I'm HALPING!


Part Twenty: More Conclusions


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


The Girl Formerly Known as Panacea


"I still don't see what you're so upset over." Amy rolled her eyes as they entered the Weymouth Mall. She was wearing her new favourite blouse, a gift from Crystal that she'd previously consigned to the back of her closet because it was too bright and attention-getting. Now, she didn't care if she drew attention. She wasn't Panacea anymore, and she didn't care who knew it. Between that and the blouse, she was on top of the world.

Vicky, on the other hand, was wearing an outfit that was just as striking, but her mood was as far from sunny as it was possible to get. Although she was no longer confined to the house, she was still annoyed and it showed. Instead of her feet barely brushing the ground, she stomped along as though the sidewalk had personally offended her.

"Really?" She stopped and turned to Amy. "You can't tell why I'm pissed off? Honestly?"

Amy restrained the urge to roll her eyes again. "Oh, I know why. Zachary and Taylor owned you hard, then took away my powers because I asked them to, even though you were against it. Seriously, Vicky, more people need to say no to you. You get kind of entitled sometimes."

"I do not!" Vicky stamped her foot like a petulant child, and a nearby shop door rattled.

Amy raised her eyebrows. "Really? Because you just did a perfect impression of a six-year-old." She checked the floor; it didn't seem to be cracked.

"I don't get entitled." Vicky didn't seem as self-assured this time around. "Do I?"

Amy nodded. She loved Vicky dearly, but sometimes harsh truths needed to be told. "Sorry, but you totally do. Personally, I blame your powers. You've always been a little bit self-centred, and they let you get away with it more than you really should. Reinforcement is a thing."

"There you go again, blaming powers for everything bad that happens." Vicky rolled her eyes. "Name one bad thing that would've happened if you'd kept your powers."

"I get hit by a car when I'm walking to the hospital in the middle of the night," Amy said promptly.

Vicky glared at her. "Something your power does, not something that someone else does."

"Wow, way to move the goalposts." Amy thought for a moment. "Okay. I'm walking to the hospital in the middle of the night and someone tries to mug me."

"I said, your power—"

"Let me finish." Amy waited until Vicky subsided. "I said 'tries'. I subdue him with my powers. I'm tired and don't want to take this shit anymore, so instead of calling the cops or just letting him go, I say fuck it and rewire his brain so he doesn't mug people anymore. Make him into a nice person, give him the incentive to clean himself up and go get a proper job."

Vicky blinked. "Okay, that's more than a bit creepy, but—"

"I'm not done yet." Mentally, Amy braced herself. "So, let's say I've done this once and it's worked. The next time I'm out with the team and we take down a supervillain, I decide to do it again. Say … Uber and Leet. I do it subtly, make it so they want to keep doing the video game schtick, but as good guys instead of villains. Would anyone raise an eyebrow if that really happened?"

Now Vicky was staring at her. "Ames, you're scaring me here. Please tell me you haven't actually done this."

"No, I haven't." Amy gave her a serious look. "But you know what the worst bit is? If someone came up to me and said, 'hey, maybe you shouldn't do that', all I'd have to do is make physical contact and they'd be totally okay with it." As she spoke the last few words, she dropped her voice to a sepulchral whisper, and tapped Vicky on the elbow with two fingers.

"Shit!" Vicky went to flinch away, then stopped herself. "That's not cool, Amy. It's bullshit and you know it. You wouldn't do that. Maybe some horror-movie version might, but not you. I know you too well for that."

"You don't know me that well." Amy shook her head. "I was tempted. Every day I had those powers, I could feel the urge to push the boundaries and fix stuff. Not just bodies. People. Society. That's why I decided to tell everyone I couldn't do stuff with brains, instead of just saying I wouldn't. Because if people got the idea in their heads that I might for a price, they would never have left me alone."

"What, really? All the time?" The look on Vicky's face was priceless.

It was good, Amy reflected, that Vicky already knew the truth about the brains thing, or she might be freaking out even harder than she already was. Things were never going to be the same again after this chat, but that was okay. They'd already been at the point of 'never the same again'. "Yes, all the time."

"So, every time you healed Mom, or Dad, or Aunt Sarah, or me …" Vicky seemed intent on exploring the subject in the same way a child checked with their tongue to see if a tooth was still sore. "… you were tempted to make us … better?"

"The urge was there. Not just for you, but for everyone I ever encountered. Some more than others." Amy shrugged. "I never gave in, but some days were harder than others. One day, if I saw no other way out of it, maybe I would've given in. But I never did. And now, thanks to Zach, I never will."

"Was it really so hard to say no to it? To stay good?" Vicky just wouldn't let the subject go.

Amy looked her in the eye. "You tell me. How much would you pay to have Dad's depression permanently taken care of? And would that be a good thing or not?"

Vicky suddenly looked troubled. "Shit, uh … I dunno. Maybe? Would he even still be Dad?"

"And that's the sixty-four million dollar question, isn't it?" Amy shook her head slowly. "To answer your question, it wasn't hard, no. Just …" Amy reached out and prodded Vicky in the ribs. "Constant. Poke. Poke. Poke." As she said the words, she prodded again and again. "It would've been so easy. A tweak here, a tweak there, gradually rebuilding the world in the image I wanted to see. Everyone's flaws laid out before me, just waiting to be fixed, and my power telling me how it could be done. How it should be done. Poke. Poke. Poke."

"Quit it!" Vicky twisted away from her, giggling, but she sobered quickly. "It sounds horrible. Like a nightmare."

Amy shrugged. "It was my life for three years. I survived and didn't cause any S-class events, so I'll take that as a win." She eyed Vicky sidelong. "You're telling me your power doesn't give you the urge to punch anyone you think needs punching? Even if it would be illegal or they don't necessarily deserve to be punched by Glory Girl?"

Vicky paused for just a moment too long. "Well … punching bad guys is kind of my go-to …"

"And those gangers I've had to come out and help you with? Three or four times now, remember? You got kind of enthusiastic when it came to guys you can throw around like rag dolls, didn't you?"

"You didn't argue when I asked you to help!" Vicky glanced around, as though worried someone might be listening in on the problematic conversation.

"No, but maybe I should've." Amy folded her arms and huffed a sigh. "Just remember; I won't be there to bail your ass out anymore, if you pull that shit again. You break 'em, you pay for 'em."

The look on Vicky's face made it clear she was well aware of that situation. "Don't remind me." She tilted her head toward the interior of the mall. "So, you ready to go spend some allowance money on stuff to go with that blouse?"

"Sure, may as well." Retail therapy wasn't exactly Amy's cup of tea, but she was willing to try out something new to go along with her other life-changing experiences.

She'd taken all of two steps in Vicky's wake when the screech of tyres on asphalt caught her attention; it was way too close and way too loud, and lasted far too long. The final crunch sounded like the car had hit something solid and unyielding. In Amy's experience, just going by the sound, this one was going to be a write-off.

They didn't need to exchange any words. This was an emergency, and they were New Wave. Vicky whipped past her, grabbing the closing doors and wrenching them open when they didn't move fast enough, then flew out into the open air. Going by sheer reflex, Amy hurried after her.

The car was a fast sporty type, with two doors and a cramped back seat. Or rather, it had been. She didn't know its make or model, though even Kid Win or Clockblocker might've been hard put to identify the vehicle after the damage that had been done to it. From the tyre marks, the idiot had been travelling far too fast, hit a patch of oil or something, and speared off the paved road onto the sidewalk. For a miracle, no pedestrians had been hit. The errant vehicle's path had ended at the corner of the bank that was built into Weymouth when it ploughed into the solid brick-and-concrete buttress and stopped.

Vicky alighted next to the car, her head turning as she scanned for further hazards. Amy couldn't smell gasoline, but that meant nothing. It could start leaking now or in five minutes' time. She turned to the nearest bystander, who was gawking at the wreck but doing nothing else worthwhile. "You, what's your name?"

He blinked, looking at her. "Uh, Frank. Why?"

"Frank, I'm going to need you to call nine-one-one, right now." Amy pointed at the car. "We need police, fire and ambulance. All three of them. Can you do that for me?"

Frank began to fumble his phone out of his pocket. "Uh, yeah. Sure."

"Excellent." Amy pushed her way through the gathering crowd to where Vicky was examining the damage and lightly jiggling the driver's side door. A slow trickle of oil was making its way out from under the stricken vehicle toward the gutter, but still no gasoline. Thank God. "Nine-one-one's getting called. How bad's the driver hurt?"

Vicky turned to her. "Ames, you need to get back. This thing could still catch fire, and you aren't Panacea anymore."

"No, but I've had three years of seeing exactly how many ways a human body can get fucked up," Amy shot back. "I sure as hell know a lot more about it than you do."

Leaning in through the window, she turned the ignition key to 'off' then examined the driver for herself. A young man, he was breathing shallowly, lying slumped against the seatbelt. The airbag was just now deflating, which was a good sign. Hopefully, he'd avoided the worst of any potential injuries. Pulse was steady, but not as strong as she would've liked. From the way he was sitting and the sound of his breathing, she was willing to bet he had at least one broken rib.

While she'd never had to actively use first-aid techniques before—her powers had made them laughably superfluous—she'd seen them carried out; immobilising the patient's head, attempting to get his attention, ascertaining other injuries, and so forth. She did what she could, though hampered by the fact that he was in the car and she was outside it. He was only semi-responsive, moaning quietly every now and again.

"Vicky, there'll be a drug store in the mall somewhere," Amy said over her shoulder. "We're gonna need a neck brace."

"On it." There was a whoosh of wind. Amy didn't look around, but she knew for a fact that Vicky was flying through the mall; something her sister had never done before. Vicky positively enjoyed breaking the rules when it came to emergencies.

Half-turning her head, she called out to the gathering crowd. "Does anyone here have medical knowledge or first aid experience? Anyone at all?"

Nobody answered, which was what she'd half expected. Nobody ever wants to get involved. But she could handle it. She would handle it. Powers or no powers, she was still Amy Dallon, damn it!

There was another whoosh of wind. "Got it."

"Good. Unwrap it and pass it here." Amy reached back for the brace, then carefully maneuvered it in through the window and fitted it around the man's neck, making sure it securely supported his head. "Vicky," she said next. "I'm going to need you to remove this door and the door pillar as well. After that, there's a good chance he's got a spine or neck injury from that crash, so once I make sure he's not bleeding anywhere important, we need to carefully remove the whole seat so we can get him away from the car."

"Okay, yeah, that I can do." Vicky grabbed the car door and steadily pulled on it. The frame had been twisted and compressed, which would've normally made heavy machinery a requirement to remove it. With a screech of tortured metal, it came free anyway. Vicky placed the door to one side and moved to examine how best to break off the door pillar.

Ignoring the sounds of material destruction—she'd known Vicky as Glory Girl for years, after all—Amy knelt down half-inside the car and took the opportunity to examine her patient more thoroughly for injuries. There were no pieces of metal sticking in him, and she saw no bloodstains anywhere, which meant they were clear for the next stage. Carefully, she reclined the seat, a little at a time.

With a shriek of metal, Vicky tore off the door pillar and peeled the side of the car back to expose the rear seats. "Okay, what now?"

Amy stood up, dusted her hands off, and leaned in through the opening Vicky had made. "We get him out."

While Amy ensured the driver didn't loll off the makeshift stretcher, Vicky went about the tricky business of detaching the seat from the car without accidentally launching the man through the roof of his own (very) wrecked vehicle. When the steering wheel got in the way, Vicky snapped it off and stacked it next to the door. Fortunately, they'd worked together enough times that only a few words were required between them to get proper communication across. If only I could've communicated my other issues to her so easily, Amy thought, not without a pang.

Emergency services showed up just as they were getting the seat clear of the car. Amy tended to the driver's head, making sure he was still breathing and had a heartbeat, while Vicky handled the heavy lifting. As paramedics surrounded them, Vicky placed the reclined seat on the sidewalk.

"Breathing shallow, pulse there but not great, mostly non-responsive with a few vocalisations, no obvious wounds," Amy reported all in one breath. "Impact was pretty severe, but the airbag deployed so he might have broken ribs. I got a neck brace on him as soon as I could."

"Excellent, good to know," a careworn-looking woman said. "You've done well here, Miss Dallon."

"Yeah, just don't expect her to heal the guy," Vicky snarked. "She's not Panacea anymore, you know."

The paramedics turned to look at her. "Well, yes," said the one in charge. "We know. Okay, we got this."

Vicky stood beside Amy as the paramedics transferred the driver to a stretcher, sliding a back board under him and keeping the neck brace in place. In the meantime, the fire crew were foaming down the car just in case and the police were taking statements off any bystanders who were willing to give one.

"Wait," Vicky said, looking suspiciously at Amy. "They already know? Did you send out word to all the hospitals or something?"

Amy shrugged. "Nope. I never told a soul." She had no doubt of what had happened. Zach did it somehow, so I wouldn't keep getting asked to heal people. Because that's what he does.

As she watched the driver being loaded into the back of the ambulance, she felt a surge of pride. As Panacea, she'd healed any number of people, saved countless lives. But even without powers, she could still make a difference.

That was definitely something worth thinking about.


Ellisburg
The Goblin King


Jamie Rinke, aka Nilbog, never stirred in his cocoon beneath the town of Ellisburg. But up above ground, the grotesque form that served as his eyes and ears within his kingdom looked around in confusion. Rinke was not stupid; in the years before he became what he was now and claimed Ellisburg for his own, he had been a banker, a man of education. The ways and means of the American military, though not his personal forte, had been broadcast publicly enough via news and movies. He knew they had many and varied methods they could use to murder his people and scour his kingdom to the bedrock, if they but had a chance to do so.

He did not intend to give them that chance.

Accordingly, he'd seeded the landscape around Ellisburg with spores. Year in and year out, in such low quantities that the PRT troops surrounding his walled town never noticed, he had sent them out to drift on the prevailing winds. They would do nothing so long as he was hale and hearty, and never gave the order to activate. But if the order were to be given, or if he died suddenly, the spores would emerge from their long hibernation and start hatching.

The micro-organisms they contained were subtle and insidious. Everything living in their path could be targeted.

Plants would grow monstrous and grotesque, taking on traits of venus flytraps and other carnivorous flora, spreading via runner-roots and sending out spores of their own. Animals, likewise, would grow large and savage, hybridizing in a parody of high-speed evolution to become ghastly killing machines.

For humans, he had reserved the worst. Children would be affected much like animals, their brains shrinking and bodies bulking out, becoming unthinking, savage carnivorous brutes. Adults would instead sicken from a variety of symptoms, no two alike, the diseases mutating with lightning speed as they jumped from victim to victim.

The PRT, he knew, had precognitives with whom they conferred regarding various threats. Nilbog knew that while the threat of his deadman switch was greater than the onerous duty of guarding the walls of Ellisburg, they would heed the precogs and leave him in peace. So the precarious balance was maintained.

Until now. Just a few seconds ago, his sense of the thinly spread spores had told him that a vast swathe thirty miles across was … gone. As if it had never infested the area at all.

How can this be?

While he puzzled this over, another patch vanished. Then another. Section by section, faster than he could activate them, his painstakingly-laid deadman triggers were being dismantled.

"Unfair!" he shrieked. "Cheating! Unfair!"

Though they had no idea what the matter was, his subjects sought to console him. But it was no use.

Something was coming.


Director Piggot
Some Sixty Miles Downwind from Ellisburg


"So why are we here again?" asked Emily. Wearing full camouflage and kitted out with rifle and fully loaded webbing, she felt like a trooper again.

Of course, standing in the middle of a pasture, with nothing more dangerous than a curious horse peering over a fence at them from a hundred yards away, she was beginning to also feel a little conspicuous. She gave Taylor Hebert and her friend Zach a hard glare. Whatever game they were playing at, they needed to wrap it up and get serious.

"Don't ask me," Taylor said cheerfully. "Zach's the one giving directions. I'm just the driver. Zach?"

"Nilbog laid a trap." Zach replied, equally happily. "He has seeded the land with spores for miles in all directions." Crouching down, he took up a dead leaf, probably blown down from a tree. "You see? Right there." He showed Emily the underside of the leaf.

Emily squinted then suddenly, as though someone had turned on a light switch, she spotted the tiny purple grains huddled together in a niche of the leaf. Now that she could see them, they were plainly obvious. "How dangerous are they?" she asked warily, not even considering touching the thing.

"Oh, they are very dangerous." Zach had no business sounding so upbeat, considering the topic at hand. "Infected plants and animals will attack humans. Infected humans will become bestial and attack other humans, or just get sick and die. It was an ingenious plan to ensure he would never be attacked."

"Well, no. Watchdog warned us against it." Emily frowned. "What are we going to do? It's not like we can search every blade of grass and spray this crap. It would take decades."

"We do not need to search every blade of grass." Zach beamed at her. "I know about it, so I can now do this." His foot rose and fell with a light thud. Although the impact had been barely audible, a blurred wave raced out in all directions, vanishing into the distance before Emily could blink. On the leaf, the purple spores … vanished, as if they had never been.

"Let me guess," Taylor said idly. "You killed all the spores?"

"Only those within fifteen miles," Zach corrected her. "The next big concentration is twenty-nine miles four thousand thirty-six feet that way, and fifteen feet six inches higher in elevation."

Taylor nodded. "Got it." She gathered Emily and Zach by the elbows.

There was a brief burst of flame, more seen than felt, and they were in the new location. Emily didn't feel any particular disorientation, just an awareness that they'd moved. Certainly beats any troop transport I ever rode in.

Again, Zach stamped his foot and sent out the wave cancelling all the spores, then they jumped again, and again, and again.

Within minutes, they stood within sight of the Ellisburg wall. Emily peered at it, then turned to Zach. "So what's to stop him from sending out more spores while we're in there?"

"You see, Taylor? There is a reason I thought Director Piggot was the best person for this mission." Zach seemed quite pleased with himself. "No more spores will be sent out, because I will not allow that to happen." He gestured almost negligently, and a massive domed force field appeared over the top of the wall.

Taylor shaded her eyes. "Huh. Same force field your dad used that time, huh?"

"Yes, Taylor." Zachary's tone was relentlessly upbeat. "I thought it was a useful capability. We are going to have to thank Father for showing it to me."

Emily was still trying to figure out which insanely powerful cape would have sired a kid like Zachary, and coming up blank, when Taylor grabbed them both. "Ready?"

It didn't take her long to realize she was the one being addressed. "Kid, I was ready for this before you were born." To give her words emphasis, she checked chamber on her rifle, making sure there was brass in view. The safety clicked off and she laid her trigger finger alongside the guard, barrel pointed in the air. "Let's do this."

Flames flared around them, and they teleported.


Taylor


Hands in my jacket pockets, I strolled alongside Zach, following the swathe of destruction Director Piggot was carving through Nilbog's monsters. Her martial skills were very definitely coming back to her, as the extremely dead creatures piled up here and there could attest. Or rather, they could've attested if she hadn't killed them first.

We weren't making her do it all alone, of course. Fighting to her left and right were ghostlike soldiers wearing the same camouflage as she was, carrying weapons equivalent to hers. When she addressed them by name, their features became more visible, matching the names she'd given them. She wasn't even questioning this, barking orders for covering fire and other such military maneuvers.

Raising the muzzle of her rifle, she popped a couple of grenades from the underslung launcher in through the window of a rustic building, then sent tightly-controlled bursts from the rifle into three more creatures as they ran out the door. A second later the grenades detonated, sending fire and debris everywhere. Under cover of the explosions, she yelled, "I'm out! Changing mags!"

This was the tenth time she'd changed her magazine since entering Ellisburg. She hadn't been carrying ten magazines, or enough forty-millimetre grenades to cover the destruction she was causing. But every time she emptied a magazine and shoved it into her webbing, the previous one she'd put in there was now full.

Zach's doing, of course. He wanted Nilbog neutralized and removed from the field of play, so he was giving Director Piggot the means to do it. It would've been just as easy for him to simply kill everything within the walls, but as he'd said when I asked him, "This way is much more fun."

He wasn't actually wrong, there. 'Fun' was one way to put it. 'Entertaining' would have been another, if I were into war movies. Even though I wasn't, it was still educational to watch Director Piggot at work. If this was her ten years after she'd been invalidated out of the troopers, she must've been one hell of a soldier in her day.

As we watched, she dispatched a charging monstrosity by first blowing out its knees then directing concentrated fire into its head until there was nothing left but bloody pulp. Another one, larger than the last, loomed around the corner. Bone plates across its chest and legs made this one a dicier proposition.

The Director didn't hesitate. She detonated three grenades in its face, then slung her rifle and yelled, "AT-4!" Or rather, I thought she was saying 'eighty-four' until my glasses helpfully threw up a graphic of a tubular device with a rocket-looking device overlaid on it. I hadn't even seen Zach was holding one until he threw it toward her. Because of course he hadn't been holding it until she called out for it.

She caught it one-handed, then somehow swung it around into a ready position on her shoulder. Without a single wasted motion, she pulled and moved levers on it, causing a couple of vertical sights to pop up, then she called out, "Back blast area clear!"

My glasses showed the area she was talking about, a cone extending out behind her, just barely extending to where we were standing. Zach and I probably could've stood directly behind the thing and not been affected, but we courteously stepped aside anyway. "Clear," I called back to her.

She didn't acknowledge by voice; her head went down to the sights and she fired the thing. There was a brief but loud bang and a huge bloom of fire and smoke behind her, and a dramatic explosion in front. When the smoke cleared, bloody chunks of the monster were basically everywhere.

Discarding the tube, she kept moving. Her rifle ran out of ammunition yet again—it wasn't as though she had a lack of targets—but she changed magazines and kept going. We followed as she cleared the town, building by building. Between us, Zach and I suppressed the fire of creatures that wanted to launch bone darts at either us or the Director; it wasn't as though we'd come here looking for a fair fight, after all.

Ellisburg was a bloodbath by the time we reached the last building. Some creatures had tried to burrow up from beneath, but the Director had brutally dealt with those. All of the buildings were empty of anything living, some were no longer recognisable as buildings, and more than a few were on fire. A few last monsters tried to form a stand between us and the grotesque form of Nilbog, but the Director went through them as if they didn't exist. Finally, she stood before the Goblin King himself.

"You," she said. There were so many emotions layered into her voice that a single word told a story.

He stirred on his throne, his face obscured by a cloth crown with a mask hanging down in front. His gross lips parted, then he spoke. "Who are you? I do not know you. By what right do you come to my kingdom, slaughter my subjects?" The words were accented strangely, almost another language unto themselves.

Emily Piggot did not speak for a moment, possibly struck dumb by the sheer audacity inherent in the question. Then she raised her chin. "Jamie Rinke, you are guilty of the murders not only of every single man, woman and child in Ellisburg, but also of almost every soldier who set foot in this city in the aftermath. I faced your creations and nearly died. That gives me the right to do this."

Without turning her eyes from Nilbog, she removed the magazine from the rifle and replaced it with a full one. When she pulled the charging handle on the rifle, the clack-clack was loud in the silence of the ruined town. Only the faint crackle of flames could be heard in the background.

"Then kill me with your fire and metal!" Nilbog spread his arms wide. "I am helpless, soldier from a foreign land!"

Almost for the first time since we'd teleported into Ellisburg, the Director acknowledged our presence. Half-turning toward us, while keeping the Goblin King in plain view, she asked, "Is he real?"

"No, Emily Piggot, he is not." Zach strolled forward, a smile playing on his lips. "This is a puppet he created to pretend to be himself. Do you wish to face the real Jamie Rinke?"

The Director's lips drew back and she showed her teeth. "Oh, yes," she purred. "Please."

"You cannot!" shrieked the monstrosity on the makeshift throne. "Cheaters! Liars! Usurpers!"

"Oh, shut the fuck up." The Director pointed her rifle at him and emptied the magazine, splattering chunks away from his misshapen body until the weapon clicked dry. Bleak grey eyes surveyed the bloody mess as she reloaded, then she turned to Zach. "Show me."

"Very well." Zach stamped his foot on the ground, and in response a rumbling arose from below. A mound of earth began to build, then slid apart, showing a cocoon-like form. Through the translucent outer skin, a human form was vaguely visible.

Slinging her rifle, the Director drew a fighting knife as she strode over to the cocoon. One slash opened it up as though unfastening a zipper. Translucent fluids spilled out, adding their unpleasant aroma to that of dead bodies and burning buildings. The form within, a human male wearing just enough clothing to be modest, opened its eyes and sat up. He tried to speak several times, opening and closing his mouth, before his voice got through. "What are you going to do with me?"

"This." Emily Piggot drew her sidearm with impressive speed. Just as my glasses flickered with an update, she fired twice. Two shots went into his chest at close range before she shot him one more time in the head. Brain matter splattered out over the dirt mound. Leaving the body to sprawl in the wreckage of the cocoon, she holstered the pistol and turned to us. "I'm done here."

"Then we are too." Zach turned to me. "Taylor, if you will?"

"Sure, I can do that." I reached out for Director Piggot's arm. Flame washed around us as we teleported away.


Director Piggot


Emily stood looking around her office as if it were unfamiliar territory for her. Slowly, she turned to the pair of teens. Or rather, the teen girl and the cape masquerading as a teenage boy. "Thank you." The words felt strange on her lips.

"You are welcome." Zach sounded as cheerful as ever. "Did you have any questions?"

"Yes. One." Emily frowned. "That firefight took several hours. How come the troops outside never came to investigate?"

Taylor grinned. "The force field Zach put over the place. It diverts attention, and it speeds up elapsed time inside the field. By the time they would've noticed something was wrong, we were done and gone."

Emily nodded. That explained why most of the elapsed time wasn't actually showing on her wall clock. "Very well. Did you have any more need for me?"

"No, Director!" Zach waved happily. "Have a good afternoon!" Before she could answer, they had vanished, the brief burst of flames not so much as scorching the carpet.

Slowly, she began to divest herself of the paraphernalia of being a soldier. She was hungry, thirsty, tired, her ears were still ringing from the constant gunfire, and she ached all over. But the long-endured burden on her soul had been lifted free at last. The fallen of Ellisburg had been avenged. Nilbog was dead.

As she stepped into the ensuite to shower off the smell of smoke and blood, she smiled to herself.

This is going to be one doozy of an after-action report.


Taylor


I glanced sideways at Zach as we lounged in Fugly Bob's. Neither one of us had ordered the Challenger, mainly because Zach could eat ten if he felt like it and I could probably eat one, but I wouldn't enjoy it. It would basically be a meaningless feat, so we didn't do it.

"So did I catch you grabbing his powers just before she shot Nilbog?" I asked, then popped a curly fry into my mouth. Sure, it was bad for me, but who cared?

Zach smiled then took a drink from his shake. "Yes, Taylor. Some powers were designed for direct action, while others were intended to stir other people into direct action. This power was one of the latter. I believe I will be able to make better use of it."

I snorted. "Well, duh." His ability to borrow powers—or even outright steal them—was something I was entirely on board with. Zach had proven over and over again that if anyone was to be trusted with power, it was him. "So, whose day were you thinking of ruining next?"

He blatantly stole some of my curly fries while he was thinking the matter over (or rather, pretending to—I wasn't stupid enough to believe Zach didn't have plans up the wazoo) so I retaliated by grabbing his shake and taking a long slurp out of it. For some reason, this amused him immensely, but not so much that he didn't filch one of my calamari rings. The little theft war went on until he'd eaten most of my food and I'd eaten most of his, and we were both smirking at the goofy humour of it all.

"Have you heard of a group called the Travelers?" he asked, polishing off the last curly fry.

I ate his last fish stick, then shook my head. "I don't recognise the name." A moment later, my glasses put a readout in front of me. TRAVELERS, it said, and began listing names and powers. "… ah. But apparently my glasses have."

Zach said nothing, giving me time to read. These glasses really were very handy.

When I got to the abbreviated background, I frowned. "They're from Earth Aleph? Wow. I didn't even know … ah. Your sister?"

He nodded. "She says it was part of an ongoing plan to cause further chaos and destabilise matters by reducing public trust in the Protectorate and PRT, followed by the disruption of an Endbringer defense. There are volatile personalities within the group, and the capacity for much damage if they are left unchecked. Also, one of the members has a power that is damaging her and causing unnecessary death to those around her. My sister would approach them herself to send them back, but it would be almost impossible for her to gain their trust in any meaningful timeframe."

I'd already read about how they'd gotten to Bet, so his comment surprised me not at all. "Yeah, can't understand why that might be."

He paused for a moment, then smiled in relief. "Ah. You are using sarcasm for emphasis. Yes, that is funny."

In some ways he was coming along well—the theft of the food, for instance—while in others he was still working at it. But hey, I was enjoying my time with him, and we were doing good in the world. "So, when did you want to go say hi to them?"

"There is no time like the present, Taylor." He got up and carefully stacked the remains of our meal on the tray it had arrived on. For someone who could have gotten rid of every piece of trash in the building in less time than it took me to blink, he seemed to enjoy the meticulous activity.

"All-righty then." I stood up and stretched, enjoying the view out over the bay, with gulls swooping and squawking over any idiot who took fries down to the Boardwalk. They weren't quite willing to intrude into the Fugly Bobs diner space, though I was privately certain that the slightest hint of encouragement would've seen them taking up residence on the table. "Are we running, jumping or teleporting?"

I heard the clatter as he emptied the tray into the trash can, then stacked it on top of the others. "My sister says they are on the move from New York to Boston, so I believe running would be best. Unless you would rather we jumped? As I understand, you enjoy that most of all."

He was absolutely correct that I enjoyed it most of all. What wasn't to enjoy? Of course, Zach's version of jumping had about as much in common with actual leaping as Li'l Protectorate Pals had with the genuine Armsmaster and Miss Militia.

"How about we compromise?" I suggested. "We jump to the general vicinity, then we run to catch up with them."

He beamed at me. "Do you know, I would not have thought of that. Good idea, Taylor. We shall do that."

We headed down the steps to the Boardwalk, and Zach scooped me into his arms. I was getting quite used to this now, of course, but the tiny thrill of being picked up like a princess by his oh so strong arms never really went away. A couple of passers-by stopped and stared, and I gave them a cheesy grin and a wave. "Hi!"

They stared harder, clearly not quite sure of what to think.

"Bye!" And Zach jumped. "Wooooo hoooooo!"


Totally Not the Undersiders


Lisa sat down heavily on the bench near Fugly Bob's. Eyes screwed tight with pain, she rubbed at her temples with her hands. "Mother goddamn fucker," she muttered.

Brian, next to her, eyed her with concern and offered her his waterbottle. "What? We see flying capes all the time, What's the problem with that one?"

She took it and poured half the contents over her head. "Not ones like that one, we don't. I know Rachel and Alec have already left town since the boss cut us loose. It's time I went, too. That asshole nearly gave me an aneurysm."

"Why?" Brian peered up into the sky, but the teen cape and his friend had already vanished. Her jacket had been pretty cool, though. "Who was he?"

Lisa shook her head. "If I told you, you wouldn't believe me. If you believed me, you wouldn't be happy knowing. Trust me, in this instance, ignorance really is bliss."

"Oh, okay." Brian frowned. "Where are you going to go?"

Lisa grimaced. "I'm thinking maybe LA." Closing her eyes, she rubbed her temples again. "This goddamn town."


Trickster
Halfway Between New York and Boston


Francis Krouse wasn't sure where Cody had boosted the RV from, and he didn't want to know. His teammate's rewind power was about the only thing that kept him on the team these days. The passive-aggressive behaviour (and the actively aggressive behaviour) he was indulging in more and more of these days was irritating everyone, even the eager-to-please Marissa.

With any luck, they'd be able to make a fresh start in Boston, and give themselves a clean break from the unpleasantness that had caused them to flee New York. Of course, without a miracle cure for what was afflicting Noelle, they'd only last so long before they had to skip town yet again. On the upside, he'd heard Accord wasn't hard to deal with; the Thinker merely required everything to be orderly and predictable.

Unfortunately, 'orderly and predictable' failed utterly to describe at least two members of the Travelers, maybe more depending on how precisely he chose to apply the words. Noelle simply could not go out in public or be around anyone who didn't know not to have physical contact with her, not least because of her changing form and size. And Cody … some days, it seemed to him that Cody just went through a mental list of 'what would piss everyone off the most' and rolled a die.

I wish he'd just take the hint and fuck off. But if he did that, he couldn't hang around and keep blaming me for taking Noelle away from him, and of course for what happened to her. I swear, the next time he—

The droning engine note of the RV died; rubber howled on pavement as the back wheels locked up. Jolted from his reverie, Francis locked his hands on the wheel, fighting the suddenly-stiff steering, trying not to let the ungainly vehicle skid out and roll. Shouts and cries of alarm sounded from behind him, then suddenly they were rolling free again. The engine was still out, though, and the steering remained stiff as hell.

"What the fuck was that about, Krouse?" Luke burst through from the back and swung himself into the passenger seat. "Did you just decide to wake everyone up for the fun of it?"

"No!" Francis gestured at the dashboard, where absolutely nothing was showing, then returned his hand to the wheel. "Engine just died!" Looking down at the gearshift, he saw it had somehow jumped into Neutral, which was something he belatedly realised he should've done for himself. But at least they weren't about to crash right this second.

"Well, fuckin' start it again." Luke gestured at the steering column and by inference the ignition key.

"Doubt it'll be that easy." But Francis tried it anyway, reaching for the key. His fingers fumbled at the keyhole for a few seconds before he registered what was wrong. "Where's the fucking key?"

"What?" Luke leaned over in his seat. "The fuck? What'd you do with it?"

"I didn't!" Francis took a deep breath and moderated his tone. "I didn't do anything with it. One second I was just driving and the next, the engine cut out and the back wheels were dragging. It must've jumped into Neutral, which is why we haven't crashed yet." He demonstrated wrenching the wheel back and forth. "Power steering's out, too."

"The steering shouldn't be working at all." That was Marissa, behind Luke. "One time, my best friend's boyfriend tried to roll his car down the hill because he was out of fuel, and he took the ignition key out. That locked the steering, and he wiped out the neighbour's mailbox. Why isn't the steering locked?"

Cody's sneering voice cut in. "Because Krouse is pulling some sort of bullshit power play. Fake an emergency, be the big hero when he miraculously fixes it, nobody second-guesses him still being in charge when we get to Boston."

From behind everyone else, way down at the back, Noelle called out. "Krouse? What's going on? Why did you hit the brakes like that? Why are we slowing down?"

"It's all good!" he shouted back. "Just hold tight and we'll get this sorted out!" Taking a breath and looking around at the rest of his teammates, he moderated his tone again. "This isn't something I'm doing. Someone or something did it to us. Mask up. I'm going to pull off into that rest area up ahead."

It wasn't as though he was going to have much of a choice in the matter. Even rolling free, the RV was slowing down, as Noelle had noticed. It was a choice of either stopping in the middle of the road, at the mercy of any high-speed traffic that failed to change lanes in time, or getting off the freeway altogether.

Fortunately, the traffic was light to non-existent. He managed to get over into the right-hand lane without much more than a blare of a horn from an irritated motorist, then wrestled the wheel around so the RV took the turnoff. From there, it was a matter of repeatedly stomping the brakes—the power braking system was also apparently out—until they engaged, and the RV ground to a halt.

Donning his Baron Samedi top hat and full-face mask, Francis checked all the mirrors then looked out through the windshield and side mirrors for potential hostiles. There were only two, standing out in the open with no attempt at concealment. A pair of teenagers, a guy and a girl. He was tall and soldily-built, with the promise of topping out at over six feet. Almost as tall as her companion, the girl was slender, wore glasses that glinted in the sunlight, and sported an absolutely rockin' jacket.

Neither one had a mask on, which … really meant nothing, in the long run. They could have been unconnected to this whole affair, or neck-deep in it but uncaring if anyone saw their faces. There really was no way to tell.

"Damn," muttered Marissa as she came back with her mask on. "That's a really nice jacket."

"Admire it after all this is over." Francis took a deep breath. "Luke, sunroof. Cody, get ready to lock them into a loop. Mars, if they start slinging stuff at us, light up a sun between them and us."

"And what are you going to be doing?" Even in this level of emergency, Cody couldn't stop sniping.

"Going out to see what they want." He didn't want to, but they were kind of in a bind here. "If either of them gets hostile, we come out fighting."

There was a moment of silence, then Luke nodded and slapped Francis on the shoulder. "Got it. Good luck."

"Yeah, gonna need it." Francis hated this kind of situation. The ground had clearly been prepared by the opposition, so whatever they did was likely to have been anticipated. Was this an assassination attempt? A grab aimed at Noelle? He didn't know their motives, so he couldn't plan against them.

Taking another deep breath, he fixed on the guy. If shit went down, they'd swap places and he'd be next to the girl while her boyfriend would be facing his friends. If Luke had to, he could launch the guy clear into the next county. And while Francis wasn't a fighter, surely to God he could punch out one skinny teenage girl.

Opening the side door, he stepped out onto the concrete pavement that made up the rest area. Now to see if this was going to be a straight-up fight, or if it would be preceded by a test of wills while each side waited for the other to make the first move.

Apparently, the girl hadn't heard of either trope. She strolled forward to meet him, hands in the pockets of her leather jacket. "Hey, how are you?" A friendly nod accompanied the words.

"I'm fine," he replied cautiously. "What the fu—"

Her boyfriend had been several steps behind her. Suddenly, he was half a step ahead, and Francis was almost certain he hadn't seen the guy move. "Please do not swear at Taylor," the guy said. Or at least, that was what his voice said. The undertones were something else altogether. If you fuck with me, it will be the last thing you ever do. Only a whole lot less polite.

A trickle of sweat started down the back of his neck. He desperately wanted a cigarette, but he'd run out two hours ago. Okay, this shit is really, really serious!

"So, this here's Zach," said the girl chattily. "You may have heard of him? Guy who totalled the Slaughterhouse Nine from halfway across the country, using a PRT van and a street sign? Yeah, that guy. We've also dealt with the Teeth, the Fallen, the Machine Army and—just today—Nilbog's crew. My name is Taylor, but that bit's not important. The important bit is that if you listen very, very carefully to what we've got to say, this may end up being the best day of your life."

Her voice didn't hold the same undertones of absolute fucking doom that his did. Instead, he found himself believing her implicitly. He'd heard about the Nine, but not the rest. And yet, he didn't question her words in the slightest. "Okay," he said. "Got it."

"Good." Taylor took her hand from her pocket—no weapons, thank God—and waved at the RV. "Is everyone in there okay? Yes? Excellent. So, you might be wondering why we arranged for you to end up here."

Having the suspicion was one thing. The confirmation was quite another. Francis tensed slightly, ready to respond to any hostile moves. "How did you do that, anyway? EMP?"

"Do not be silly," Zach said almost chidingly. "I am not a Tinker. I am not a parahuman at all. I merely disconnected your battery, removed your steering lock and took the key when you were not looking."

"When I wasn't—I was driving!" Francis almost choked on the words. "That's the very definition of 'looking'!"

Zach smiled and held up a vaguely familiar-looking set of keys. "I believe these belong to your vehicle, yes?"

"I … guess so?" Francis didn't want to commit himself. "I could've—"

The keys vanished from Zach's hand and the RV roared to life, all in the same split second. "And now they are back in your vehicle. The battery has been reconnected, and the steering lock repaired."

The vague feeling of dread, that had been looming over Francis ever since Zach had reproached him for swearing, settled over his shoulders in full force. However he was doing it, this guy—who wasn't a parahuman, his brain kept insisting—was absolutely the real fucking deal. "Okay, so what do you want?"

Taylor grinned broadly. "See, that's the right question. What we want is to send you back home, where you belong. What Zach wants is your powers in repayment. All of them."

Francis' brain came to a shuddering, screeching halt. "What." Our powers? What the fuck?

"It is a simple request." Zach spread his hands. "I will remove your powers without harming you. I will also remove the last of the influence of my sister's power from your brains. Taylor will restore Jess the use of her legs. And then I will send you back to Earth Aleph, to the location of your choice."

It was a struggle for Francis to wrap his head around the situation. He could understand the concept of losing his powers, though he didn't want to do it. Going back to Aleph was a definite plus. But the bit in the middle was tripping him up. "What … your sister?" He looked at Taylor. "Is that you? Are you his sister?" A moment's pause as he caught up with what Zach was saying. "You can fix her legs?"

Taylor chuckled lightly. "Yes to the legs, no to the sister part. The Simurgh is his sister." Leaning a little closer, she cupped her hand around her mouth and lowered her voice theatrically. "Don't tell anyone, but he's an Endbringer."

How Francis managed to avoid screaming and running at that point, he would never know. Settling into a state of dull resigned terror, he nodded in acknowledgement. "And you are …?" In all honesty, he wouldn't have been surprised if she'd revealed herself as Glaistig Uaine's older sister.

She beamed at him. "Oh, I'm nobody important. Just an ordinary girl from Brockton Bay. So, about the powers thing."

He frowned. "I'm not sure if the guys will be happy about giving them up." Though Jess is likely to reach down my throat and rip out my spleen if I don't agree to the whole 'walking again' aspect for her.

Taylor shrugged, seemingly unconcerned. "It's kind of a package deal. Giving up your powers is your ticket back to Aleph. The restored mobility and influence removal are a freebie. Now, I know Noelle, Marissa and probably Jess will jump at it. If you want to go back with Noelle, you know what you have to do."

Behind his mask, Francis grimaced. He'd known what it was like to be between a rock and a hard place, but this was rockier and harder than he'd ever experienced before. "Can I talk it over with the others?"

Zach nodded and made an expansive gesture. "Feel free to do so, Mr. Krouse."

Yeah, I got it. You know everything about us. Francis turned and trudged back to the RV.

This was not going to be a pleasant discussion.


Taylor


By the time the vehicle door opened again and Trickster emerged, I was reclining in a deck-chair with an umbrella overhead to keep the sun off, a drink at my elbow. Zach had a chair of his own beside me, and he was doing a really good impression of being half asleep. Nobody else had pulled off the freeway in all this time, because Zach had decided they wouldn't.

Sitting up, I finished my drink off, then stood up. "So, how'd it go?" I asked cheerfully. He didn't have to know I'd been using my glasses to keep tabs on the discussion within the RV; people were much more likely to do what you wanted if you gave them the illusion of freedom of agency. I'd learned that the hard way.

"We're going back," he said briefly. "All of us."

It had been a hard-fought decision, which was good. If we'd just imposed it on them, they would've been unhappy and resentful, even if they would've come to the same choice themselves. But because they'd chosen it, they could feel proud of themselves and hold their heads high.

Noelle, Marissa, Jess and Oliver had of course all voted to go back. Francis didn't want to lose his powers, but his love for Noelle was stronger, so he'd reluctantly joined their faction. Cody spent the longest time trying to convince Noelle that there was some way she could be healed of her affliction on Earth Bet, but she was adamant, so eventually he caved as well. The last holdout, Luke, had been intending to stay on Bet and be a hero, but Marissa of all people pointed out how hard it was to rebrand.

All in all, the debate had taken about two hours, and had gotten quite heated at points. Was I a bad person to have been entertained by the back and forth arguments? Probably, but it was the most fun I'd had in quite a while.

Zach started with Noelle. She looked at him nervously as he walked up, but then he smiled and she relaxed. Zach's smiles were disarming, to say the least. That put her off-guard long enough for him to reach out and take her hand.

"Shit—"

"Fuck—"

"No—"

"Don't—"

Ignoring the exclamations from the rest of the Travellers, Zach concentrated slightly and led Noelle forward out of the grotesque lower body, legs forming as she moved. And because Zach was cool like that, jeans formed over her legs at the same time. By the time they reached Trickster, she wasn't even stumbling anymore.

Trickster put his arms around her anyway, and she did the same with him. Then he looked over her shoulder at Zach. "It's that easy? I thought there'd be more to it."

Zach smiled as he bundled up the remainder of Noelle's power and made it disappear. "I can make it difficult if you wish me to. There can be pain and blood and screaming … or I can simply make it happen."

The Travelers looked at each other, then back at Zach. "Uh … I vote for easy," Marissa said hastily. "Easy is good for me."

I smirked. It was something people nearly always forgot about Zach. He could definitely make things difficult for people, but they had to choose to push back. Unfortunately (for them), many people did just that.

One by one, they lined up and Zach removed their powers. I used the Panacea gloves to restore Jess' legs to full mobility while he was working on the others. Luke was reluctant and Cody downright glared at him, but nobody actually resisted the process. Which was fortunate; Zach had confided to me that Cody was going to lose his powers no matter what. He was too prone to holding grudges, even before the Simurgh's influence had gotten into the mix.

Finally, Zach gestured and a shimmering portal unravelled from thin air. "This will take you home," he declared. "Nobody will ask too many questions about where you have been. I have made sure of that. Be well. Be happy."

Tossing aside her mask, Marissa was the first to step through, followed by Oliver and Jess. Francis and Noelle went next, her arm snuggled around his. Luke took a moment to look around one last time, then approached Zach.

"Thanks, man," he said, offering his hand. "I wasn't sure I wanted this, but now I am."

"You are welcome." Zach shook his hand firmly.

Luke nodded. "Appreciate the chance." He stepped through the portal and was gone.

Cody was the last. Even with the Simurgh's malign influence lifted, I could see the habit of bitterness on his face. "Don't expect me to thank you."

Zach shrugged. "You have made your choice. What you do with it is up to you."

The ex-Traveler curled his lip. "Yeah, you can fuck ri—"

That did it for me. Zach had the patience of Mount Rushmore, but I'd had enough of this punk disrespecting him. Stepping forward, I grabbed Cody by the front of his shirt. He hadn't taken his mask off so I ripped it free and tossed it aside. "No," I told him. "You can fuck right off. Don't let the door hit your ass on the way out."

My strength was enhanced by the powers inherent in the jacket, but I was still impressed by the distance and accuracy I scored with the throw; one-handed, at that. He went through the portal without touching the sides, and I figured he would've flown another ten feet before hitting the ground.

As the portal winked out, I turned to Zach. "Sorry. He was getting on my nerves."

He chuckled and put his arm around my waist. "There is nothing to apologise for, Taylor. He was an unpleasant person. Shall we go home?"

I looked at the sun, lowering in the western sky. It had been a long day. "Sure. Can we jump?"

"We can jump." He gathered me in his arms.

"Woooo hoooo!"


End of Part Twenty