85.1 Interlude Taylor
Taylor sat in the half-empty classroom making a token effort to participate in what was basically a token group assignment given in a token attempt to fill the time before the end of the school day. Mr. Gladly's class wasn't the most focused at the best of times, and these clearly weren't the best of times.
The half-empty state of the classroom was indicative of the rest of the school. Both the teachers and students who had returned for the school's official reopening seemed to be in more of a holding pattern than any return to normal. About half the students and a third the teachers were absent. The reduced attendance cast the normally overcrowded school in an eerie light and the people who showed up seemed to be spending most of their time in a daze.
That is, more of a daze than usual. Looking across at Sparky she really couldn't tell if he was processing the trauma of the last week of attacks, or just having one of his exceptionally mellow days. Any lack of focus on his part was more than made up for by Greg, who seemed completely unfazed. The recent events had only driven his excitable attitude to even greater heights.
Normally Greg's unfocused rapid-fire explanations and erratic shifts from topic to topic were a dangerous distraction, but today she was lucky. Madison had been one of the students who stayed home despite the official opening and none of her usual group was keen to pay Taylor any mind without her prodding them along.
In fact, it was like most of the school had found better things to do than make her life a living hell. Maybe that was the lack of supporting actors for Emma, or maybe the fact that cell phones signals were blocked this close to the blackout zone meant coordination of anything more than mean looks and passing insults wasn't practical.
At the other end of the school Emma shifted closer to Sophia in the back of a nearly empty chem lab. Eight other students and a professor were in attendance, with the assigned reading being largely ignored. Three of their most common cronies were let out of study hall when the class was dismissed early, but made no movement towards either the chem lab or Mr. Gladly's class.
Maybe nearly having the city destroyed had given people some perspective. The cost of the attacks was still being felt, and not just in the complete lack of ABB colors in the halls. And the lack of most of the Asian students, regardless of whether they were affiliated or not. Taylor's social isolation meant she was out of the loop, but the somber mood suggested she wasn't the only one wondering if some of the absent students were missing for reasons other than parents not wanting them to return to school so soon.
The topic for the class was a reflection of that. In line with most of Mr. Gladly's soft topics. 'Dealing with the stress of a parahuman world'. The opening discussion struck Taylor as a bad mockery of therapy, a share fest that nobody was in the mood for. It was entertaining watching the normally popular 'Mr. G' have his performance crash and burn. Eventually he split them off for group discussion, though without any clear objective it was basically a free period of talking with your friends.
Or in Taylor's case, being talked at by a tolerated acquaintance.
"I mean, at this point I don't know why there's any doubt about it. Can you believe people are still debating it online?" Greg asked as Taylor noted Principal Blackwell calling the school secretary into her office.
"Greg, I'm pretty sure Apeiron isn't a Case 53." Taylor said, noting the whiff of alcohol that bloomed as Mr. Harper emptied a hip flask into his half full coffee cup in the Teacher's lounge.
Greg shook his head. "No, it's all there. One of my friends on PHO is sure of it. She knows a lot about Case 53s and says every one of them is talking about how he came up with a treatment for himself."
A fair amount of the class had been focused on theories about Apeiron. About Joe. It made sense, really. If you were talking about dealing with parahuman related stress, the biggest source of parahuman stress was bound to come up. Thinking on her own perspective of Joe, 'stressed' was a good way to put it.
You'd think that being closer to the situation, having some understanding of the person behind the mask would make things easier, but if anything, the opposite was true. During the class discussion she could recognize the theories being put forward for the wishful thinking they clearly were. Even the direst warnings and concerns about Apeiron were based on a shaky foundation of guesswork. But it was a foundation built towards grounding the situation. Presenting some level of control and consistency.
She would be the first to admit, both of those things were meaningless when it came to Joe. It was easier to think of him as some veteran cape with a master plan and precise understanding of the impact of his actions. Knowing the truth, that he was just a person, someone with his own hopes and concerns and problems, someone who had sat in her mother's class and took her advice, who had been impacted by her death… The type of person they were describing, the inhuman force of destruction or the mastermind, that wasn't Joe. But that fact didn't diminish the kind of power that was in play.
That was the really frightening thing. She knew Joe was normal, or had been normal. That he was trying to deal with what was happening and managing his own very human problems. Nobody wanted to think about Eidolon as having a difficult time in high school or Alexandria as struggling with the effects of her trigger. Powerful people were supposed to be beyond stuff like that, but she knew Joe wasn't.
She knew he was trying, and managing better than a lot of people, at least considering the circumstances. Thinking of the Celestial Forge, the team he had premiered out of nowhere, she wondered what they meant to him, where they had come from. Most people were wondering that, but most people didn't know Joe before he premiered a team.
Lisa had spoken with Joe about the team. She'd at least gotten confirmation that Joe hadn't shared any information on her or the other Undersiders. He was respecting privacy both ways, which she would have been able to appreciate if it wasn't so unnerving that Joe had just manifested a complete team out of nowhere.
Well, not out of nowhere. There were hints, going back at least as far as his fight with Lung. Probably further than that. Signs that could have indicated that he was working with someone, but nobody had pursued them. Nobody had pressed Joe on what they meant or what he was doing in his spare time. Really, how could they? Joe wasn't a member of the team. He was a business partner who they ended up owing a fortune to. That was the extent of their relationship, at least for everyone but her.
And because of that, it was somehow her fault that they had been blindsided by all of this. Okay, nobody had come out and said it, but it was clear that she was the only one who could have found out what was happening. It felt weird that somehow she had become the point of contact for Joe. She understood how they saw it, even if the details were a little different than was generally assumed in the group. And a lot different than what was assumed on the internet.
"I mean, you just need to look at Lady Khepri to see how that works." Greg continued, jarring her out of her thoughts.
"What?" She asked. "What about Lady Khepri?" She hoped she didn't sound too obvious.
"The whole reason why her costume covered her entire body." Greg said with complete confidence. "She's a Case 53, like the rest of the Celestial Forge. Or she was until Apeiron healed her."
"Greg, what are you talking about?" She asked. "Who said anything about Khepri being a Case 53."
"Lady Khepri." He corrected her. "And there are stories about it from after the Ungodly Hour. She was out fighting the Merchants to claim ABB territory. A bunch of people saw her transform. Apparently she can break up her body and move as a mass of insects, then reform in another place."
Taylor felt a drop of cold sweat bead on her back. "Um, are they sure?" She asked. "I mean, the blackout field messes with cameras and light. They probably just lost her in the swarm."
Which she had done a few times, diving into a dense swarm to cover her escape, then dispersing them to make it seem like she had disappeared. At the time it seemed like a brilliant act of misdirection. She hadn't actually considered the type of rumors that it might start.
"No, there's a report from a fight with Manpower." Greg said quickly. "She got hit by Scrub, he's the new Merchant blaster. Lost half of her body and just reformed right after."
"If that's true, why didn't she do any of that at the bank? Or when she was fighting Bakuda?" Taylor asked, her mind flashing back to that night in the storage yard.
"Because Apeiron was still treating her." Greg said with complete confidence. "It's just like with the rest of the Celestial Forge. They didn't show up until Apeiron finished their treatments, and you can tell how far along they are by their costumes. Like, compare Kataklyzein, Fleet or um, Survey," he stammered a little, then pressed on. "To the Matrix, Proto Aima, and Lethe. They're either still being treated, which is why they're covering themselves up. Except for Proto Aima, but you know the reason for her."
Taylor did not know the reason, but wasn't inclined to get Greg started on another topic. Instead, she just gave a slight nod that seemed to satisfy him on the matter.
The idea that Joe had found a group of Case 53s and was helping them… well, that didn't seem like it was impossible for Joe, but it didn't match up. With everything that was happening, all the emphasis he was placing on the situation in the city, the importance of her mission, it didn't seem like he would be going around recruiting people, no matter what Rachel said on the matter.
But then what was the answer? Lisa hadn't been able to get anything but a vague assurance of their privacy and it wasn't like they could just call up Joe's team to ask. Well, she probably could, but that set her apart from the rest of the Undersiders.
It wasn't a position she particularly enjoyed. It wasn't one she particularly knew how to handle either. Joe had offered to help her. She could barely wrap her mind around what that meant. Last week when he had made the offer of blanket support it seemed overwhelming. Now, after everything that had happened, after the world knew everything he was capable of, she didn't have a clue how she was supposed to manage something like that.
The best she could do was stay focused until the end was finally in sight for her. She had a path to a meeting with the Undersiders' boss. She just needed to see it through. They agreed to help support the collaborative efforts. Stabilization and defending the city against opportunists. It almost sounded like hero work, but she knew it would be more complicated than that. Everything about cape life was more complicated than she had assumed it would be.
"I mean really, people should have known she was a Case 53 from the start, just from the Scarab's Fang." Greg continued.
Once again, Taylor was jarred out of her thoughts by Greg's seemingly random statements. "Her knife? What about it makes her a Case 53? All the Undersiders have one of those."
"Yeah, but only Lady Khepri's has superpowers. You can tell from the design, how it looks more organic than the others, and the way it can fly around on its own, it was part of her body, or an extension of her power, or something Apeiron was using to help her control her powers." Greg explained.
"Uh, I'm pretty sure she just swings it from spiderwebs." Taylor replied, remembering how she figured out that specific trick. Training with her powers, recommended by Joe. It had probably saved her life at the storage yard, and was something she had been able to push so much further.
Back, in the wake of her trigger, she had remembered being frustrated with her powers. Other heroes who got flight or invincibility or superstrength and she was stuck controlling bugs. She had resolved to make the best of it, to somehow make things work. She practiced, built her costume, and thought she was ready for her first night out.
That had been a hell of a wakeup call. Given who she had fought that was very nearly a literal statement. She had no idea what she was up against, and honestly hadn't truly understood until she saw Joe fighting Lung when the villain was at full power.
She had left that fight not feeling triumphant, but hopelessly outmatched. Like her power could never be enough to make it as a cape. Dealing with Joe, she had honestly been ashamed of it. Comparing herself to an unlimited tinker, one who kept getting stronger, it felt hopeless.
But Joe never looked down on her power. More than just encouraging her, the more he learned about how her power worked the more impressed he seemed. He looked past the superficial aspects to the details she had never paid any attention to. Range, precision, awareness, sensory information, and the ability to split her focus. Everything that she had just accepted as background characteristics of her power, Joe saw for the true potential they had.
Joe knew about powers. That was clear from early on, but Taylor doubted that even Lisa understood how much he knew. He knew about different kinds of tinkers, how triggers worked, and the significance of different aspects of powers. Because of that he had been able to recognize what made her power special.
That was a big deal, and something she had clung to in the face of everything he had put on her shoulders. The importance of her mission would seem impossible, but Joe knew that there were things she could do that other masters couldn't. That other capes couldn't. It was why she needed to see this through, and why she had been working so hard to practice her abilities.
Her bugs tracked the movements of every student in the school. Not as a dense swarm, but as discrete points of awareness that she could follow. Early on she had focused on useful bugs. Fast or precise flyers, bugs who could bite or sting or spin webs, or bugs large enough to be able to distract people. With this she was going for the absolute opposite approach.
She was using the smallest bugs that she could control. Tiny larva or pupa, small enough to crawl between fibers of cloth and nearly invisible. Every person in the school was tagged with at least one, as well as several people in the surrounding area. And she could keep track of every one of them, individually, even with Greg's rambling doing everything it could to distract her.
It was an aspect of her power that made her feel like a real cape. A serious cape, not someone playing at being a hero. It took time to set up, but the advantages were undeniable. There were major Protectorate thinkers who had built careers on weaker versions of the effect she had put in place.
And the tracking was just the beginning. She was getting better at processing the senses of her insects. Sight was still a lost cause, barely able to manage light or dark, but hearing was coming along. During the day she had been able to pick up scattered words from conversations around the school. Usually, it came through as muffled and indistinct, but it was improving, particularly when compared to the sense of 'noise or quiet' she had started with.
Her awareness had also allowed her to avoid Emma and Sophia for the entire day. It was almost funny. She had been worried about losing it, going Carrie on the entire school, but it was the least violent application of her power possible that had made the most difference. She didn't need to fight them, she just needed to know enough to make sure she had the advantage.
She'd even been able to eat her lunch in peace. Well, once she had thrown off Emma, Sophia, and the handful of girls they had roped into things. It had been almost like a game of Pacman, moving through the halls, avoiding their attempts to find her until she could double back and enjoy her lunch in an empty classroom while watching them search in building frustration until the girls that had been helping them gave up and stormed off.
It probably wasn't a perfect solution. Once Madison came back they would be able to cover more ground. When the blackout field finally cleared and cell phones were working she doubted she'd be able to duck a coordinated effort, even with perfect awareness of everyone's position. Eventually she was going to have to deal with them again.
Her eyes dropped to her watch as Greg explained how it was obvious that the knife was some kind of power control focus for Khepri's transformation, probably hybridized with an engineered insect that she could control as part of her death swarm. She nodded along, allowing him to continue as she considered the watch.
It was another impossibility from Joe. And as usual, an impossibility that was quickly overshadowed. No doubt he was ten levels above whatever technology he had used to put defensive fields, scanners, and communicators into the tiny device. He had probably moved on and not given a second though to the watches that had come to define the lives of the Undersiders.
For years Taylor had avoided getting a cell phone, only reluctantly accepting the disposable model that Tattletale had given her. Then Joe had handed out watches that outstripped the best cell phones anyone could hope to find, even before you considered their other features. She couldn't help feeling a little smug that she was the only student in the school who had a functional cell phone. One that could make calls, even from the heart of the blackout zone.
But the watch also concerned her. She knew how good the scanners were from her work after the Ungodly Hour. They were set up to automatically report injuries, to activate the shield in advance and call for help. And she was in the same building as Sophia, who would be more than happy to trigger every one of those failsafes at the first opportunity.
That would expose her as a superhero, possibly as Khepri, depending on whether they could recognize the force field effect. But it would also alert Joe. Weirdly, that was what she was more concerned about. Sure, either way the separation between her personal life and cape life would crumble, but she was actually more concerned about bringing aspects of her cape life into her personal problems than the other way around.
She liked not having to worry about the trio in the face of her mission. The importance Joe placed on her put things in perspective. It made the problems of Winslow look small and insignificant by comparison, rather than the impossible life consuming torments that they had been. She knew Joe would help her with her problems at school, but she didn't want him to. She didn't want to elevate her bullies to that level.
But one wrong move from Sophia could throw that all into chaos. Luckily the watch's digital assistant was helpful in that matter. She had turned off automatic activation of the force field. While she was in school it wouldn't trigger for anything less than a lethal attack. There was no chance of it being triggered by Sophia's casual violence, giving away the game. It was the same reason she had left the plates from her improved costume at home.
Just thinking about that armor made Taylor's head swim. The costumes for the rest of the Undersiders had been incredible, but what Joe had made for her was on another level. In a way it felt like a turning point in her identity. Before the summit Khepri was just something the internet had decided to call her. It was more a placeholder name than a real identity. But once she had stepped out in that golden Egyptian armor there had been no question. Before that she had felt like she couldn't live up to the name. After that debut she embodied it. She was Lady Khepri, with an identity as iconic as Miss Militia, Armsmaster, or even Alexandria.
Shockingly, the strength of the design was the least significant part of that armor. She remembered her original plan to get armored plates for her costume to replace the improvised pads she was using. If the armor that Joe made was just that, armor, then it would have been everything she had hoped for. She doubted anything less than an attack on the level of March's power would be able to damage those plates, and the level of coverage was enough to keep her safe from most attacks. But of course, Joe hadn't stopped at just armor.
He had built her a version of the same power that he used to protect himself. The plates enhanced the durability of her body and even her costume, and not just at the surface level. It didn't just make her skin bulletproof; it reinforced her entire body. It was an effect with applications far beyond protecting her from attacks.
When she practiced punching she could feel the lack of give in her hands, like she was made of steel. She had actually chipped a cement wall with a full force punch, with the impact not even jarring her in the slightest. More practice had found that impacts were completely negated, with the durability extending into skin, bones, tendons, and organs. Even sharp drops were harmless. Okay, it was tricky to actually land on your feet, but Taylor hadn't found a height of a fall that couldn't be immediately walked off, usually with the pavement worse for wear than she was.
It was the perfect solution to the panic of her first night out, trapped on a rooftop with Lung and weighing a probably broken leg from leaping to the street below against the prospect of staying to fight the villain. It seemed like the kind of feature that should have been mentioned, but Joe hadn't exactly provided an instruction manual, just assurance about the effect.
To be fair, he did that a lot. Throwing out superpowered items and leaving them to figure out the implications. She remembered when she realized that the 'phone' feature of the watch Joe had given her was significantly better than her home computer, and that wasn't even getting into what the digital assistant could handle. Even the bag Joe had used to deliver her armor had been a life changer, and he hadn't given it a second thought.
It made her wonder what would happen if she really took Joe up on his offer to help. What could he do, on every front? The watches were probably horribly outdated, and her weapons were even more so. The armor had been built on short notice along with the rest of the costumes for the Undersiders. Joe had promised some kind of healing method to help with her workouts. That had either been forgotten or had morphed into something beyond excessive.
Because that was the perfect descriptor for Joe's work. Excessive. With everything he made, the intended purpose seemed to be just the tip of the iceberg. What was his serious equipment even capable of?
The closest anyone had to an idea was from the Ungodly Hour, specifically the time before he had been ambushed by March and fought Lung. That had clearly damaged most of his equipment, but video from earlier encounters showed what he had been capable of. Throwing around fire, ice and wind with impossible precision. Splitting streets with a stomp of his foot. Moving like lightning even against live opponents while coordinating multiple robots.
Okay, on reflection that was probably done with the help of his team. Greg had moved on from theories on Lady Khepri's anatomy to evidence of Apeiron's team from before Somer's Rock. The obvious explanation that Joe's suits and drones were remote controlled rather than being the product of some beyond-advanced drone programs. Sure, Joe could probably pull that off now, but back then, when he was starting out? Based on what Taylor knew about him, it was likely that he was getting support as far back as the storage yard battle.
Greg pointed out how even Dragon couldn't handle that kind of drone automation and Taylor nodded in agreement. Convinced that he had a captive audience, Greg launched on even as Taylor split her focus between her own thoughts and the hundreds of tagged individuals she was currently monitoring.
Joe didn't want to give her weapons, not until the time came to move. She was the only one of the Undersiders who had a version of the tool Joe had used against Bakuda in her watch. It was locked off, but she could see the features she couldn't use. Everything that Joe had broken out in that fight, fabrication, fire blasts, lightning, ranged hacking, and even some kind of gravity effect, was just a single release away.
It bothered her, not being able to use the tools that were right there, but Joe had assured her. They were just a call away. The only restriction was that she would need to include Joe in whatever she was heading out to do, and she wasn't ready for that. Not yet. She was close, so close.
A few more days, maybe a week, and then she would have the identity of the Boss. She could go to Joe and they could plan their next move. With how cautious he had been she knew it was serious. She couldn't be careless, couldn't risk the mission, not at this point. She had to stay focused, keep training, and be ready for when the time came.
That meant actually making proper use of the tools Joe gave her. Joe knew the strengths of her power, and he built things that had uses beyond the obvious. Just like her own power, which should have been a clue. Things like controlling the knife through her insects or the utility of the watch. She had overlooked them at first, only for them to end up as fundamental abilities.
If not for that insight, she might have overlooked the real potential of the armor. It reinforced her body and her costume, but her costume was made of spider silk. She had almost missed that fundamental aspect of the power, until she realized that the durability applied to her hair as well. And if it applied to her hair and the silk fibers of her costume, then it would continue to apply, even if a strand of silk was only anchored to her costume at one end.
Her first idea had been to use it to manipulate objects at range. Using her bugs to weave a strand of silk into the arm of her costume, then loop the other around a door, or loose item, or even a weapon in someone's hand. She could control the way her spiders spun their silk and was able to produce strands so thin they were nearly invisible. She could covertly place the strands and then pull on them, moving objects or disarming opponents through long range puppetry. She even had the idea of using the strands to trip opponents or pull them off their feet.
It was a really good thing she had practiced the effect before she put it into action. The durability increase was massive, and didn't care about how thin the strand of silk was. But when you applied that kind of force over an area that small through a strand that effectively could not break the results were dramatic.
It was like stories about what piano wire could do when used as a weapon, only scaled up to something that was massively stronger and sharper. Her disarm test had resulted in a kitchen knife cleanly sliced in half. Other materials didn't fare much better. She didn't know what would happen if she used it against a person, but she doubted they would fare much better than the wooden post that she had cut in two.
It was like her knife all over again, only her knife could only be in one place at a time. With her webs, she could set up dozens of slices ready at a moment's notice. She could even freely weave threads into or out of her costume, effectively setting and arming traps in the environment.
Heavy, solid objects were still difficult to deal with. Even the thinnest threads took time to cut through them, which would have made it impractical to do during a fight. Would have, if Taylor hadn't figured out the trick. Just like Joe had trusted her to find the potential of the armor he trusted that she would see how it could work with the other tools he had given her.
She had mastered the knife to the point where she could deploy it to the limits of her range. With it she could set web lines further and faster than even her best insects would have been able to manage, but there was still the problem of cutting through large objects. That's where her baton came in. Just like it amplified impact on a hit she could use it for the final devastating slice of her web lines. Using the baton to drive home the impact, even the heaviest and most solid objects could be sliced like they weren't even there.
She had seen that herself, with the way reinforced concrete beams had just come apart with a single swing. And then… well, that building was probably coming down anyway, with all the damage it had taken in the fighting. Plus it was deep in the blackout zone, so probably nothing to worry about. And it had been a good proof of concept, a way to confirm that her idea worked.
And with more practice, she confirmed that even her initial plan was viable. She could entangle people in unbreakable silk or puppet objects at range. She just needed enough threads to avoid destroying what she was trying to restrain or move.
She knew what it meant, for Joe to trust her with something like this. He probably knew that she was getting close to finishing her mission. The mission he had placed so much importance on. And she had the tools to see it through, and the promise of more if she needed them. She just had to make sure she was both ready and able to use them to their fullest.
"That's why they're sure that Khepri and the Celestial Forge became Case 53s together."
Her resolution was once again jarred by Greg launching into a non sequitur that she was sure she would never have been able to keep up with prior to her practice in splitting her focus.
"What do you mean 'became Case 53s'?" She asked. "I'm pretty sure nobody knows where Case 53s come from."
"Yeah, but they have to form somehow. It's not like they're just being dropped off from another universe, no matter what FlippinMad says." Greg said, referencing one of the many, many people he had been arguing with online. "The top theory is a really bad trigger, one that makes them lose their memories. Uh, you know about triggers right?"
Taylor felt herself tense slightly but pushed her frustration away, expanding her focus on her swarm. Two boys were having an argument in a stairwell that was turning heated, leading to some shoves and apparent threats before their friends pulled them apart. Three kids had snuck off from a mostly empty drama class to smoke under the school's bleachers. A girl Taylor didn't know curled up in a quiet corner of the library and started crying to herself. Unfortunately, not an uncommon event from what Taylor had observed that day.
Turning to Greg she gave a stilted reply. "Yes, I know what a trigger is." She hoped she wouldn't need to sit through any internet theories about the origin of powers. The idea of good and bad breakthroughs was particularly offensive when you knew how things actually worked. Like villains were destined to be villains for getting powers in a bad situation, rather than some sporting event or personal triumph.
"Right, well there's this thing called cluster triggers, where a bunch of people get powers together and they end up sharing with each other." He said. "Only there's never been a cluster Case 53 trigger before."
Taylor wasn't sold on the idea of a Case 53 trigger to begin with, but honestly it wasn't much more outlandish than most of the theories she'd heard.
"So, they think a bunch of people turned into monsters together and that's what led to Apeiron and the Celestial Forge?" She asked in a level voice.
"Yeah." Greg said excitedly. The volume of his voice was pitching up again, drawing attention from the other groups. "It probably happened at a fashion show or talent agency or something, since Khepri and Survey are both models."
Taylor felt the façade of good-natured indulgence she had been using to humor Greg crack slightly. "What?" She asked. "Survey and Khepri?"
"Of course. You can't tell with Khepri because of her not changing her costume from full coverage, but people had done analysis on the way she walks and moves. Pretty much everyone is sure she was some kind of model or actress. Probably still is. They've even got lists of possibilities for who she might be, but PHO is pretty strict about that stuff. Anyway, the reason she isn't showing her face is so that she won't be recognized from magazine covers and stuff." Greg declared.
"Uh, sure." Taylor managed as she processed the latest rambling. She didn't think Greg's theories were likely to be the most mainstream, but he seemed to work by osmosis. Not so much forming his own opinions as rolling up any loose ones that happen to be flying around on the internet. If he was spouting them with this much confidence that meant there was at least a significant number of people online who were backing him up.
"Alright, I think that's enough group discussion." Mr. Gladly called. "Let's take a moment before the end of class to share what you've been discussing."
Taylor's stomach turned at the prospect, and the rest of the students seemed about as enthusiastic as she was. Mr. Gladly looked over the half empty room of blank faces, clearly unaccustomed to his overtures falling flat.
His eyes scanned across the tired and impassive faces before settling on her. "Taylor, it sounded like your group was fairly productive. Why don't you share your conclusions with the class?"
Taylor stared blankly at him, reaching out further to her swarm as she worked to keep her frustration off her face. Mr. Quinlan had given up on any attempt to teach his math class, sitting in silence as the clock ran out. On the third floor someone was attempting to break into a locker, but ran off when the custodian checked on the noise. In the library the crying girl looked up to see a lost ladybug crawling across a shelf by her head. The girl sniffed, then gently took the insect in her hands and stood up.
"Come on Taylor." He said in an infuriatingly cheerful voice. "What do you have to say about managing the stress of a parahuman world?"
What did she have to say about stress? She had plenty, but little of it was related to parahumans. The realization struck her that despite all the insanity that had happened since she started working as a cape, the fight with Lung, the recruitment to the Undersiders, the showdown with Bakuda, and the entanglement with Apeiron, the actual stress level was less than what she's been dealing with at school. The stakes were higher, but the pressures and day to day frustrations were pretty much the same. Despite everything, she couldn't really say her life had become worse since she had become embroiled in open gang warfare and the actions of a cape operating on a global scale. Because what it came down to…
"It's about control." She said. The girl in the library found an open window and carefully released the ladybug outside. It took to the air, circling around three others in a spiral of red that vanished into the distance. The girl watched as a butterfly landed on the window sill in front of her, flexed its wings, then took to the air in a burst of color.
"Control?" Mr. Gladly asked. "You mean the policies that have been put in place? The curfews and restrictions?"
"No." she said. "Control of your own life."
The class was turning towards her now, but she didn't see a way of backing out from their focus. She could try to mumble her way through and run out the clock to the end of the day, but there was too much time for her to be comfortable with that, and Mr. Gladly could just bounce things back to her. She needed to press on to some kind of point.
"It's like, even when things are hard, if you know what to expect you can try to prepare for it." She explained. "That was kind of what it was like before everything happened. You had the gangs and villain fights, but they were things that everyone knew about. That's different from dealing with someone like Bakuda. Or Apeiron."
"You're saying that it's not that Bakuda and Apeiron are worse, it's that they're less predictable?" He prodded. Taylor had to school her reaction. Not what she had meant, and not a popular sentiment in the class.
Thinking about her life before all of this, coming to school not knowing what the Trio had planned for her. Taking steps that would be stalling measures at best. No support, no one to turn to, and the knowledge that things were getting worse. That they would keep getting worse and there was nothing she could do about it.
"No." she said sharply. "What Bakuda did was both worse and less predictable. And it's been worse for everyone. I think that what's happened has changed the way people think about capes."
"What do you mean?" Mr. Gladly suddenly looked very interested. Fair enough, this was kind of what the class was supposed to be about, but she kind of resented the attention coming from what had clearly been an act of spite by the man.
"Well, before the last week, Brockton Bay was popular with tourists because of the number of capes we had. There was this idea that it was all kind of a show. Heroes fighting villains and coming out ahead. Cops and robbers." She added, using Lisa's parlance. "That's changed now. People have seen how bad things have gotten, but they also had to admit how bad things were before."
Like she wished would have happened with her. Everyone treated the locker like it was some shocking incident, not the result of a slow buildup of over a year of abuse. They didn't want to admit the previous situation that they had allowed to develop. It was something they could get away with for her, but with the events in the city, with a more critical eye on them and no administration trying to sweep them under the rug, there was no way to accomplish that.
"You're talking about the Flashbang memes." Mr. Gladly said sagely. She hadn't been talking about that specifically, but nodded anyway.
"People have seen what all the capes in the city have done over the last week. It's not just about the power they showed off, it's about the fact that it was always there. There wasn't really the kind of safety or control that they thought." She said bitterly, thinking of her own slow realization as her friends betrayed her and every attempt to fix things fell apart. The hopelessness that set in from having to admit that there was nothing you could do but endure and hope for something to somehow change the situation.
"You're saying we could be seeing a change in the way society approaches parahumans." Mr. Gladly said. "Not just from new policies or approaches, but from recontextualization of past events."
Taylor just shrugged. "I think it's going to be hard to pretend that being a hero is safe or glamorous after what's happened. Maybe people will change the way they look at things, or maybe they'll just pretend this is something that only happens in Brockton Bay." Just like they pretended all of her problems were somehow centered on her, not the school or the bullies or everyone in the class who facilitated things.
Thankfully, the sound of the bell saved her from needing to elaborate any further. She could tell from the expressions of the other students this wasn't the feel-good positive outlook that Mr. Gladly had probably hoped his discussion session was going to generate. Though she couldn't say she really felt bad about bringing down the mood.
"Thank you Taylor. Those are some excellent points. We'll have to touch on them next class." Mr. Gladly said as the students began packing up their things. "Oh, and Taylor? The principal wants to see you in the office before you leave."
There was a chorus of oohs from the class and Taylor found herself reaching out to her swarm even more to steady herself. She didn't know what this was about, but she had the feeling that for anyone but her Mr. Gladly would have been a little more discreet about it.
Or maybe not. It was easy for her to assume her situation was unique, but there were probably any number of overlooked kids at Winslow High. Aside from the more popular students, she doubted Mr. Gladly would have really cared about how the announcement came across.
"Fine." She said, grabbing her bag and hurrying into the hall without a second look at the teacher. There was a serious heft to it from the weight of all of her textbooks. She had long since abandoned use of her locker, instead hauling everything she needed with her. Even then, her bag was hardly safe. Too often it was moved, stolen, damaged, or vandalized. It was why she couldn't risk taking Joe's storage bag, not even folded up and hidden. Couldn't risk it getting damaged or discovered, meaning she needed to fall back to her practice of managing an overloaded backpack.
As she hauled her bag through the halls her mind was tracking the location of every person in the school, including everyone Emma and Sophia had been in contact with. She plotted out a slight deviation in her route to the principal's office that let her avoid even being seen by any of them, then quickly rushed into the principal's office.
She ducked in and loudly closed the door behind her, earning a sour look from Ms. Stoningham, the school secretary. Taylor weathered it with as much humor as she could muster as she approached the woman's desk.
"Mr. Gladly said Principal Blackwell wanted to see me." She said. The woman gave her a hard look before responding.
"Yes. The principal is on a call at the moment. Please have a seat and I'll let you know when she's available." Ms. Stoningham said.
Taylor's lips dipped down in a slight frown, earning another sour look from the secretary. She quickly took her seat, but the concerned feeling that had been building since Mr. Gladly's announcement spiked up. She knew Principal Blackwell wasn't on a call. She had the woman tagged and knew she was on her computer. She didn't have the concentration of bugs in the office that she would need to clearly make out sounds, but she was certain the woman wasn't talking to anyone.
She was being lied to. Manipulated. She honestly expected it at this point, but this was the first time she had been sure of it. Something was happening. They were basically making her wait after school while they played at something, and she didn't know what.
She thought over what she had observed during the day. Keeping track of everyone independently hadn't been a challenge, not when she started to push herself. She had been able to follow along with her classes while also tracking the locations and actions of every person in the school.
She didn't have a perfect record of everything that was happening. Most people she only had tagged with a single bug. Enough to know their location, but not enough to track everything they were doing. Still, she knew how much time Principal Blackwell had spent at her desk and who she had talked to through the day. She knew how many phone calls both her and Ms. Stoningham had made. She knew about the visitor that arrived just after lunch, someone in a slightly better suit that the teachers at Winslow wore. Someone who seemed at least somewhat official, though she had no idea what his role was. Superintendent maybe?
And now she was being forced to sit and wait for no reason. In a place with no cell phones, not that she had one to begin with. Were they trying to frustrate her, or was it just some power play? Maybe this was nothing unusual, maybe every time she's had to wait to meet with a school official the delay had been a power play to try to establish roles.
Or maybe she's been spending too much time with Lisa and was seeing connections where there weren't any.
The actual wait was only about ten minutes. Taylor entertained herself by watching the school slowly empty. Winslow was never a hub of extracurricular activities, at least beyond the sports teams, and practices were officially canceled given the state of the city. She took some pleasure in the idea that Sophia would be missing out on the track team and whatever glory and concessions came with it.
On that note, she rather enjoyed watching the two girls make one last attempt to corner her. Staking out the entrance of the school, hoping to catch her when she made a run for the bus stop. Taylor watched as the hangers on that they assembled gradually split off, either walking past the limits of her range, boarding one of the departing buses, or being directly picked up by parents.
There was a sense of satisfaction in having avoided them for the entire day, but Taylor knew they would come back harder the next time. The game of avoiding them could only go on for so long before she would either end up cornered or worse, give away the fact that she had powers. Eventually she was going to have to deal with them again, and she wasn't looking forward to it.
Inside her office Principal Blackwell picked up her phone. The phone on Ms. Stoningham's desk rang and there was a brief muttered conversation before the secretary raised her head.
"Principal Blackwell is ready to see you." She said.
"Thanks." Taylor said as he hefted her bag and trudged to the principal's office.
Inside sat Principal Blackwell with her grim suit and dirty blond hair styled into a bowl cut. The woman looked up as she entered and gave a slight nod. "Miss Hebert, thank you for coming. Please sit down."
"Thank you." She said, taking the smaller seat across the desk from the principal. "Um, what is this about?" She asked.
"I'm sorry to call you here after class, but there's some paperwork that needs your signature." The woman explained.
The earlier concern Taylor had been feeling ramped up to dangerous levels. "What kind of paperwork?"
"School records from the incident back in January." Principal Blackwell said as she spun the stack of paper around on her desk so that it faced Taylor. The stack was at least twenty pages deep and looked extremely technical. "There's been a request for the paperwork. If you could sign at the marked section for release and confirmation of the information."
There was a red 'sign here' sticker on the bottom of the stack, buried under an impressive amount of information.
"I don't understand." She said. Without the insects she had planted on the principal she might have missed the way the woman tensed at her words. "What is this request? And why do I need to sign anything to confirm information you already have?"
"Miss Hebert." Principal Blackwell began. "These are very difficult times for the city. We are doing our best to comply with a simple data release. Your signature is only needed for confirmation of the statements you have already made regarding the matter."
"The attack." Taylor said. "The time I was attacked. Trapped into a locker and then hospitalized." Months of frustration were bubbling to the surface as she spoke. Just mentioning it in this context brought back flashes of that time. The horrible experience and the aftermath that was nearly as bad. A desperate fight for some kind of justice or action or anything that would make a difference.
In the end nothing had come. There were no changes. Just an agreement to pay medical bills and some empty promises about monitoring student conduct.
"I can see that you are upset." Blackwell said in a level voice. "I understand your frustration regarding how some aspects of your case were handled."
"Good." Taylor shot back. She didn't know if she would normally have been this stern, but after everything she had gone through against Lung, Bakuda, and with the Undersiders she wasn't finding Principle Blackwell the least bit intimidating. "So, does this mean they're doing something about it? Has anyone been caught? Been charged?"
"This is just a release of information. There are, to my knowledge, no developments on the matter."
"Of course." She said, flicking through the documents again. "I'm not signing anything I haven't read. And my father should read it too." She began to gather up the pages.
"This isn't a contract, it's a release of official documents. I can't allow you to take them home with you." The principal said sharply.
Taylor froze. "Of course." She spat. "Am I at least allowed to read them, or do you want me to sign them blind?"
"There is no need to be adversarial, Miss Hebert. You are free to take all the time you require to review the information relating to your case, but I cannot allow the documents to leave the building." The principal rose to her feet. "Please, feel free to take all the time you need."
All the time she needed. While waiting after school, in the principal's office, with a giant pack of legal and medical documents where the only clear section was the place for her signature confirming the information and release.
It was like they didn't care how suspicious they were being and just counted on her being too tired or impatient to fight them on this.
"Fine." Taylor said, and started on the first page of the pack.
The principal frowned at her. "I had hoped that you would be more considerate, given the circumstances. But very well, please let Ms. Stoningham know when you are satisfied with the matter."
"I will. Thank you." She said as the principal left her to the documents.
Once the door closed Taylor began to dig through, but it was clear she was out of her depth. She recognized some details, bits and pieces of information, but it was presented in what seemed like the most convoluted way possible. There were references to other documents as well as policies and bylaws that she had never heard of. Twenty-three pages, double sided, and all crammed with the densest information she had ever seen. Even if she was taking notes she doubted she would be able to keep it straight.
A thought occurred to her. The principal was in the teacher's lounge and Ms. Stoningham was on a call. The chance that she would be disturbed was negligible. She reached down and activated the privacy field on her watch.
"Watch?" She called out, silent to everyone beyond the range of the forcefield. "Can you scan these documents?"
"Scan complete. Full digitization available. Would you like a display of the material?" The electronic voice replied.
The watch wouldn't have offered if it hadn't already confirmed they were alone, but a glance towards the office window was enough to convince Taylor not to risk it.
"No thanks." Another thought occurred to her. This was the kind of thing she should talk to her father about. Previously she wouldn't want to bother him with any details of what was happening at school. He had been too run down and she couldn't bring herself to add to that. But lately, with the way he'd engaged with the recovery efforts, it felt like she could mention it.
Like she should mention it. She didn't know the details but trying to coerce someone into signing something was never a good sign. But she couldn't exactly show up with a perfect set of scans of the documents, not without explaining things she'd rather keep quiet.
"Um, watch? Could you take a set of scans that look like cell phone photos? Like, still readable, but something that would pass as coming from a kind of mid-level phone?"
"Emulation of cell phone camera techniques and metadata is possible. Do you wish to simulate the photos from existing records, or follow a specific arrangement?"
In the end Taylor chose to set up her own photos. Something that would pass as page-by-page photography. She was flipping through the documents, laying each page out on the desk when she noticed something that made her tense.
Emma was coming back into the school. She was with an older woman and was heading straight for the office. Frantically, Taylor rushed through the recording of the final pages, all while focusing as many bugs as she dared on following Emma and the mystery woman.
That only served to confirm that they were definitely heading for the principal's office. Their pace was casual and unhurried, but it was definitely getting closer. Taylor nearly stopped breathing when they opened the door. Ms. Stoningham looked up and said something as they entered. Taylor focused on making as little noise as possible while listening as hard as she could through the door.
"I wanted to drop off the permission slip in case I didn't get a chance tomorrow." She heard Emma say. "Mom wasn't able to get me the news until after school."
"It's quite inconvenient, all this stuff with the field." She heard a familiar older woman's voice. It was Mrs. Barnes. Emma was here with her mother.
"That's no problem at all." Ms. Stoningham said much more sweetly than she had addressed Taylor. "I've heard about the charity event. We're very proud to have a student from Winslow assisting with their efforts."
"Well, I've worked with Parian before at some of my department store jobs." Emma said smugly as she name dropped the cape. "She probably remembered me from them."
"It will be for the afternoon. Emma will need to leave at lunch to prepare for the show, and the work will take until after school. We'll make sure to catch up on any work missed." Mrs. Barnes explained.
"No worries there. I know Emma won't have any problems keeping up. You have a very bright girl." Ms. Stoningham said.
Taylor clenched her teeth and pulled back from the door, ignoring the rest of the exchanged small talk and pleasantries. Through her bugs she could feel every shift in their motion and track their speech, not the words, but the inflection, intensity, and even when they broke into laughter, though that she could hear even from her seat.
She seethed in place until Emma and her mother left the office, then continued to seethe as they made their way out of the school, across the parking lot, and eventually drove out of her range.
Emma had a modeling job. It was exactly the kind of thing she did, and apparently the state of the city wasn't hurting her career. She vaguely remembered hearing about some event, a charity show or donation drive or something. It had sprung up in the last couple of days and she hadn't bothered to look into it. With Emma involved she wasn't sure she wanted to look into it.
At least Emma would only be in school for half of the next day. Assuming the attendance levels stayed consistent, that would make it even easier to avoid her. Just stay out of her way for the morning, then have one less problem to worry about in the afternoon. Of course, her class schedule would make that more of a challenge, but she could probably manage it. Probably.
She looked down at the stack of borderline incomprehensible papers and decided she was done. She grabbed the pile, shouldered her bag and marched out of the office, dropping the documents on Ms. Stoningham's desk.
"I'm not signing anything without my father." She said as she continued out of the office. "You can call him if you want to deal with this."
The secretary huffed as Taylor left the office, but she was beyond caring. Something was happening. Against all odds, the school was trying to pull something with respect to her case. That had the faint suggestion that they might be in some kind of trouble.
As far as she was concerned, that was a good thing. Hiking out of the school, she found a discreet alley where she could call up her screen. The photos that her watch had put together were perfect. Just grainy enough to be believable as cell phone pictures, but still clear enough to read all the gibberish that filled the documents.
Her father would probably believe a story about borrowing someone's phone or picking up a cheap used one at the Market. Electronics still worked inside the school, they just couldn't transmit anything. She had a perfect cover for sneaking things out, and for once it felt like her father was in a place to do something. Maybe that 'something' would be limited to yelling at the administration, but for once that seemed like a positive move, rather than a completely futile gesture.
It almost seemed trivial, worrying about this in the face of her mission. Something important enough for Joe, for Apeiron to put emphasis on, and it was coming to a head soon. But still, this wasn't something she could ignore. Her life didn't just stop because she was caught in the heart of Brockton Bay's cape scene.
If anything, the gap between the two concerns was enough to trivialize this. If Joe could trust her with her mission, then she could handle her bullies as well, or at least cause some trouble for them, and the school as a bonus. Besides, after today it was clear she wouldn't have any problems multitasking.