Part Nineteen: Heartache By the Numbers

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


Nikos Vasil was discontented, and he didn't know why. It wasn't because he was in need of feminine company; God knew he had enough of that and could acquire more by literally taking a half-hour walk. The house he was living in was nice enough and had enough rooms and facilities for his entire extended family and hangers-on without anyone being too uncomfortable. Even the quality of the food was better than normal since he'd discovered one of his latest conquests had a talent for cooking.

So, what was it? Why did he feel as though an immense, cosmic shoe was about to drop? He, Heartbreaker, was the master of his own destiny (and also the destinies of all those who came within the ambit of his power), so what was he getting so stressed about?

Perhaps it was the news from America these days. He'd just finished watching a hastily-assembled retrospective on the Slaughterhouse Nine, and how they'd been utterly obliterated in mere seconds by a young cape in the northeast of the States. While he'd felt no particular fellow-feeling toward Jack Slash (apart from an appreciation of the man's sense of style) it was a tiny bit worrying to be thinking one day so long as they allow monsters such as the Nine to roam unhindered, they'll never pay attention to me and see the next that the Nine had been effortlessly wiped from the face of the planet.

Though that wasn't the only thing bothering him, now he came to think about it. The Fallen, on the face of it, had little or nothing in common with him. Not only were they apocalypse worshippers, but they were also ignorant redneck hillbillies who had apparently set out to tick off every stereotype they could find, plus a few more that hadn't even been on the list to begin with. Up until very recently, they had also been on the unofficial 'untouchable' list, noted by the authorities but never moved upon by them. For some reason, that had changed in the last few days, with PRT and Protectorate forces from several cities converging on their locations and hammering any resistance hard.

I do not think like they did, he told himself. I am not like them. They are despicable, trading in misery to try to breed loyal capes. But still, a tiny voice inside him insisted that they were not that dissimilar; he, too, was seeking to breed capes loyal to him. While he drew the line at incest, he still did his best to father as many children as possible and force his offspring to manifest their own powers, while at the same time making sure they remained his to command. And then, of course, there was the income stream from allowing men to pay him for 'access' to his women and daughters.

Once all trace of the Nine and the Fallen were wiped out, who would be next? Were the PRT and Protectorate willing to flex so strongly north of the border? Was he on their list, or had his little clan yet to make their radar?

It would probably be a good idea to not snatch any more celebrities for awhile, he decided. The last attempt had been a debacle anyway. He'd been overconfident with his powers and dismissive of the heroes' determination to thwart his goals. Better to just keep his head down and enjoy what he had until this latest storm blew over and things went back to normal.

His current head of security, an ex-police officer named Marcel, murmured into his radio and frowned slightly. Nikos tried to ignore him while he took up the remote and changed the channel. Perhaps there would be something to explain why the PRT and Protectorate had suddenly acquired what the Americans so colourfully described as 'a wild hair up their butts'.

"Sir." Marcel's tone was respectful but urgent. "There's a problem. Some of my men are not responding to their regular check-in calls."

And there it was. He'd known something was wrong, just not what it was. "Have you spoken with Guillaume?" His son had the ability to see through the eyes of anyone he had touched that day, and one of the young man's duties was to make physical contact with each member of the day's security force.

"He says they saw nothing out of the ordinary," Marcel responded. "He isn't getting anything at all from them. He says he doesn't know if they're asleep, unconscious or even dead. I've told him to contact me if any more become inactive." His head came up. "And one just did. Sir, we've got to get you out of here."

"Are they at least seeing who's doing this?" Nikos stood up; he was no fool. "Do we have a face?" He needed eye contact to influence someone, but he could perhaps bait them out by name if he knew who they were.

"No." Marcel still sounded calm and in control of the situation, but Nikos could hear the frustration underlying the single word. "I have my men covering each other's blind spots, but they're still being taken down. Someone's dancing between the raindrops here, and I don't like it. I think maybe we have a cape targeting you."

"Shit. Get everyone together." By 'everyone' he meant his children and most favoured lovers. Marcel would know who these were. If he had to make a run for it, he didn't intend to leave any of his genetic heritage behind.

"Yes, sir." Marcel pressed the button on his lapel and murmured into the microphone. Nikos restrained himself from pacing over to the window; where there was one cape, there might be another with a high-powered rifle. Nobody had attempted to snipe him yet, but there was always a first time.

Who can this be? Who have I offended in the cape community? I know I didn't take any of them. One mistake the Fallen had made that he had been careful not to was the abduction of capes as breeding material. As tempting as it might have been, he had no desire to draw the attention of an enraged Alexandria or Narwhal. Having his head punched off his shoulders was perhaps the best outcome for something like that.

"Sir." Marcel's voice, more strained than before, broke into his racing thoughts. "It's Master Guillaume. He's not responding anymore."

Shit. Someone got to him. How did they know? Guillaume had been one of his more effective counters against silent infiltration. "Okay, everyone to the cars, now! We have to get out of here!"

"Sir!" Marcel nodded and gave terse orders over the radio link. His men would fight to the death to protect Nikos and cover his retreat, which was only right and proper.

Meanwhile, Nikos would go dark and hide up for awhile until he had an idea as to who was hunting him. All he really needed was to make eye contact and say a few words, and their loyalty would become his. Then he could send the hunters back against whoever had dispatched them in the first place.

They hustled down the stairs to the ground floor, with Marcel going ahead and another man watching their backs. Both men had guns out and ready; not wimpy little pistols, but the extremely effective Heckler & Koch MP10s Nikos had seen fit to equip them with. If they encountered anyone not belonging to the guard force or the household, a burst from an MP10 would either kill them or make them pray for death.

The man behind Nikos grunted and fell forward, tumbling the last few steps to the bottom of the stairs. Nikos turned, wishing (not for the first time) that he knew how to use a firearm as skilfully as the men he had under his control. The man lay sprawled, dead eyes staring upward, a pool of blood beginning to grow under his body. Just as Nikos began to raise his eyes to the top of the stairs, Marcel let out a brief scream before unleashing a full burst from his machine pistol.

Half-turning, Nikos beheld a sight out of a horror movie; a corpse-white face with blank staring eyes and a single bullet-hole in the centre of its forehead, clutching a body bag around itself and looming over Marcel. The bullets that ripped and shredded their way through the rubberised cloth into the dead flesh beneath did nothing at all to stop the thing; one black-nailed hand lashed out and grabbed Marcel by the face.

There was a single deliberate cough from behind Nikos. He turned back toward where his bodyguard lay in his own blood. Now standing over the corpse was an overly tall black man, almost skeletal in build, wearing aviator sunglasses and holding a pistol. The weapon was rock-steady, approximately one inch from the bridge of Nikos' nose. A trick of the light made the lenses of the aviator shades look like the empty eye-sockets of a skull.

Horrible wet crunching noises sounded from where the dead man had Marcel, but Nikos was hypnotised by the seemingly enormous bore of the pistol. "Why?" he croaked, from a throat now drier than the Sahara.

The impassive demeanour of the man before him cracked ever so slightly, a smile twitching one corner of those merciless lips. "Because you and I are both monsters, but I'm the one holding the gun."

And then the trigger finger moved a significant fraction of an inch. Before Heartbreaker could begin to comprehend the joke, he was dead.

Eagleton Village, TN

"Well, that was fun," I said, dusting my hands off despite the fact that they were entirely free of dirt and grime, not to mention oil and other mechanical fluids. I hadn't noticed the self-cleaning aspect of the gloves earlier, but I found it amazingly useful. "I can't believe the Protectorate were having this much trouble with them." Well, to be fair, they didn't have this many powers to play with.

"It was definitely interesting, Taylor." Zach looked at the mostly demolished community, and the robots of Eagleton which we had locked into single-form mode and left strewn about the streets. Each and every one was now in the form of a wheeled vehicle … with the wheels removed and the robots up on blocks. Some of the larger ones, which had replaced entire buildings to decoy people within, had required us to find big blocks to put them up on.

"So, what happens now, do you think?" I looked at the robots, which looked back at me. They'd gone from snarling ferocity to frantic desperation to abject terror over the course of our battle with them. It must really suck to have been the dominant predator in the area, then to have to deal with Zach and me showing up for a morning of light exercise. Or rather, be dealt with by us. They hadn't really stood a chance.

Zach gestured to where the first PRT forces were cautiously venturing into the city, with a cape flying overhead. I couldn't personally identify them from this distance, but my handy new glasses outlined them and threw up the name DYNAMAX. "They will wish to disassemble and destroy the robots. Are you fine with that?"

I frowned. Sure, the Machine Army had murdered people by the dozen and forced the PRT to quarantine the entire area for years at a time, but they hadn't really known any better. The idiot Tinker who'd built the first few had taken no precautions at all; as opposed to Dragon's creator, who had taken far too many. He hadn't given them human levels of intelligence, but they'd had no directives telling them not to attack people either. It was the classic paperclip maximiser error.

"No, I'm not," I decided. "Can I use your magic phone to call Dragon?"

"Certainly, Taylor." He pulled the device out and handed it to me.

"Thanks, Zach." Despite my awareness that it wasn't a real phone, it looked and felt like one; when I scrolled through the contacts list, Dragon's name was right there in bold. Pulling the number up, I checked on the advancing PRT soldiers, then hit the icon to make the call.

Dragon barely let it ring once before she answered. "Hello?"

"Hi, it's me." I grinned at the idea of me just calling up Dragon and saying Hi, it's me. I had definitely come up in the world since meeting Zach. "Got a version of you that you can spare to send to Eagleton?"

"Where the Machine Army is based?" She paused. "I don't usually send my suits out that way in case they subsume my tech or even get into my systems. Why?"

"Well, first off that's a past tense verb. Was based." I smirked. "Me and Zach just beat the snot out of them and forced them to transform into vehicles. We've got the PRT coming in to make ashtrays out of them, but if you wanted a bunch of sentient if non-sapient minions, I suppose we could ask them not to."

She paused for at least two seconds. If I was reading things correctly, that meant she was devoting a lot of processor time to the question. Also, she may have been accessing the PRT camera feed.

When she spoke again, her voice was very thoughtful. "What guarantee do you have that they won't go out of control again and attack me or anyone else?"

I chuckled. "Well, right now they're being good because Zach said so, and they're too scared to do anything else. Once you get here, you can give them a directive to not attack you. They're about as brainy as smart dogs, or maybe monkeys. Like I said, sentient but not sapient. Pretty sure you can train them to do what you want."

"I see. 2-9-1 is closest; I'll send her. She says she likes dogs, anyway."

"Okay, cool. See you then." I ended the call and handed the phone back to Zach. "She's on the way. But you knew that."

"Thank you, Taylor." He smiled at me anyway. "Yes, I did. We can go and speak to the PRT now, if you want."

"Oh, I want." Adjusting the little black earpiece, I strode forward. I didn't necessarily dislike the PRT anymore, given the shitty hand they'd been dealt, but I had issues with they way they tried to carry out what they saw as their mandate from time to time. Steamrolling over everyone in their path was not the best way to win friends and influence people. Just saying.

And while I also knew the actions of certain idiots (looking at you, Tagg) made the rest look much worse, they didn't actually have any safeguards for stopping such idiots from rising to positions of power and hurting people who really didn't deserve to be hurt. Especially since I had the strong impression that the PRT held a certain amount of influence over the judiciary (even when they said they didn't) which allowed them to push for people like Paige to go into the Birdcage, violating their rights in too many ways to count. Yes, the Birdcage was no longer a one-and-done prison, but the underlying problem still existed.

(Recalling Dad in the PRT van with his hands cuffed behind his back still made my blood boil.)

"Okay, you can stop right there," I called out, putting my hand up in the classic 'halt' gesture. "Gonna have to ask you to not actually harm any of these robots. They're spoken for." The earpiece, Zach had assured me, would allow my voice to reach everyone within normal earshot, no matter how much noise was around them. If I wanted to be heard, I would be heard.

The armoured personnel carrier that was in the lead rumbled to a halt. Its engine didn't switch off, but a hatch opened and a PRT officer climbed out. Dropping to the ground, he advanced to meet me. To his credit, he didn't order his men to point their weapons anywhere near me or Zach. I had a suspicion that there was probably a hastily composed training video making the rounds, with Zach as the star of the show. This was fine with me.

"Captain Kennedy," he introduced himself. "I'm guessing you're Taylor Hebert and this young man is Zachary. We've heard a lot about you."

I just bet you have. I made sure not to grin. Presenting a mature front to men and women like this was the best way to earn their respect. "That's us," I confirmed. "Eagleton is no longer a danger zone. Feel free to secure the location, but the robots have been neutralised and Dragon is inbound to take charge of them."

Behind the clear goggles he wore, I saw his eyes flick from us to the nearest robot and back again. "I've been given orders to destroy them."

And there we had it. His bosses were breathing down his neck, and I was standing right in front of him. Well, let's be fair; Zach was standing right in front of him. I had no illusions about being one-tenth as scary as he was. But either way, he was screwed; if he attempted to carry out his orders, shit would go sideways very quickly indeed. Should he refuse, he would be looking at the end of his career. It was the very definition of 'rock and hard place'.

"Inform your commanding officers that we're here and we say no," I suggested. "Once Dragon arrives, she can take them under her command. That'll make them effectively part of the Protectorate."

"They've killed people," he said uncertainly, as though it had sounded better in his head.

"They'll be programmed not to," I countered. "Captain, they're not sapient, like you and me. They don't hate humans. They don't know what humans are. If a person falls in front of a train and gets killed, does the train get taken out of service, or do safety precautions get upgraded?"

"Excuse me a moment," he said, stepping away. I could've used my glasses to listen in on the conversation, but I figured Zach would warn me if anything untoward was about to happen. Besides, they'd already told me he was more or less convinced of my side of things.

Having Zach standing there faux innocently was definitely a way to make sure he stayed convinced, of course.

The conversation didn't take too long. I was pretty sure the salient aspects—Zachary is here and he doesn't want the robots destroyed—only took a few seconds to get across. The rest was just fluff and posturing and people ensuring they were still being seen as relevant in the grand scheme of things. Whatever got them through the day, I guess.

When he'd finished, Captain Kennedy came back to me. His orders had clearly been amended in the light of the new situation, because the engine in the APC shut off and more men climbed out of the hatch. Nobody relaxed totally, and gun barrels didn't stray far away from the quiescent robots, but there weren't any regrettable friendly fire incidents either. (They would've been regrettable because the people 'accidentally' firing on the robots would've intensely regretted it shortly afterward).

"I've passed on your notification," he told me. His manner was still formal; definitely not 'reporting to a superior officer' but respectful all the same. I wasn't much worried about the specifics, so long as he didn't accidentally give the wrong order.

"Thanks." I gave him a nod of acknowledgement. "I'm guessing it must have come as a little bit of a shock to see all this changed."

"It's certainly not what I was expecting," he agreed. "I've been on this quarantine zone for three years now. Sometimes they try to break out, and that's when it gets exciting. But sometimes they go quiet, and the place looks so normal it could break your heart. We learned long ago not to station anyone who used to live here on the quarantine zone. Yes, they knew their way around, but we've lost people who just … walked in. When it was quiet. Sometimes people even swore they could hear their friends and relatives calling out to them."

"Yeah, that could really suck." I was pretty sure I knew why he was opening up like that; the earpiece was intended to make people comfortable with me. Any other strange teenager he met in the middle of a ruined community would've been met with a lot more silence, if not outright hostility.

Silence passed between us for a few moments, then he cleared his throat. "I have to ask … why vehicles? I knew they could take on the appearance of other things, like buildings, but I didn't know they could do vehicles."

It was a good question. "Some of them could, and some couldn't. Zach just made it so they all could. Manually, if necessary. I think he might've traumatised a few of them along the way. But they'll get over it. Right now, up on blocks like that, we can keep track of them a lot more easily."

"Right." Kennedy waved a hand at the rest of the city. "There have to be hundreds out of sight of you. How do you know they're all behaving?"

I grinned. "Thousands. And they're all behaving, because Zach said so. Also, he's got his sister keeping an eye on them. If any of them tries to sneak off, he'll know."

As with everyone else, the reference to Zach's family just went straight over his head. "Yes, I understand. I just want to say, the PRT is going to owe him a massive debt of gratitude. For both this and the Nine."

I nodded. "Also, you know how your guys are going after the Fallen, now? That's because Zach depowered one of their key people. Plus, Butcher and the Teeth came after us. That didn't last long, either."

I saw him do a slow double blink behind the goggles. "You're serious? You're serious. I didn't know about the Teeth, but I'd heard that we were going after the Fallen. And Zachary did all that?"

And more, I didn't bother saying. "Yeah. He kind of just … decided they weren't needed. And when Zach says, 'you're fired', nobody argues."

"No, I suppose not." We fell back into silence, watching the robots. The robots all watched Zach, in an if I don't move, maybe he won't kill me kind of way.

It took less time than I expected before I heard the high-pitched whine of Dragon's turbines inbound. I got up from where I'd been sitting under a shopfront awning on an office chair Zach had procured from somewhere—with his speed, he could've gotten it from my room in Brockton Bay, and nobody would've been the wiser—and stretched. Looking up toward where the sound was coming from, I went to shade my eyes, but noticed the lenses of the glasses darkening to accommodate the extra glare anyway. A tiny dot acquired a green square and the designation DRAGON 2-9-1.

The PRT guys heard it a few seconds later. Orders were shouted and men snapped to positions of readiness; after all, they didn't know for a fact who or what this was. Also, this had been a free-fire zone just a few hours beforehand, and it was never a bad idea to take reasonable precautions. But as she came closer and someone pinged her with radar, they stood down again.

(That wasn't a guess about the radar; my glasses showed the signal going out, and a return pulse giving them the data they needed).

We all stood back a little as the Dragon suit came in for a neat landing in an open area. The paintwork looked a little different from the last one I'd spoken to, as if they were deliberately diverging in appearance. She stood up, folded the mechanical wings away, and looked around.

"Hello, Taylor," she said cheerfully. "Hello, Zachary. I see you have a present for me."

"Hi, Dragon." I gestured at the robots around us. "All yours. Zach's told them very firmly to behave for you."

"I can see that," she agreed. "They're almost falling over each other to do what I tell them." She turned her head. "Ah, Captain. Once I have the appropriate directives in place, I should be able to take them out of here. Then you can properly secure the city and let everyone know when it's safe to come in."

"That will be definitely appreciated, ma'am." He didn't quite salute, but his nod of acknowledgement was just as sincere. I wasn't worried that he hadn't given me the same honorific; in all honesty, I would've been mildly offended if he thought I was old enough to rate being called "ma'am". I mean, I wasn't even sixteen yet. And I certainly didn't feel any particular need to be saluted.

"So, uh, you've got it from here?" I asked Dragon. "Or do you need me and Zach to hang around for a little longer?"

"I believe I have the situation under control, thank you." Dragon gave me a nod and a smile. "This is all very much appreciated. You were correct in that they aren't as intelligent as humans, but they definitely have the capacity to be trained, once I teach them that humans aren't to be harmed."

"Excellent." I slid my arm around Zach's waist. "I think our work here is done. Onward and upward, Zach?"

He grinned at me. "Yes, Taylor, I believe that is the correct phrase."

"So, home for lunch, and then we keep solving the problems of the world after that?"

"That appears to be an adequate plan. Do you wish to teleport us, or would you like to run instead?"

I looked up at him. "I'm actually happy either way. Jumping would be my favourite, but we're a bit far from Brockton Bay for that, aren't we?"

"Not at all, Taylor. Tennessee is much closer to Brockton Bay than British Columbia is." He gave me half a second of warning, then scooped me up in his arms. As much as I knew there was no romantic intention in the gesture, it still gave me a secret thrill to be picked up like that. He was literally one of the top ten strongest entities on Earth Bet, and he enjoyed carrying me around like a princess.

"Whoo. Okay." I tried to calm my heartbeat. We were going to be jumping over a thousand miles, at my best estimate. "Do I need to hold my breath or something?"

He chuckled warmly. "You are safe so long as you are with me, Taylor." Flexing slightly at the knees … he leaped.

I couldn't resist. "Wooo hooo!"

Up until now, every leap Zach had taken with me had been within the Brockton Bay city limits. Only a few miles; a dozen, at most. The jumps had taken only a few seconds, even if by rights they should have lasted longer. Zach, of course, only did what physics suggested when he felt like it, and I got the impression he made physics feel bad for asking.

There was barely any sensation of acceleration, of course. There never was. This was just another aspect of Zach's bullshit level of power. Merely jumping around Brockton Bay, I should've had ninety percent of my bones broken and my organs pulverised by the takeoffs and landings, but instead there was … nothing. It was like floating on a magic carpet.

When the scenery below had receded enough to cease flashing by, I looked around and gasped. In a good way, not in an oh-god-I-need-air way. I didn't know how high up we were, but I was pretty sure I could see the curvature of the earth. It was, in a very real way, all around me. Above, the sky was going from ordinary blue to darker than I'd ever seen it in the daytime, edging to black in the middle.

"This is amazing!" I shouted, over the non-existent wind-rush. Below, I couldn't actually tell where we were, but the coastline to the right was visibly sliding in toward us and rolling southward at the same time. Off to the left, I could see a couple of the Great Lakes, also visibly sliding backward. "How fast are we going? We've got to be going faster than the speed of sound, right?"

"Roughly one hundred times as fast, yes," he said in an entirely matter of fact tone. "I am adjusting our speed slightly to avoid airliner flight paths for when we get that low again. Are you enjoying the jump?"

"Well, yeah." I laughed out loud. "I know I told you to warn me when we were going to break the sound barrier again, but this is too much fun."

"Good," he said. He let me go, holding onto one hand, and spread his arms out as though he were flying. A little surprised, I emulated his move, so that we were 'gliding' side by side, so far above the Earth we had to be getting close to the edge of space. This was the first time I'd been out of his direct grasp while jumping, but I figured it was because we were going to take more than the usual few seconds.

"I know I've said it before, and I know we've done some pretty incredible stuff just over the last few days …" I paused, because although it was trite, I had to say it anyway. "But this, right here, it's fantastic. Amazing."

"I am glad you like it," he said, and I heard the weight of honesty in his voice. "My sister tells me it is not enough to merely make you ordinarily happy. To really get it right, I have to take you above and beyond, because 'ordinary' becomes commonplace after awhile. So I am doing my best."

"And your best is pretty damn good, let me tell you." I grinned into the negligible slipstream. "When you say 'above and beyond', you're not kidding."

"I am happy to hear you say that, Taylor." He tilted his head slightly. "You know that eventually we will have to go our separate ways, yes?"

I didn't want to think about that sort of thing, but I nodded reluctantly. "Yeah, I know. Something will come between us, or you'll find someone who needs your help more than I do, or you'll have to leave the planet on some great adventure that I can't come along on …"

"If I have to leave you behind, Taylor, rest assured that it will not be over some trivial matter," he said firmly. "You are the most important person in the world to me. When we part ways, it will be for the best possible reasons."

I didn't answer him. My eyes had filled up with tears and there was a lump in my throat I couldn't talk past. People say that sort of thing, and sometimes they even mean it. But Zach had access to someone who literally knew what the future held, and he still said it.

Zach either knew how I was feeling, or his sister told him, because he didn't press me for an answer. Instead, he pointed ahead. "Oh, you have to see this. My brother's idea of a prank."

Entirely unsure about what he was talking about, I peered at where he was pointing. At first I didn't see it, because it was too big; and then it clicked. The cloud patterns covering a good chunk of New England (nearly all of which I could see, given how high up we were) were formed in a good approximation of a smiley face, complete with a winking eye.

"Oh … oh, God," I gasped, trying to talk even as I burst into laughter. "That's perfect. The weather guys are gonna have kittens."

"They are definitely going to be perplexed, yes." Zach sounded somewhat amused himself. "Our sister helped with some of the fine detail, but it was his idea and he is very proud of it."

"So he should be," I agreed. "That's gotta be the most inspired skywriting ever." I paused a moment, as the best idea in the world burst on me. Or possibly the worst. "Can he do writing?"

"I am not sure if he knows how to read and write, but I am sure our sister can help him with that," Zach said, sounding even more amused. "We are almost there."

I'd been vaguely aware that New York was passing under us (Manhattan Island was tiny!) but now the reality of the situation was brought home to me. "Okay, what do I do?"

"It is alright. I have it under control." As naturally as though we'd practised it for days, he gathered me into his arms again.

Just in time too; a moment later, we came in for a flashing re-entry over Captain's Hill, then a breathtaking plummet that ended abruptly with him standing in our back yard. He let me down onto my feet then, and I had to take a moment to regain my balance. Looking up into the brilliant blue sky, I couldn't believe I'd just been up there. A white band of cloud curved across what I could see, and I realised with a startled giggle that it was part of the smiley face, seen from below this time.

"Let's get something to eat," I decided, sliding my arm through his. "Beating up robots is hungry work."

Zach smiled. "If you say so, Taylor."

I poked my tongue out at him and teleported us inside.

Director Piggot's Office
One Hour Later

At the knock on her office door, Emily looked up from the comprehensive report that had been circulated about the Eagleton Zone, currently in the process of being downgraded from Quarantined to Occupied. She didn't even twitch an eyebrow at the mention of Zachary being involved, or how he'd apparently brought his friend Taylor Hebert along. Officially, she was supposed to be disapproving of his methods; unofficially, his methods were as improbably effective as they were unusual, and resulted in an amazingly low (read: zero) civilian casualty count.

Assault was back in town now, which meant she'd been able to unleash a long-pent-up ass-chewing on him for his idiotic play at Winslow. To her astonishment, he'd not only meekly submitted to it (which she'd expected) but agreed with her on many points (which she hadn't). The incident with the Nine, once he heard about it, had apparently driven home to him exactly how lucky he'd been to not annoy Zachary more than he already had. And when she relayed the anecdote passed on to her by Miss Militia about how the boy had kicked Oni Lee into orbit, he'd actually paled somewhat.

But now the fun part was over, and she had to get back to the day-to-day work of managing the Brockton Bay PRT. Though with the vast majority of the cape gangs in the cells downstairs (most of whom had given themselves up) she had more troopers working lockup than on the streets. As she understood matters, after the clearance of the Boat Graveyard (and nobody needed to know about the full-colour blowup she had of Eidolon with a fish down his collar that she looked at each time she needed a laugh) Faultline's Crew had completed their preparations to leave, packed up, and disappeared in the night.

"Come in," she called out, clearing her screen. There were no appointments due at this time, but she wasn't snowed under right at this moment either. If this kept up, she might actually be able to start approving trooper leave.

The office door opened and Taylor Hebert strolled in, with Zachary beside her. Damn, Emily thought. That's a nice jacket. The girl looked around at Emily's office appreciatively, while Zachary gave Emily herself a single acknowledging nod. This wasn't just some teenage boy pretending to airs he hadn't earned; there was gravitas and power in that nod.

"Hi, Director Piggot," Taylor said brightly. "Zach and I just got back to town an hour ago, and we thought we'd drop in and say hello."

Emily made some rapid calculations in her head. Eagleton, Tennessee was about thirteen hundred miles away from Brockton Bay. The pair before her had been reported as leaving Eagleton … approximately one hour ago. Jumping, if she could believe it. Or flying. Apparently, to Zachary, these two things were close to being the same. After what he'd done to Assault, she wasn't even going to ask questions.

"I appreciate the courtesy," she said carefully. "I heard of your actions at Eagleton. Quite a feat."

"It was not overly difficult, Director Piggot," Zachary said without the slightest hint of boasting in his tone. "Merely time-consuming. Taylor and I have decided to spend a little time clearing out the quarantine zones, and we were wondering if you would be interested in visiting the next one with us."

Emily stared at him. Given his wording, and the connotations thereof, he could only have one location in mind. Memories rushed into her mind, of creatures leaping out of the dark, flames in the night, and the ground opening up and swallowing her men. Far too many troopers had died in Ellisburg, and she'd suffered her own personal losses. Losses that had tied her to this chair and this office, as her body slowly degraded from long-term effects of the damage and lack of exercise.

If anyone else had given her the offer to go back and reclaim the town from the nightmare horrors that had occupied it for the last eleven years, she would've laughed in their face. She and her men had fought for every foot of ground, used up all their ammo and then scavenged from their dead comrades and fought on. She'd seen them die or heard their screams as they were overwhelmed. It was the last firefight she'd ever been in, the one she couldn't win.

The one that kept her up at night and filled her dreams with fire and blood.

It had been an unwinnable fight then, and it was an unwinnable fight now. Every now and again, a new hot-blooded officer in the PRT would suggest going back to Ellisburg and cleansing it of Nilbog and his minions once and for all. Doing so would carry a positive benefit to the United States, and to the PRT as a whole. The quarantine containment could end; with the tainted ground purged to the bedrock, the drained ulcer could be left to heal on its own. In time, people might live there again. Or not.

But the unwelcome answer was simple: the benefit would not be worth the cost. By some unclean, arcane means, Nilbog had a deadman trigger waiting to happen. Every time they sought an answer from the Thinker group Watchdog, the answers that came back hinted at devastation and disease spreading beyond the walls that enclosed the infested town. Hundreds, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands would die. Mutations in both plants and animals (including people) would ravage communities downwind for years or even decades.

So Nilbog and Ellisburg had been spared, over and over again. All the while acting as a weeping sore on the American psyche; with all our power, we cannot fix this.

Now, she stared into the bright, cheerful face of a teenage girl who had barely been an infant when Emily had been clawed to the ground, had fought screaming and kicking and stabbing against the monsters from the nightmare that had never ended for her. Her lips twitched, and she held back her outrage. The Hebert girl had no way of knowing what that meant to her …

… but Zachary did.

Her steel-grey gaze roved to the boy. His eyes had never left hers, and looking into them, she saw his understanding. He knew, somehow, what she had gone through in Ellisburg. She drew a deep breath, preparing the words of her refusal.

But they would not come.

Instead, she recalled what he had done. Not just for Brockton Bay, but for the nation. All in the name, if rumour was to be believed, of helping Taylor Hebert and keeping her safe.

"… why?" she asked at last.

"Because of the two people who survived it, you are the one most deserving of seeing its end," Zachary pronounced gravely, each word slotting into place as though carved in stone. "I help Taylor in all ways, all the time; but that does not mean I cannot help others as well. This makes Taylor happy."

"So …" She had to take another deep breath, just to keep her voice steady. "I could go in there, and you could help me kill that murdering sonovabitch, once and for all?"

"That is exactly what I mean, Director," he said with a cheerful smile on his face. "And then, once it is done, we will bring you back here. For you will have an after-action report to write."

More likely, I'll have a heart attack trying, she thought pragmatically. But damn it all to hell and back, something kept telling her that she had a chance, that she could actually do it. Shoving her chair back, she stood up, ignoring the ache in her legs and the nagging pain in her back. "Get me a gun. I've got a goblin king to hunt."

Taylor Hebert held out her hand. "Here," she said. "Let me help you."

"Thank you." The action was so natural, the words so smooth, that Emily thought absolutely nothing of accepting the assistance. Slapping her hand into the Hebert girl's gloved palm, she walked with her across the office. By the time she was halfway to the door, her calf muscles had ceased to hurt. When her back stopped aching, she stopped and stared down at herself. "What the fuck?"

It took her a few more seconds to realize what was going on, and then she could've slapped herself for not getting there earlier. Her body was literally fixing itself, using the excess mass from her extra weight to pack on the muscles where they were needed. This was Hebert's doing. The sneaky bitch is healing me, right under my nose!

"Is there a problem, Director?" the girl had the sheer hide to ask, not even letting Emily's hand go. Not that Emily was in any hurry to do so; with every increment of repair to her body, the amount of energy she felt flooding back into her was amazing. It was the dopamine rush to end all dopamine rushes.

"Yes," she growled, finally summoning the willpower to pull her hand away. "You should ask permission before you do that."

Taylor grinned at her. "But I did. I said to let me help you, and you accepted."

Emily gritted her teeth, wanting to be mad, but knowing it would be ultimately pointless. She'd dealt with barracks-room lawyers before, and how could she be mad with someone who'd brought her back to top fighting form again, anyway? "Just … don't do it again," she muttered. "Now, where's my gun?"

"Right here, Director Piggot." She turned at Zachary's voice; in the one hand, he held a PRT-issue assault rifle and fully loaded webbing, and in the other he held a PRT field issue uniform. If she wasn't much mistaken, it was in her old size.

"Give me that!" It was almost embarrassing, how quickly she snatched the items away from the young man. "But before I get changed, I need to know one thing."

Zachary looked her in the eye. "Nilbog will not harm anyone outside Ellisburg. Now or later. I will not allow it."

God damn it, how did he even know what I was going to say? She cut herself short on that line of query. Too many supervillains could have asked similar questions and gotten nowhere.

Ducking into her ensuite, she changed as rapidly as she knew how. Despite the years that had gone by, she found her fingers still knew the old routines; tab A goes into slot B, get dressed you dozy bastards, now now now!

As she opened the door of the ensuite, she caught sight of herself in the mirror. A leaner, meaner Emily Piggot looked back at her, a ghost from an earlier time. She gave her reflection a toothy grin, then stepped out into the office again.

Almost as an afterthought, she leaned across her desk and hit the intercom for the Deputy Director. "Mr Renick, I'm heading out for awhile. You're in charge until I get back."

"Yes, ma'am," he said. In his tone were questions, but she didn't have time for them right now.

Right now, Emily Piggot was going back to a fight she'd lost years before.

This time, she intended to win.

Nilbog, you bastard, I'm coming for you.

End of Part Nineteen