95.4 Interlude Colin

Colin sat in his lab sorting through the news of the day. There was too much information for any one man to keep track of. Without Dragon's help he didn't know how he would have managed.

Even with Dragon, it wasn't easy staying on top of things. In fact, that may have been an overly ambitious assessment of what they had been able to accomplish. At best they could be said to be keeping up with the situation, even if they were far from actually having a handle on it.

That was understandable. The situation they were dealing with was unique. That was a word that got thrown around to an almost excessive degree. The problem was people focused on the uniqueness of the particular factors they had to contend with. It was true that every situation, every encounter and every challenge was technically unique, but they could largely be addressed through a narrow range of measures. The narrower the range of measures available to contend with a situation, the more that situation's 'uniqueness' became relevant.

In that respect, the Celestial Forge was truly unique. It was an unprecedented situation. A probable cluster of seven capes, each suspected to be a high-level tinker supplemented by supporting powers. It was an insane prospect, the kind of thing that would exist only as a threat assessment exercise, not an actual scenario to be contended with. The very idea that a grab-bag cape would contain both tinker powers and powers that directly compounded the effectiveness of that tinker power was pure insanity.

Of course, it became considerably more plausible when you considered the cape who was likely the primary expression of said tinker powers. Cluster members tended to possess a primary ability, something that was recreated in the other members, but to a lesser degree. It was also generally accepted that the ability was diluted by its presence in the cluster, weakening both the primary expression and the secondary manifestations.

If that was the case Colin shuddered to imagine what Apeiron's tinker power would look like at full force. Of course, that may be what they were looking at here. The idea of a tinker specifically focused on the study and modification of powers was exceptionally concerning, and not just for the obvious reasons. The threat such an individual could pose was tremendous, even without accounting for the highly concerning probability that they were looking at an active mad scientist. No, the true concern tied back to the conditions that would lead to the origin of such a tinker.

Trumps were an exceptionally rare class of parahumans. With the greater emphasis on trigger theory, the reason for that was becoming clear even to the general public. Trump triggers involved the presence of parahumans, often with the nature of powers themselves as an inciting factor. It was understandable why the Protectorate had never specifically seen the kind of scenario that would introduce trump aspects to a tinker trigger.

There were few ways that type of scenario could unfold and all of them were highly worrying. Combined with the presence of a large and active cluster, it created the impression that some major incident had been overlooked.

Or forgotten.

Colin glanced at the various posted signs and printed pictures around his replacement workshop. He still remembered Lethe. The stranger's power wasn't active. The way it effortlessly subverted technology was one of the most problematic aspects of the cape in question, but there was no shortage of concerns regarding Lethe.

To begin with, nobody was sure of the point at which Lethe had become active as a cape. Her first confirmed appearance was in the wake of the Ungodly Hour, but it was hard to believe Apeiron would have kept an asset as valuable as the Celestial Forge's stranger on the sidelines through the entire fight. It was possible that she had been otherwise occupied or had only arrived at the end of the conflict. Kataklyzein had been confirmed to be absent at the time, so it wasn't unprecedented, and it was likely that the Matrix's mech had been deployed later than would have been preferred.

Honestly, it was an almost comforting thought to imagine the Celestial Forge struggling with logistical issues in response to an unexpected crisis. That was probably because they, or at least Apeiron, had seemed to be the architect of so many of the crises that the rest of the city had been forced to contend with. There was a sense of solidarity in imagining the team of capes that were basically being viewed as untouchable deities scrambling in the face of an attack, working to get equipment ready for deployment and calling in reserves who were just too far away to do more than show up in time to survey the aftermath.

No pun intended, though Survey brought no shortage of concerning elements to any situation being considered.

Lethe could well have spent the entirety of the Ungodly Hour trying to get her armor field ready, or flying back from a remote deployment, or contending with some kind of personal or sensitive matter that couldn't be abandoned. Or even some combination of the three, with even more possibilities for what could have driven her delay.

Or she could have been assisting the entire time, potentially being responsible for any number of improbable events while remaining unseen, unrecorded, and unremembered.

Colin turned from his current project and drew up footage from the Ungodly Hour. Recordings outside of the ABB's broadcast were both rare and of poor quality. Understandably, nobody had been prioritizing their social media posts when tinker-tech bombs had started exploding. Most of the video was from what was likely seen as a safe distance from the fighting, or from some terrified individual pinned down by attacks who was probably trying to record what might have been their last moments. There were some better-quality examples from PRT body cameras and news crews, but they had mostly stayed to the periphery of the fighting, meaning they saw little of the direct conflicts, or Apeiron's intervention in them.

Said intervention was often brutally short and shockingly efficient, even by Colin's own rather stringent standards for such things. Fifteen minutes of heated shootouts ended with less than ten seconds of intervention before both Apeiron and his drones deployed to the next location.

At the time his behavior had seemed like madness. Random jumps and interventions in attacks that seemed to be of no consequence. Movements without logic or prioritization. Or so it had appeared, until he stopped his frenetic work to pursue the ABB leadership. That was when they realized what he had been working to prevent.

Colin was using 'they' in the general sense. He had been out of the city at the time, and bed ridden from multiple surgeries. At best he had been able to provide some data assessment, largely after the fact. But you didn't need expert assessment to see the effects that began to cascade once Apeiron diverted his attention elsewhere.

The underestimation of March was a black mark that the Protectorate might never recover from. Not just in terms of the effect on Brockton Bay, but in respect to the villain's entire career. The thinker's coordination had allowed Bakuda's already destructive bombs to cascade and build upon each other. It had taken entire teams of responders just to contain some of the effects. If Apeiron hadn't been intervening from the start the city may have effectively been lost.

It was a harrowing thought. Not many people would look at the current state of Brockton Bay and muse on how grateful they should be that any part of the city was still standing. It was easy to look at the ABB's broadcast and focus only on Apeiron's final moments. There were certainly enough impressive displays to warrant the amount of attention being directed at them. In comparison, what was the rest of the conflict? Refined uses of drones and impressive displays of elemental effects? Hard to compare that kind of thing to parasitic red fibers pulling someone together, a maddening brawl with a living dragon, transformation into a primal beast creature, and the deployment of one of the largest robots on record.

Colin let the earlier footage play, passively picking over every detail of what was being displayed. The technology used, the equipment deployed, what might have been a natural ability and what could be some advanced expression of tinker tech. And, of course, checking if there was any sign of Lethe's involvement.

There wasn't. There never was. Concerningly, there might be plenty of signs, but it was possible the stranger's power could keep people from noticing them. After all, no matter how keen people were to benchmark the Celestial Forge, they only had evidence on what they had displayed openly, not what they were fully capable of. Lethe could be concealing any number of things, potentially including a major incident sufficient to explain the creation of a cluster of seven capes.

Of at least seven capes. Like with the Celestial Forge's capabilities, they could only be sure they were at least as strong as what had been demonstrated. In most cases theorizing on the potentially unlimited power of your opponents was an unadvisable endeavor, but this was definitely not most cases. There was more than enough evidence to suggest firm grounding for the justification behind the cape name that Apeiron had selected for himself.

A beep on his console signaled Dragon's incoming call. He had to smile at that, then regretted his decision as the movement pulled against his still healing implants. He would need another set of Cask's treatments before he turned in for the night. He had to admit, the regime at least ensured he was getting proper sleep, possibly for the first time in his career, if only because of the volume of alcohol he needed to consume to complete a full course of treatment.

He triggered the same implants that had caused the discomfort and connected to Dragon's call. They were both in the same city, but their method of communication hadn't changed. Dragon was firmly entombed in her new base, with capacities and defenses growing every day. The effort put into the simple relocation was staggering, but it spoke to an understanding of the severity of their situation. One that Colin was grateful for.

"Good evening, Colin." Dragon's avatar said as it appeared on one of his screens.

"Hello Dragon." He said, shifting slightly to face her. It wasn't strictly necessary, but it provided the impression of good social graces. The temporary workshop was far from the picture of efficiency his old one had been, but the integration of his implants with the control systems partially made up for the deficiency. It took some getting used to, but controlling his systems without directly interfacing with his equipment while also conversing with Dragon would be good practice.

"Reviewing the Ungodly Hour again?" She asked.

"To the extent that it's possible." He admitted, sparing a glance to where some of the more useful video clips were looping. It was understandable why most of the analysis had been directed at the later portion of the fight. In addition to the aforementioned events, the early portions showcased technology that was largely demolished during March's strike on Apeiron. Given the rate of development the man and his team had displayed, it was likely any new examples would bear only a vague resemblance to what was displayed during the first half of the conflict.

Of course, that assumes you were looking at said technology with the intention of predicting Apeiron's future work, not assessing the potential contributions of another cape.

"So, what is your conclusion?" Dragon asked, her avatar raising an eyebrow.

"Officially? There is insufficient information to draw any definitive conclusions and no mention of any potential connection should be made publicly or in official documents." He said.

"Straight from official policy." Dragon said.

There was a light teasing tone to her synthesized voice, and Colin understood why. There was a time where he would have stuck to policy and left it at that. Never even imagined risking the slight possibility of hinting that he was stepping out of line. That didn't concern him anymore, at least not in the face of managing the reality of the challenge before them. Things were too serious to allow the threat of policy to send him off course.

Though that wasn't the only reason. It's funny, somehow when it came to infractions, the gulf between zero and one was infinitely greater than the gulf between forty-three and forty-four. Or would it be forty-five? He supposed it depended on what the final ruling regarding Ward active combat policies ended up being and whether his concussion was ruled as reasonable excuse for a lapse of judgement. Regardless, the chance of him making it through the situation unscathed was nonexistent. All he could do was try to control the nature of how things played out.

It was something he was managing far, far better than Director Piggot. And he was somewhat proud of that. For once, it seemed there were benefits to not being responsible for everything. He knew Hannah was keen for him to resume command, but he was reluctant to step up just yet, and not just because it felt like taking the helm of a sinking ship.

Incredibly, people were more impressed with what he'd accomplished while severely injured and contending with a broken city than his actions when he was working himself to death to keep things from falling apart. He had always been afraid to take a break or be out of commission, lest things fall apart. And then he'd been taken out of commission and things had fallen apart.

It wasn't direct causation, but it created an image in the public. People wanted him back in command with an earnestness that he never expected. Any other time he probably would have leapt at the chance and launched into full operations, regardless of his health issues.

He wasn't doing that, and not just because Dragon had ensured he knew exactly how badly things could go if he rushed or compromised his recovery. The level of implantation he had endured was staggering and not something that you could take chances with. The fact that it left the Director to face full responsibility as the sole authority figure during the ensuing disasters was just a bonus. Normally he would have hated ceding the initiative to Director Piggot, but this was a case where there were no good moves. Zugzwang, to use a somewhat pretentious term. He could gain the advantage by removing himself from the equation while giving the director sufficient time to dig her own grave.

The majority of the director's issues had bloomed forth from the various ways she had extended her direct control over the years. Without any external oversight or higher-level consequences, the director was free to build a petty empire, consolidating as many factors and responsibilities under her direct authority as possible. Issues rarely rose beyond the level of a regional director, so any problems with the elements under her control would be decided by her. It must have been a wonderful situation, until it all came crashing down.

The Wards' handling at the bank was the first domino. Had it been less disastrous then things would likely have been handled internally. The director would have decided how to reprimand the Wards for their behavior and marked the case as completed. Nobody would have considered directing attention to anyone with higher responsibility because the person with the higher responsibility was the one handling the direction of inquiry.

The director had played politics within the PRT with a level of expertise that even he had to acknowledge. She managed a careful balance between local authority and management of wider concerns. He had clashed with the woman on many occasions, but she knew exactly how far she could push her authority, and how to extend it to her benefit.

And now she was choking on her own ambitions. There was a time he would have felt satisfaction at seeing things play out, but the state of the city and the ever-expanding set of concerns tempered any sense of schadenfreude. Even with Director Piggot effectively handcuffed by external regulation as every significant decision in the city was passed through six layers of review.

Which was what had resulted in the official policy towards Garment.

"Unofficially and off the record?" He said. Dragon caused her avatar to nod towards him. "The timing and range of powers would have been suspect enough to warrant serious consideration, even without supporting evidence."

Colin engaged his implants, calling up a side-by-side comparison. One of the clearer images of Apeiron deploying an elemental effect, red patterns on his costume glowing brightly as flame leapt forth to vaporize blasts of corrosive slime. The other image was a simple promotional shot of Garment during one of her public appearances prior to the Ungodly Hour, when she was finalizing arrangements for her finances and business. The tone of the images couldn't be more different, with the only common point being the pattern embroidered into Garment's clothing.

The shimmering design could have been dismissed as a stylistic touch, and certainly had a level of aesthetic appeal. Comparing the actual structure of the design to the glowing markings on Apeiron's costume revealed no obvious similarity. The pattern that apparently fueled Apeiron's elemental technology was far more complex, intricate, and detailed than the comparatively simple patterns on Garment's clothing. Even the designs had little in common, at least to the untrained eye.

Most people hadn't examined Apeiron's technology to the extent Colin had. From the man's first appearance, he had monitored and documented everything. He had a better understanding of the anomalous properties that facilitated impossible effects, properties so strong that they could stand without the technology they supported. It spoke to the strength of Apeiron's combination of powers. The man would have been a disruptive threat even without any tinker abilities to speak of.

Many people had wanted to dismiss the elemental effects that had spread through the city as another impossibility. That had become an approach he had seen more and more often, to a disheartening degree. People who were essentially willing to dismiss incredible effects under the umbrella of 'Apeiron' or 'Celestial Forge' and not even bother attempting to understand them.

Mostly because they were beyond understanding. That aspect he understood. When you were looking at a situation that only carried effect without apparent cause your entire research methodology tended to break down. But the effects generated were consistent and quantifiable. There might be no explanation for how Apeiron accomplished many of his impossible feats, but that didn't change the reality of those feats. They existed and needed to be dealt with. It was a process of chasing a moving target and gaining no ground from the endeavor, but it was the only way anyone could hope to contend with the current situation.

The crystalized elemental material was a prime example of such an effect. The actual formation of the material was a mystery that resisted any attempt at analysis. How it had originated in the first place was totally unknown and assumed to be the product of some material projection power. But the propagation of the material through affected areas was something that was completely unexpected and highly concerning. The area exposed to the crystalline matter continued to produce it in small quantities even after the bulk of the material had vanished.

The effect had been confirmed to be limited to areas that had been exposed to the primary expression of the material, but the mechanism of how it could have happened stumped every tinker and thinker who had attempted to analyze the effect. It was as if the properties of the material had shifted in some adaptive fashion in an attempt to continue the function that they had been cast into following their unintentional release.

Whatever the cause of the adaptation, it suggested there could be a persistent source of energetic metamaterial. Material that, despite there being no theoretical basis for its formation or physical structure, behaved in a remarkably consistent fashion. Reactive crystalline energy sources from potentially mad tinkers were not typically stable sources of power or reliable engineering materials.

Dragon's avatar smiled at him. "Apeiron's methods and technology are highly resistant to analysis." She said with the same excitement she showed whenever discussing the challenge Apeiron represented. "I don't know if anyone would have figured out that particular detail if they hadn't been investigating carrier mediums to such an extent."

Colin shook his head. The movement wasn't painful, at least not compared to most others, but the shifting once again made him aware of implants that he was still adjusting to. "Too many people are willing to dismiss Apeiron's behavior as eccentric or inscrutable."

"Or enigmatic?" Dragon said in amusement. Colin gave a somewhat stiff nod before continuing.

"Even with the power he had, it can be assumed there is a logic to the man's actions. Some level of reasoning for how he conducts himself. He chose to deploy those effects through integration into clothing, rather than any other device. There had to be some reason for the chosen medium."

And there was. Colin's own analysis had revealed it, and in the process drastically increased the value of every sample of material the Protectorate had been able to collect. The dregs of what had been scattered through the city, something Apeiron himself seemed unconcerned with, was proving to be a gamechanger in the rest of the cape world.

Just like the composition of the blackout field. Or the breach that had resulted in two sequential case numbers. Combined effects significant to draw the direct attention and intervention of Scion himself.

That was a detail being carefully concealed. Fortunately they didn't even need to spin the situation. He and Dragon had been spotted departing the area, causing the clearing of a section of the field to be attributed to their intervention.

There was a time when he would have relished something like that. His chance to appear as a true hero, standing as a motivating force for good. These days he had bigger concerns than popularity or public relations. The deception was valuable for its ability to avoid panic and boost morale, but he knew it would mean nothing to the reality of the city's situation or his own pending evaluation.

So they accepted the credit while scientists and tinkers obsessed over the properties of the particles, the nature of the crystals, or the effects of the breach that created the most unfortunately numbered sequential case in history.

That was an element to the situation that caused Colin to bristle in indignity. As Armsmaster he had devoted his life to his craft. Working to keep himself in peak performance, at the cutting edge of technology. Appraised of every development, every resource he could utilize, pushing his abilities to the absolute limit. The gulf that had opened between his previous accomplishments and Apeiron's feats was staggering, but every tinker in the country was experiencing that. No, it was the fact that they were salvaging the junk and detritus of the Celestial Forge that really struck him. And it was made even worse by what was being accomplished through that work.

The origins of the particles or the crystalline material was a mystery, but their operation was anything but. They functioned reliably and consistently in every application. None of the variation expected from a deteriorating manifestation of a parahuman power. They were consistent enough in their behavior for conventional scientists to be able to work with the properties, devising theories and engineering applications. For tinkers, it was like a gift from heaven.

Which was somewhat ironic, considering the name the Celestial Forge had chosen for themselves. The untapped power of the group was one of the most frightening things about them. They were significant enough that the discarded offerings from one of their conflicts could shift the balance of power on a national level. There was no telling what they might achieve if they decided to leverage that kind of influence directly.

An open release of information would render his work irrelevant, but that was highly unlikely. Apeiron had been averse to communication since his first appearance. It was likely that was influenced by the specific sequence of events that followed said appearance, which Colin had to admit some responsibility for, but even if the Director hadn't issued a series of crippling directives regarding the new tinker, it was unlikely he would have been overly eager to reach out.

Models suggested the man enjoyed his privacy and preferred to limit his outreach. Of course, those models were constructed following the effect of the initial policies that were put in place. Policies that would have been a bad idea even if PRT leaks hadn't fed them directly to Apeiron.

Those leaks were the real reason for such stringent containment of information. Why there were policies not to mention certain details in any internal communications. The implementation of direct briefings and a 'need to know' status was crippling at a time when the department couldn't afford inefficiency, but it was preferable to the disaster that would follow some key piece of information being revealed at the wrong time.

Information security was another issue that Director Piggot found herself forced to answer for. Once again, her insistence on consolidating authority meant that there was a central point of blame for any issue the department faced, and there were many such issues getting ample attention in the aftermath of the attacks. No doubt the Director had enjoyed the ability to arbitrarily decide who learned what and when, sharing key data and analysis at her own discretion.

Those choices were what served to make her culpable for the data failures of the department. A standard policy framework would have shielded her from blame, but would also have allowed people to function outside her authority. It was just one more front where the decision to secure more personal power had set her up for a more significant fall.

"How has your work with the material been progressing?" Dragon asked.

Colin nodded and shifted away from the display screens to one of his latest projects. It had started as a proof of concept for the principles he was observing, but it had grown beyond that. A mechanical frame held a tightly woven sample of synthetic fiber cloth. An apparatus like a civilian 3D printer was assembled above it. Really, it was more a refinement of automatic embroidery machines, allowing precise placement of threads infused with a variety of energetic materials.

Once the process behind the effect was revealed to him the mechanics fell into place. While clothing seemed like a sub-optimal medium for the direction of complex energetic expressions, the true utility quickly became apparent. Precise and reliable interactions between different varieties of the elemental material allowed densely packed command structures. Placement of threads and reactions between different materials effectively allowed logic gates to be expressed, and access to more advanced command structures were possible through variations in length and placement of fibers.

It was similar to the core rope memory of early spacecraft, or the hardwiring used in the first generation of computers. Simple effects would be possible through nothing but knowledge of relative interactions, allowing anyone to create and direct advanced energetic expressions.

Expressions that would outperform the majority of blaster powers. And, when refined through the use of his own technical skill, outstrip the power of any comparable weapon he could deploy.

"It has significant potential." He said. The rectangle of cloth was set behind a set of transparent blast shields and facing a target block. "Enough to be concerning."

"You've had a successful test?" Dragon asked. No doubt she could have read his reports directly from his systems, but it was somehow comforting to know that she was waiting on his permission for direct access, or the final reports he would circulate to the wider Protectorate.

Something he had been delaying if only to avoid another rush of tinker demands and layers of oversight. Still, he wouldn't blame anyone for the caution they were exercising.

"Several. This is a more recent design." He triggered the system, causing the embroidery mechanism to retract and closing off the blast shields. The workshop was short on space, preventing him from setting up a proper ballistics test, but energetic discharge demonstrations were manageable within the facilities available to him.

A piston shot down, striking the complex red and orange pattern at a specific point. The embroidered thread began to shimmer as the design seemed to rise from the surface of the cloth. In reality it was a series of plasma expressions that were triggered as energy flows within the design built upon themselves, generating a controlled charge well in excess of anything that the quantity of material would be able to express in other circumstances.

There was a final flash as the pattern pulsed, then all the assembled energy seemed to pour forth at once, launching a flowing stream of flame that scorched the test block. The blast was so bright his implanted lenses automatically compensated for the intensity, dimming his vision to compensate. Even so, the glow from the yellowish-white flow of energy drowned out everything else in the workshop.

Then it was gone. The steel block was glowing red and deformed from the heat, cratering several inches around the point of impact. Incredibly, the patch of fabric was undamaged, though the woven material had been fully expended, leaving a dull black pattern where the once vibrant design had stood. With the demonstration concluded, he opened his records of previous tests to Dragon.

"Impressive." Dragon said. "A near recreation of the effects displayed by Apeiron during the early portions of the Ungodly Hour."

It was a generous assessment of what he had achieved. Apeiron's displays had been orders of magnitude greater than anything he had been able to achieve. They had been deployed faster, with greater control, and in volumes that Armsmaster could not even fathom being contained within a single set of clothing. Still, considering the amount of material that had been cast through the city following March's attack, it was reasonable to assume that Apeiron possessed some method of containing those excessive quantities on his person.

Spatial compression? Colin had looked into emulation of Vista's abilities, but the combination of the power demand and size requirement had prevented any serious utilization of that kind of effect. Of course, it wasn't like Apeiron was likely to have issues with power requirements.

"How has the rest of the Protectorate tinkers been fairing with their studies?" He asked, leaning back. There was the uncomfortable feel of still healing implants shifting in unfamiliar ways. Eventually he would adjust, and the utility was more than worth it.

He could wait for their reports, but since Dragon was already reviewing most of the active work involving studies of Apeiron's technology, it was possible to get ahead of the curve.

"There's nothing as intricate as your own work." Colin smiled at the compliment, then forced his face to relax as the surgical injuries twinged again. "It's largely focused on material studies…" Likely a dry well, as both he and Dragon knew. "Evaluation of direct effects, and Technology integration."

Colin nodded. "Any interesting developments?"

Dragon's avatar smiled. "Enough that you have people clamoring for more of the material. Just the electric production possible from the yellow variant is like nothing we've seen. Any public release of information will probably have people campaigning to start strip mining the remains of the trails."

Colin frowned. "That's the last thing this city needs." He said, mentally adding a potential tinker-material gold rush to the city's current slate of crises. Probably the only thing moderating the response to the wonder material was the difficulty in acquiring it in any significant quantities as the presence of the particle field impeded most of the sources. Without Gully's assistance they wouldn't have had enough to work with for proper analysis, much less experimentation.

Which was another complicating factor. She was only the first and most prominent Case 53 to arrive in the city. Others were on their way, or had already arrived and just abstained from publicly announcing themselves. He honestly didn't know which would be worse for the city, the situation where Apeiron was unable or unwilling to help them, or the situation where he was.

Obviously, the treatment of Case 53s to any degree was a miracle and something to be celebrated. But it was also a complicated matter, and not one that they could reliably manage at the moment. He understood the boy's motivations, but dearly wished Weld had just waited a week or two before sending out the word of his treatment.

Of course, a week was a lifetime when it came to Apeiron and the Celestial Forge. Colin had seen that for himself, the gulf between his own fight with Lung and returning to the streets a week later in the aftermath of the Ungodly Hour.

He shifted his attention back to the picture of Garment's outfit. A skirted business suit composed of some fiber he wasn't certain of. That was hardly surprising given her talents within that field and practically expected if she was indeed associated with the Celestial Forge. The workmanship was impeccable, as was the case with all of her clothing, but the embroidered design was what drew the eye.

That would have been the case even if it was being evaluated from a non-technical perspective. It was a stunning design, stretching across the entire outfit as it flowed in an asymmetrical pattern that created the sense of movement while highlighting both the cut and silhouette of the outfit.

It was perhaps not something he would have noticed before, but his studies into textile-based integration of energized materials had required him to expand his understanding to certain techniques outside his normal skillset. Sewing and embroidery were not the kind of crafts he had much experience with, but thankfully there were ample instructional resources online. Unsurprisingly, the most highly recommended instructional series was the set of videos recently uploaded by Garment herself, apparently produced to showcase the benefits of her status as a noctis cape.

Colin had to admit, from a technical perspective they were unparalleled, even if they did cover a wider range of topics than he would normally have sought out. Still, it wasn't like there were any adverse effects to a more comprehensive education, even if he would honestly have preferred a dedicated thread work video without the broader commentary on outfit design.

Dragon followed his attention to the design on Garment's suit and nodded. "If that is the same energetic material that Apeiron used it means she was walking around with a terrifying amount of firepower."

"Judging by the way it interacts with direct light, it is likely a combination of the ice and gravity variants we have observed." Colin clarified. There were a hundred ways that combination could be used to devastating effect. Colin imagined dropping a material's temperature below the brittle transition point, then simply shattering it with gravitational sheer effects. "But in terms of total yield…" He didn't bother finishing his statement. The steel block was still glowing from the effect of a few inches of cloth embroidered with a comparably small amount of energized material. Garment's design was spread out over her entire suit and heavily layered. He could only guess at the exact expression from the details of the design, but the magnitude was much easier to extimate.

"The common theory was that Garment relied solely on her breaker state for defense during public appearances." Dragon stated. "Given that her offensive capacity seemed to be limited to restraining effects, there was a general sense that she was not a serious threat."

"A safe cape." Colin said. As if there was any such thing. Still, Garment had played the role magnificently. It was a role she still played, and the nebulous nature of her connection to the Celestial Forge was a big part of that.

"Speak softly and carry a big stick." Dragon added. "Though in her case I suppose it's 'speak nothing and carry enough energized material to level a city block'."

That really wasn't an inaccurate estimation of the offensive power of that quantity of material. There may well have been a tremendous amount of firepower casually walking through the streets, even walking into banks, with the Protectorate none the wiser.

"That is, if Garment is indeed using woven energized material." Colin said. He didn't have many doubts, but it was far from confirmed.

"Short of taking a sample from one of Garment's outfits it's unlikely that we'll be able to fully confirm things." Dragon admitted. "And that's not a promising prospect."

Colin nodded. Despite how open and social Garment had proved to be, there were still significant questions about how she functioned. The range, precision, and capacity of her telekinesis was a subject of constant debate, as was its apparently arbitrary limitations. Of course, arbitrary limitations were not uncommon when it came to parahuman abilities.

There was also the matter of her breaker state. Most similar expressions had some obvious limit, weakness, or focal point. Garment demonstrated none of these. In terms of combat assessments, that was a nightmare scenario. Breakers required specific countermeasures, given the inability to overwhelm them with direct firepower. Garment apparently had no targetable weakness. Well, not unless you subscribed to the theory that her gloves were somehow the core of her being rather than a branding exercise meant to create a stylistic throughline between otherwise distinct outfits.

Her videos really were quite comprehensive when it came to related topics.

Then there was the question of her senses. The obvious lack of any visual organs didn't impair her in the slightest. She was able to both read and obviously could recognize the coloration of objects, but writing and typing were significant trials for her. It was evident in how her early videos relied on silent demonstrations of crafting techniques, with later ones containing minimal scripting and voiceover work. Her rising popularity had seen them quickly shift from a rather good text to speech program to quite excellent voiced narration provided by partnerships similar to the one that supplied her musical accompaniment.

There was no certainty regarding the way Garment perceived the world. All they could determine had been derived from observation, which mostly confirmed her near limitless ability to perceive and coordinate fabrics, threads, and other items involved in clothing assembly. The idea that someone could surreptitiously take a sample of material from an item of clothing she was currently wearing was laughable.

And given the energy levels involved, such an attempt might well set off the design in question. Stability and control were the prime advantages of using a woven medium for control of the material's activation, but even if the effect could be perfectly directed, it should still be treated like a loaded weapon.

"Assuming Garment is a member of the Celestial Forge's cluster, it's evident she stands apart from the other members." Colin said.

Dragon's avatar nodded. "That's the main driver for the non-interference policy."

Really, it went further than non-interference. No one was to even entertain the possibility of the connection. Theories on internet forums were acceptable. There were more than enough of those for it to be lost in the noise, particularly with the particle field's continuing and worrying correspondence to the properties of a similar effect depicted in an outdated Japanese animated series.

"And a cluster background would explain the range of abilities that Garment has demonstrated." Dragon continued. Colin nodded.

"Breaker state. Wide ranging and highly precise telekinesis. Probably extrasensory methods of perception. Some level of coordination or display based control." Practically a signature of the Celestial Forge. "And evident tinker abilities."

Clearly not the strongest in the cluster, but they were undeniably present. From the tension-based color shifting fabric she had debuted during her first media appearance to the samples of ballistic resistant cloth and flexible organic displays.

It might seem petty compared to the other feats displayed by her cluster, but there was a particular aspect to Garment's work that set her apart. Her technology wasn't impressive because it was more advanced than what other tinkers could produce, it was impressive because it was less advanced. Much less.

Most people didn't realize the significance of that kind of detail. Garment produced wonderful fabrics, durable textiles, and precisely assembled organic LED displays. Her work lacked the exceptional qualities that set most tinker tech apart, but it also lacked the complexity and instability.

He had worked with Dragon on the assessment of Garment's OLED screen. Really, he needed to call her in just to verify what he was looking at. The precise arrangement of pixels woven through cloth and perfectly controllable was probably intended for flashy displays or the illumination of some space age ballgown, but it also functioned perfectly as a source of active camouflage or a highly efficient and nearly flat display screen.

The assembly process required to manufacture the material was incredibly intricate, likely requiring Garment's powers to accomplish without specialized equipment, but the technology was entirely conventional. And reproducible. More than that, it was something that could be built upon, improved.

In truth, he hadn't been exploring textile manufacture techniques solely for the sake of verifying the potential uses of energetic material. With Garment's work as a foundation and the right technical skills hundreds of potential applications opened up before him. Perfect thermal and optical camouflage, shape memory fabrics able to react adaptively, nano-fiber structures to replace bulky armor sections and free space for more equipment.

Even Dragon was considering application of the technology for use in some of her smaller suits. Stealth had never been a particular priority for her, but an energy efficient system capable of at least obscuring the profile of her suit, if not completely concealing it, could provide a significant advantage during mid-range encounters.

All tinkers could learn and adapt from each other's work, but this wasn't like seeing a new piece of tinker tech, it was like seeing a foundational resource, something that could be built upon rather than copied or adapted.

If Garment had been consistently providing a similar effect to members of the Celestial Forge it might help to explain some of their explosive growth. As well as the stylistic elements of their costumes, and certain items of equipment deployed by Apeiron. The cape that was able to withstand staggering blows while reacting seemingly independently to any attack seemed like a natural extension of the various trails of potential Colin had picked up from Garment's work.

"Given Garment's likely connection to the Celestial Forge, are there any local measures in place regarding her charity auction tomorrow?" Dragon asked.

"Not beyond what was already in motion." Colin said. "Director Piggot did not like being blindsided by the announcement. Then again, nobody could have anticipated something on this scale coming together on such short notice."

"What's your opinion on the matter? More of Garment's coordination abilities, or is she being supplemented by the other members of the Celestial Forge?" Dragon asked.

Within the context of the conversation, they were happy to abandon pretext and admit that some connection existed. The weight of evidence was just too much to ignore, though hopefully light enough to keep from public attention for at least a little while longer.

"It's not clear." Colin hadn't devoted any significant attention to the deployment of the event. It was another thing he was attempting to keep up with rather than stay ahead of. A compromise he hated making in his own city, but an unavoidable one. "Garment's relationship with the rest of the Celestial Forge is unclear. She could have deliberately set herself apart, or there could be a conflict that the public isn't aware of."

"She could also be concealing her involvement for the sake of being able to operate in an official capacity." Dragon stated. "An open association with Apeiron would significantly complicate her active projects."

"No question." He said with a sigh. Like everything else involving the Celestial Forge, there was too little information. "At least she seems to be sincere in her intentions. The finances of the event are being precisely documented on a level I've never seen before."

It was a sad fact that major disasters attracted… well, legally it probably wasn't classified as charity fraud, but the range of expenses a major event could incur were significant and the precise selection of venue, staff, entertainment, and vendors tended to favor certain forms of creative accounting or at the very least the leveraging of personal relationships. A slight overage on an event involving hundreds of thousands of dollars of fundraising could be explained away providing countless benefits to those in advantageous positions.

That wasn't happening with Garment's event or auction. It very clearly was not happening. The finances were being handled so adamantly and openly that there was no room for even a hint of misappropriation.

"That seemed to be heavily credited to Garment's legal counsel." Dragon pulled up a picture of a very attractive woman Colin had only heard mentioned in passing. "Delphine Mertens. Belgian national, educated in France. Not currently bar-licensed in New Hampshire, so has been officially functioning in an advisory capacity. By all accounts highly skilled for her age and level of experience."

Colin nodded. "I suppose we could evaluate Garment's associates for potential connections to other members of the Celestial Forge." It was the kind of practice that brushed against the unwritten rules, but that wouldn't stop every member of the public from doing the same if Garment's association, or even the strong likelihood of association, became publicly known.

"Garment only has two individuals directly in her employ, Delphine Mertens and Jake Clark." Dragon explained. "Jake Clark could potentially match the profile of Fleet, but there is not enough information to provide a confirmation and the same could be said about a broad selection of individuals currently serving as volunteer staff for the event."

"I'd wager things are as inconclusive for Ms. Mertens?" Colin asked.

Dragon's avatar nodded. "Aside from the lack of suspected stranger effect, there is considerable divergence in build, face structure, and hair color when compared to recordings of Survey."

Dragon pulled up the images of the two women side by side. Incredibly, Survey was able to make Delphine Mertens look plain in comparison. Almost homely, really. Colin supposed that was what happened when even the best of the fashion industry went up against an appearance that was clearly the result of some parahuman effect.

"Considering her height and profile, she could conceivably be a match for Lethe, but given the nature of the armor the same could be applied to any number of potential associates." Dragon explained.

Colin nodded. Really, the intelligent approach would be to conceal any public association between Garment and the Celestial Forge's civilian identities. If they even had civilian identities. It was hard to imagine Proto Aima blending in with a crowd. Well, not unless the range of abilities and technology available to the Celestial Forge included shapeshifting. If that was the case, there was really no point in trying to match things like build or body type.

Such factors were notoriously unreliable, typically being prone to false positives based on superficial traits. Really, you could skim through the list of volunteers and pick anyone who seemed to match with some member of the team. It would be like…

He paused his scrolling on a particular profile from the Regency Center's list of volunteer workers. It would be like assuming that Tybalt Kittson was actually Kataklyzein just because the two of them were the same height. And build. And hair color. And species. All utterly arbitrary associations, and ones that could cause no end of trouble. Kataklyzein could be any cat in the city, and there was no reason to start throwing around accusations.

"It's best not to pursue the matter." Colin said. No doubt a team of Protectorate thinkers would pick over every detail, but he had personally seen how well that could go. It wasn't something he wanted to get tied up in again.

Dragon's avatar nodded. "Will you be attending the event?" She asked.

He shook his head. "Believe it or not, I am actually holding to the reduced field hours that you recommended." Additionally, hobbling into a charity event wasn't quite the triumphant return to the public eye he had imagined for himself. "Director Piggot is handling the assignments."

"Quite extensive assignments." Dragon said, reviewing the lists.

"Yes, I'm sure that has nothing to do with Uppercrust's sudden involvement. Or his role as a keynote speaker, rather than the director." Colin said. In fairness, she hadn't offered. The fact that the man was willing to balance the event against his other commitments and mounting health issues spoke for itself.

"Speaking of which…" Colin pulled up a picture from that afternoon. It was a still image of a news clip, but the moment that had been caught was telling. Uppercrust's condition was largely an open secret, but he had consistently managed to avoid showing evidence of it in public. At least until now.

The man looked ready to keel over. Worse than his physical condition, that specific frame captured an expression on his face that spoke to a sincere form of regret, like he was burdened by some great personal mistake. The leader of the New York Elite had been able to put on a better front for the rest of the news segment, but had apparently retreated from the public eye shortly after.

"I've seen it." Dragon said. "There are discussions in the upper ranks of the Protectorate on how to approach the situation, as well as increased activity from the Elite."

"Everyone knows why Uppercrust is here." He said plainly. "Everything else is a matter of severity and timeframe."

"Brockton Bay has hardly been the ideal environment for the medically compromised, and Uppercrust has been taking on a very aggressive schedule." Dragon said.

Colin nodded. "I'm grateful for it. That 'aggressive schedule' put him at Somer's Rock as a moderating influence. It may well have headed off an immediate gang war, or another campaign from Apeiron."

He had mixed feelings towards the Elite as a whole, but Uppercrust stood apart. He remembered the man from before the implementation of NEPEA-5. It was debatable as to whether the legislation had done more harm than good, but for many capes it effectively forced their hands, making them pick a side of the law, and not the one the Protectorate had been hoping for.

"And it gave us the advantage of a personal account of the meeting." Dragon said. "Rather than relying on social media rumors."

"We're lucky that he was feeling so accommodating." Colin said. "Though he was happy to once again demonstrate the strength of his information resources, or perhaps the continued failures of our attempts at information security."

"Really? What was it this time?" Dragon asked in an amused tone.

"He was rather well informed on the details of my recovery and recent surgeries." To be fair, it wasn't that surprising. The biggest factor in Uppercrust's condition being an open secret was his relentless pursuit and investigation of every cape with a medical specialization. Given the number of favors Colin had needed to call in, there was really no way he wouldn't have ended up on the man's radar.

"Oh? And what did he have to say?" Dragon asked.

"He commended me on my determination." Colin said. "Referred to the project as 'admirable work'."

"Really?" Dragon asked. "I didn't expect him to be that impressed."

Colin allowed a slight smile. Not quite enough to pull on his healing implants, but enough to let his satisfaction bleed through. The Elite dealt with tinkers on a level second only to the Protectorate, with Uppercrust's branch handling the majority of their training and development. As a consequence, the man had found the need to temper new tinkers with a realistic assessment of the tinker tech they created.

It was an important role, and one Colin was glad to avoid. Tempering the expectations of young tinkers who felt every construction to be a world changing invention. He remembered the experience himself, shortly after his trigger when the sheer possibility of what he could be capable of seemed overwhelming. The kind of feeling that led to needless wastes of time, resources, and manpower.

Uppercrust was in a position where he had to manage such mindsets on a near constant basis. As such, he had become legendary for his frank appraisals of tinker work, at least when speaking with another tinker directly. People quickly learned that 'adequate' was a term of praise from the man, while referring to something as 'satisfactory' was a rare compliment. Naming Colin's procedures as 'admirable' spoke to the regard he held for the project.

"Tell me, have you ever seen an 'excellent' from the man." Colin asked in good humor.

"Ah, the near mythical 'excellent work'." She said. It truly was. That kind of compliment was reserved only for groundbreaking projects or examples of work that truly set a tinker apart from their peers. "In truth, I did receive it once, regarding my mobile shield deployment suit."

Colin gave her a quizzical look. "I thought that was deemed a failure?"

"Deemed not viable for civic defense, but it was still the best adaptation of his technology to date, and the most mobile." She replied. "Unfortunately, it required a fully dedicated purpose-built suit. For most applications where it would prove to be an asset, it's not feasible to deploy in time to make a difference."

Colin nodded. The Guild specialized in responses to major threats and S-class disasters, but by the time they were alerted to a situation it had already reached a critical point. There was little to no time to prepare, often requiring whatever was on hand at the time, rather than an optimal response.

It was something he had hoped to achieve with the development of his prediction program, but that work had been lost along with his main workshop during Oni Lee's attack. Copies of the software were available in offsite backups, but the development had required custom assembled computer architecture that would take weeks to recreate.

Uppercrust's presence meant that there was a chance the PHQ might see a return to service without needing to be completely scrapped and rebuilt. It was more than he had dared hope for and would be a powerful symbol for the city, but would mean little to him personally. His workshop and all his projects were in ruins, needed to be reassembled from plans and samples sent for evaluation and testing. He had lost so much, years of work that he would never get back.

He looked towards the testing rig for the energetic material. To the assessment of the properties of the blackout field. To the biometric readings for the implants that had seen him return to functionality in days rather than months. He had lost years of work, but had gained in other areas. Projects he never would have considered due to their apparent middling benefits or the commitment required from his other work.

It wasn't until everything was gone that he realized just how much it had consumed his life. He had pushed his technology to the very limit of what he could maintain, with every improvement adding an ongoing commitment. Attempts to streamline instead adding complexity, obligations, and losses he had never considered.

It was a feeling that was almost familiar. If what was being said about trigger theory was indeed true, then perhaps it also explained how he had been able to recover so quickly.

He put those thoughts out of his head. He had too much to worry about without getting caught up in the thought of his life before becoming Armsmaster.

"I haven't been keeping up with national news." He admitted. "Is there any word from the rest of the Elite on his situation?"

"A standard release supporting his involvement with the charity efforts. There will probably be some token contributions from other cells, or at least the ones with fronts legitimate enough to do so." Colin nodded. "Regarding his medical situation there's officially no comment, but it's not as if the Elite regularly air details of internal politics."

Colin frowned. "Hopefully we won't have to add a civil war within their ranks to the issues the city is dealing with."

"It's unlikely that Uppercrust will be able to engage Apeiron, at least for some time." Dragon said. "He had been exceptionally cautious regarding contacts and made his stance on additional contracts clear. A sensible precaution, given his commitment to upholding his agreements. Such practices would present an avenue of exploitation, but it remains closed to all parties." She said cheerfully.

"Powerful, but still cautious." Colin said. "Or perhaps cautious because he's powerful."

"He has expressed significant concern for the impact of his abilities. Given the potential scale that can be achieved through even unintentional exposure, it is likely a prudent precaution." She said.

Colin nodded. There were major warlords weaker than Apeiron. There were capes who had been contained with walled cities who were less threatening. Estimates of his power were rough, but many placed him on the level of the Triumvirate. Not the individual members, the entire team working in unison. And that was without taking into account his team or recent refinements to his technology.

Restraint in that technology was the only reason the city was still standing. At the very least, the man did not want to be king of a pile of rubble. Still, he had left no doubt as to what would happen if someone forced his hand. And there was no shortage of active threats that might make such a play.

It was up to them to deal with those threats before they forced Apeiron to become involved personally. Dragon was very clear how they would fare against the man, and those estimates had only become less favorable when his team entered the equation. They were faced with a situation where they needed to soundly address multiple crisis scenarios, any one of which would have been a challenge for a healthy city with a fully functional Protectorate branch.

"Do you have any word on the Teeth?" He asked, starting with the most dire of the active concerns. Truth be told, people would probably be a lot more comfortable with the kind of power Apeiron and the Celestial Forge could throw around if there wasn't a chance of the Butcher getting hit by it.

"All splinter groups in other cities have ceased operation. Even those with minimal cape support." Dragon explained, calling up a map and marking various branches of the gang that, until recently, had been active across the east coast. "It's likely they're being called to Brockton Bay to reinforce the main branch."

"More capes." He said grimly.

"Mostly unpowered members, but yes, a handful of additional capes." Dragon replied, loading up profiles of the various members. Colin had already reviewed the data following the Teeth's arrival, but made a note to check it for any updates or changes.

"Just what we need." Colin turned to an evaluation of the city's parahuman population. The list was more crowded than he had ever seen it. "Visiting parahumans, fresh triggers being folded into gangs, recruitments of established villains, new groups emerging, and an unknown number of triggered but not yet debuted parahumans."

Major disasters typically involved a series of triggers. That could be seen from the expansion of the Merchant's ranks, but not every parahuman was snatched up by an established group. Typically, new capes were less subtle regarding the use of their powers and evidence of an additional parahuman could be discerned by monitoring for irregularities.

Unfortunately, the past weeks had been nothing but irregularities. The presence of a memory altering stranger only complicated things. They couldn't even place the point when Apeiron's team had officially begun aiding him. With the chaos following the Ungodly Hour it was nearly impossible to discern the true cause of any specific event.

There were accounts of a possible cape active inside ABB territory who intervened in several conflicts. Accounts suggested some level of enhanced agility, a means of concealing themselves, and a light-based blaster power. The burns found on stunned assailants had been enough to confirm the third point, but it was impossible to tell if some light bending cape had triggered in the chaos or if the actions of some other group or even a member of the Celestial Forge was being misinterpreted.

It didn't help that most of those who had the cape intervene on their behalf were not in the best physical or mental state. You also had to contend with the dozen languages spoken within ABB holdings, most of which the local authorities had limited ability to translate. There wasn't even consistency from what could be gleaned, with conflicting reports of the cape using a gun, sword, spear, or mass of glowing light all while failing to provide any physical description. Colin just hoped they were looking at a confused fresh trigger with good intentions rather than an unknown member of the Celestial Forge.

"The situation isn't likely to resolve without some level of confrontation." Dragon said. "It was widely accepted that Kaiser was romantically involved with Vanir. Her death at the hands of the Butcher significantly elevated conflicts between the Teeth and the Empire."

Colin nodded. It had been before his time in the city. Before even Director Piggot's term began, but everyone was aware of the result of that particular crusade. It was easily understood when you considered the fact that during the year before her death Vanir had retreated from the public eye for a particular a period of time. One neatly stretching from the point where a pregnancy would be visible to the point of delivery. A common enough pattern even in heroes, to the point where the Protectorate had to go to great lengths to conceal the signs of such an event.

No one would risk killing the Butcher, but the Teeth could be pressed in a hundred other ways, and Kaiser had understandably leveraged every means at his disposal. Pressing them hard enough to drive them to seek the help of the Slaughterhouse Nine, with predictable results.

"Kaiser will attack the Teeth." Colin said. The situation in the city may have changed enough to render it unrecognizable, but he knew the mentalities of the established villains. He had spent a lifetime working against them. "His pride won't allow anyone else to take first blood."

"Do you believe he will move during the charity event?" Dragon asked.

"It's the most likely time." He said. "Risky, and possibly inflammatory, but it will diminish the ability of the Protectorate to respond to the situation."

Apeiron had made his stance regarding civilians and the recovery efforts clear, but even with the citizens off limits, the Protectorate couldn't allow a gang brawl to erupt in the middle of the city without response. The reputation of the local office was hanging by a thread and allowing gangs to use the city as a personal dueling field would be as good as admitting defeat.

Unfortunately, once more Director Piggot was forced into a situation where she was compelled to make a decision, but had no good options available to her. Allowing the Elite to field more capes than the Protectorate at Garment's event would be a public relations nightmare as well as a personal affront. Conversely, the greater the Protectorate's presence at the event, the more freedom the gangs would have to settle things in what would likely be a very public manner.

And Armsmaster would be staying out of both situations. It wasn't something he would personally have chosen. He was itching to get back into the field, but he was far from combat ready. If an appearance at a charity auction would be a step too far in his recovery, then active combat was still very much off the table.

"No matter how things play out, they're unlikely to go well for the director." Colin said. He was able to keep any satisfaction out of his voice. The culture of petty point scoring that had developed between him and the director was what had led to the mishandling of Panacea's debrief. While he still felt justified in his decisions, he could have better accounted for the consequences of releasing the information for Protectorate analysis.

"Hardly her only issue." Dragon said. "Investigations into her behavior during the early stages of the current situation are underway. The fact that Panacea's case is still active is also a point of concern, though that's a more complicated issue."

Colin nodded. Brandish's obstruction of the investigation following Apeiron's accusation was understandable, but it was much harder to dismiss the man's assessment of power effects now than it had been before the depth of his understanding and potential specialization became known.

The modification of Victoria Dallon's powers following her exposure to some of Apeiron's damaged technology was further complicating things, both due to the magnitude of that discovery and due to the very real possibility that the power that allegedly influenced Panacea may have also been modified making it impossible to isolate any risk factors and track their impact on Panacea.

So far examination of the girl's powers had been far more focused on her apparent connection to her passenger rather than her supporting abilities, but it stood that any modification to the expression of the powers in question could make it impossible to draw a definitive answer. Unfortunately, things with Amy Dallon had progressed to a point where that was more likely to draw out the process even more, rather than drive a sensible decision based on new circumstances.

The inability to adapt was what had drawn out the process to such an excessive degree. Panacea should have been released to the custody of a parent following her evaluation, but approval for extended tests and additional concerns regarding active master effects tied to the item Apeiron had presented her with had extended containment. Then the ABB's attacks had further obstructed her case.

He'd like to believe that if he had been active in the city, rather than confined to a hospital bed, he would have been able to resolve her case in a timely manner, but it was equally likely that the multitude of factors that piled up on the girl's case would have proven insurmountable.

"Not the only case she's struggling with." Colin said.

"The Winslow matter?" Dragon asked. Colin nodded. The story of the director being called out by the city's police commissioner during a conference of PRT directors had spread through the local office, though always in hushed whispers. "She appears to be quite adamant about that. Of course, a months-old criminal case is not the kind of thing that can be easily resolved, even if the full resources of the department were available."

"Allocation of resources was the problem in the first place." Colin said, shaking his head. "The PRT had no business taking on criminal cases just based on proximity to a Ward."

"It's not an unprecedented approach for a department to take." Dragon said. "Though there is typically more justification for taking on specific cases, or a partnership with local law enforcement in cases where jurisdiction is a matter of course."

"And probably more progress on the cases in question." From what he had heard, there weren't even records of the girl in the PRT's systems. The matter had effectively been dropped and would likely have been forgotten if not for Director Piggot being specifically called out in front of her peers and superiors.

He did wonder if the reason he was able to avoid indulging in schadenfreude at the director's situation was some natural protective instinct keeping him from being utterly overwhelmed by the experience. Or perhaps the situation had extended so far beyond the pale that it was no longer a matter of smug satisfaction, having instead rolled around to a point of concern.

He was personally shielded from further concerns. He definitely had enough of his own, and upcoming evaluations would see him defending every decision he had made during the early stages of the unfolding disaster as well as his actions and policies leading up to that point. It was the kind of thing that he would have dreaded, a blow to his career that he would never recover from.

But it was clear that career wasn't something that would be waiting for him, regardless of how the inquiries played out. The very future of the East-Northeast branch was in question, with potential impacts on the Protectorate and PRT as a whole. More than that, the world wasn't the one he had left. Powerful new capes, changes in the balance of power and new technologies all added up to an uncertain future. Just like with the loss of his workshop, the loss of his old life was painful, but presented new opportunities.

Opportunities that did not extend to Director Piggot.

"The issues with the Winslow case may not be the department's most pressing concern." Dragon explained. And she was very clear that this impacted more than just Director Piggot. A consequence of turning herself into a keystone of the organization meant that anything that impacted her tended to cause significant effects on those under her command, including the Wards and, to a lesser extent, the Protectorate.

"Bakuda's hostages?" Colin guessed. He had seen Dragon's work on the coding locking down the bombs. It cast new light on the earlier assumption that she and Apeiron would have been able to solve it over the course of a single night's work. Oh, the elements they had derived were brilliant, but it was just as Dragon said, the code was fundamentally unsolvable without the original encryption.

Honestly, calling it an encryption undersold the complexity of the mathematical principles on display. There was encryption, but that only concealed the true complexity of the system. It was like someone had taken a 256-bit encryption and then layered the use of a decoder ring on top of it. A comparatively simple method of encoding concealing something that was comparatively impossible to penetrate.

"The limited release of hostages significantly increased public pressure on the situation." Dragon explained. He nodded. It was a more cunning play than Colin would have expected from the woman. She had seemed both unconcerned and unskilled when it came to management of public perception, particularly without the assistance of March.

March. That cape's survival was probably the most closely kept secret in the Protectorate. One so serious that Colin would avoid mentioning it even in the safety of his workshop. Every precognitive assessment confirmed that Apeiron was willing to take a reactive stance, but there was no guarantee that would extend if news of March's survival escaped.

Well, if it could be called survival. Victoria Dallon's account of her condition coupled with the disappearance of both her thinker obscurement effect and the benefits of her coordination indicated that she might have technically survived a lethal injury, but had done so at some significant cost.

"I doubt that Director Piggot is likely to reach out to Bakuda." Colin stated dryly. If anything, that was an understatement. The director had taken a harder stance on softer villains. He couldn't imagine how she might approach something as volatile as the situation Bakuda had created.

"She may not have a choice." Dragon said. "The governor's office is evaluating its options. Governor Robertson is considering making an offer to Bakuda."

Colin felt his eyebrows rise, the shift highlighting awareness of an entirely new group of implants. "What kind of offer?" He asked.

"Nothing has been formally confirmed yet, but in exchange for the release of all minors among the hostages the Governor is willing to refuse to sign off on any kill order for Bakuda based on events up to this point." She explained.

Colin blinked. Normally he would blame this on an upcoming election, but the two-year terms for New Hampshire governors effectively meant there was always an upcoming election. "I'm guessing you've been involved in those evaluations?" Dragon smiled slightly. He didn't bother asking how much of those evaluations she was supposed to be sharing. "Do you think it's likely to be accepted?"

"It's likely to be offered." Dragon said. "No politician wants to be responsible for dead children. Bakuda will probably come back with a higher demand, but only a token one." Colin nodded. It fit her psychological profile. "But if the Director doesn't take action there will probably be something issued by tomorrow night."

Another external power going over the director's head. Another crack in the near absolute authority she had consolidated for herself. He remembered his frustration with the amount of control she had accumulated. Now that may have been the only thing shielding him from being dragged down with her.

"I hope it doesn't come to that." Colin said. The idea of giving any concessions to Bakuda was repulsive, even if he could understand the necessity of it. Even Apeiron, for all his capabilities, had been unable to root her out of her hiding place. With the support of the man's team and the rate his abilities seemed to be developing it may just be a matter of time, but he doubted this particular situation would see any resolution within the space of the next day.

"I doubt anyone does, but it would be better than a worst-case scenario." Dragon replied. Colin nodded. It could either be seen as an unnecessary concession to a madwoman or a desperate act that saved the lives of the most vulnerable. It was basically a political gamble, and one that spoke of fairly low confidence in their ability to manage the situation.

"Any other grim tidings?" He asked in forced humor. Truthfully, there was little to be optimistic about. He wasn't swamped with accusations and bad options the way Director Piggot had been, but his personal situation was only comparatively brighter, and it was nothing compared to the condition of the city.

"Nothing on that level." Dragon explained. "Though there is a development with Garment's event you may find interesting."

"Oh? Something recent?" He asked.

Her avatar nodded. "It has been building over the course of the evening, but there are now sufficient accounts online to provide confirmation."

"Confirmation of what?" Colin asked.

"Garment has provided gifts as a show of appreciation for those who volunteered to assist with the preparation for her charity event." Dragon stated.

"Oh." Colin said. "That is a kind gesture, but largely consistent with her past behavior." Garment's almost excessive generosity was well known at this point. He saw an expression of amusement on Dragon's face. "Unless there is more to this?"

Dragon pulled up a collection of images from social media posts, mostly Twitter and Facebook. They showed letter-sized envelopes, each with the recipient's name printed on them, followed by a simple message thanking them for their assistance and the image of crossed gloves that Garment had adopted as both a symbol and signature. The envelopes appeared to be fairly high quality, but did not appear to be overly full. For anyone else he would have assumed it to be a simple form-letter expressing thanks. With Garment's preference to give apparel there were few options that would fit within the slim envelope.

"Handkerchiefs?" Colin guessed. "Or something similar?" The avatar just smiled.

Dragon was clearly enjoying the act of drip feeding him information on the situation. He was almost inclined to investigate the matter himself, but relented. There was no harm in indulging her on this. The work of the evening was largely complete and if this was a pressing matter, she would be treating it as such.

"This should provide some context." Dragon said. She played a video tweet of someone handling their envelope. In addition to being incredibly solid, it had a clear weight to it, moving more like a thin sheet of steel or lead than a piece of paper.

"Fine, I give up. What has she done?" He asked.

"Potentially answered some standing questions, assuming the suspected association is true." Dragon said excitedly. "Which is far more likely at this point."

Considering Garment's connection with the Celestial Forge was already something passively accepted by each of them, Colin didn't know what would serve to provide more support for the theory. Then Dragon loaded a video of someone opening the envelope.

The item that was removed was a deep navy blue. It was as thin as paper, but had a cloth-like texture. The girl handling the item clearly knew what to expect and made a show of it for the camera. She held up the slip of thin cloth, clearly feeling the weight it possessed, then unfolded it.

The slip didn't just fold apart. Instead, it spread like an origami structure or popup book. It was like watching a flower made of cloth bloom to life. The process proceeded automatically with the girl struggling to keep the rapidly expanding object in frame. It only took seconds for the entire process to complete before she was holding the finished product.

It was a wool jacket in a style similar to a pea coat. The girl made a show of putting it on, showing what was clearly a very precise fit. Somehow it complimented both her figure and the rest of the clothing she was wearing, coming together like a seamlessly designed outfit.

Dragon must have seen him recognize that detail and pulled up images of other volunteers. The design and fit of the coats were slightly different for each person. It was very clear they had been personalized, tailored to each body type and even individual styles. There was a consistency to the design, but the impression could range from sleek to stylish to rugged to even understated.

"How many did she make?" Colin asked. It was hardly the most important aspect of what Garment had revealed, but the scale of the project was probably one of the easier things to grasp.

"The Regency Center lists one hundred and nineteen individuals associated with preparations, though the majority of those were attending to external factors, including transport and deliveries. That figure only documents those involved directly with the Regency Center, so an official count is not currently available."

And may never be. So, over a hundred complex customized items of clothing produced over the course of a couple of days, most likely significantly less time given the short notice of the event and last-minute signups. And every one was custom fitted. Not just tailored to body type, but personalized. Some sat looser while others were worn like a second skin. Meaning Garment had the ability to access not just the physical characteristics of those people, but personal details as well.

That became even more evident as more posts of Garment's gifts became available. An internal pocket sized perfectly for a cell phone that was always carried. A different cut to allow easy access to a carpenter's toolbelt. One individual proudly showing off a padded pocket clearly designed for an EpiPen they needed to carry with them constantly.

Reactions were overwhelmingly positive, at least from those who had actually received the gifts. There were scattered comments echoing Colin's own concerns. Highlighting the idea of invasion of privacy regarding the personalization or pointing out the precise fit of some of the coats and the information Garment would have needed to accomplish that kind of tailoring. The sentiment wasn't being picked up by the general public who seemed to embrace the act as both a display of generosity and further promotion for the upcoming event.

"The coats appear to be some kind of treated wool." Dragon explained. "Though the lining appears to vary between designs. There haven't been any formal assessments, but claims suggest they breathe exceptionally well and are at least somewhat water resistant."

"Of course." Colin said. Given the woman's skill with textiles he wouldn't have been surprised if it was an entirely custom process. Which might qualify this as mass distribution of tinker tech. There were protocols for that kind of thing, but he doubted the director would be scrambling PRT squads over a set of thank you gifts.

"Another factor of note, all of them appear to have been delivered this evening." Dragon explained. "No reports of anyone being overlooked, even those currently in shelters or staying with friends."

"Thinker power." Colin muttered. "Or the suspected coordination power. Or she just asked Survey to take care of it for her." Which raised interesting possibilities, though the image of Fleet playing messenger was far less jovial when one remembered the man had nearly deafened a room from the force of raising his arm.

"And it effectively provides a uniform for volunteer staff for the event." Dragon said.

"In most cases they'd be lucky to get a t-shirt." Colin said. "Which is all very impressive, but only serves to distract from the core issue." He pulled up the video of the jacket unfolding again.

Reports suggested it was impossible to get the jacket back in the envelope, as if that wasn't a completely insane suggestion to begin with. The video quality was far from ideal for technical examination and the other examples posted weren't much better. The material seemed to almost bloom out from the fold, sliding through itself as it took shape. From a mechanical perspective it really did seem like someone had just managed to compress an entire coat to the size of a slip of paper, as impossible as that sounded.

"It won't be possible to determine the nature of the effect from this." Colin said. "We need an unopened sample. Preferably several, as well as other coats for testing."

"I agree, though that may prove difficult." Dragon said. "Several have been posted on auction sites. The bidding is becoming enthusiastic, to say the least."

Once again, they could step in to seize the items in question. Selling tinker tech over the internet invited a wider range of legal issues than most people were willing to deal with. Of course, stepping in and interfering with an act of goodwill over a charitable endeavor wasn't going to do them any favors. Unfortunately, it wasn't like they could just ask…

Colin blinked.

"We should ask Garment for a sample." He said, as if stating the most obvious point in the world.

"That would simplify things." Dragon agreed. "Though she might not be forthcoming."

"She had been willing to share samples of her work before, and clearly is not overly concerned about concealing this technology. Or effect." He added. Every instinct said he was watching a purely mechanical process, but he could not make sense of how it could be possible. An extension of Garment's shaker powers seemed to be equally likely and much more plausible. "She has developed a good relationship with Flechette. We can petition her to make inquiries at tomorrow's event."

"I'm sure Flechette will be happy to assist with the matter." There was a leading edge to Dragon's voice that Colin couldn't place. "I understand they've been regularly exchanging messages since their first meeting."

"Good." He said. "Having an existing relationship will make any requests easier to present." Dragon's avatar gave him a blank look for a moment before nodding.

Colin turned back to the screen. "This may answer the question of how Apeiron was able to carry enough energetic material to affect a fifth of the city."

Dragon's avatar nodded. "It is presented in a highly mundane form, but the potential applications are significant."

"Particularly if it functions with denser base materials." Colin said. "The compressed weight is equal to when the coat is unfolded. Just that application would be enough to justify significant concern." Applying that kind of effect to steel would make depleted uranium look like Styrofoam.

"It's likely this is a new capability." Dragon said. "There was no evidence of a similar effect in any of her earlier work of demonstrations."

Colin took her meaning. "She's trending upwards." He said. "More complex work, more supporting power. An escalation curve."

It was even more evidence linking her to the Celestial Forge. It also suggested that Apeiron might not be the only Mad Scientist within the group. There was a hope that the other members of the proposed cluster would have different approaches, more stable approaches, with the growth facilitated by Apeiron alone. That may well not be the case, for any of them. The major difference was that for the rest of the Celestial Forge they had a single point of data. One public appearance and a handful of forum posts. Garment's debut and development had happened in the public eye.

Which was the only way they had to monitor it.

"Is something wrong?" Dragon asked.

"Learning about this when it breaks over the internet. How many times has that happened over the past two weeks? The public is relying on us to manage this situation, but we're learning about it at the same time they are." He sighed. "I wish we didn't have to use social media and YouTube as our primary intelligence source."

"Oh." Dragon said. "Then you probably aren't going to like this."

"What now?" He asked.

"Recent release of a YouTube video. Actually, alerts should be…" Dragon paused as the notification came through. It was from one of the Protectorate message boards specific to tinkers. They had become a hive of activity, happily trading theories and analysis regarding every aspect of Apeiron, the Celestial Forge, and Brockton Bay in general.

A priority notice had gone out and was apparently being swarmed by every tinker currently connected to the system. Colin read the video's title and cringed, but loaded it nonetheless.

It opened to an annoying burst of music and flashes of badly edited together clips leading into the channel's logo. The video cut to an image of a man with an overly styled brown beard and thick framed glasses wearing what could be generously described as 'vintage' clothing. He was standing next to a far more professionally dressed man with thinning salt and pepper hair. They were standing behind a stainless-steel table with a cloth covered object placed on it. Behind them stood an arrangement of oak barrels and steel vats. Everything indicated a facility that was seeing active use, at least outside of playing host to videos.

"Hello, Lewis Redman here. Welcome a special episode of the Whiskey Barons." The bearded man said, speaking to the camera. "Miles couldn't be with us today, but instead I'm here with Maxwell Keith, friend of the show and head of quality management and product development for the Berkshire Distillery, which has generously offered their facilities for this episode."

"Really happy to be here, Lewis." The man replied. He was a little stilted, but clearly excited.

"Not nearly as happy as I am. Miles is gonna be regretting that coin toss for the rest of his life." The two men shared a chuckle before he continued. "Now long-time viewers might wonder why we're interrupting our New England whiskey series. Well, we received a special request from a fan of the show for a one-off special evaluation."

"Though I suppose this does count as a New England product, so you're not technically breaking from your series." Maxwell Keith replied. Dragon had already pulled up a profile for the man, along with details of the Berkshire Distillery.

"True, though I doubt we'll see this in general circulation." Lewis Redman replied. "Now, while I'd like to build up the suspense, there's no way we're not putting this in the title of the video, so here we are." He pulled back the cloth revealing a pristine bottle of amber liquid.

Even in the dim environment of the distillery, the bottle seemed to glow. The image quality didn't go higher than 1080p, but Colin could make out the intricate designs that made up the label. There was a depth and texture to it, likely the result of engravings and enamel rather than simple paper.

"I'm sure some of you have heard rumors, but I can confirm that Apeiron did attend a meeting at a bar operated by our generous viewer last weekend." The bearded man said with a wide smile. "And the good Enigmatic Artificer decided to leave this as a tip, for good service."

Maxwell Keith lifted the bottle in white gloved hands and the shot changed to a close up. Just as Colin had suspected, the work was immaculate, but even more intricate than he imagined. Not just enamel, but metal foils worked into the glass to create complex patterns and pictures. "As you can see, an absolutely beautiful bottle. Glass work like I've never seen before."

"Quite in character for the man." Quipped the host. "Now, apparently Apeiron reported that the whiskey was seventy years old." He paused for dramatic effect. "And also that he made it "that morning". What do you have to say about that?"

"Well, I can't personally speak to how that would be possible, but I think we can all agree it would be far from the strangest thing to come from Brockton Bay in the past week." The quality manager said with a smile, the shot shifting back to the two men.

"The city did have a bomber and Ward that freezes time. Can't be too far from what's possible." The bearded man grinned. "Brockton Bay be like that." He added, referencing one of the less popular internet memes to have emerged from the civic disaster.

"I suppose." Maxwell Keith replied with the air of a man who knew his conduct would be held as a reflection of his company. "While I can't speak to the production method, I have had the privilege of sampling seventy-year whiskey. A singular experience, and exceptionally smooth."

"We did sixty-year for our anniversary special last year." The host added. "And you're absolutely right. Singular." The more serious man gave the host a strained smile. "Now, as some of you may have guessed, we're not here to look at a pretty bottle. Yes, we are going to be sampling this!"

"I am proud to announce that the Berkshire Distillery has been engaged to test and evaluate the contents of this exceptional bottle." Maxwell Keith declared with great relish. "Including a full chemical assessment and a small professional tasting in order to facilitate full valuation of the bottle."

"That's right." Redman said. "Because Apeiron's whiskey is going up for auction. Now, we normally would put up a link in the description, but these matters are being handled by lawyers."

"That's right." Mr. Keith added. "As such, anyone with a serious interest in the proceedings should contact the firm of Harris, Quinn, and Reed. We've been asked to extend this to any concerns the Protectorate or PRT might have regarding this transaction."

"They've already been contacted by the PRT." Dragon added. "And have made a public statement. Unless there is cause to consider the item dangerous, the auction will likely proceed."

"Now, a big part of this is to make sure the stuff isn't poisoned or rigged to blow up when opened." Redman explained.

"Doubtful." Mr. Keith said. "Though in terms of other factors, this would not be the first product of a parahuman that fell short of expectations."

"Yeah, we did an episode on the worst cape branded liquors." Redman said with a grin.

"Yes. In addition to ill advised promotional lines, tinkers have made attempts at commercial products before. While the result is always distinct, it is perhaps not the quality that one would expect from a master of the art." Mr. Keith explained.

"So, time for the honest appraisal. Can Apeiron brew as well as he can craft?" The bearded man asked, leaning towards the camera.

"I will say, even if the whiskey is pedestrian or even unpalatable, the workmanship on the bottle cannot be praised enough." He reached outside of frame and retrieved a report. "Results of full evaluation of the materials and structure, which is regrettably not particularly enlightening."

"How so?" The host asked.

"For starters, the metals composing the structure of the label are unknown." He said, reading from the report. "Complex alloys are suspected but unconfirmed. The glass, or I should say the material of the bottle, has a transmittance of one, a refractive index of one point four one, and a hardness of 'error-probe failure'." He looked up from his report. "Which is apparently what happens when a diamond tipped hardness probe shatters on contact. Needless to say, that is not supposed to happen."

Redman let out a whistle. "So, are we gonna crack this baby open?"

The man nodded. "Indeed. We'll be moving to the lab for the next steps."

The video cut to a montage of clips, starting with Maxwell Keith removing the stopper, which produced what Colin had to admit was a very satisfying sound. That was followed by the extraction of samples with great care and clips of various testing devices, most of which the editor didn't seem to understand. It was followed by the distillery officer announcing the whiskey as exactly ninety proof, with a degree of precision to the limit of what their equipment could manage. He followed with a series of scientific characteristics, including viscosity, density, and opacity and less scientific terms, like color grade and aroma.

This was followed by the man waxing poetic regarding blends and malts and other characteristics that Colin only had a passing familiarity with. Both he and the video's host seemed to be energized just from the scent of the open bottle and they were positively trembling when a dropper placed tiny and precise portions of whisky in two tasting glasses.

Seeing the pair react, Colin could almost believe there was something to the early master accusations leveled against Apeiron. The distillery's employee had tears in his eyes and the host was seemingly running out of synonyms for 'great' while favorably evaluating the quality against some of the finer brands his show had sampled. Apparently even being enthralled by a masterful example of the distiller's craft couldn't stifle self-promotion.

Colin wasn't really expecting anything less. It was doubtful that Apeiron would have handed out anything that wasn't designed to impress on every level. Part of him would have been amused if he had a failing in the production of consumables, but just amused, not vindictive. Things had progressed too far for him to become disheartened over something as trivial as Apeiron mastering a skill he had no personal interest in.

Colin was beginning to expect that the video would be nothing more than flowery terminology and aggrandizing when it suddenly cut back to the laboratory.

"Hey, jumping away from the review for a special development." The host turned to the distillery's quality manager. "You want to take this?"

"Absolutely." He said with relish. "To be clear, a total of twenty-five milliliters, precisely documented, has been consumed in examination and tasting. While the volume is not specified, you can clearly see this is the SIZE of a seven hundred and fifty milliliter bottle." He explained, holding the bottle carefully. "But as you can also see, the level of the bottle does not match the volume that has been removed. On registering this, we investigated further and determined something extraordinary."

"Bottle's bigger on the inside." The host proclaimed. Colin leaned forward as Mr. Keith explained the specialists consulted and the methodology used to confirm the internal dimensions, finishing with the staggering value.

"That's right." The increasingly annoying host quipped. "One hundred and twenty-six gallons. As viewers should remember from our history of brewing episode, under English wine cask units that equals one butt." He made a dramatic gesture towards the bottle. "Presenting, one butt-load of Apeiron grade whiskey."

"Now, there have been discussions as to how this could have been accomplished." Mr. Keith began. "And once again, for full documentation we ask any interested parties to contact Harris, Quinn, and Reed. As a summation of the prevailing theory, Brockton Bay hosts a Ward with a similar ability to expand internal dimensions, allowing expanded storage without affecting the apparent weight of the container." Colin recognized the reference to one of Vista's techniques. "We are likely seeing an emulation of that process, or a similar effect. It should be noted that previously observed effects have been highly transient, and while this appears to be entirely stable, there is no guarantee it will remain so."

"Yeah, cause Apeiron's known for cheap crap that falls apart the second you need it, right?" Redman joked, obviously oblivious to the man's extensive use of shaker effects and emulated materials. Colin doubted that whatever was enhancing the bottle would fail quite as suddenly as what he observed from the knife fragments, but it was hardly a guaranteed effect.

Which would probably be a significant relief to anyone concerned about other applications to which such work could be directed.

"The nature of the bottle is included on the firm's release." Dragon stated. "A more relevant factor would be the volume of whiskey."

Colin nodded. "This isn't private consumption. That's enough to release a line for general sale. Limited quantity, but that would only drive up the price."

"There's going to be corporate interest in the auction." She said, "Companies may leverage to try to secure the winning bid."

"Which will be a gamble on Apeiron not releasing the product himself and drowning the market." Colin replied. It would be out of character for the man, but he wasn't acting alone anymore. And the ability to produce that quantity of fine alcohol, to such an apparently prodigious level of quality, in such a short time, made a powerful statement about his resources and production abilities.

Just like the distribution of dozens of custom-tailored jackets did for Garment. And Colin didn't miss the significance of the naval design. Brockton Bay was a city with old maritime ties, though they had largely been set aside by the new money and new industry that had sprouted since the tech boom. Garment was displaying her power while also making a statement about the city's past and future.

He just hoped it wasn't a hostile one.

"Views on the video are skyrocketing." Dragon explained. "The channel is also gaining subscribers, and the ad revenue they'll see from this is going to be significant."

"And I imagine the Berkshire Distillery will also do quite well." He said. "A neat arrangement, beneficial on all sides." And once more, coming to them from public media rather than any of their own sources.

That had seemed to be a theme, following Apeiron's first, dramatic appearance. That could be blamed on Uber and Leet and their incessant pandering to a rapidly shrinking audience, but the theme had continued. When Apeiron had made a statement of his intent, it hadn't been to the Protectorate or PRT, though both organizations had made a fairly poor impression. It also hadn't been to a newspaper or television network. He had posted a prodigious announcement of intent and identity on a cape discussion forum.

It almost seemed like he was trying to make a statement. Coupled with Apeiron's other appearances, his team's behavior, his open website, and his neglect of traditional forms of media it was almost like he was intentionally avoiding the trappings of what had become known as Cape Culture.

It probably didn't help that the Protectorate and PRT had heavily inserted themselves into as many of those avenues as possible. They had significant influence over networks, print, and popular media. Apeiron had sidestepped all of that, finding a way to connect directly with the public, and to great effect despite his apparent reluctance to come forward.

It may have been a reaction to the PRT's early actions, or it may have been a natural extension of his power, but it did feel like things were changing. The PRT was losing control of the narrative, though to be fair that was probably inevitable with how far Director Piggot had attempted to stretch it. Capes had always lived in a world of capes, separate from normal people. It was the kind of arrangement that led to the current issues the director was struggling with, desperately trying to find buried or discarded case files from months ago, probably cast aside the second it became clear that a parahuman wasn't directly involved.

Apeiron seemed to exist in a world above the typical cape, which perhaps explained his unique approach to the public. There was a cold logic to it. Would Eidolon distinguish between a freshly triggered Blaster 2 and a man with a gun, or would both of them be seen as the same from that kind of towering height.

It was an interesting theory, but one better left for professional analysts or members of the Think Tank. Despite the surge of last-minute reveals, there was little that could actually be done regarding them, at least at the moment. Tomorrow might be different, but until then Colin had three of Cask's more potent mixtures to get through, followed by an extended period of sleeping off the effects.

Honestly, the sleep required was probably doing more for his recovery, at least in a general sense. Rest wasn't triggering cellular growth or tissue restoration, but approaching problems with a clear and rested mind had made a world of difference. It was even worth the occasional slight hangover.

When had he decided that sleep was something he could compromise? Compartmentalize and supplement like a component of his halberd? Looking at Dragon's avatar, it was probably around the time he had started collaborating with her. He remembered the envy at her Noctis status and his desire to emulate it, no matter the cost.

But that was always what it came down to. The cost. He had made a career of optimizing his systems and stripping out unnecessary components, but what was actually unnecessary as opposed to essential wasn't always obvious at the time.

"Colin?" Dragon asked. He must have been expressing more than he intended.

"I'm fine." He assured her. The way Apeiron turned the world upside down seemed to put everyone in the mood to contemplate their place in the universe. "And I think I'm about done for the night. I'll check the official assessments in the morning." And for once he wouldn't be one working through the night to produce or verify them. "Don't worry, I'll take my medicine and go to bed."

"Rest is important, and so is healing." Dragon said. "And we'll need a full calibration from the last round of surgeries."

He nodded. Their last field test had been three days ago, and unlike Apeiron that didn't represent some miraculous development cycle for him. Just the need to recalibrate and refine his existing work.

"I'm not going to be much use to you tomorrow." He said. As happy as he was to stay out of the line of fire while Director Piggot crashed and burned, he hated leaving things to play out while he was confined and recovering. At least it was only a matter of days, though with the way the current situation was developing that was hardly a comfort. "But I can take console during the charity show and provide support and assessments if the Empire tries anything."

"Thank you. Normally, I'd be confident in my ability to manage the situation, but the Empire has expanded their roster." Her voice turned cold. "Additionally, any attempts to intervene will likely draw the attention of Saint."

Colin nodded grimly. Uppercrust had been able to confirm their purpose as being solely to counter Dragon's presence. A professional pest and annoyance, masquerading as a mercenary.

"The added complication of the Dragonslayers could result in an escalation of events that may cause Apeiron to intervene." Her voice perked up as she shifted topic. "My assessments suggest there will be no way to significantly impair his efforts without a massed and coordinated response of at least A-class level."

She made the statement cheerfully, fully embracing the reality of the situation. An A-class response with proper deployment and coordination may be able to impair Apeiron. Not stop or contain, just perhaps slow him down. The higher-level scenarios weren't much more optimistic, and that was excluding his team.

It was a unique and refreshing approach to impossible challenges, met with enthusiasm rather than despair. Dragon was brutally honest in their prospects in any conflict with Apeiron, but she didn't surrender to inevitability. She worked constantly, exploring every option, even if nearly all of them resulted in similar scenarios of detailed but cheerfully presented failure.

Apeiron was an obstacle that could not be personally conquered. Not by any one cape. Potentially not by any combination of capes, but Dragon did not give up. And it was only when reflecting on his own situation that Colin understood why.

Dragon's work was impressive, but the challenges she took on were even more so. It was easy to focus on her triumphs, but the reality was that as a member of the Guild she faced more hopeless scenarios than easy victories. But by committing herself to that organization she dedicated herself to problems that she could not defeat. That perhaps no one could defeat, but still, the attempt needed to be made. What was Apeiron after a lifetime of Endbringers, parahuman disasters, and S-class threats? A greater challenge, but Dragon's life was defined by greater challenges. No wonder she could embrace the impossibility of her chosen foe with cheerful goodwill.

It contrasted with his own path. He deployed with S-class responders, but his life was in Brockton Bay. A single city with threats that he could manage, even occasionally conquer. Until he couldn't. Until it all fell apart.

He had been comfortable. He'd found a place where he could work and refine his approach. Cut away what was unnecessary and focus on what could make a difference. A difference for the city, not a difference for the world. He hadn't liked the idea of moving on to something he couldn't handle. Of being out of his depth, but it was evident that that was where a person could make the most difference.

"I'm impressed by your determination." Colin said. "The amount you've dedicated to this, it's more than I would have expected. More than I would have done." He added, slightly ashamed at the admission.

"It's something that has to be done." She said simply, displaying the cheerful determination that made such an impression.

"But you're the one who's doing it." He said. "The rest of the Guild might deploy if another disaster breaks out, but you're the one who's here."

"Colin, you sound almost sentimental." She said coyly.

He laughed. "I'd blame Cask's treatments, but I haven't started yet." And he should. He had an inordinate amount to get through before he could rest. "But it seems most people are reflecting more than they used to. Apeiron all but confirms trigger theory and people dig through their past seeking some hidden answer to their purpose."

"Is that what you've been doing?" Dragon asked.

Colin paused. It wasn't a topic he wanted to get into. Honestly, he shouldn't have brought it up. There was a reason that capes avoided discussing their triggers. His was unpleasant enough, but the details that anyone could fill in from Dragon's situation suggested a background that no one wanted to dredge up.

"A bit." He didn't want to, but he felt compelled to, if only for bringing up a sensitive subject. He smiled just enough to not disrupt his still-healing implants as he remembered something he was willing to disclose. "You know, before I was a parahuman, I was living out of a backpack?"

Dragon's avatar actually looked shocked. "Truly?"

He nodded. "My situation wasn't bad, I was just… focused. I tried to avoid obligations. Connections. Unnecessary baggage. Eventually pared things down to the point where I was operating out of a single bag. No excess weight and could move on at a moment's notice."

It was supposed to be a funny anecdote of his days before college, but somehow it painted a more serious picture than he intended. He wanted to drop the subject, but Dragon followed up on the topic and he wasn't willing to ignore her.

"What happened?" She asked.

He took a breath. "The usual thing." It was as vague as he could make it. "Along with some other incidents, I realized I had cut back too much. Lost connections I didn't even know about, and others I didn't think you could lose. Things had gone too far. They weren't efficient, they were just broken."

He leaned back and looked around his replacement workshop in the heart of the city he had dedicated his life to, and failed when it needed him the most.

"I tried to do things differently here." He said.

"To make connections?" Dragon asked.

"Connections, structure, foundation. I gave up a lot to make it work. I focused on key connections and shed everything else. Only focused on what seemed like it would make a difference."

"You think it was the wrong approach?" She asked.

He let out a breath. "I think that deciding what you leave out is as important as deciding what to keep."

"Is this a social or an engineering problem?" Dragon teased. It got a weak smile from him.

"It can be both." Practically, there were more times than he could count that the device or attachment he had elected to remove from his halberd for the sake of weight or space or power management had been exactly what he needed for a critical situation. "And I don't think my approach was wrong, but it could have been better." He admitted. "There were diminishing returns that I didn't recognize. Not until it was too late."

Too late to stop a disaster, too late to escape with an unblemished career, but perhaps not too late for the city, or for him either.