Earning Her Stripes


Part Thirty-Four: Stealing a March


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


Thursday Morning, September 23, 2010

March


The car could have used a good clean-out but May figured it would defeat the purpose of stealing one if she then turned around and took it to be detailed. She wanted to get to Brockton Bay today, not tomorrow or next week. Anyway, the trash in the footwell and the back seat didn't detract from its handling qualities, which she'd grudgingly accepted as adequate.

There weren't a lot of cars on Interstate 95, which was good because May had a destination in mind, and she wasn't interested in letting minor things like other cars or speed limit laws get in her way. So, as she whipped past the other vehicles at speeds the poor unfortunates that weren't her would call unsafe, she turned the radio to the jauntiest channel she could find and sang along with the songs at the top of her voice. Her mask was on the seat beside her as she drove, of course; she didn't want to damage the ears by creasing them against the roof of the car.

Also, she supposed it might not be the best idea to give Flechette advance warning by having people report seeing a rabbit driving a car down the interstate. The whiny bitch might decide to fuck her over by going back to New York, and then she would've wasted an entire trip. May had a constitutional aversion to letting Flechette win any of their encounters; it would only give her unrealistic ideas about where she came in the grand scheme of things.

Talking about people with unrealistic goals, she mused as she eyed the flashing red and blue lights in her rearview. The cop car had attached itself to her tail about two minutes back, just after she blasted through the I-495 overpass, and was gamely working to catch up to her. He probably didn't have a proper read on her license plate though, which was his good luck. That meant she didn't have to kill him, merely stop him.

Without taking her eyes off the road, she used her rapier to flick a piece of trash—a fast-food drink cup, long bereft of its contents—up toward her from the passenger-side footwell. She dropped the rapier on the seat and caught the cup, then swapped hands on the wheel and buzzed the window down. Flicking her gaze toward the cop car, she let the sequence of actions settle into her mind, then used her fingertip to emblazon a spiral trail of power into the side of the cup.

As the fuse began to burn down, she stuck her hand out the window and tossed the cup up and back. It flew through the air on the calculated trajectory, passed over the car that was between her and the cop car, and was sucked down into its downdraft. Although she lost sight of it then, she knew it would hit the ground and go under the police cruiser's driver's side front wheel at the exact instant that the explosive charge she'd instilled in the cup went off.

Which it did.

The detonation was muted by distance and wind-rush, but she caught a glimpse of the car tumbling end over end off the road into the ditch, rubber flaying off the stricken wheel. The cop might survive and he might not, but she didn't care either way. As far as she was concerned, he should've been smart enough not to chase after her when she had business to attend to. Anyone driving as flawlessly as she was, was clearly a cape; thus, someone to steer clear of.

She used the rapier to flick up another piece of trash, just in case, then settled back to keeping the car on the road and the speedometer in the triple figures. Nobody was going to stop her from messing with Flechette: not the PRT, not the Protectorate, and certainly not some underpaid county-mountie. The sooner people understood that, the better.


Director Piggot, PRT ENE


Emily sighed and leaned back in her chair, then clicked the mouse to call up the confidential report that her best analysts had submitted regarding the Winslow destruction. She'd read it through more than a dozen times, looking over the arguments and finding no flaw in them. There were a few minor logical leaps—necessary, because the powers involved had never been tested under laboratory conditions—but the conclusions it reached were hard to refute.

Emily considered Taylor Hebert—Monochrome—to be one of the physically strongest capes she'd ever seen. She'd borne witness to Alexandria opening the entrance to Lord's Port again, and that display of raw power had both awed and disturbed her. Monochrome's double KO of Fenja and Menja, followed by choking out Lung, had to be on or near that level.

When considering the means/motive/opportunity triangle, the history of bullying that the girl had endured made for an ironclad motive. In a way, it was laudable that she'd chosen the site of the bullying rather than the bullies themselves for her retribution; Emily doubted that any of them would've survived if Monochrome had decided they needed to die. Opportunity was also a gimme: while Emily didn't know the full capability of Monochrome's powers, the girl was considered to have at least a minor Mover rating. Getting across the city and back again in less than an hour wouldn't be a problem for her.

The only sticking point in the whole affair was 'means'. Monochrome's powers seemed to involve a full-body force field that protected her utterly and gave her the strength to perform her deeds. Study of the limited footage available also seemed to indicate that she treated physics as an optional extra. If she could, for instance, extend that force field beyond her body, her strength might just be sufficient to pick the whole damn school up and toss it in the air, as Armsmaster had determined.

Emily would be the first to concede that it was a pretty big 'if'; the chain of logic was admittedly thin. However, the only other viable suspects she had in the matter were Leet (who had vehemently denied setting up anything of the sort, even when offered leniency) and Blockade (who'd had minimal motive to do so). While Blockade had been in the area with the rest of the Real Thing when Armsmaster showed up, Emily was disinclined to believe that she'd done it, mainly because Shadow Stalker would absolutely have dropped a dime on her former teammate without even needing to be asked.

The latter hadn't happened, so it was back to Monochrome as the primary suspect, assuming that the speculation about her powers was actually correct. However, not only was the aforementioned speculation unsupported by anything more than vaguely circumstantial evidence (much less the rock-solid proof Alan Barnes would demand if the PRT came at his youthful client again) but Emily wasn't even particularly inclined to go after her for it.

The basic truth of the matter was, the Real Thing were an unmistakeable force for good in the city. If they'd had to, the PRT and Protectorate could have taken down the Empire Eighty-Eight and the ABB capes, she had no doubt. But it would've been long and drawn out, there would've been unavoidable property damage and civilians getting hurt, and far too many of her troopers and capes would have suffered casualties as well, fatal and otherwise.

Likewise, the villains would not have surrendered easily, as proven by Kaiser's last-ditch effort to identify and either murder or co-opt Blockade. There would've been a target a mile wide on Emily's back, as well as on Paul Renick's and Armsmaster's; either to murder them outright or hold them hostage, depending on how well the PRT and Protectorate were doing at the time. Worse, while her sister lived out of state, Gesellschaft had a long reach when it needed to.

But all that hadn't happened. The cape contingent of the Empire Eighty-Eight was officially behind bars, as were Lung and Oni Lee. While both gangs had non-powered members (the Empire more than the ABB) they were fraying at the edges as the heroes and cops alike closed in on their bases of operation. It was a lot easier to dismantle something like that without villains getting in the way, a state of affairs she could definitely attribute to the actions of the Real Thing.

Beyond all that, the main reason that she was making zero moves on Monochrome (and had no immediate plans to do so) wasn't that she thought the girl's actions were reasonable. Yes, Taylor Hebert had been under extreme provocation, but that wasn't what stayed Emily's hand. Her core motive was pure pragmatism: if what she feared came about and outside villains arrived to claim their pound of flesh from the defunct Brockton Bay underworld, the PRT would need all hands on deck to squash any incipient resurgence of the Games.

And whatever else they were, the Real Thing were good at what they did.

With another sigh, she closed the file and clicked on the first unanswered email in her inbox. This had also been sourced in her overworked analytical department, though several grades less sensitive than the file she'd just been looking at. It was the latest of a series of reports covering cape activity within the city limits of Brockton Bay.

The Empire Eighty-Eight and the ABB had not been the only capes in the city by a long shot, merely the most troublesome. Aside from Uber and Leet and Coil (she still found the downfall of the latter to be hugely amusing) and ignoring the rogues, there were the Undersiders, Faultline's Crew and a few independent capes on both sides of the law. The report noted that the Undersiders were happily knocking over stash houses owned by the Empire Eighty-Eight and the ABB alike, stealing the money and leaving the drugs behind, while the Crew were apparently hunkering down and staying very quiet indeed.

In a way, she could admire the entrepreneurial spirit shown by the Undersiders; they'd seen an opportunity and were grabbing it with both hands. On a totally different level, while they were technically committing a crime, they were also locating stash houses that neither the BBPD nor the PRT had even suspected the location of, and removing money that the non-powered members of the gangs could have used to buy drugs or guns with. While legal confiscation would have suited her better, Emily was savvy enough to appreciate that they were wrecking the finances of both gangs, thus accelerating their ongoing disintegration.

This wasn't to say that they wouldn't be on the PRT's radar sooner or later, but they certainly weren't as much of a problem as some of the Empire Eighty-Eight capes had been, or the inevitable influx of new capes was likely to be.

Similarly, the PRT wasn't going to be focusing on Faultline's Crew for the moment. The Crew was extremely careful about not shitting in their own nest; they never committed Federal crimes, and made sure that all their activity happened on the other side of the state line. Inside Brockton Bay, they were the epitome of good neighbours, adhering to all the rules and regulations of running a nightclub, mostly making damn sure their bar attendants didn't serve alcohol to minors and that nobody sold drugs on the premises. Emily knew of at least four attempted stings where the ATF and other governmental bodies had tried infiltrating ringers to catch them out in one violation or another, but they'd all come to naught; Faultline was apparently very much on the ball.

Nothing in the report gave proof positive of any new capes within the city, but Emily knew they were out there, either sliding into the fetid pool that was her city's underworld or getting near to doing so. She hated that there was fuck-all she could do to stop them from just driving into the city or taking the bus, but until she got clearance to put up PRT roadblocks on every incoming highway (and she had considered it, however briefly) it was definitely going to be a case of playing catch-up.

Closing the report, she went onto the next email, which she belatedly realised was from Firebird.


Good morning, Director.

We've talked it over, and we think the best thing for all concerned is for us to make up for past misjudgments by cooperating with you as much as possible regarding the incoming villains.

Give us locations and names, and we'll go there and give them their marching orders. If an ass-kicking followed by a sojourn in the PRT's cells seems to be required instead, we can assist you in facilitating that as well.

Cheers,

Firebird (speaking for the Real Thing)


Emily read it through twice, noting the careful wording. Nowhere did Firebird actually admit to crimes, or even serious mistakes. 'Misjudgments' was a word that allowed for a lot of leeway.

Overall, it seemed, the Real Thing wanted to make amends in the most effective way: by taking action against a mutual problem. Given their previous track record, she was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. And having their prodigious throw weight on the side of the PRT was entirely preferable to having them standing off to the side, choosing not to participate.

She spent a moment typing up a brief reply agreeing to the proposal, then went on with her day.

Villains or no villains, the PRT ENE department wouldn't run itself.


Lunchtime at Arcadia

Taylor


This time, I'd met up with Madison before Emma came out. We were seated under the shade of a tree, relaxing in companionable conversation, when I spotted her and waved. She waved back and came on over.

"Hey, guys." She grinned, waving her phone. "Guess what? She went for it."

"Well, there's a surprise," Madison drawled, unwrapping her hefty sandwich. "She'd have to be blind, deaf and brain-dead not to take us up on it, and I'm pretty sure she's none of the above."

"I dunno." I took a sip from my juice box before I continued. "If we'd managed to piss her off enough that she was more interested in fucking us over than getting the job done, I figure she'd say no."

Madison rolled her eyes. "In what possible universe would she feel justified in knocking back our assistance? I mean, shit, we handed the Empire and the ABB to her on a silver platter. We get the job done." She bit into the sandwich to emphasise her point.

"Well, not this one, obviously," Emma agreed. "But technically, I guess it's possible. Say, if Taylor was really a villain and we weren't there to make her look good." She gave me a cheeky grin.

I wrinkled my nose at her. "Oh, ha ha. I'm the one who makes you two look good, and you know it."

"Yeah, but we don't just look good." Emma struck a pose. "We look amazing."


Flechette


As Lily strolled out casually through the Arcadia courtyard, she heard a burst of laughter from the three girls having their lunch under a nearby tree. They looked like they were a year below her; a pretty redhead and two brunettes, all clearly amused about something. It was nice to know some people didn't have anything more to worry about than grades and possible boy(or girl)friends. She moved on.

"Hey." Carlos met her at the gate as they slipped out. "You know those girls? I thought you hadn't been here before."

So he'd noticed her glancing in their direction. The guy was definitely observant. "No, I just looked that way when I heard them laughing. It's nice to know we can make a difference, you know? Because while we're out there, kids like that can enjoy life to the fullest."

"Wow, look who's the adult all of a sudden," he jibed with a smirk as they headed for the unmarked PRT van. "They aren't that much younger than us, you know. Year, maybe eighteen months, tops."

She snorted at him, then climbed into the back of the van. "Doesn't matter, and you know it. When you've got what we've got" —she meant powers— "the whole 'being a kid' thing doesn't mean much anymore. I've spent my entire cape life shuttling between duty posts, never having a chance to settle down in one place and put down roots. Add having your very own fucking nemesis on top of that, and a normal life's got even less chance of happening than usual." Sitting down in one of the seats, she reached for the seat-belt straps.

"Yeah, I heard something about that." Carlos frowned. "If this … what's her name, again? If she's so fixated on you, have you tried setting a trap for her? Once she's in custody, no more problem." He began fastening himself in as well.

Lily shook her head hastily. "No, bad idea. Her name's March, and she's really fucking switched on. Director Wilkins tried to trap her once. She sent half a dozen PRT guys, plus me and Adamant, to the hospital. I only took her rapier through the calf muscle, but for him she exploded half his armour and put him in a coma for a week."

"I think she'll find I'm a lot harder to put down than that," he said, apparently trying to be reassuring.

"What happens to you if she explodes your head?" she asked bluntly. "Not your helmet, your actual head. Nothing left from the neck up. I know you've got redundant biology, but exactly how redundant is it? Because I can promise you, she'll find a way to blow past those limits. Pun totally intended."

"Murdering Wards?" He frowned, apparently having difficulty with the concept. "She'll go that far?"

"She sees this whole thing as a game, and the name of the game is 'fuck with Flechette'," Lily explained. "No rules, except the ones she makes up on the spot. I'm the only one who can almost tag her in a fight. And everyone else, she dances around like it's been choreographed ahead of time. If anyone actually hits her and draws blood, she's likely to go full murderblender on them, just saying. And armour won't work, not against her."

"That's seriously wrong." He shook his head. "She won't get everything her way. Armsmaster's pretty good, for one. Kid Win says he's working on some kind of combat analysis software for his armour, though it isn't up and running yet. And Assault's nearly untouchable when he gets going. Also, Velocity should be able to literally run circles around her."

"You're still not getting it." She sighed, then tried again. "Combat is one of her powers. My Thinker ability gives me perfect rhythm, but with her it lets her predict and direct the movements of other people. That's what her name's all about. Marching in step. If her sword's charged up, she'll be able to anticipate where people are gonna be and intercept them. And when it's charged up, her sword goes through anything, just like my arbalest bolts do."

"Oh." To his credit, he didn't keep pushing. "So, um, what's she got against you? Or does she have something for you? Some sort of misdirected crush, I mean?"

"You tell me." She rolled her eyes. "We got our powers in the same cluster trigger, and she's been obsessed with me ever since. If she does just want to be my girlfriend, she's been going about it in the exact wrong way. She's toxic as fuck, and she's hurt too many people for me to be even slightly interested in her." Frowning, she cast about for a change of topic. "So, um, this new team, the Real Thing. Reading between the lines, Armsmaster and the Director are really impressed by them. Are they all that?"

She recalled the block of 'good steel', and its apparent impervious nature. If that was all they had going for them, March would surely figure out a way to get to them if they opposed her.

"They're still really new, like you said." Carlos tilted his head thoughtfully. "We don't have a lot of footage of them using their powers. Monochrome's even newer than the other two; she only showed up after Winslow got flattened."

"Actually, about that." Lily had been curious about the incident he'd referenced. "What really happened with Winslow, anyway? Was it a villain fight? Did it just fall down of its own accord? Someone cause an earthquake? Everything I've looked up says there's no official answer, but I was wondering if there was an unofficial answer that nobody was talking about."

Carlos chuckled dryly. "Throw a rock inside the PRT building on any given day and you'll hit someone with a brand-new theory. So far I've heard that it's an insurance scam, that Blockade did it with some kind of bullshit non-exploding bomb tech, that Leet was trying to teleport the building away but his teleporter malfunctioned and only sent it twenty feet up, that Shadow Stalker turned the foundations of the school to shadow, and that's all just skimming the surface. The truth is, nobody really knows. One day it was a technically intact high school, and the next it was a pile of rubble. Not even a ransom demand for any other buildings in the city."

"Huh." Lily went back to her previous line of thought. "Didn't Monochrome beat up on Lung or something, though? She's supposed to be really strong or something."

"Strong and fireproof," Carlos amended. "You're gonna need to see Armsmaster's helmet footage. Lung was on fire like everywhere, and she choked him out like it was a training exercise. I dunno how strong she is, but I know she's stronger than me. Blockade, too. I haven't seen what Firebird can do yet, but I'm not betting against her either, just saying."

"Right." Lily fell silent then, leaning back in her seat as the van rolled through Brockton Bay. Although she suspected she hadn't left all her problems behind in New York, there were more than a few enigmas that could do with unravelling while she was here.

One way or another, it looked like she was going to have her hands full.


End of Part Thirty-Four