chapter 14: Strange Things
* Dallon Household *
"AGH!" yelped Amy as she tumbled out of bed. "A dream? Wait, the clock. It's... WHAT?!"
Vicky burst in the door. "Amy? You. I mean!"
"Simurgh, Canberra?" asked Amy.
Vicky's eyes got even wider. "Old woman with a cane."
"You remember it too," gasped Amy, feeling both relieved that she wasn't alone in this weirdness but also terrified that something really strange had happened.
"Yeah," said Vicky. "What does it mean?"
"I don't know, but I know where to start looking," said Amy, coming to a few realizations.
"Yeah, but Canberra is so far away," said Vicky.
"And it hasn't happened yet, that's next month," said Amy. "No. Taylor."
"What if Taylor doesn't remember?" asked Vicky.
Amy paused. What if it was just them who remembered? What if he didn't remember her, wouldn't it be awkward? "I don't know."
* Simurgh *
The Simurgh screamed as reality was taken apart and put back together, with the pieces not fitting together quite the same way. As if someone was just patching things together and not fully paying attention.
Extending her senses determined that Jupiter's moon Io had Greek ruins on it. Wouldn't last long as that moon was turning itself inside-out as was usually the case. Oh, and Saturn had an extra ring. Looked like some of the asteroid orbits were off a bit too.
There was something else different. Was that a giant hamster in Ireland? Yes it was - roughly the size of a rhino. Also working for Supermac's.
Were there undead in London? Yes, still dressed in fashions a hundred years (or more) out of date and going about their daily activities. Oh, wait, that one was just a cosplayer.
There were some parahumans with shards that had not existed prior to the reality shuffle. Which sounded like a dance that some bored physicist would come up with. There was "Damn it, I'm retired" Dakka with the Weapon Retrieval Shard. There was Oracle, who looked back as soon as she looked at him, with the Saw It Coming Shard. There was Jigsaw Jim and Multi-Max and Ultra-guy and Ragamuffin and Rex the Wonder Dog and Inspector Chimp and Ratspierre and Eenie Meanie and Lil' Shoggoth and Uno Card and Dungeon Master and Variant and even the giant bronze Greek living statue of Talos The Destroyer.
There was an island in the Pacific Ocean that had a large monkey on it that she didn't remember on any previous shuffle, so there was that too. With dinosaurs. Somehow.
Despite all this, Brockton Bay was the center of the weirdness (everyone else could have weirdness up to ten but Brockton managed an eleven) so she'd just keep an eye on it.
Though frankly if she saw any dragons she'd be investigating that human fascination with alcohol just to see if she actually could get drunk.
* Taylor *
She woke up. IN THE LOCKER.
Well, this wasn't good. Expected, but not good.
Fortunately, she had a way out of it that would also be how she first explored her new options.
* PRT ENE Lobby *
"Hello?" asked the girl who had just suddenly appeared in front of her desk. "I just had a trigger event. I'm wondering if there are any resources available for dealing with it?"
PRT Receptionist Blaithin Brennan had seen an awful lot in the four years she'd been working the front desk on the swing shift. Start at noon, end around 10:30 with the half-hour lunch break. She'd seen a lot in her native Ireland before crossing the Pond but nothing compared to Brockton Bay.
The sudden appearance of a battered-looking girl, holding one arm as if it hurt her, directly in front of the desk triggered a spout of profanity and Gaelic (and profanity in Gaelic) that would have gotten her a reprimand in her file had the supervisor been anywhere within earshot.
Blaithin had managed to hit a couple of buttons (the ones for unknown parahuman at desk and the one for medical attention needed) so her training for such circumstances hadn't been completely wasted.
"Just hold on there, lass, medic will be here right away," said Blaithin, though she was so off-balance that her accent had gone from "charming lilt" to "what the hell did she just say" very quickly.
Taylor nodded, not having gotten anything like this reaction in previous run-throughs. Then again, she hadn't gone directly from her locker to here before either.
* PRT ENE Conference Room B *
Director Emily Piggot was not generally a happy woman. At the moment she was even less happy than was normal. "Sophia Hess?"
"Yes, well," said Miss Militia, looking rather more distracted and nervous than usual.
"One thing at a time," said Director Piggot. "Before we get to Sophia. New cape? The new cape that reports she was tortured for a year before one of our Wards who was on probation due to sociopathic tendencies took things to the level of trigger event?"
Armsmaster twitched slightly. "She's..."
"A Shaker with a ten foot range," said Miss Militia, also fidgeting.
"Okay, what's got both of you acting like someone's going to blow up," said Director Piggot. "Is she that dangerous?"
"We've given her the tentative codename of Alchemist," offered Miss Militia.
"Highly inaccurate," mumbled Armsmaster.
"She only has a ten foot range so how bad can it be?" asked Director Piggot, proving that she was listening.
"Alchemist can alter reality within a ten foot radius of herself," said Miss Militia. "Except we're pretty sure that's a psychological limitation and not a power one."
"That's normal for powers, they're all hinky and make damn little sense," said Director Piggot.
Miss Militia pulled a brick of some material out of a side pouch and put it on her desk. "She can create matter, destroy it, or alter it. As long as it is within ten feet of her."
"Heavy," said Director Piggot, hefting the brick with effort. "What is it, glass?"
"Diamond," said Armsmaster. "She produced bricks of gold, platinum, molybdenum, and carbide steel after a small sample was produced. The others are being tested but it appears she can create matter and energy at will."
"Okay, your point other than a potential resource for Supply?" asked Director Piggot.
"She can create matter," stressed Armsmaster. "At will. She created a rod of nickel-iron by starting it and walking. A rod six inches thick and forty feet in length because the mass produced within her field remains."
"Again, your point?" asked Director Piggot.
"She isn't pulling it from some outside source, she is literally creating matter out of nothing. She can alter matter or energy at will. When we had her hold onto a measuring device, she was able to generate 1.2 gigawatts of electricity." Armsmaster shook his head. "I was attempting to lighten the situation by asking for an impossible material that would be useful in my Tinker activities. She created a room temperature superconductor just from my description of the material."
"That's good?" asked Director Piggot. It didn't explain the nervous looks.
"If she wanted to, she could create a critical mass of fissionable material with as much effort as breathing and as she is within that ten foot radius grant herself complete immunity to the resulting nuclear explosion." Miss Militia shuddered a little at the thought.
"I see," said Director Piggot. "How likely is that to happen?"
"If she doesn't learn that Shadow Stalker is Sophia Hess and is here in the same building - very unlikely," offered Miss Militia. "If Shadow Stalker confronts her as she joins the Wards..."
"Right," said Director Piggot, picking up a phone. "I think a personnel transfer is in order."
"On the other hand, she can disintegrate matter if it is within that ten foot range," said Armsmaster. "I think it more likely that Shadow Stalker would end up dust in the wind."
"That's still not an acceptable outcome," indicated Miss Militia. Though frankly if it were a choice between the two...
"Yes, she violated probation," said Emily Piggot over the phone. "Yes, we're transferring her to the location of Someone Else's Problem. Any particular... oh? I didn't even know the PRT had a base there. Yes, I do suppose that makes sense. Okay, I'll be sure she has a parka."
"McMurdo?" asked Armsmaster, receiving a nod back.
"What did you mean by 'psychological limit' and not a power one?" asked Director Piggot.
"She teleported here from Winslow High School," said Miss Militia. "Teleported herself. While she's within ten feet of herself, it doesn't make any sense that she could teleport miles away when the end destination is outside the range she can affect."
* Coil *
There were acceptable risks, and then there were acceptable risks.
She was very shortly to become one of the Wards, in which case her time and activities would be more closely monitored. If she'd chosen a rogue or villain path, it would have been far easier to "recruit" this new cape.
The possibilities that were opened by this new cape though - that was a very high amount of desirability. The PRT was seeing her as a resource for Supplies, which was incredibly short-sighted of them.
From what the scientists had input on their secured servers, for which he of course had access and the codes, she had to be aware of what was being created/altered and be able to focus to change things. She could be caught unaware, she could be drugged to oblivion, and she could be trained to be properly obedient.
It had to be done now though, or not at all.
* Medhall *
For one of his moles to risk breaking cover, the rewards had to match the risk. Max Anders, aka Kaiser, knew this. The agent knew this.
"What the hell? Seriously? This girl can just make gold out of nothing?" asked Victor.
"If that went public, she wouldn't need to make the first brick - the price of gold would plummet." Kaiser sat back in his chair and just looked at the ceiling as he thought this through. "Same with diamonds or anything else where rarity matters. She can create matter in any shape she wants, so making diamond faceplates or tools is possible. She was tested in making materials and can do it from a rough description. Just that superconductor could make so much money it beggars the imagination."
"Won't the NEPEA laws make that unlikely as hell?" asked Victor.
"Those only apply in the United States," replied Kaiser immediately. "There are places in the world which were not so lacking in vision. Places hit by the Endbringers that..."
"Something occur to you?" asked Victor.
"No, it's nothing," said Kaiser. "Just an odd thought as to how and why Endbringers target areas. One of those obvious-in-hindsight things."
"We can't recruit this Alchemist, she's joining the Wards after all," said Victor.
"Denying your opponent a resource can be as important and controlling it yourself," said Kaiser. "If the ABB, Merchants, or anyone else goes after her - a fatal accident might be required. The PRT will underutilize her. Anyone else could upset the cabbage cart."
"Apple cart," corrected Victor. "The phrase is 'upset the applecart'."
"I saw a cart of cabbages overturned on the highway once, the owner yelling at some cape vs cape fight that had done it, it was funny and stuck with me," admitted Kaiser.
* Docks *
Taylor was feeling pretty good about this. Her idea had been reality-alteration as a power. By putting a range on it, she wouldn't have nearly the panic an unlimited ability of that type would result in. By joining the PRT Ward program, she would have the backing of that organization and she could do heroic things without necessarily going out and getting shot at.
She'd had a lot of time as an old woman in Australia to come up with this idea.
Also, after being locked out of herself and then finding that her real self was a boy, that she didn't want that old guy anywhere around. She was an old hand at this stuff now and it was time to do away with having some mentor or guide.
So far it had worked out pretty much as she'd planned. Useful ability instead of the whole punching-your-problems-away thing that was basically how most capes went about their lives. She'd teleported from the PRT building to the gates of the Docks to give her more time to think now that she'd started on her rehearsed plans.
So she'd visit her father at work, let him know about...
There were two guys at the gates she didn't recognize in uniforms she didn't know. They waved her through though, so maybe they were new?
Why were there burn spots on the walls there? Had there been a fire or...
The bit of her that remained from her time as Nora informed her those resembled laser fire discharges and the residue pattern indicated burst fire. Which was different from normal patterns from normal firearms because of the lack of recoil, but still caused some drift because of nerve twitches and the like.
Taylor paused as she considered that and let more of her time as Nora come forward. Flickers of movement that were gone again? Rooftops and windows. That experience in that world of Fallout said "ambush" and pointed out danger.
She could create matter. While she wasn't an expert in such things, Nora's time in the Army had required her to be able to take apart and put together a laser rifle. It made a comforting weight in her hands as she checked the displays and settings.
Then she made and turned on a Stealth Boy. The camouflage field wouldn't last long, but it should last long enough.
Now she was going to find out what was going on before anything else happened.
She had just turned the corner and snuck off when a bright flash, a loud bang, and a pressure wave went off where she would have been if she hadn't changed direction.
She couldn't run without losing the stealth field, so maybe if she just went this way.
Taylor realized she was really channeling that identity now that she was in a situation where those skills seemed necessary. Nora was a fading memory of a life she'd never lived, but there were useful skills that came to her without much effort. Step this way and around this patch of soft ground. Avoid coming too close to the security cameras because the stealth field wasn't perfect. She wasn't a designated sniper but had some training.
Peering in a window, she saw a bunch of dockworkers and a mercenary with a gun who was watching them. Her eyes widened at the sight of thick collars with little blinky-lights before she ducked back down again.
Suppressing a moment of wishing she had that the old man was around to provide backup, Taylor considered options and reluctantly reached for the phone that the PRT had just issued her.
What was going on? Who was behind this? Why hadn't something like this happened before?
And if her father was hurt, who was going to pay?
* PRT ENE HQ *
Director Piggot did not slam the phone down. She did not yell or raise her voice. She did not do anything that would indicate how very unhappy she was at the moment.
A thumb on the intercom was pressed. "I need Armsmaster, Miss Militia, and Battery here now."
When the three had come in, she'd held up a hand to forestall questions and then hit the anti-eavesdropping precautions. "Our information system has been compromised. Someone has broken the Unwritten Rules and is going after Alchemist at her father's work. We're going to need top-to-bottom scrutiny of all systems and communications. First though, we need to respond to a mass hostage situation at the Docks. Explosive collars and mercenaries equipped with laser rifles."
"Uniforms?" asked Miss Militia.
"From the description, some common paramilitary sort but not one she recognized," said Director Piggot. "Body armor, what sounds like heavy assault kit. From the way the call cut off and an attempted callback went - they've got scramblers in place but hadn't expected her to be quite so prepared so quickly or didn't know we'd issued her a phone."
* Taylor *
Upon seeing my father wearing one of those collars, I rushed forward. All I had to do was get within 10ft of him and that collar would be a puff of carbon dioxide.
"Don't! It's a proximi-"
Watching my father explode was one of those things I could have done without.
The timeline went white then faded.
"What was all that?" I asked the cat.
"Coil was planning on blackmailing you into surrendering and then drugging you into a haze where you could be made suggestible," said the cat. "He decided it was worth the risk and did his split-timeline-thing. Except that I was involved and he found himself stuck in the new timeline as opposed to being in control of it. Side effect of monitoring you closely during all this."
"Coil, huh. He decided I wasn't too much of a threat to go after, but a resource he wanted pretty desperately to control? Can I try something?" asked Taylor.
"For now, I suppose," agreed the Cat of Chaos. "You've got two tries left before I ask for your final choice."
* Coil *
I looked around in a state approaching panic as I realized that SOMETHING had just caused my power to run backwards. It was now much earlier in the day. The timeline where I'd decided to blackmail and control Alchemist had suddenly become the only timeline and I'd been locked in before I knew it. Then everything went white and now I was back to square one.
That episode of "Gilligan's Island" was playing on one monitor from a local station, one of my favorites as it involved a would-be supervillain, but it was an episode that didn't play very often.
A quick check revealed nothing unusual from any of the security feeds, and the mercenaries I'd detailed for the operation were still performing their usual duties in my base.
Obviously, something major had hit the fan - but what?
* Taylor *
I was in the locker and I Changed, shouldering aside the metal of the locker as I freed myself. The thin metal of the locker might have been rice paper for all the resistance to my strength.
My heavy tail aided in that, and when my first size change occurred I was suddenly scraping the ceiling of the hallway.
The second size change happened just before I reached the door, which was no longer big enough for me to exit from. I expanded it considerably in my passage as it was just flimsy aluminum and concrete. My third and then fourth size increase had me looking down at Winslow.
From six to twelve to twenty-four to forty-eight feet in height. "Growth spurt," I rumbled with amusement as I continued to grow.
Forty-eight feet in height to ninety-six feet in less than fifteen minutes. I looked towards the center of the city, wondering if anyone was watching.
Once I reached one-hundred and ninety-two feet in height, the Endbringer sirens started going off.
At three-hundred and eighty-four feet in height I decided to make my opinion of Winslow High School known.
* PRT ENE HQ *
"WHAT THE HELL?!" was the general consensus as the beast was now towering over most of Brockton Bay.
"It stopped growing," said Lead Technician Ikari. "Last burst of height was only an additional ten feet, instead of doubling. Currently standing at three-hundred-ninety-four feet or one-hundred-twenty meters in height."
"It kind of looks like Godzilla, you know - that movie monster. More reptillian though, thicker body. Same... now glowing dorsal spine?!"
"It doesn't have 'atomic breath' right? I mean, that's just impossi..."
"oh shit," said basically everyone watching.
* Taylor *
I gave a satisfied nod at the glowing crater that had once been a school. That was quite cathartic actually, didn't feel like wasted time at all. Needed to get to the main job though.
A blackened post for a pencil and a billboard ripped off of a roof, and now I had a note to show for my trouble.
"Coil, you're next."
Trying to put my feet where there wasn't anything to crush underfoot might cause me to take a bit longer than I really wanted.
I roared in frustration, but also to wake anyone up who might have slept through my little act of urban improvement.
Seeing a teenie-tiny helicopter circling, I held up my palm-note/billboard and pointed helpfully to where I was going.
* Medhall *
"What the hell is the emergency you had to wake me..." Max Anders looked out the window, his voice trailing off as something that made Leviathan look like a bathtub's rubber duckie made its way through Brockton Bay. "What the hell?"
"You didn't hear the Endbringer sirens turn on?" asked Victor. "THAT showed up, blew up Winslow with some kind of plasma beam, then started heading downtown."
"It's not coming here, right?" asked Max Anders.
"No, and it is apparently pissed at something Coil did," said Victor.
"Better him than us," said Kaiser. "If it looks like it might head this way, prepare to evacuate. I don't know anything we have that will do more than possibly make THAT mad."
Victor nodded. Because even though he was a frequently vile Nazi scum, he wasn't completely stupid.
* Taylor *
A memory from one of the resets and I made another note to hold up to the PRT helicopter. "Coil = Thomas Calvert" would hopefully serve to further indicate my displeasure.
As I watched, people came streaming out of several of the buildings and ran away from me. If I recalled correctly, that hidden base should be right about... here.
I began digging, my large clawed hands doing a fine job of clearing away things. I really wanted to vent my displeasure upon this Coil for disturbing me.
* Coil *
Anger. Overwhelming anger. Hate. Big freaking teeth and claws. It was all he could see whenever he tried to form a timeline and escape this feeling of DOOM.
There was a crunching noise and the power went out, followed by a feeling of being in an elevator that was rising way too damn fast.
A single clawed finger cleared one section of wall, and then a freaking enormous eye that glowed yellow peered through the opening.
Then there was a series of explosions and the elevator went into freefall.
* Taylor *
The missiles were a bit startling but did as next to no damage as anything could.
Laser beams repeatedly hit me. No damage done, but they were annoying. I caught a glimpse of a tiny little Lady Photon circling me for whatever reason.
I dropped the section of Endbringer shelter that Coil had been hidden in, turning to face this new threat.
When a blur smacked into me with all the force of a grain of rice, I had to blink a couple of times, especially as I recognized this particular rice grain. "Glory Girl?"
* Vicky *
Lasers didn't work. A high speed flight and body-slam did nothing.
Then it spoke.
"Glory Girl?" asked an impossibly deep and growly voice.
There was a moment to process that before I could react and we just stared at each other.
"Endbringer?" I asked.
"WHERE?!" roared the giant lizard, spinning around and accidently stepping on the section of shelter it had just dug out of the ground.
"Uhm," I really wondered if the lizard was that thick, or it just didn't think of itself as an Endbringer.
"Where Endbringer?" grumbled the lizard, rubbing its throat with one clawed hand.
"You Endbringer," I replied.
The giant lizard turned its head to give me a flat look even as more laser blasts hit it. Lady Photon's attacks having less effect than a flashlight.
"No?" I asked.
"Cancel," grumbled the giant lizard after turning its head heavenward for a moment.
My alarm went off and I stumbled out of bed at home. It had happened again.
Amy showed up at the door a moment later. "Vicky?"
"Cancel?" I said, looking up at the ceiling.
"Cancel?" asked Amy.
"Well, it was a theory," I told her. "This is what I remember..."
* Coil *
He gasped and felt himself. He had died. He had been crushed between two slabs of concrete and bled to death. He was absolutely certain of this.
Now he was back for the second time. One TV was showing that episode of Gilligan's Island with the Master rings.
Well. Now he had a plan for the rest of the morning. Getting that bottle of Absolut out of the cabinet and getting very acquainted with it. It was either that or try a pre-emptive strike. Choices.
* Taylor *
One more trial and then I had to make a choice.
So I definitely had to make this count. Couldn't just blow another on dealing with Coil however much I'd like to drag him out of his little lair.
Still, this ability was a good one and it had even been suggested by a question about powers and what I would have ended up with had an extraplanar being not intervened. Something called 'Queen Administrator' and control over bugs. Well, the phrase had some other possibilities which struck me.
Especially after watching the old man of a hundred names do that thing with dragons. No reason not to take inspiration from where you found it.
Bugs were everywhere. Literally everywhere as I understand it. Single insects were barely noticeable. Swarms were things of nightmare that could and had influenced history.
So if I had been originally fated to be an insect controller, couldn't I be a ninja-bug user? According to the cat-thing, there WAS such a thing in the vast multiverse so I could use that as a guideline.
So, my choice of power for this run through had been simple enough. Ninja who could control bugs.
I had originally thought ninja-bugs like some of those dragons had been dragon-ninja. Apparently, somewhere in the omniverse, there were ninja-magician-types who could control and breed and enhance but could also do some weird-but-useful things.
Like run up the sides of buildings, make humongous leaps, swap yourself with something of roughly the same mass, disguise yourself, and so on. You also learned how to fight and take a hit, throw little knives, stab someone very effectively, and commit many acts of violence for fun and profit. The bugs allowed you to track people, find things that were hidden, attack the hell out of people, and weave silk.
The last was a potential source of income as long as I could skirt those laws about parahumans actually making a living off their powers.
Now there was a choice before me. Join the PRT and deal with whatever tie was between Coil and that agency. Independent and I'd be on my own resources which was dangerous. I was not going to be accepted by the ABB, I find the E88 repugnant philosophically, and the Merchants were straight out.
I could go villain route pretty easily, but that path didn't really appeal either.
Who was at the door at this hour?
* Victoria *
Amy and I had combined our notes and came up with a common denominator. The Docks and the DWU who ran the place as an almost-gang of their own.
We also had come to several conclusions. There were four "resets" where someone had used time travel to fix things. As far as we could determine we were the only ones aware of it, with the possible exception of the Simurgh. Who was last seen in orbit holding up a sign asking someone to please stop it. There was a lot of speculation online about what "it" was online, but both Amy and I were pretty sure we knew.
Which led us to tracking down Amy's not-a-boyfriend as he was connected to the Dockworker's Union via his father. Except that twice now we'd tracked down Taylor Hebert and found he was a girl now. And apparently always had been.
The first time that had been off-putting enough to check other leads. The second time Amy had found excuses not to contact girl-Taylor.
The last time there had been this great big Godzilla-shaped distraction and we just hadn't had time.
So here we were, outside the same house that had been registered to Daniel Marcone Hebert in every reset. Amy had gone still outside the house after some bug had landed on her. Apparently there was some weirdness about the bug, but it may have just been a kind of bug Amy didn't know.
I knocked and waited. It took a couple of minutes for the girl-Taylor to open the door.
"Hi, I'm Glory Girl and this is Panacea. Can we ask you a couple'a questions?"
* Taylor *
I'd known they were there before they'd reached the front door. I'd known who they were and that they were hesitating before Glory Girl finally reached past her sister and knocked.
The insects were hidden and ready to swarm at a moment's notice.
"Hi, I'm Glory Girl and this is Panacea. Can we ask you a couple of questions?"
"Taylor Hebert. Uhm, is something wrong?" I was getting information from some of the bugs nearby that were especially good with the whole sense of smell thing. The two were nervous. Panacea was more embarrassed with a side order of nervous. Glory Girl was mainly nervous with a side of absolutely terrified. Neither really fit what I knew of the two, which was mainly from the news.
The two looked at each other and then Panacea spoke up, sounding very unsure of herself. Which was unusual because she was usually described as a bit snarky. "Do you... remember?"
"Excuse me, I'm not entirely clear as to what you are asking," I told her.
"Do you remember time getting shuffled about?" asked Glory Girl.
Oh hell. Were they aware of the timeline shuffle? HOW were they aware of any of that?
"From that reaction, I'd say 'yes'," said Glory Girl. "So you're another one who remembers the 'resets' like us."
"Do you remember being a guy?" asked Panacea.
"I have never been a guy," I truthfully declared.
"We met a Taylor who was a guy," supplied Glory Girl.
"Wasn't me," I told them.
"But you remember other times," said Glory Girl.
"No, I definitely don't remember anything like that," I said.
"Lie," said Panacea.
"I think you better go," I told them, shutting the door. After a few seconds the two left. Well, this was an unnecessary complication wasn't it?
* Panacea *
"Not here," I told my sister as we quickly walked along. Or rather I walked and Vicky floated next to me.
Fortunately, Vicky followed my lead. Only when we were well away from the house did I stop and relax a bit.
"What was all that?" asked Vicky.
"She had her hand on the doorframe, I was leaning on that frame." I held up one hand. "Barely brushed up against her but I could tell when she was telling the truth and when she lied."
"To be fair, she isn't a very good liar," said Vicky.
I nodded as I went over the conversation. What there had been of it. "She was not lying about never having been boy-Taylor. She WAS lying about not remembering other times."
"I think she knows more about what's going on, but if she's involved will we end up getting all forgetful all of a sudden?" asked Vicky. "I really don't like getting Mastered if that's what's happening."
"I think it's more Breaker-Shaker," I told her. "Altering time? Yeah, that's a headache and a half." I've read stories about time travel. On the occasion it isn't used for getting the writer out of a hole they've dug themselves into - it causes more problems than it solves.
"So - what do we do?" asked Vicky. This wasn't a problem she could punch after all.
* Taylor *
"They know," said Taylor, directing her comment to the ceiling. "Who else knows?"
The ceiling didn't answer. Neither did anything else.
Little ninja bugs wouldn't help against an Endbringer, but she had time at least to think about the choice ahead of her and in the meantime she could get information through her swarms.
Right now, she was thinking of three possibilities. Thrud, Supergirl, or Allspark all had some attractive possibilities but one thing all of those had was the old guy. Thing was, as that same old guy had told her repeatedly, he was fated to die after getting her started on her path. So, not reliable in the long term.
That was why she'd gotten rid of him. She had to see how she could do this without that "mentor figure" thing going on.
Oh, and Pugilist. She hadn't even gotten very far with that one and there had been some possibilities there.
That both Panacea and Glory Girl had shown up with questions was an indication of what kind of problems or questions she might have without someone to bounce her own questions off of.
They remembered boy-Taylor. Which had been Aged Sensei. While she had been stuck in Australia as an old woman and only reading up on things via the PHO and other sites. Also being very appalled by some things like the horrible fanfiction pairing up Panacea and Hookwolf. Even now, two lifetimes later, it brought forth an involuntary shudder to remember that.
"Make a note, Void Cowboy is going to get head lice as soon as I find him in real life," said Taylor to a swarm of beetles in the hedge separating her yard from the neighbor's yard. One scampered to the top and waved antennae in acknowledgement.
Taylor let out a deep breath, considering her options. What she remembered was the timeline frequently had Simurgh attempt to attack Canberra. Mass casualities as there usually was with Endbringers, most of the time. The Simurgh being precognitive seemed to change things based on how powerful she was in a given timeline. What that meant was unclear, other than cats messing with timelines seemed to confuse things.
Oh, and she needed to choose a cape name. Get this over with fast, she remembered how she'd almost ended up stuck with Fist Girl. Bug Ninja didn't appeal. Kunoichi was a name for a female ninja, just check to see... no, that was already taken by a Stranger/Mover/Striker in Australia. Ninjagirl was also taken, Striker/Thinker. Maybe play up the insect angle? Ladybug? Taken, French cape Mover/Striker. Mantis? Irish cape. Whoa, damn that guy looked FIT and wore his costume well. Thinker/Striker, apparently a flying martial artist who also used those little scythe-things. Swarm Queen? No, that sounded like a villain name and she wasn't going there if she could avoid it. Bugaboo? No, that was too cutesy and she wanted to project an image that was a bit more intimidating. Bugbear? No, she'd always be explaining about the lack of bears. Bugout? Maybe, though didn't that also indicate retreating?
Buggette? Buggati? Insect Queen? Bug Trouble In Little Brockton? The Techno Queen? Was that distant thunder?
Well, dang. Coming up with a cape name was hard.
Try googling mythology and insects. Anansi? Hmmm. Might work.
If it weren't for the laws regarding parahumans trying to work, could make great money as an exterminator. Just show up at a house and tell everything to leave. Buginator? Worms too so Pest Princess? No, definitely not that.
Taylor's head snapped up as she was warned of trespassers. Why were there all these interruptions?
She opened the door by the third knock.
"Hello. Have you heard the word of Our Lord And Savior, Behemoth?"
Taylor shut the door.
A moment later there was a horrific scream as a swarm of hornets introduced themselves to someone still in her front yard.
"Scarab? That might work. Criminals beware - the wrath of the Scarab!... Let's see. Maybe. Certainly gives me a theme to work with, going Egyptian and plague of insects kind of thing."
Another scream sounded.
"Oh come on, they're not even stinging and they're confined to the yard," complained Taylor in the general direction of her front yard.
* Coil *
"Gilligan, drop those coconuts!" (BONK!) "OWWWW!"
Coil sipped on his energy drink. "Classic. Reminds me of a couple of MY minions."
After some thought, Coil touched an intercom. "Where are Agents Moe, Larry, and Curly?"
"They're keeping an eye on that pizza place still," came the reply. "Did you want to reassign them?"
"No, safest place for them," said Coil. Didn't want to give THOSE three an important job and he only kept them around for when he wanted something to get screwed up seven-ways-to-Sunday.
He sure as hell didn't want them to come anywhere near the Docks.
"Who have we got watching the Docks area?" asked Coil.
"Checking," came the answer back. "Looks like today is... Agent Conrad Siegfried."
"I thought he worked for E88," mused Coil.
"He's a double-agent, but he never calls in sick and he's filling in for Agent 13. Torn ligament."
"Well, at least he knows how to keep his head down," reasoned Coil.
* Taylor *
The guy finally left after the hornets started exploring ear canals and various other places that could cause problems for him he got stung.
Weird how he'd gotten this faux-German accent about halfway through, but weird was normal in Brockton Bay.
"Huh. Oh, there's Egyptian-themed costume bits over at the Capes & Cowls website. Neat... what the hell's with these prices?"
* Simurgh *
Things seemed to have settled into something approaching what had been foreseen. Was the pattern of past and future finally settled into normalcy?
If so, it was both reassuring and disappointing. This world would die as the others had, which was both good and bad. Yet there were differences as she was now fully aware.
Some others had shown signs of knowing of the reweaving of fates, but they were few and far between and concentrated in that single area. Those who were classified as Thinkers were feeding data into the gestalt and their input indicated things were settling back into the track of things as they had been.
So far at least.
The giant hamster in Ireland was accepted as perfectly normal by those alongside him, including his going off to the local pub for a bit of the ol' Jameson's. The undead in London were mostly ignored by others and themselves mostly ignored how they were dead.
The number of parahumans had not changed with the latest shift, including the non-Sharded, and none of those were sufficiently powerful to change things overmuch.
Too bad though, in some respects. The possibilities inherent in some of the now-discarded timelines had neatly avoided the usual ending of all life.
What would happen with one of the pair no longer able to function was unclear.
* Taylor *
School was not going to be fun. Facing the terrible trio was not going to be easy. Even though she was quite a bit more physically toned and had some useful fighting skills because she'd gone ninja.
"Wait a sec, ninja, do I have a stealth technique?" Taylor asked herself aloud, thinking about it. Henge no jutsu, disguise technique - so she could be in class and then change her appearance during the hall transfer. No, if people saw her change that would invalidate the technique. The problem was that her parahuman status would quickly become common knowledge if she used anything within a school - where actually having any alone-time was pretty much hard to come by.
Taylor fixed herself some stir fry, making and discarding plans.
Well, if she HAD to go to school - and she couldn't see a way not to - then she had to deal with the trio and/or the other students who followed their lead. Using ninja skills would out her. Using insects would out her if she went with a cape identity because ANY insect-related incidents would immediately get linked to her.
It was her memories/experience of Nora that provided an answer. Nora had been in the US Army of that other world. Nora had gone through combat training. Her ninja training might have been retconned but it was there and it included "taijutsu" - hand-to-hand fighting techniques.
* Winslow High School, Next Day *
* Sophia *
There were predators and prey. That was the natural world, applicable with humans as with any other animal.
Taylor Hebert was prey, a sheep among other sheep. No, she was even worse than that because even a sheep backed into a corner could TRY to fight back or escape.
Except... something was different today.
"I wonder who let her out of her locker?" mused Emma, the familiar presence on her right.
"Probably the janitor, nobody else would bother," commented Madison.
There was a shift in posture, looking like a tiny little adjustment that was automatic. Their target knew they were here and wasn't cringing already? Whatever.
Sophia reached out with one hand, grabbing the taller girl's shoulder and preparing to spin her around and then throw her back against the lockers.
Muscle tone? How the hell had wimpy beanpole put on what felt like a decent-
Pain. Her arm had been grabbed, twisted, and two fingers had expertly jabbed into a nerve cluster.
She wasn't a slouch in unarmed combat either, so she slid back enough to go for a kick into the taller girl's knee that would limit her mobility.
Blocked. Spin kick coming towards her head?
As she staggered back from the hit, Sophia came to a conclusion. "SHIT! SHE TRIGGERED!"
Then she was hit over and over again. Apparently when Taylor Hebert finally lost her temper, she was one of those who went into a precisely focused cold rage.
That would have been good to know before hand.
* Taylor *
The plan had been to just display enough fighting skill to warn them off.
The plan had not survived very long.
Part of martial arts training was the whole automatic-action thing. When A happens you reply with B.
When Sophia had grabbed her and those fingers had dug into her shoulder, she'd gone on automatic.
Taylor was aware that the teachers had turned the usual blind eye to Sophia doing her thing, but were now protesting her own defense of herself. She was aware but most of her attention was on Sophia and now on the also-attacking Emma.
She slid low, and a fist slammed into Emma's solar plexus hard enough that it nearly reached her spine.
Emma was out of combat, trying to breathe and throw up at the same time. Madison was just watching and seemed to be unable to figure out what she should be doing. Sophia was recovering and two of the teachers were yelling at Taylor to stop fighting in the halls.
There were a lot of phones out and people were recording this. Lovely. Taylor realized that most likely Sophia's little revelation would be all over the internet in very short order.
Then Sophia turned shadowy for a moment for the next kick to go through her as opposed to impacting. Taylor boggled for a moment and then found herself being pummeled by a now-solid Sophia.
Shadow Stalker. Sophia had to be Shadow Stalker. Had she already known that from one of the other timelines? How did the old man keep everything straight in his own head? Never mind that, she had a fight to win.
Ducking and weaving, Taylor decided not to use bugs or ninjutsu techniques. The less she put out there, the more of her secrets she could keep.
She was rather surprised when one of the teachers grabbed her and let Sophia start punching the hell out of her.
Okay, time for a new plan.
* Armsmaster *
"Sophia Hess just outed herself."
Armsmaster sighed and put away his micromanipulators. If only people made as much sense as machines did.
"We're taking the footage down as fast as it goes up, but it's being shared and copied on sites we can't control," said another technician.
His phone started ringing. One didn't need to be a Thinker to know who it was or what it was about.
"Yes, Director Piggot. Yes, I'm on my way."
"Combat Thinker, you think?"
"It's a theory."
Armsmaster blinked and looked over the display. Someone was fighting Shadow Stalker? Someone was apparently sticking her feet to the floor such that two teachers were unable to pull her back? Someone that was being held by two teachers that Shadow Stalker was now punching away like this other girl was just a training dummy?
Then things got strange.
* Taylor *
Two teachers (Weatherby and Gladly) grabbed her and started pulling her off Sophia. Taylor stuck her feet to the floor using the wall-walking technique until they strained, then suddenly released the technique. As they stumbled backwards, she twisted free and backflipped before sticking her feet to the ceiling. As soon as Sophia was there, aiming a piledriver at her she made another move.
Substitution, aka Kawarimi No Jutsu.
Madison made a startled squeak just before Sophia's fist arrived to make a perfect landing on her face.
"Oh, that looks like it hurt. You know a good dentist, right?" asked Taylor as she settled into an Aburame fighting stance (Mantis Prepares To Strike).
Emma tried to blind-side her. Taylor performed a side-step/throw that had Emma smack into the lockers hard enough that there was a splash of drool and blood on one locker.
"Well, Sophia? The problem with viewing predator and prey is that sometimes the roles aren't that clear."
"SHUT UP, YOU'RE JUST PREY!"
And here came Sophia again, enraged enough she just charged in.
Nora's hand-to-hand fighting techniques were mostly meant to disable or to give some space to draw a weapon. Ninja techniques were mostly intended for stopping a fight by permanently disabling or killing one's opponent. Now, however, Sophia was fighting for real and kept flicking into her shadow state when she saw a punch or strike coming then shifted back in order to strike herself.
Without using insects or ninja tools, it was proving to be a decent challenge, Taylor admitted to herself. It was also surprisingly fun, though she wasn't sure why. It could be a part of Nora's experiences from that world before the bombs fell and left the survivors dealing with the Fallout. It could be part of her newly added ninja training and experience. It could be that pain was one of those gifts that it was better to give than receive. She'd have to think about that after the fight.
Once she had the pattern, and noticed that Sophia couldn't turn just her fists solid, it became a little easier. If she could only hit Sophia when Sophia was trying to hit her, it became a war of endurance. Who could take the most punishment? To be a ninja was to endure.
Then Sophia pulled a knife, tried to stab her, and found out that the Substitution had her stabbing Mr Gladly in the buttocks.
Judging from the scream, Mr Gladly didn't enjoy the experience.
Taylor flipped backwards, hands moving in a quick pattern, and landed as Emma. There was a quick blur immediately afterwards.
"That trick won't fool me, PREY!" declared Sophia, rushing forward with the knife.
"NO! IT'S ME!" cried fake-Emma.
"Kick her ass, Sophia!" called out the real Emma.
Sophia went shadowy, stuck the blade in, then shifted back. "This is your fault. If you just knew your place, you wouldn't..."
"Wow, you really did stab her," said the real Emma in Taylor's voice.
Sophia looked from the "real" Emma back to the stabbed Emma, who was holding the bleeding chest wound. "What?"
"EVERYONE STOP!" said an amplified voice as Armsmaster strode up. "Miss, you're under arrest for parahuman assault."
Taylor dropped the Emma disguise as Armsmaster clomped over to her. "Seriously? You're ignoring Miss Stabby over there? In order to arrest someone who is fighting back?"
"You are clearly using parahuman abilities to-" began Armsmaster.
Taylor sighed. "Cancel."
The scene faded. The white room reappeared.
"That might have still worked out," noted the cat.
"Maybe, but it would have been AFTER Beardmaster arrested me, possibly involving that 'Master/Stranger protocol' bullshit," said Taylor.
The cat managed to shrug despite not having anatomy designed for such an action.
"Okay," said Taylor after she'd thought.
"You've made a decision, your final decision?" asked the cat.
"Yeah. You'll need to fix memories though. Panacea, Glory Girl, and whoever else remembers previous tries. This is what I came up with," said Taylor, pausing again before she spoke.