendous booming thud was muffled by the earplugs, but cracks spread anyway. Still, the wall held. He took another deep breath as distant yells rose from outside the cell, then swung again. Another thud, then a deep cracking sound. The yells grew louder, even past the earplugs.
On the third swing, the wall shattered altogether. Chunks of concrete spun out into the void, pushed by the irresistible wind whistling through his latticework. He broke the bone away from his hands and discarded the hammer and closed his eyes, feeling himself picked up and tossed, spinning over and over. At some point he lost the outward-going blast of air, and he assumed that the steel doors had shut behind him.
His lungs had been almost empty but he kept his mouth open anyway, allowing the gas in his gut to escape in a long belch. There was also pressure down below but before it could become unbearable, something grabbed him by the front of his shirt and yanked him sideways.
"… and in other news, following an incident in the Baumann Parahuman Containment Centre, the supervillain Marquis has been confirmed dead …"
End of Part Nine