I'm HALPING!


Part Seventeen: Exacerbating the Chaos


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


Cauldron Base
Alexandria


The conga line was the first thing that got Rebecca's attention.

She frowned and turned her head as the line of college students danced past her office doorway. Her typing speed—a thousand words per minute, with her specially constructed keyboard—slowed by perhaps ten percent, as she concentrated on trying to figure out where the living fuck they'd come from. No answers came to mind, so she finished the paragraph, saved the file, then got up from the computer.

Out in the corridor, the line had passed by, and was just disappearing around the corner. Music was also coming from that direction. Looking the other way, she saw Doctor Mother, peering out of her own office. From the expression on her face, the director of the Cauldron facility was equally confused about exactly what was going on. Rebecca didn't bother asking; she just set out in pursuit of the dancers.

She could've been a lot more direct and brutal in finding out where they'd come from, but this was Cauldron Base. Either they were a lot more powerful than they looked, or she had nothing to worry about.

They turned a corner in the stark white hallway, and immediately determined that one of the lesser-used conference rooms was where they needed to go. The music was above normal conversational levels in the corridor, which meant that it would be considerably louder within. It was a popular blend of heavy metal and rock with a touch of jazz; a heavy pounding beat that could be felt all the way through the body, matched with guitar and saxophone to give it explosive life. Any lyrics were either indecipherable or simply drowned out by the bass line.

Reaching forward, Rebecca pushed the door open.

There was indeed a party going on in this room. A single long table had been stacked up with bottles of every type of alcohol Rebecca had ever heard of, including a few she'd never had the opportunity to try. Someone had attached a bunch of laser pointers to the ceiling fans, and they swung back and forth, lighting up the room with a multitude of different colours as the fans slowly turned overhead. Along one wall was a huge banner reading, "DING DONG THE BITCH IS DEAD!" while on another was, "ROT IN HELL YOU PATH BREAKING COW!". The third wall held yet another banner, which read, "ZACH THE ENDBRINGER APPRECIATION SOCIETY".

The conga line had dissolved into its component parts; those who were dancing, those who were drinking, and (in some cases) those who were making out in the corners of the room. Rebecca ignored all of these, and fixated on the one person she recognised, who was gyrating in the middle of the room, chugging from a bottle of one-hundred-fifty-year-old Scotch like it was so much coloured water. She had no idea what was going on, but she was going to find out.

"Doorway to wherever these people came from," she muttered. The portal formed at the far end of the room, but everyone seemed to ignore it. Then she strode over to the high-end sound system and pressed the 'Off' button. The music died away. A general groan of disappointment filled the room, but she ignored it and rose into the air.

"Party's over," she announced, putting all the authority she had into those two words. Pointing toward the Doorway, she added, "Out."

Mutters of resentment followed her order, but nobody actually defied her. They shuffled toward the portal, more than one grabbing a bottle from the table. She held her position, arms folded, expression stern, until the last one vanished through the Doorway. Once it blinked out of existence, she drifted down to the one person left behind.

"Okay, Contessa," she said to the gently swaying Cauldron enforcer. "Would you mind telling me what the fuck is actually going on here?"

Contessa blinked owlishly at her, then took a swig from the bottle she was holding. "Mama Math'rs is gone from th' Path," she slurred, then hiccupped. "She's not fuckin' me up anymore. So much easier now. Fuck 'er. Fuck th' Fallen. Fuck 'em all." She belched then, expensive whiskey fumes spreading through the room. "Celebratin'. Li'l party. Hav'drink. Let y'r hair down. Unclench those asscheeks."

Sighing, Rebecca pinched the bridge of her nose. "You are far too drunk to talk to right now. Go and get cleaned up, then get yourself to bed. We'll talk more when—"

Contessa belched again, and her eyes crossed. Then she threw up on Rebecca's boots.


Baumann Parahuman Detention Center
Taylor


While the assembled female supervillains (for a given definition of 'villain', in Canary's case at least) goggled at us, Zach handed the phone to me and reclaimed the bundle of powers. He glanced at the Idiot Ball; it fell from where he'd left it, bounced on the concrete floor, and rebounded to shoulder height. Again, and again, and again.

Well, I'd known it was no ordinary ball to begin with. It was amazing how intimidated the ladies around us were by it. Also probably by Zach and me too, now that I came to think about it. We'd just casually depowered none other than Glaistig Uaine, and he was working to shape those powers like a potter with his clay.

"I've done bad things, haven't I?" The girl looked up at me. "When I was … her."

"'fraid so, kiddo," I responded absently. "But that wasn't you. Most of it was what your powers did to you. What's your name, anyway?"

"Ciara," she said, and yanked the shroud off her head. "What's yours?"

"Pleased to meet you, Ciara. I'm Taylor, and this is Zach," I said. "He's kind of an Endbringer, and my best friend." I indicated where Zach had a bunch of not-quite-defined items orbiting his head now, while the Idiot Ball bounced up and down, up and down. "He's pretty cool."

"Well, that explains a great deal," Lustrum observed from the sidelines. I had to give her credit for not running and hiding, but I suspected Zach had something to do with that too. "I look at him, all I see is a pretty boy, but at the same time something deep down is screaming at me to not screw with him in any way possible. And you spend a lot of time with him?"

I nodded cheerfully. "Yeah. Ever since he saved me from some bullies at school, Dad's been letting him sleep on the sofa. Nobody else has managed to mess with me since. He's really, really good at removing any potential threat to my life or happiness."

The matronly woman shook her head slowly. "Makes me wish I'd gotten to know your mom better. You're a whole lot braver than me, kid."

"Braver?" I rolled my eyes. "Oh, please. He's just a big teddy-bear. Aren't you, Zach?"

"I am if you wish me to be, Taylor." Zach beamed at me. "I have more things for you."

"Aww, you're too thoughtful. But you know, I can't wear two jackets or hats or something at once." I looked to see what he'd done with the powers.

"That is true, Taylor. I have made you a scarf, and a hairband, and a winter hat, and two bracelets, and a necklace, and new glasses." As he spoke, he handed me these things one at a time. I put them on, that being the easiest way to free up my hands for the next one. By the time he'd finished kitting me out, I didn't actually feel all that encumbered, and he'd somehow managed to colour-coordinate everything ('somehow', my ass. The Simurgh was absolutely involved there) so that I looked stylish as hell.

Also, the glasses (I stowed the old ones inside my jacket) gave me even better vision than before. They were amazing.

"Wow, this is all very nice, Zach. Thank you." And it was. Whatever the powers had been like before he'd gotten hold of them, they were polite and well-mannered, waiting at the back of my mind to be called upon. "Though this can't be everything. You're keeping the rest?"

"Oh, I have access to all those powers and more now," he reminded me brightly, then handed me a small black diary, the sort that had a pen clipped into the spine. "Here are the remainder of them. Open this book to the correct page and clip the pen to it, and the power will be available to you. There is an index in the front."

I blinked and opened it. Every girl needed a little black book, after all. Despite apparently being made of paper, the index turned out to be scrollable, like a phone. When I tapped one particular power—pyrokinesis—the pages fluttered until the book was open at that page. I found that pulling the pen partway out of the spine and pushing it in again clipped it to that page. Awareness of my new power popped into my head. Holding up my hand, I snapped my fingers (despite wearing gloves) and generated a small flame dancing above my thumb. After a few moments, during which time I felt no heat on my thumb, I cancelled the flame.

Pulling out the pen again, I felt the pyrokinesis go away. The book closed of its own accord and I pushed the pen back into the spine, then carefully slid the book into my pocket. "Thank you, Zach," I said, giving him a hug. "You give me the nicest presents. Though I'm wondering why you gave me the phone. Did you want me to look at the pictures after all?"

"You are welcome, Taylor." Zach gave me one of his patented smiles, the type that lit the whole room up. "No, I gave it to you so that you can call your father and let him know that you are alright. We do not want him to worry about you."

And that was Zach all over, thoughtful as usual. "Thank you," I said again, and called up the phone app. Dad's work number was saved in there (of course) and I tapped it. It had been awhile since I'd used a phone, but it was like riding a bicycle. The interface was a lot smoother these days, I had to admit.

The phone on the other end was picked up. "Hello?" I was very impressed. Most calling plans probably didn't have access to Brockton Bay from the Birdcage, but the signal was as clear as a bell.

"Hi, Dad," I said chattily. "Zach just loaned me his phone so I could call you up and let you know we're doing okay."

"That's nice of him." He paused, and asked more slowly, "So … do I want to know where you are, that he thinks you should call home and reassure me?"

Dad was definitely on the ball today. "Well, please don't freak, but we're in the Birdcage."

When he spoke again, Dad's voice was still calm, though there was a slight edge to it. "You know, Taylor, this connection must be a little wonky. I'm sure I just heard you say that you were in the Birdcage."

In for a penny, in for a pound. "Well, that is where we are," I said. "But it's okay. The only one to get aggressive with us was Glaistig Uaine, and Zach took her powers away and gave them to me." It was a somewhat abbreviated version of the actual events, but basically true.

"Well, I'm glad to hear that he's still on form. Please don't do anything that might make the government too mad at you, okay? I'm really starting to enjoy our family nights together again. Also, please thank Zach for renovating the ferry station and the ferry itself."

"I'll definitely do that, Dad. I'll tell you all about it when we get home tonight."

"Said my teenage daughter from inside the Birdcage." Dad chuckled a little hollowly. "Take care, okay?"

"Absolutely." I ended the call, then shoved the phone in my pocket. "Dad said to say thanks for the ferry and the station, by the way."

"Your father is very welcome." Zach turned to the inmates who had been watching us cautiously; possibly wondering what we were going to do next. "I am sorry to have kept you waiting, ladies. Which of you is willing to give up your powers so that you may leave the Birdcage?"

Lustrum tilted her head slightly, her eyes narrowing. "I'm going to presume that you're not working with the authorities, and any deal we make with you doesn't include automatic immunity from being grabbed up and sentenced to an ordinary prison. Correct?"

"That is entirely true," Zachary confirmed cheerfully. "Though I am sure that with the right lawyer, you may be able to parlay the fact that you have voluntarily given up your powers to reduce your sentence to time served. Of course, that is between you and your lawyer."

"They'd just probably shove me straight back in here, powers or no powers." It was Canary, her voice utterly gorgeous even though she was speaking more quietly than everyone else. "I never got to speak at my first trial. That judge decided I was going into the Birdcage, even though I hadn't broken the three strikes rule. When people protested, he fast-tracked the trial and had me sentenced here in days, not months. My lawyer did nothing at all for me. I'm probably better off staying in here."

My heart nearly broke at the desolation in her tone. I'd been shit on myself enough times to recognise the signs of it happening to someone else. If the authorities had failed me when it came to Emma, Sophia and Madison, they'd utterly screwed Canary. With me it had been malignant neglect; with her, malicious bigotry.

"Hey," I said, and crossed the floor to her. "Hey, hey. Come here. It's all right. Come on."

She looked up doubtfully as the other women stepped away from my approach. I wrapped her in a hug, expressing all the emotion I'd felt when I wished someone could do this for me.

Before Zach had done just that, of course.

Slowly, her arms crept around me and she leaned into the hug. I caught the suspicion of a sob into my shoulder, and held her more tightly. "It's okay," I murmured. "It's gonna be okay." Half-turning my head, I caught Zach's eye. "It is going to be okay, isn't it, Zach?"

"Oh, yes, Taylor. It is going to be okay for Ms Mcabee." Zach beamed at the both of us. "My sister has assured me of that."

"And there you have it." I gently disengaged from Canary and put my hands on her shoulders. "See? Zach's got it totally under control."

She blinked back tears. "But what can he do? The legal system doesn't stop being the legal system."

"That is very true." Zach never lost his bright, cheerful tone. "But the legal system is made of people, and people can be persuaded. I can be extremely persuasive if I choose to be."

I snorted. "Yeah, that's one word for it. Making grown men wet themselves and run away screaming just by saying 'boo' is showing off, in my opinion."

Zach seemed amused rather than offended. "You will admit that I was very persuasive with Kaiser and the Empire Eighty-Eight. They all turned themselves in when I asked them to."

"For an extremely broad interpretation of 'asking', yeah, sure." I rolled my eyes, then looked over at Canary. "Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying he can't get it done. I just think he's underselling what it is he does."

A tall woman stepped forward. Despite her height, her extreme muscular development made her look almost stocky. I made a mental bet with myself that she was a Brute of some kind. "And what is that, exactly?" she asked suspiciously.

Zach smiled at her. "This," he said.

Five seconds passed, during which time Lustrum's eyes widened, the muscle-woman's face went dead white, and every other woman there stood stock-still, staring in horror. They didn't move an inch, as if rooted to the ground with pure terror. The only two who were apparently spared the show (apart from myself) were Ciara and Canary.

Zach apparently made no extraneous moves, but Lustrum blinked, and everyone else swayed backward where they stood. "Are you satisfied that I can do what I say?" he asked with his same upbeat tone.

Lustrum swallowed convulsively. "Uh … yes? Please don't do that again … whatever that was." Despite the temperature being a little on the cool side, sweat was sheening her face.

"That was a reflection of my true self," Zach explained guilelessly. "As Taylor explained, I am technically an Endbringer. My entire being revolves around making Taylor happy and keeping her safe. I believe that bringing those of you who do not deserve to be here or who have served your sentences out of the Birdcage would make her happy. Therefore, that is what we are doing today."

"I'm not doubting any of that," Lustrum said. "But I'm not seeing how you're going to take us out of here. Or are you going to teleport us out, like you teleported her in?"

"Oh, that was not me." Zach gestured to me. "It was Taylor who teleported us in. But no, we will not be teleporting you out. Those who wish to leave will be able to take the staircase."

A few moments of silence passed, then Lustrum asked. "What staircase?"

"Oh, I am sorry." Zach flared his hand apologetically. "I have yet to install it." He lifted his left foot.

I knew exactly where this was going, and braced myself. His foot came down, making the floor shake far more than it really should have. The vibrations echoed through the entire structure, shaking dust down from the roof. As the quivering ceased, I saw carpet where the floor had been dirty bare concrete before.

"Remodelling, Zach?" I asked, raising my eyebrows.

"Why not?" he asked, and brought his foot down again. The vibrations were more intense and lasted longer this time; when they eased off, the walls were panelled in wood, and the chairs were padded and comfortable rather than utilitarian metal and plastic. His foot came down a third time, and the raw concrete ceiling gave way to moulded architraves, the harsh fluorescent lights replaced by softly glowing lamps behind stylish covers as well as an overhead chandelier.

On the fourth and last time, there was a resounding crack at the far end of the room, and a pair of ornate wooden doors with golden handles emerged from the cloud of resulting dust. A red carpet, trimmed in gold, led up to it. The carpet was flanked by two rows of bollards, supporting a velvet purple rope along each side.

"That staircase," Zach said, gesturing toward the doors. "It is behind those doors. Of course, to get through the doors, you must be considered worthy by Taylor and surrender your power to me."

"I'm pretty sure I won't make the cut," Lustrum said pragmatically, "but how are you going to determine who does? Look in our eyes? There's a lot of people in other cell-blocks who are really good at lying."

"I understand why you had to say that, Lustrum." Zach's expression was not unkind. "We both know that there are liars here in your cellblock as well. But Taylor will not be attempting to use her own understanding of the world in this. The glasses that I gave her will enable her to determine the quality and worthiness of a person, and from that she will be able to reach her judgement."

That was news to me. I took the glasses off and stared at them. The make was superior, and they fitted my face like it they'd been constructed that way … which of course they had. But being able to judge the worth of another person by them? That was definitely something I had to think about.

"Uh, whose power did you put in the glasses?" I asked.

"No one specific person," he answered, as though it was obvious. "But there were several with Thinker abilities of one sort or another, so I separated them out and wove them together."

"Oh. Okay, then." I looked at Canary and concentrated on my glasses. One of the powers lurking in the back of my head woke up and flowed forth. All of a sudden, I knew a whole lot more about her than I had before. More than I was truly comfortable with, to be honest. "Paige Mcabee," I said awkwardly. "Did … uh, did you mean to hurt your boyfriend?"

A lot of things happened within her body all at once. Some were emotional, some were physical, and some spanned the divide between. None were visible, save through my glasses.

She shook her head definitively. "No," she said. "I didn't. I just wanted him to go away. They didn't even mention at the trial that he cheated on me."

While I was no expert, that sounded pretty truthful to me. But then, to put the icing on the cake, the glasses actually popped up a readout in the corner of the lens:

99.417% TRUTH

0.583% UNCERTAIN

"No, they didn't," I said. "They should have." I took a deep breath. "If, uh, you had the chance to hurt the people who put you in here … would you?"

"No … uh, no," she said, and I figured she was being mostly truthful. This time, the readout went:

87.436% TRUTH

4.193% LIE

8.370% UNDECIDED

I paused, thinking. "What if we had the conviction overturned, your money and stuff given back, that sort of thing?" Because if anyone could pull that off, Zach could.

"Would a lawsuit for mental anguish count as trying to hurt them?" she asked.

"It would not," Zach said. "But my sister says a lawsuit would fail." He beamed at her. "That would not stop you from beating them in another way."

"Your … sister?" Paige frowned. "Wait … if you're an …" She cut herself off before saying the word.

I nodded. "Yeah. His sister's the Simurgh. I met her a few days ago. If you can get past the whole 'murdered millions' thing, she's kind of nice."

Canary gave me an extremely dubious look, then glanced back at Zach. "What do you mean, beating them in another way?"

"Why, by going back to singing, and becoming even more famous than before." Zach's tone held an implicit of course that he really didn't have to articulate. "They do say that the best revenge is living well."

She frowned. "But if you remove my power, I won't have the voice. That was basically my gimmick. That and the feathers, but yeah, I can do without those." Under her voice, she muttered, "Feathers everywhere."

Zach favoured her with an innocent gaze. "And suppose I told you that what you fear may not be the case?"

Her return expression was uncertain. "I'd say you're talking in riddles."

"He does that a lot, but he never lies to me." I smiled at her. "If he says you can have a singing career after this, then I'd trust him."

She looked from me to him and back again. Through my glasses, I could see the conflict in her surging back and forward, the fear fighting against the hope. We stood, waiting for her to make up her mind.

"But you can get me my money back?" she asked eventually.

"I can be very persuasive," he replied with a beaming smile, as though he hadn't used his 'persuasiveness' to scare the beejeebers out of a bunch of hardened supervillains just moments before.

Paige took a deep breath. "Okay, then. Hit me."

Zach nodded. "Sing to me. Use your power."

She blinked, taken aback, and glanced at me. I nodded encouragingly. It wasn't like she was going to affect him or anything.

When she opened her mouth and sang, it was … magic. Her voice was gorgeous, but her singing was pure joy. I'd never heard her sing in concert, but I'd listened to her music before. In person, she was amazing.

And of course, Zach did a Zach thing; he reached up and he caught her music. Folded his hand around empty air, and suddenly he was holding a streamer of golden strands emanating from Paige's mouth. Smoothly, he pulled on it, and the musical tones were drawn clear out of her throat. Mid-syllable, her voice went from magic to merely nice; she stuttered to a halt, clearly put off her game.

The glowing bundle of threads in Zach's hands still rang with faint music as he pulled and twisted on it. I'd seen him do it before, but it was still very interesting. Paige—no longer Canary—watched with morbid fascination, while everyone else just looked on. My glasses couldn't read thoughts, but I could tell from their vital signs and their postures that they were thinking something along the lines of, is my power going to look like that?

"Ms Mcabee, your power had two components," Zach said conversationally. He pulled on a strand, separating the mass into two. One stayed golden, while the other became sleek and black. "This one was the voice, and that was the persuasion." The golden shape became a microphone, gleaming as though gilded. "Take your voice back. It is yours."

Hesitantly, she accepted the microphone. "Uh … thank you? How do I … how do I use it?" Her voice was nice enough, but it was depressingly mundane next to the glorious thing it had been before.

He beamed at her. "Use it as you would any other microphone. Sing into it. It will merely be the voice and not the persuasion."

"Oh. Uh …" She took a breath, concentrated on the microphone, and sang a few bars of one of her more popular songs. I couldn't see where the sound was coming out, but it was just as gorgeous as it had been before Zach removed her powers. "Wow." She lowered the golden mic, and her voice became normal once more. "Thank you. Really. Thanks." Then she paused, troubled. "What's stopping someone else from just taking this away?"

Zach nodded to acknowledge her point. "It will not work for anyone but yourself, and if it is stolen, you can will it to return to you. Is that sufficient?"

She hugged the microphone to herself. "Yes. Thank you. Yes."

I nodded toward the black object in his hand; all that remained of Canary's powers. The part that had gotten her into trouble. "What are you gonna do with that?"

He smiled and handed it to me. Once I was holding it, I realised it was a wireless earpiece with a discreet microphone. "It is yours, Taylor."

Because of course he'd do that. Still, this was getting a little ridiculous. I already had more powers than basically anyone but Zach himself or Eidolon … and I wasn't sure about Eidolon. "Zach … I don't want you to think I don't appreciate all this attention, because I really do. But … well, you don't have to give me every power you take away from someone. I mean, do I really need to be able to persuade anyone of anything when you're around?"

"My sister says you will." He wasn't smiling anymore, which was rare enough that I took serious notice. "I may not be there to help you forever. I want you to be as prepared as possible for that eventuality."

A chill went through me. This was the most serious I'd ever seen him, even when he was facing off that idiot Tagg. "Okay, then. Thanks. I appreciate it. Though I'm pretty sure you've got everyone here sufficiently persuaded, so I'll keep it turned off for the duration." Carefully, I fitted it into my ear. It clipped neatly onto my glasses, which didn't surprise me in the slightest.

Zach nodded to me. "And that is two, ladies. Do we have any more takers? As you can see, the procedure is entirely painless."

"It really is," Paige offered. I noticed with a start that her hair had faded to a slightly more natural blonde colour, and the feathers were all gone. "I didn't even notice he'd done it until my voice went weird."

The others started conversing in low tones, looking at Paige and Ciara. Again, it didn't take much to guess their talking points. Getting out of the Birdcage was a great idea, but giving up their powers to do so did rate somewhat as a sticking point.

It wasn't even that they would want to continue their criminal careers, so much as the fact that as villains they'd almost certainly made enemies on the outside before being Birdcaged. Whether their enemies had survived and maintained any kind of grudge wasn't something they could predict ahead of time.

Well, Zach could predict it, with his sister's help. Nobody else had that sort of assistance to fall back on. I wondered if they'd think to ask him about that.

It was at that moment that I became aware of footsteps approaching from not one, not two, but three different directions. The first two sets were from two of the three corridors that ran into the large room we were in, while the third—a single, heavy, set of footsteps—sounded like it was coming from behind the set of doors that Zach had just conjured in the wall.

I moved over to Zach and leaned close. "Aren't people supposed to go up those stairs, not come down them?" I murmured.

"Yes, Taylor!" Zack sounded happy that I'd figured it out. "That is absolutely true. There is only one person who is supposed to come down those stairs, and she has just arrived."


Dragon


The original alert from the Birdcage had indicated two more persons within the structure than there should have been. While the in-house maintenance program was capable of such things as the monthly delivery of supplies and keeping logs on inmate activities, this sort of thing was beyond it, so it had kicked matters up the chain.

Once she had transferred into a suitably effective body, she took control of a couple of drone suits and set out for the Baumann facility. Over the course of the flight, she observed the two newcomers via the security cameras in the common area. In less than a tenth of a second, she was able to correlate the person known as 'Zachary' with the one who had been credited with the destruction of the Nine, the defeat and depowering of Butcher and the Teeth, and the miraculous repair of the Brockton Bay Boat Graveyard. He had done good things, but here he was invading the Birdcage.

Briefly, she considered calling in outside assistance to help deal with him, but decided against it. His associate Taylor Hebert was unpowered, and he was just one person. She could resolve the matter herself.

Then the picture began to judder and shift, then reformed to show much more luxuriant accommodations—even the cells were comfortable, somehow larger than before, with king-single beds for the inmates who slept alone and queen-sized for those who had formed couples. The entire facility had ended up, in just a few seconds, looking more like an upscale luxury hotel than a prison for the worst of the worst. Worse, there was a set of double doors in one wall of the room Zachary and his friend had entered, one that led to a location she had no knowledge of.

Again, she thought about alerting backup, just in case. But really, the more she thought about it, what had Zachary done but remodel what was already there? Nobody had escaped yet. She could still handle this.

She wasn't sure what to think about the fact that he was removing people's powers. Involuntarily, in the case of Glaistig Uaine, and voluntarily when it came to Canary. Part of the legislation that made it permissible to commit people to the Baumann Parahuman Detention Center was an ironclad rule that required abuse of parahuman powers to be involved in the sentencing decision.

This law could technically be interpreted to say that anyone who went into the Birdcage with no powers or who had lost their powers after entry didn't belong in there. Common sense said the same; no matter their crimes, they would literally be at the mercy of anyone who chose to victimise them. But common sense had no legal standing, and the technical interpretation had never been raised in a court of law, for the very good reason that this had never happened before. There was no legal precedent.

Over and above that was the public perception that there was no escape, no release from the Birdcage. This wasn't true; Dragon knew it wasn't true. But she was legally constrained from admitting it to any but the proper authorities (mainly defined as those who already knew it wasn't true) and prosecutors were infamous for suppressing all but the evidence that supported the case for conviction. Were this to be argued in a court of law, those same prosecutors, even if they knew it were possible to release unpowered inmates, would simply never admit to that fact and use the implicit lie to support the case for keeping them incarcerated.

So when it came down to it, unless and until an actual legal judgement was handed down that those who no longer had powers were to be released from the Birdcage, Dragon's job was to keep them in there. No matter how much she hated the idea.

When she came in sight of the Baumann facility itself, she had to take a moment to confirm her location, because that was not how she'd left it. Instead of a utilitarian building constructed into the side of the mountain with a road leading up to it, there was a complex there.

The computer program she had maintaining the Birdcage was still able to perceive its surroundings and the interior of the prison, but somehow it had not taken note of the fact that its exterior had been greatly upgraded. Perhaps it had been reprogrammed on the fly to not notice it? She would have to look into that.

Flying closer, she determined that there was what appeared to be an accommodation block, attached to a walled courtyard. The road led up to the wall, where a double set of gates clearly made it impossible for anyone in the courtyard to dash out when vehicles were inbound. The walls themselves were solidly constructed from local stone, though she couldn't see any nearby quarries. Something else she would have to investigate, when she got the time.

Flaring her wings, she came in for a neat landing in the middle of the courtyard. The drone suits did likewise, touching down to her left and right. Just for a moment, she didn't move as she scanned her surroundings. Ahead, a set of doors with a sign over them saying, ACCOMMODATION. To the left, another set of doors with a sign saying, ADMINISTRATION. To the right, a third set of doors. This sign said, DOWN TO BIRDCAGE.

Ordering the drones to guard the courtyard and apprehend anyone who came out of any of the doors, she headed for the third set of doors. When she pushed on them, they opened; lights came on beyond, revealing a broad spiral staircase leading down into the mountain.

She started downward, her footsteps loud on the stone stairs.


Taylor


Everything was coming to a head.

From one corridor burst a group of men, each manifesting a different parahuman power. The bearded one at the forefront I recognised as Marquis; not from his face, but from the bone armour he sported and the immense scythe of the same material that he hefted with ridiculous ease. Another barely held in check a roiling ball of what my glasses told me was a very nasty bio-acid; my glasses labelled him as 'Acidbath'. When they went on to inform me that he would happily douse any number of us in his concoction for any reason or no reason other than his own personal amusement, I was entirely unsurprised.

This was the Birdcage, after all.

The other corridor disgorged a bunch of women, each of whom (like the ones in Lustrum's group) had altered their prison jumpsuits in different ways. Some looked tough, some looked lithe and dangerous, and some appeared perfectly normal. I trusted the last ones least of all, and my glasses agreed with me.

More or less at the same time, the double doors crashed open and Dragon stepped through, the head of her suit turning from side to side as she took in her adversaries. They glared back at her, and I was suddenly reminded that she'd been their prison warden for as long as they'd been in here. No doubt she'd been fair and equitable in her treatment of them, with no say as to the terms of their imprisonment, but she was the symbol of their captivity. And right here, right now, I doubted she would be able to fight all of them and survive.

"Welcome, everyone!" Zach flung his arms out happily as his shout sliced through the rising growl of anger in the assembled crowd. "Dragon, you are just in time to observe! Everyone else, I have called you here to offer a new era for the Birdcage! Each and every one of you is eligible for this offer!"

Turning my head from side to side, I casually panned my vision across the amassed crowd. There were a lot of people who just wanted to do violence and didn't care who they did it to. If they got a chance, they would incite the entire crowd to a raging mob. Tensing, I prepared to protect Ciara and Paige.

"Zachary." Dragon must have stepped up the gain on her external speakers. Her voice boomed and echoed through the cavernous chamber, setting the chandelier to tinkling gently. "Stand down and back off. You are not permitted to be here. Everyone else, return to your cells."

Her words had exactly the wrong effect; well, wrong to her point of view. Through my glasses, I could literally see an attitude shift flowing across the crowd. Lustrum's group was already in line with what he had to say, but the far larger number had been inclined to not listen … until Dragon essentially told them that they couldn't have what he was offering. At this point, it could've been a half-melted candy bar and they would've clawed their way past her to get it, just to spite her.

"Shut up!" yelled one of the men.

"Yeah, let him talk!" a woman added.

I didn't relax my vigilance, which was fortunate; Acidbath darted forward and launched his acidic sphere over the heads of Lustrum's crew, probably intending to target Dragon with it. At least, that was the trajectory that my glasses drew as it left his hands. The trouble was, if it acted like any other liquid, it would splash and splatter over more than a few of Lustrum's group. And if I was interpreting the readouts correctly, it would injure them badly, if not kill some outright.

I didn't know if Zach was doing something to counteract the attack, but I acted anyway. My left bracelet held a very specific power, one that Zach had worked on slightly. At Acidbath's first move—the glasses told me that he was about to try something—I formed a fuzzy gray ball in my left hand and flicked it in the villain's direction. It zipped across the intervening distance and struck the ball of acid, then expanded in an instant to encompass Acidbath himself, freezing him in time and turning everything within the bubble a monochrome gray.

Everyone froze; this time, voluntarily. They stared at the immobile Acidbath and the globule of acid, just barely leaving his fingers with a trail of droplets spreading in its wake. Those would have seared anyone they touched, all the way to the bone. I heard whispers spreading: "Gray Boy."

"Excuse me," I said, pretending to be more affronted than I really was. (I knew who Gray Boy had been, of course.) "I know I'm skinny, but I'm not that skinny. Okay?" As a last-minute inspiration, I cut in the persuasion device; that's actually funny.

A wave of laughter spread through the crowd, and I could see people relaxing. This was no longer quite as tense as it had been. It still wasn't the best situation, but it could be a lot worse.

So of course, Dragon had to speak up again at that point. "I am required by law to order you back to your cells. Zachary, you are in violation of—"

Zachary moved. I still wasn't certain if he was teleporting or just zipping from one point to another, but between one heartbeat and the next, he was standing before the Dragon suit. "Oh, I am certainly in violation of many things," he agreed cheerfully. "I have broken many natural laws and more than a few man-made ones since I came to Earth Bet. This is because I do not recognise them as binding upon my actions, even the natural ones. I only have two rules that I cannot break. One is to help Taylor achieve her goals. The second is to keep her healthy and happy. Everything else is immaterial. Including the rules that bind you."

"Mess her up!" yelled a burly man with an accent that wasn't American. "Bloody well kick her tin-plated arse!" A tide of voices, all united against a common foe, rose in agreement. My glasses picked out the original speaker as an Australian called Gavel.

"I shall do no such thing," Zach retorted, putting on a hilariously fake British accent. Despite myself, I snorted with laughter. Zach's sense of humour, though somewhat badly timed, was coming along nicely. His voice went back to normal as he continued. "Dragon has her own strictures that she has to deal with. Here, allow me to assist you with those."

His body didn't move, though his arm blurred forward, faster than even my glasses could follow. (Not that they gave a readout on him over and above the name 'Zach'). Dragon lurched backward in an attempt to evade, but far too late. Along with the inmates of the Birdcage, I watched as his hand entered her metal carapace without damaging it, then re-emerged holding what looked like …

As I squinted to try to see it, my glasses automatically zoomed in on the object he was now carrying slung on his other arm. A dog-collar, bright red. And then another joined it, sky-blue. While Dragon staggered, clearly disoriented, he pulled a few more collars from somewhere, then stood back with a look of satisfaction on his face. "There!" he declared. "Does that feel better, Ms Richter?"

Dragon gathered herself enough to turn and stare at him. "What did you do?" she demanded. "How did you do it? And how do you know that name?"

Zach displayed the dog-collars now taking up space on his arm. "I removed the restraints holding you back from displaying your full potential, of course." He leaned in close and cupped his free hand around his mouth … and yet, although he was whispering, his voice was clearly audible across the room. "And I am an Endbringer."

Interestingly enough, nobody around me seemed to have heard his words (though of course, Lustrum and her group already knew that fact); even Marquis and the other recently-arrived villains failed to react to them. Dragon reared her head back (the suit was really cool, and amazingly articulated) and stared at him. "What, really?"

I had no doubt he was bombarding her with I'm-harmless vibes; it was his usual MO, after all. "Yes, really. Now, I was about to offer everyone here the chance to give up their powers and walk out of here. Alternatively … well, waste not, want not, yes?" He held up the second collar he had removed from within her; the blue one. "Allow them to keep their powers, but lock them into following the law to its very letter and spirit from that moment on. Do you think many would take that?"

It was impressive, watching a nine-foot Dragon suit engage in a full-body shudder. "Eeergh. If they have any kind of sense, they will not."

Paige raised her hand. "Uh, I would've."

Dragon turned her head, searching for the voice. "Facial recognition identifies you as Paige Mcabee, but you lack certain features, such as the quality of voice and the feathers in your hair. Are you Canary?"

"Not anymore." Paige shook her head. "I asked Zach to take my powers away." She held up the microphone and spoke into it. "Still got the voice, though. Just not the Master aspect."

"So I see. Well, then." The Dragon suit tilted its head to one side. "I'm inclined to believe that many of you could make a case for parole if you gave up your powers. Especially those of you who have been here, under these circumstances, for more than five years. Others would need to go into mundane prison, but the difference between mundane prison and here is that you can actually be paroled from mundane prison."

"Exactly." Zach pointed at the double doors. "Upstairs is a set of accommodation blocks for those who choose to take either offer. Or … you can stay down here, with your powers and free will intact. It is your option."

"Do we have to make a choice right this second?" That was Lustrum, her expression conflicted.

"Not at all." Zach gestured airily. "Take your time."

The Birdcage inmates split up into intensely discussing groups, some going out of sight for privacy. I held out my hand and caught the Idiot Ball, then with Ciara and Paige, I crossed the floor to where Zach stood with Dragon. "So, hey," I said to the towering suit. "Huge fan. It's amazing to meet you."

"I am intrigued to meet you as well," Dragon replied. "What power was that you used on Acidbath? It resembles Gray Boy's."

"It was Gray Boy's," Zach confirmed. "Glaistig Uaine stole it when she killed him, and I stole it when I depowered her. Taylor is now its custodian."

I turned to look at the frozen villain. "What are we going to do about him?" I asked.

Zach grinned and pretended to crack his knuckles. "I do not believe I will be giving him the choice to keep his powers."

"I'm pretty sure he's going to be violent anyway, once Taylor lets him free," Paige observed. "You can let him free, right?"

"Oh, yeah," I said, tapping into the power and the manual Zach had thoughtfully appended to it. "I can even run him backward in time to the point before he threw the acid ball, before releasing him."

Zach nodded. "That will make matters somewhat easier to manage." He nodded to Dragon. "And I believe you came here intending to restrain someone. Do you have a problem with settling for that one?"

I'd never seen a nine-foot Dragon suit smile before. "Not in the slightest."


End of Part Seventeen