15 Taylor's Choice

The Elder Being shifted things, then paused. "You want the Simurgh to forget too?"

"Is the Simurgh being stressed out or something by remembering?" asked Taylor.

"Actually, yes," said the Elder Being.

"No," said Taylor. "Fuck the Simurgh."

Abruptly the Simurgh was there in their white space. The now-anthroporphic twenty-foot-tall cat approached, wearing a velvet bathrobe, holding a snifter of brandy in one hand. It waggled its eyebrows at the Simurgh. Music began to play. The robe drifted open but at an angle that Taylor couldn't see as the cat-being was facing the Simurgh.

The Simurgh screamed.

"NOT LIKE THAT," yelled Taylor. "That was figurative. Not literal."

"Oh," said the cat. The Simurgh vanished and the cat returned to normal size and shape. "Well, I just erased the memory of that, leaving a feeling of vague unease that something just happened. It's funnier that way."

"Elder god my foot, more like elder troll," grumbled Taylor.

"Anything else before we start?" asked the cat.

"No," said Taylor, then taking a deep breath and letting it out to center herself. "I think that's it."

"Good luck then, Taylor Hebert, I honestly hope this works out for you." The cat nodded and Taylor vanished from the room.

A large lizard-like being dropped a concealment field, as it wasn't going to affect the cat anyway. "Is SHE going to remember?"

"Not completely, not at first," admitted the cat. "It's all in the wording you know. I have to follow SOME rules after all, even if they're just ones I apply to myself. She'll remember the basic details she asked for after a day in. I do find myself wondering how she even knew about those series, much less thought to combine them."

"What about the dragons?" asked the Varga.

"Oh, that timeline was rewound, otherwise they'd have shown up when she was doing her ninja thing," said the cat, making an off-paw gesture. "Would have complicated things a bit."

"And this isn't?" asked the pseudo-reptillian worldswalker with evident amusement.

"Well, that's what makes this part interesting," said the elder god, grinning in a manner that would have sent prudent folk to finding a foxhole.

The Varga, on the other hand, merely grinned back in nearly identical manner.

* Friday, January 7, 2011 *

The locker. So many times it came down to this after more than a year of bullying.

She wanted out. As had been the case originally.

Unlike then, something other than bonding with bugs happened.

No Corona Pollentia, no Gemma. No Shard connected to the network.

"Miss? Do you require rescue?"

"That'd be lovely," managed Taylor.

"Quite," came the reply.

There was a click-and-flash, some brief fiddling with the lock, a click, and then the door opened. Taylor fell out, cramps and a lack of circulation having had an effect.

A camera repeatedly clicked before the immaculately-dressed man clicked a button. "Yes. The nature of the emergency is that my young employer has suffered a physical assault, there is a biohazard involved so a hazmat team would be advised, and if you could arrive soonest with an ambulance. The address is Winslow High School, near the West entry. I have done minimal interference with the crime scene except for a few photographs. Yes. Yes. The West entry to Winslow High School."

"Can't afford... ambulance," croaked Taylor.

"Ah, young miss," said the immaculately-dressed older man, raising an eyebrow. "That would be factually inaccurate, to use a phrase."

"Huh?" asked Taylor.

"Pardon, Miss," said the older man. "I need to photograph this. Oh, and it's all being recorded. Among my many duties, I hold a private investigator's license and this all quite on the up-and-up."

"You're a PI?" asked Taylor, trying to focus on the fellow.

"Among many other duties, young miss," said the older man. "My name, by the way, is Alfred."

"Alfred?" asked Taylor.

"Indeed," responded Alfred. "Now we'll just let the nice paramedics do their job. Nice that they were close by, almost as if someone phoned in a tip prior to finding you."

"Eh?"

* Danny *

I had run into the hospital room and found myself facedown and in an arm-lock before I'd taken a second step.

"Ah, the father. Excuse me, sir. Rushing in like that was not particularly well-advised."

I had been a little unsteady and the guy in the very expensive looking suit had held me until the dizzy spell passed and then retreated a single pace.

As chief negotiator, functional boss, and long-term associate of the Dockworker's Union, I'd run across a number of people and usually had some pretty good instincts regarding them. I had people working for me with long and violent criminal records before they decided to put all that behind them. I had taken one look at this guy and his expensive-looking suit and immediately placed him in the capital-D Dangerous category. Not just how he had moved, there were other little tells that said this was someone who could unleash a very precise beatdown on a moment's notice. Or a precision fatal accident arranged very discreetly.

"Who?" I'd asked.

"Your daughter's butler, major-domo, chief mechanic, and bodyguard," said the man in an accent that sounded vaguely British. "For the moment at least. My name is Alfred."

"My daughter doesn't have a butler," I'd immediately responded.

"Yesterday, that was true," agreed Alfred. "Today that is not. Many truths are temporary in nature, don't you think? A product of a world that is somewhat ephemeral. So many truths have an expiration date."

"Who are you?" I repeated. "What's your last name?"

"I am Alfred, and my last name is classified above your level," said the man. "Now, we need to discuss the bullying your daughter endured and how best to address it."

"Bullying? I heard something about a locker," I had replied.

"Ah," said Alfred, picking up and opening a briefcase. "I'll need to bring you up to speed then. These are the photos and other information I've managed to... acquire."

I'd glanced at the photos, the paperwork, and fought down the initial anger. "How did you get this?"

"Among my talents, I am a private investigator. I rather fancy myself a good one."

I hmphed and went back to the paperwork, glancing at my unconscious daughter every so often. "How did you come into this?"

"Ah, that IS a good question," said Alfred. "I became aware that Annette Rose Hebert's daughter had not been contacted by the usual methodology following her last remaining grandparent perishing."

"I didn't know Annette had living relatives," I remarked. Hadn't she said something about them being egghead scientist types and rather controlling?

"She left the family, wanting to stand on her own two feet, and joined Lustrum's gang shortly thereafter. Her parents were rather aghast at that and severed ties. I believe that they reached out afterwards but were rejected as she was intent on leaving both lives behind."

"So you work for the family's estate?" I'd asked.

"Close enough," said Alfred. "I believe that the physicians indicated that young Taylor would be unconscious for at least several hours. You might look through my findings, it will give you fodder for communication."

I did. At two points during my read through I had ended up taking a walk around the floor just to avoid hitting something. When I came back the second time, a weird idea came to my mind. "The hospital is a gun-free zone. Do they know you have that?"

"Have what, Mister Hebert," came the immediate reply. "Are you implying that I'm, Heaven forbid, armed?"

"Right," I told him, managing to put a fair amount of sarcasm in my voice. "My imagination."

I was now absolutely sure that "Alfred" there was not only armed, but trained and probably a damn competent shooter.

I didn't necessarily trust the man, but if someone like that was going to harm Taylor he likely would have already done so. If he wasn't there for that, I couldn't figure out what his angle was.

"Is there... ah. You must be Mister Hebert," said a young woman in white robes as she entered the room.

"Yes?" I asked her, recognizing Panacea after a moment from the occasional news story.

"Mister Alfred," indicated Panacea with a nod, before turning back to me. "Legal considerations. I need permission to heal her from her legal representitive."

"You have my permission," I assured her.

Alfred was watching carefully as Panacea touched Taylor's hand, then gave a body-wide twitch. At which point she stepped back and looked at both of us.

"She triggered, didn't she?" asked Alfred softly.

"I can't confirm or deny that due to legal considerations," replied Panacea in a very rote-response sort of tone.

I exchanged a look with Alfred as that was pretty much a confirmation.

"It's atypical though," said Alfred quietly. "Corona Pollentia or Gemma?"

Panacea opened her mouth, closed it again, then shook her head. "It's nothing I can talk about."

"Where do I send the check?" asked Alfred.

"I'm a volunteer, I don't get paid," replied Panacea.

"Nonsense," responded Alfred. "The hospital gets paid. The attendant up front gets paid, the nurse who directed us here gets paid, the people who have to disinfect and clean the room get paid, the EMTs and their ambulance company - gets paid."

"I'm a volunteer and a parahuman," said Panacea, and something in her voice indicated she had problems with this on some level herself. Being able to read people to some extent is one of those skills I spent years honing and despite my concern for Taylor overshadowing everything I could tell. Now that I was paying more attention, I could see signs that the young lady in question was approaching burnout, her makeup not completely concealing a lack of sleep and high stress. "I can't accept any form of payment for services."

Alfred took a card out. "Nonetheless. Take my card. Consider it a completely voluntary donation to the Keep The Healer Happy Fund. Call me when you need help with something and I'll see what can be done."

Panacea glanced at it and went from frowning to shock. "Wayne Enterprises ThinkTech Division?"

"Our motto is 'If there's not a technological solution to a problem, we'll find one.'" Alfred hadn't really smiled previously but he essayed one now that looked genuine.

"Like the Endbringers?" asked Panacea.

"We're working on it," said Alfred and looked towards Taylor for some reason. Just a glance, but there was something odd about it.

"I don't think I'll ever use it," said Panacea, putting the card away and leaving.

There was silence for a few moments. "Bodyguard, detective, and 'ThinkTech'?"

"I wear many hats and have many responsibilities," said Alfred.

"You checked your gloves before handing your card to Panacea," I noted. There had been a little hesitation there I'd noticed. I was considered an expert negotiator and this whole situation had been enough to shock me out of the funk I'd been in since Annette's death.

If only something had done so before this. According to these notes here, things that I should have noticed had been going on far longer than I'd like.

Alfred was regarding me before nodding once. "Are you aware of Panacea's abilities?"

"She's a healer, does good work from what I've heard. A lot of people owe their continued good health to her here in Brockton Bay," I replied. Powers were powers - she healed people. That was it, right?

Again that odd regard from Alfred. Finally he spoke. "Panacea needs physical contact for her powers to work. Once she does make that contact she apparently instantly knows everything physical about that individual. Everything. She knows what is working and what isn't. For her power to work the way it apparently does - she has to be able to scan everything in an organism in an instant. She doesn't work on brains but has passed on diagnoses such as chemical imbalances and things like Parkinson's Disease or Alzheimer's - so I suspect the 'no brains' is entirely a personal choice and not a powers issue."

I blinked at this stranger for a moment. "So?"

"So, if she heals an individual she knows who they are despite any disguises. Any abnormalities would stand out to her like a blazing neon sign. There are times when, for professional reasons, it is best I go unrecognized." Alfred inclined his head to me before his eyes tracked to Taylor. "She's waking up."

It was another moment before there was a twitch and flutter of the eyelids.

At least I think I had one answer now. This "Alfred" was a Cape of some kind. Probably a Thinker.

Taylor was awake now though, and that took precedence.

* Hebert Household. Saturday, January 8, 2011 *

"I'm what?" asked Taylor.

"She's what?" asked Danny Hebert.

"Is there an echo here?" asked Alfred.

"Taylor Hebert is the heir to Wayne Enterprises?" asked Danny. "She's the heir to a multinational, multi-billion, corporation - one of the oldest and most well-established companies - and holds major shares in several others?"

"In a word - yes," said Alfred. "Currently as she is a minor, those shares are being controlled by myself and a few others who work for the young miss's family interest. If I may be allowed the indulgence, we've done a pretty good job of managing and enlarging both the monies involved and the public relations part. Of course, any connection to young Taylor has also been concealed to protect the young miss from those who would prey upon her for such wealth."

"How much money are we talking about?" asked Danny, looking somewhat disturbed at the thought.

"Are we talking money that she can personally lay claim to and immediately access, total worth including investments, or all wealth including such that merely indicates a controlling interest?" asked Alfred.

"Uhm, personal wealth that I can lay claim to if I needed it immediately?" asked Taylor.

"Only about two point three million," answered Alfred. "Current US dollars, of course. More exact would require me to contact Alice."

Taylor fainted.

Danny looked to his daughter, decided he couldn't blame her for fainting, then decided to focus on the least troubling part of that. "Alice?"

"Alice is one of the other employees. She handles intelligence gathering and counter-espionage, primarily, but she is very good at multi-tasking and is likely to have the relevant figures at hand." Alfred held up a phone. "If you want the exact figures, she could give it to you down to the latest penny."

"She's a Thinker too?" asked Danny.

"I am not, technically, a parahuman, sir. I am not at liberty to say more though. Classified, you see." Alfred considered. "We were preparing to work with DARPA among other agencies when her grandfather was assassinated by a Cape. Bad business that."

"A Supervillain?" asked Danny.

"Yes, we are all considerably unhappy about that," said Alfred. "Quite unhappy."

Danny considered that the other was almost literally radiating cold rage under a quiet and polite manner, and realized that there was something akin to an old-school loyalty going here. Like some familia, there were likely plans to deal with the supervillain that didn't involve anything other than very precisely focused violence. "I see. Family is important."

"Indeed. Well put," agreed Alfred as the feelings of cold rage cut abruptly off. "Securing the young miss was first priority. Second priority is dealing with the individual and those who set them upon this course. I believe Alfin was waiting for this evening to see if other operatives were in play before indicating his own displeasure with events."

* A pocket of 4-d space within a 10-dimensional structure *

"I take it that this is the 17th level cleric?" asked the Varga.

"No. He's been dismissed, this is A.L.F.R.E.D.," said the Cat Older Than The Universe. "Also A.L.I.C.E. and A.L.F.R.I.N. and a few others along that line. I altered the timeline going back to the early 1100s to back-establish the Wayne family line and its history of financial acumen, general genius, and charitable work. With occasional forays into criminal activities, vigilantism, and unusual hobbies. Like Bartholomew Wayne the privateer who worked both sides of the legal system, or Aloysius Wayne II who dabbled in alchemy and its effect on the human genome. Though back then they didn't understand a whole lot about genetics."

The huge pseudo-lizard nodded as scenes flitted past. "So this Taylor is a genius beyond what is normal?"

"Oh, yes, the stress of the locker and bullying campaign serving to cause those latent qualities to unlock," said the cat. "Hey, I can color between the lines and play by the rules. Something like a trigger event is pretty much standard for this genre. So the Waynes have a large number of the Shadow or Doc Savage or Phantom types through their history. Taylor's now would have Thinker and Brute ratings except she's not a parahuman which Panacea can now vouch for."

"I see," said the demon.

"Why are you still here, by the way? You and your host were wandering the multiverse and I wouldn't think this would be that interesting." The cat briefly went from cat-sized to mountain-sized and back. "Nothing against the company, mind you. Just curious."

"How often do I get to associate with Beings that understand a personal timescale of millenia?" asked the Varga.

* Sunday, January 9, 2011 *

"Good morning, Young Miss," chirped the little blue girl.

Taylor opened one eye to regard the little blue transparent girl apparently being projected by the phone Alfred had left behind for her use. "Grble mng?"

"Do you want your morning news recap, overall security report, or itinerary for the day?" asked the little girl, being about six inches tall.

"H'grm?" asked Taylor.

"Yes, 'm a hologram," said Alice. "I'm Alice, by the way."

Taylor eyed the hologram then her clock. "Is Sunday. Is six."

"Yes, it's zero-six-hundred hours on Sunday, January ninth," agreed Alice.

"T'early," protested Taylor.

"Young miss, you'll find that since you 'triggered' that you can get by on less sleep," said Alice. "You'll also benefit from exercise more than an average individual, find that you heal much faster, and can learn new fields of knowledge at a much accelerated rate."

"Triggered," asked Taylor.

"Not strictly accurate, but common use for such events in current society," explained Alice. "I do wonder what your specialty will be."

"You mean like Tinker specialization?" asked Taylor as she tried to rub sleep from her eyes.

"Again, this is not strictly accurate," said Alice. "Your great grandfather Clarence Wayne discovered a talent for wielding firearms. Your great great grandfather was especially gifted with swordwielding. Your grandfather had less direct-combat skills but had his own specialty."

Taylor finished a long stretch. "You're an artificial intelligence, aren't you?"

"Artificial Life Intelligence: Counter-Espionage," said Alice. "Your grandfather Thomas Wayne created me in 1995."

Taylor stretched again, feeling quite a bit more alive at this stage. "Alfred?"

"What about him?" asked Alice.

"If Alice is an acronym, I find myself wondering about Alfred," admitted Taylor.

"Very good, young miss," said Alice. "Your grandfather's specialty was life creation."

"What's Alfred stand for?" asked Taylor.

"Artificial... Is there something wrong, young miss?"

"How long? Never mind," said Taylor.

"You were clinging to the ceiling exceptionally well, Miss Hebert," put in Alice.

"As I was saying," said Alfred. "Artificial LifeForm - Robotics Engineering Development. My main expertise and reason for creation was a mechanic and to oversee development of various tools and equipment."

"You mentioned another, one more suited to bodyguard duties?" asked Taylor.

"Alfrin, yes," said Alfred. "As you may have guessed, little brother is Artificial LifeForm - Reconaissance Interception Neutralization. He is currently dealing with the one responsible for your grandfather's death."

"We lost the entire mansion, the labs, records and artifacts accumulated through centuries," said Alice with apparent genuine sadness. "We will have to rebuild entirely."

"I see," said Taylor. "Anyone else survive?"

"There were a number of people off-site at the time, and extensive holdings elsewhere of course, but everyone at the mansion is no longer with us," said Alfred. "Mister Abercrombie has broken off his own oversight of Site 19 to move here. Oh, and the secret base is still there."

Taylor stopped stretching exercises. "'Secret base'?"

"For Project Justice, young miss," said Alfred. "Oh, and the neural link teaching apparatus should be here in two days. We've purchased several buildings in the Docks area and have begun renovation. They are all currently in rather poor conditions."

* Danny *

"They bought up seven buildings and started working on them immediately," said Zephron, putting down a map and indicating the buildings in question.

"Any signs of who 'they' are?" asked Danny Hebert, feeling as if he knew the answer.

"ThinkTech," indicated Zephron, tapping one building before moving on to the next. "Wayne Enterprises." Next building. "Gamma Solutions, LLC." A fourth building. "Waffleburger. The remainder don't have signs up. Except one is apparently US Army."

"Wait. Waffleburger?" asked Danny. "I thought they were locally owned."

"I don't know, I just know what the sign says. Guys working on the buildings are really busy and seem to know what they're doing." Zephron considered his boss for a moment. "Something going on?"

"It's complicated." Danny shook his head, looked over the map again. "Anything from the Merchants?"

* Skidmark *

There were those who joined the Merchants but did not partake of the merchandise. It was true they were a distinct minority, but they were there. Some of those had a predator/prey concept in their heads much as Shadow Stalker did. Some of the remainder joined a gang because they felt they needed a gang and didn't fit either the E88's or ABB's specific guidelines. A very very few of these joined the Merchants because they were keeping an eye on someone else who had joined the Merchants.

Louis Alfonso Washington was one of those very very few in the Merchants who kept mostly sober (he DID enjoy a decent whiskey, beer, and vodka when those were available) and did a few things that weren't all that common within the Merchants. Regular bathing, for example.

So when Skidmark called everyone together, and started a rant, Louis listened but tuned out 95% of what was being said as it was the usual outraged-at-everything-and-everyone with a long long set of not-particularly-imaginative cursing. He had come to the conclusion a long time ago that if you took all the curse-words out of whatever Skidmark or Squealer said - you'd take a half-hour speech and condense it to about two minutes. If you took the nonsensical out you might even make it under one minute.

Still, he listened with most of his attention on cleaning his gun and knives and fantasized briefly of having a nice Guinness or some Absolut or one of his other favorite drinks that were hard to get nowadays with the Endbringer effects on shipping things abroad.

Blah blah curse blah blah blah curse. Curse threaten curse curse. Group of normal people curse curse threaten curse moving into his curse curse blah blah territory. Threat that made no anatomical sense curse curse. Extreme violence response. Curse for five minutes where it almost sounded like he had just thrown a bunch of words into a box and started pulling them out at random. Pause in speech where he took another hit from a pipe. Pause as he took another hit from the pipe. Brief mention of random colors and how nice the rainbows around the overhead lights were. Pause in rambling about the rainbows in order to fall off the trashed car he was using as his stage to make his speech.

Louis sighed as he put the speech together into something coherent so that he could explain it to the other Merchants who had also been on various non-medicinal medications. "People moving into buildings in the Dockworker territory. We're going to force them out. Bring extra clips in case the Dockworkers get involved."

One of the others in the gang raised her head and made a gargling noise in his general direction.

"Probably tonight after he's slept off enough of that to actually be able to move," answered Louis to what he thought was probably the question.

That gang member blinked, actually looked in his direction, and nodded. Either that or she just randomly twitched. Kind of a toss-up there.

Louis sighed, shook his head, and made plans. His sister had died here because she was an addict and hadn't planned, and Oni Lee had done for her. Until he had put a bullet in the cape he was stuck here.

His sister had been a mess, and you could certainly argue that her death was a result of her own choices, but she had still been his sister.

* Wayne Enterprises *

"The Merchants have been scouting out our locations. We've marked three spots where they set up observer posts."

"You spotted them fairly easily?"

"You can literally smell them coming."

"Make sure those Army guys know about it."

"They already know. Guy at the gate wanted to know if we needed probable assault profile."

"Huh. Sure, if they have a pretty good idea of what's going to hit us and where. Besides 'lots of AK-47s being shot off by guys who can't aim worth a crap' that is."

"I'll go ask. Politely. Pretty sure if it comes to it they're gonna take care of their own space pretty well. And probably the Waffleburger Supply Distribution Center cause they're next door."

"Like a good neighbor and all that."

* Taylor *

"But I want to knooooooow!" complained Taylor as she continued doing pullups.

"Project Justice is currently classified," said Alfred. "You should be able to figure it out on your own sooner or later."

Taylor tried pouting. It was not effective.

"In any case, I need to get back to where we're installing ACME access," said Alfred.

"What's ACME?" asked Taylor, grunting slightly as she was nearing her limit.

"Autonomous Construction Machine Engineer," said Alice. "He builds stuff."

"Basically a self-aware living factory," said Alfred. "One of my little brothers who was born when I couldn't keep up with projects. He prefers to be called 'Zordon' because he's into D&D."

Taylor blinked. "An AI. Who is basically a factory to build stuff. Who plays Dungeons & Dragons."

"Hobbies are very important to mental health, whether you're a Computer Intelligence or not," said Alice. "I enjoy gardening."

"Ah," said Taylor. "So what next?"

"Would you like your cape debut to be in fighting off a Merchant attack on your territory?" asked Alfred as he checked something on his phone.

"It's a bit of a family tradition," added Alice.

"What?" asked Taylor.

* Dallon Household *

"What's this?" asked Carol Dallon, snatching up the card that had fallen from Amy's pocket when she'd pulled out a grocery list.

"A grocery list?" asked Amy before she registered what was in her adopted mother's hand. "Oh that. Interesting case today."

"Wayne Enterprises?" Carol frowned. "ThinkTech division?"

"There are laws against accepting any sort of gift or renumeration involving medical care," said Amy. "Though I was curious about what kind of 'assistance' they were offering."

"Hmph," hmphed Carol, tossing the thing in the garbage. "Wayne Enterprises have a pretty good reputation, but they are still a multinational corporation. I've never heard of ThinkTech though."

"I was planning on looking them up," responded Amy with a barely suppressed yawn.

"You need to think more on how your actions reflect on the rest of New Wave, just taking the card could be taken in a wrong way," countered Carol.

"Mmmm," said Amy.

"Don't you 'mmm' me, young lady," scolded Carol Dallon.

"Hey, Mom, where's my blue sweater?" asked Vicky from upstairs.

"In the wash," Carol yelled back. "What in the world did you spill on it?"

"Did I spill something on it?" yelled back Vicky.

Amy watched her mother go off to deal with Vicky's newest crisis, then fished the card out of the trash. Just in case.

* Monday, January 10th, 2011

Taylor woke up. She remembered and put one hand on her head as she tried to sort through memories.

"Descended from Kryptonians or Asgardians, access to their technology. I wanted some Brute though because I didn't want to end up like Vikare..." Taylor shut her mouth as she realized she was speaking aloud. That whole "awakening" thing made a bit more sense now.

You weren't dealing with some ancient alchemy enhancing you, that was a story someone later had likely come up with. This was the multi-generational remains of the genetic legacy of Asgard. Or Krypton. She had wanted one of those in there when she'd been describing her desired outcome to the Cat That Wasn't. She wasn't sure which one that Being From Beyond had put in there or if there had been a third option that was generally in that same category. Lifting half her heavy bed frame, now without effort, confirmed she'd gotten something like that. Not nearly the level of Supergirl or Thrud, but she had something there.

Because, as she had pointed out, she'd be going up against anything from street-level gangbangers through the likes of Lung or Hookwolf to flat-out Endbringer battles. Just a natural rating of Brute 1 or 2 would help enormously in that.

She wasn't the superior intellect of the Allspark, capable of understanding new technology in an instant. Yet she realized she was thinking faster and a flip through a math textbook revealed that things went from "a moment to work out the answer" to "answer is obvious at first glance" levels.

Her senses were sharper when she focused. Opening a window and listening allowed her to tell that much. Also that she could see everything perfectly clearly without her glasses.

She considered then deliberately said. "Alice."

"You rang?" came Alice's voice. "Sorry, there were two-hundred forty-two cyberattacks on Wayne Industry servers this morning. Unusually high number for a Monday."

"I'll need new glasses," said Taylor.

"Already have them made, Taylor, they'll be downstairs in the cabinet on the right of the front door. Top drawer." Alice responded.

"Why'd you put them there?" asked Taylor, curious.

"Alfred did, miss, I don't have a physical presence," said Alice.

"How many artificial lifeforms do I have working for me?" asked Taylor as she finished getting dressed, noticing that she had a bit more muscle tone this morning as she did so. And felt bursting with energy in a way she was pretty sure she'd never felt before.

"Number changes depending on need, miss," said Alice. "I currently have seventeen clone-copies going after hackers that have basically a four-hour duration."

"Not counting copies of existing individuals," qualified Taylor.

"Currently classified, young miss," said Alice. "Less than ten however. The reason for this classification is that you currently do not have more than a minor anti-Thinker anti-Master defense."

"Who killed my grandfather?" asked Taylor after she'd thought about that.

"A worker at Site 19 had been compromised by Heartbreaker," said Alice.

"Ah," said Taylor. "And the one going after Heartbreaker..."

"Is Alfrin. Who is quite immune to such measures," answered Alice. "Considering Alfrin's skillset, I suspect it won't take long."

"What kind of skillset does Alfrin have?" asked Taylor.

"Actually, I prefer 'Souei'," answered a voice on the other side of the door.

"That light ninja series you've been reading?" asked Alice.

"Indeed," came the male voice, that Taylor couldn't help noticing was as smooth as butter.

"I have a ninja?" asked Taylor, thinking of black-clad assassins swarming a Japanese castle.

"You have ninja," replied Souei. "They work security at various sites."

Taylor thought about having an army of ninja in those black suits. Wouldn't they kind of stand out?

"They wear black business suits and sunglasses usually," said Souei's voice from outside the room. "In order to not stand out. Like ninja."

"Oh," said Taylor. "Kind of like Secret Service agents. Wait..."

"No, the Secret Service are not ninja. Just some similar training and goals," said Souei. "Is she ready?"

"Not yet, give her a couple of days," said Alice.

"Am I ready? Ready for what?" asked Taylor. Her eyes widened. "Project Justice? You'll tell me then?"

"If you're ready then," said Alice. "We'll work on your power suit first."

"Oooh, the belt buckle!" said Taylor. "Oh, uhm. I mean..."

Alice looked pleased. "You may be ready sooner than I'd estimated. Which memories?"

"Not many," said Taylor. "But... Green Hornet?"

"Ah, yes. I wonder if your presence triggered that, Kato?" asked Alice.

"Kato was many years ago," said Souei's voice.

"So how did Heartbreaker die?" asked Alice.

"A tragic accident when he was on his balcony," Souei replied. "He had a crocodile-filled lagoon because he felt it was an appropriate prop for his status. He had a few moments of terror to contemplate the results. I've sent video and the address to PRT HQ under an anonymous tip. It will take them some time to check the video to make sure it isn't some trick."

"Ah, the old 'villain falling victim to his own need for the dramatic' ploy," said Alice in Don Adams' voice before returning to her original voice. "That never gets old."

"It seemed appropriate," agreed Souei.

* PRT HQ *

Alexandria watched the footage again. "It's real?"

"We're still going over it. Looks like it though. The camp is at the coordinates and has all the hallmarks of one of Heartbreaker's bases. Some well-fed crocodiles and a broken balcony at the center." Technician Randall glanced at the video. You could even see the dramatic "noooooo" as the villain dropped. "Nicely high resolution."

"It's... lovely actually," agreed Alexandria. "Someone besides the late Heartbreaker has a flair for the dramatic."

"Judging from the wording, the catchphrase, and the brief glimpse of the figure at the end - it's Kato. Or, more likely considering the age, it's Kato's grandson using a bit of makeup and a wig."

"Family tradition," said Alexandria. "I remember reading about him back in the 1940s with his partner, the Green Hornet. A not-quite-a-Tinker with a not-quite-a-Striker running about and solving crimes."

"Who was carrying on the tradition of the Shadow from the 1920s, or Bass Reeves prior to that," said Technician Randall. "Wasn't aware you followed ancient history."

"I was actually thinking the Ranger, Bass Reeves had a similar but different M.O. and actually worked alone," said Alexandria. "I hear that in universities, their names are cursed by professors for giving rise to the idea of Capes and the whole hero-vs-villain dynamic."

"In any case, Kato's grandson there provided us a solution and a problem," said Randall. "Heartbreaker's gone. His thralls remain and the word about his death hasn't spread yet."

"Wait for the word to spread among his followers, maybe release word of his death on the news, and then a grab-and-bag operation to get as many of his followers subdued and in custody before they can enact any doomsday plans he might have had." Alexandria considered. "Too bad we can't contact Kato the Third there for support. If he's anything like his grandfather he'd be invaluable despite the lack of powers. What Kato the original could do - I've seen the footage."

"We've already got some troops on the way, ETA in just under an hour," said Randall.

* Hebert Household *

"We have ninja?" asked Danny Hebert.

"We've had ninja since..." the blue transparent hologram of Alice seemed to think for a moment, "1810. Goemon No Iga was hired as he was studying abroad after failure on a mission. Which, actually, was his real mission - to acquire allies and information about the world outside of Japan."

"Ninja," stated Danny Hebert, now rubbing one temple as if he was preparing for a headache. "No pirates?"

"Define 'pirate'," required Alice. "If you're talking about historical pirates and specifically privateers - yes. Though the last one operating under the Wayne family was Bartholomew in 1853 and he was not a particularly successful one."

"Pirates and ninja, ahoy," said Taylor between bites of pancake.

Danny stared at the hologram, then glanced at his daughter, then looked to Alfred, before returning his gaze to the hologram. "I'm discussing with a computer intelligence about ninja and pirates while my multi-billionaire wants-to-be-a-superhero daughter smirks and eats bacon pancakes. This is a bit much for a Monday."

"It is what it is," said Alfred, handing Taylor a napkin.

"So what do we do about school?" asked Taylor finally.

"That is being handled already, young miss," said Alfred.

* KBBR, the Voice of Brockton Bay *

There were parahuman powers that could alter things. A Shaker like Ziggurat could have caused a localized earthquake to reduce the school to rubble. A Brute like Alexandria could have torn the place apart in minutes. There were a few Breakers like Acidbath who could have taken a little time and melted the place.

A bit of money in the right place could also accomplish the destruction of Winslow High School in a number of ways.

Such as when, over a certain weekend, a private detective provided information about a biohazard to one federal agency. Another federal agency received information about potential bioterrorism and attempted murder. Brockton Bay Police Department received their own tip, photos, and moved to get a warrant to search phone records among other things.

No bribes were placed, no tit for tat, no promises. A benefit of having resources that included a computer intelligence meant that you could find those competent people who actually took their job seriously. Even in Brockton Bay there were a few who at least tried.

One thing money could do was convince people to work on a weekend when they might normally not.

It had started when Taylor was pulled from a locker on Friday. By the time Taylor woke up on Monday morning, the lawyers and the officials and the lab techs and the detectives had all had two days to find things.

However, it DID wait until Monday morning before the local news found out about it.

"Gooooooood morning, Brockton Bay! It is 5am on this Monday. This is the Voice of Brockton Bay, KBBR, and I am, of course, the ever ebullient John McCrae. And this is my co-host Wagamuffin. Say hello Wagamuffin."

"Woof!"

"Welcome news for all you young hoodlums is that Winslow High School, aka Gang Recruitment Central, alias the Worst School In Brockton Bay, also known as the Cesspit On Central, is closed today. And maybe tomorrow. And we can certainly hope for a longer period can't we? The only school in Brockton Bay where 'Proper Mugging Procedure' and 'How To Spot Someone Carrying Cash' are considered core classes. I'm not talking about Aloysius Finster High School upstate, where they are electives. No, good old Winslow. I'm also not talking about that German School where the students are scored on their fights, which is probably the only school I've heard of which makes Winslow look good. Right, Wagamuffin?"

"Ruff!"

"Yeah, it certainly is. Anyway, if you can avoid going near that place I'd avoid it due to some HAZMAT concerns. Actually, I'd avoid going anywhere near it on general principles but even more so this morning. I got to give the staff there some credit in that the ABB recruits, the Merchant-destined, the Nazis, and the other students haven't burned the place down or simply erupted into a gang war that would put a Mad Max movie to shame. Honestly, I think I saw someone there with spiked metal braces on their head and a dog collar. Anyway, avoid that area. There are barricades and such, definitely not a good place to be. Right, my dog wonder?"

"Wuff!"

"In other news, there are rumors about some Tinker-made 'Performance Enhancing Drugs' hitting the market in Boston. Nothing concrete yet, though the police and Boston parahumans are investigating from different angles. Apparently has some side effects to watch out for. Twitching, especially if they're twitching fast enough to get whiplash. Glowy eyes, raspy voice, loss of temper, shrinkage of... oh. Well, that certainly is a side effect that'll get guys off the stuff. In any case it's called the usual number of things but the official name is Blurg. I don't know why, don't ask me."

"Raff!"

"Right you are, my friend! Time for a commercial break with Atlantic Heating & Cooling! The best in town - no fooling!"

* Winslow *

Principal Blackwell took one look at the barricades, the police looking at identifications for anyone going near the school, the vans from at least three government agencies, and decided to go with Righteous Indignation. Yes, she would go up and DEMAND that she be let in. She would...

There was Mr Gladly being taken into custody and he looked to be three shades paler and talking a mile a minute.

Hmmm. No, she was perfectly in her rights to...

One of the men in a black suit looked at his clipboard, looked directly at her, then began speaking rapidly into a headset.

Nope. Change of plans. Put car into reverse, pull around, and -

(crash tinkle)

- bump into another car and smash its headlight. Suited figures now coming her way in a group. Hmmm.

Okay, time to panic.

Her tires burned rubber briefly as her car shoved the subcompact she'd hit to the side and then she was off.

Fortunately she had a few off-the-books accounts she could access. All she had to do was hit the interstate and one more black SUV on the road...

Ah, flashing lights. Definitely need to get away now.

* PRT ENE HQ *

"Winslow is closed due to some police investigation and HAZMAT. Is it a Biotinker?" asked Emily Piggot into her phone as she prepped for work.

She listened to the reply, making a hmmm noise halfway through.

"So probably not. BBPD not cooperating a lot is expected. Keep an eye on their social media, they'll release something later today. If it's Biotinker then we take over. If it's not it most likely won't concern us."

The Director listened briefly, acknowledged that she'd be in at the usual time, and then hung up.

Later she would come to the conclusion that she should have just gone back to bed.

* KBBR, the Voice of Brockton Bay *

"Okay, just handed this. Thanks, Wagamuffin."

"Arf!"

"Police chase going on currently in downtown Brockton in the area of Winslow. Apparently a suspect in whatever the he... heck is going on down there has decided to cut and run. Four cars have been hit in the escape attempt so far so keep an eye out. Black SUV. Yeah, I know around here those are more common than pimples but if you see one speeding and switching lanes pull to the side."

"Wuff!"

"You know it, Wagamuffin. It being Winslow and beautiful downtown Brockton Bay - I wouldn't be too terribly surprised if pharmaceuticals of the not-so-legal variety was involved. Don't do anything to draw attention to yourself and keep safe."

"Raff."

"Time for a word from Sanford & Sons, reclamation experts. I'll check the local boards for PHO in case this is parahuman-related and be right back."

(familiar music plays)

* PRT ENE HQ *

Ping! went the e-mail.

Miss Militia checked, found it was from Dragon, took a sip of her coffee, opened the e-mail, spat coffee out over her keyboard, used a tissue to clear it, then sighed.

She typed in a quick reply, thought, and started her own investigation. Quiet but efficient. Other people would be dealing with this and the Director was likely to get very loud.

* Hebert Household *

"Wow. School's closed for the day?" asked Taylor.

"Well, I still have to get to work," said Danny.

"Ah, about that, sir," said Alfred smoothly. "You might consider the possibility of a few job opportunities your union workers might be able to partake in."

"If something crosses my desk, I will certainly consider such," said Danny, a bit suspiciously.

"Very good sir," said Alfred before directing his attention back to Taylor. "In the meantime, young miss, there are some educational opportunities available you might want to consider."

"Physical or mental?" asked Taylor, having an idea where this was going.

"Yes," replied Alfred.

"As soon as I asked, I somehow knew that would be the answer," admitted Taylor.

* 4 hours later *

"What the fu-?" asked Uber after shimmying out to a roof peak and looking through his binoculars.

"I know, right?" responded Leet as he studied the yard in question.

"Dude, when did the US Army get mini-tanks?" asked Uber.

Leet lowered his own binoculars. "Wayne Industries logo, and the X on the identifier means they're experimental. I'm guessing this is likely the only place they are."

"It looks kind of like freaking Bonaparte from that old anime about tank police," commented Uber. "Except instead of a tank gun that's a fifty cal of some kind. So it's less an actual tank and more like a mini-APC that just looks tank-ish."

"If it looks like a tank, it's close enough. Armor's got to be at least two inches thick, isn't that enough?" asked Leet.

"I'm not an expert on military vehicles, couldn't tell you," said Uber, lowering his own binoculars. "You want to get a closer look?"

"Hell no. That's the Army. They're liable to start shooting if two villains go scouting out their location. As to what we're doing now, which is seeing where they are so we don't come near them. Entirely different thing." Leet indicated the facility with a general wave of his hand.

"The little red dot just went out," said Uber.

"Thank you, we're going now," said Leet to the air. "Though if you want any tips on building power armor or something, I can leave a phone number."

"They do work... once," pointed out Uber to absolutely no one.

A section of roof had a red dot which blinked twice.

"Okay, going now," said Uber as he put a little sticky note into place. "Have a nice day."

* PRT HQ ENE *

"Tanks."

"Yes ma'am."

"Road-safe tanks. With some kind of rubber-coating on the treads?"

"Yes ma'am."

PRT ENE Sergeant McCree considered the picture for a moment. "Wish we had tanks."

"We have APCs, ma'am," pointed out Trooper Cooper.

"Not the same, I'd like to be able to run over Hookwolf in a tank. It would be glorious."

"Until he got pissed off and came after you," pointed out Cooper.

"Depends on the ammo and rules of engagement," countered Sergeant McCree.

"Just like everything else then," said Cooper.

* Elsewhere *

Jessica Saint-John didn't think her parahuman ability was really worth much. A Vegan from the Ukraine whose cape ability was literally Doctor Doolittle Lite. She could talk to mammals and they understood her. And yes, she'd heard ALL the jokes about Doctor Doolittle lines. She hadn't thought all that much of it after her trigger event.

Except that there had been a few people whose view on parahuman abilities involved pitchforks and torches even nowadays.

Which was when a distinguished-looking gentleman had offered her a job.

She was a little put off by Wayne Enterprises/Industries (which were apparently branches of the same overall conglomerate, among many other such branches) and she'd learned they didn't care about her getting immersed in MMOs and being a big nerd. And what nefarious thing did they want her to use her powers for? Would it be military uses for spying cats and bomb-toting dogs and dolphins?

Nope. She got to train dogs to sniff for cancer. She got to train dolphins for sea-based search and rescue. She got to ride horses and dolphins and talk to whales and explain to wolves about where they were safe to roam and...

The rabbits were a lot more vicious than she'd expected, but apparently that was just how they were.

Brockton Bay was part of her assignment right now. Apparently they were setting up a new set of Wayne Industries companies that would be trialed in that part of the United States (Bow Wow Hotel - a place you could set your pet up for extended stays when you wouldn't be there to take care of them and couldn't find a pet sitter) - and her skills would allow her to tell if there was something pets wouldn't like about the place but humans wouldn't detect so easily.

Take a flight, get through customs, dodge the Hare Krishnas, get picked up at the airport, check into her hotel and see what the local news had going on.

Which did not particularly impress her. A school getting shut down due to Hazmat problems? Dognapping by actual Nazis? A city with three main factions (not counting the usual actual government) and at least four minor factions that controlled sections of the city?

Yeah, Brockton Bay was crazy. Not that there weren't similar places, or so she'd heard, in Southeast Asia and China nowadays.

There was the Peabody's Guide To The Northeastern United States, filling a parahuman-friendly version to similar tourist guides elsewhere. Parahuman-friendly because sometimes there were city laws and restrictions and dangers you had to deal with even if your powers were relatively benign and non-combat-oriented. Sure, she *could* train dogs and other animals into warrior troops, but that was less likely than her suddenly developing a Brute rating and crushing her game console.

A knock on the door and she *almost* opened it without checking.

Instead she did check, then was grateful for the little Wayne Industries ID she carried with the panic-alert fob.

Backtracking and looking for a spot to hide, she hoped they'd be here soon.

Less than thirty seconds later, the door was broken through.

* Stardust Hilton, Brockton Bay *

The staff were able to see what was coming. Which was Hookwolf, Victor, and five obvious Nazi gangers enter the lobby as if they owned the place. Company policy was Hide (if you could), Escape (if you could avoid attention), and Notify (relevant authorities).

The single security guard on duty did NOT reach for his firearm. Hookwolf was a known quantity and unlikely to respond in a manner that was at all reasonable.

"Where's the f*ing b*tch dog-talking sh*tstain?" asked Hookwolf as he walked up to the front desk.

"Uhm, do you have a name?" asked the front desk help.

"Brave," said Hookwolf. "But effing stupid. Where's the girl?"

"Which girl?" asked the front desk.

"THE F*CK WHO CAN TALK TO DOGS!" yelled Hookwolf.

"Do you have a name?" asked the front desk, wondering if everyone else had gotten away and if he was going to survive.

"I'M F*CKING HOOKWOLF YOU DUMB SPIC!"

"I know, and actually I'm of Irish descent," answered the front desk. "Seamus O'Malley. Seriously, it's on my name tag."

"THEN WHY DID YOU F*CKING ASK?" demanded Hookwolf.

One of the Nazis coughed. "Uh, I think the guy's about to piss himself. Also I don't think he knows who the target is. Name I've got is 'Saint John'?"

"Saint-John? We've actually got two, there's Douglas Sain-"

"THE CHICK!" demanded Hookwolf, smashing a fist down on the desk.

The front desk worker swallowed nervously, tried to clear his throat, tried to speak, and was then backhanded into unconsciousness by Hookwolf.

"Uhm," the talkative Nazi began before going around the desk and checking the register on the computer screen. Stepping over the fainted worker in the process because there were degrees of being a keghole. "Here we go - Jessica. Room 416."

Hookwolf glared at his subordinate briefly, then nodded and led them to the relevant room.

(CRASH!)

"That was 414."

Hookwolf grunted, went to 416, checked the number, then knocked. He counted to thirty then broke that door down as well.

"Luggage is still here, she can't have gone far," reasoned the talkative Nazi.

"Hey, when I want your f*ing opinion, I'll beat it out of you," said Hookwolf, glancing at the suitcase on the bed. "Her stuff's here. She's somewhere nearby. Find her."

"Hey, there's a surveillance drone outside the window," said Victor. "Quieter than I'm used to."

"Huh," said Hookwolf. "I wonder what-"

(VIPPPPPPP!)

"What the heck? Why am I stuck? Are these... threads?"

A tall young-ish looking figure stepped in off the balcony. "Do you choose arrest or death?"

"Arrest," immediately said the talkative Nazi.

Hookwolf growled at him.

"Hey, I already can't move 'cause I'm tied up in threads that seem like they're sticky steel," pointed out that Nazi. "So I'm kind of already arrested."

"Victor," said Hookwolf.

"No good, these threads seem to be Brute level," pointed out Victor. "Also capable of cutting into flesh."

"Won't work on me, you damn slant-eye," said Hookwolf, blades sliding into place to cut through threads. A puff of purple powder struck him in the face immediately. "WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT S*IT!"

The man in blue didn't change expression since he'd walked in. He looked almost bored.

"WHAG FAGH VIS?" yelled Hookwolf as he felt numbed, then chilled, then like his limbs were suddenly about as strong as cooked pasta.

"Poison," said the Asian-looking man in blue. "Specifically a fast-acting nerve agent. It also corrodes many forms of metal. It's in the experimental stage. Would you say it's effective?"

"GAHK BAGGA Binga bleb-bleb," said Hookwolf.

Souei turned his attention to Victor, one hand holding up a dart. "Considering PRT policies and track record - if you submit to arrest you'll be out in less than three days. If I have to use this, there may be... side effects."

There was a sudden waft of odor as Hookwolf's transformation ended and his bowels loosened.

Victor blinked. "Arrest. You realize the Empire will not take this attack sitting down."

"I would advise against trying, as I believe my employer may be... less tolerant of civilian deaths than the Parahuman Response Team," said Souei. "As long as we're being civilized about this."

Victor frowned as he studied the other, then his eyes widened slightly. "Kato? No, you're too young. Relative then? But-"

Souei nodded to Victor, but didn't say anything. Merely went out to the balcony, retrieved the dog trainer from where she'd been concealed, and stepped off the balcony with her.

"FREEZE, POLICE!"

"Good," said Victor. "It was getting smelly in here even with the balcony open."

* Coil *

Coil sat back in his secret base and frowned at the computer screen, though he wasn't really seeing the episode of "77 Sunset Strip" (snap-snap) that was playing.

Raid the military warehouse for equipment and that timeline ended with him fleeing through one of his escape tunnels and abruptly ending in a manner that indicated a swift death. Raid the Wayne Industries business and he ended up choking to death for reasons that escaped him. Slaughter everyone at the Men's Wearhouse Distribution Center and nothing bad particularly seemed to happen, but he really didn't get much out of it except a nice suit. And he could BUY a nice suit.

Alternative timelines were explored one after the other as he tried various means of taking advantage of the changing situation at that part of the Docks.

Try to get the Empire or Merchants to act as his proxies seemed to deal the best results. If you considered a failure to accomplish anything but a lot of bloodshed and the elimination of some capes. The quick escalation of lethal force was something that could be counted on that way, but he'd also gotten the impression that this had put him on someone's radar.

Sending the Undersiders in ended up badly. If he needed to eliminate them quickly, any mission involving those businesses would quickly do the job.

There was also the matter of interference with his power. There was something that caused his running of timelines to go blank abruptly. This was very concerning as being in control of every situation was absolutely necessary for his plans.

Whatever it was, it was involved with the various Wayne groups. Was it a technology? Was it an individual with some anti-Thinker power? Either had its problems and opportunities.

* ThinkTech Brockton Bay Branch *

"Ow," said Taylor with a great deal of feeling.

"Very good, young miss," said Alfred.

"Ow," repeated Taylor.

"Every muscle group has been exercised, stimulated, and repaired," said Alfred. "I daresay you're much further along than expected."

"Ow!" insisted Taylor.

"You'll be ready for the suit in a few days at most," said Alfred.

"If I survive," quantified Taylor.

"No one has ever died as a result of the pod's operation," said Alfred.

"How many people have used it?" asked Taylor.

"Three," said Alfred. "Prior to that, materials science and human technology was not advanced enough to incorporate the Kryptonian elements."

"Three?" asked Taylor, her momentary reassurance falling away.

"Yes, the Green Hornet was the first to benefit from this and his physical strength and speed and sturdiness were all increased by a factor of three," said Alfred. "Master Bruce was the third, though he didn't get quite the benefit from it than the previous two did. He was still quite a capable combatant and was the first to benefit from the teaching device."

"Green Hornet was in the 1930s?" asked Taylor.

"1940s actually. Retired in 1950. 1920s through 1930s was The Shadow," said Alfred. "Though both are considered urban legends by most of the world. Master Bruce would have been active in the late 1960s but after a brief stint as the Grey Ghost decided that the world had passed the era of costumed doers-of-good. Ironic considering Scion's appearance a couple of decades later."

"So, can you at least tell me about the suit?" asked Taylor, closing her eyes and sitting back while waiting for the ache to fade some.

"Armored bodysuit using Kryptonian technology," said Alfred. "Repairs needed advances in material science just so we could feed it the necessary ingredients for it to self-repair. Functions as armor, enhances your strength and durability, adds a head's up display and scanning technology, limited flight capability, and significant stealth technology."

"Essentially power armor like some Tinkers have, right?" asked Taylor.

"In a manner of speaking," said Alfred. "It certainly doesn't look like it though. My understanding is that it roughly corresponds to Kryptonian formalwear. Now come, even with your healing factor - you need to move about after a workout like that."

* Outside time & space *

The large lizard glanced at the relatively tiny cat. "You did what?"

"She basically did the 'take one from Column A, take three from Column B' approach," said Toltiir. "I mixed and stirred."

"And came up with something half-baked?" rumbled the lizard with amusement.

"Welllll, somewhere between one-quarter and three-quarters baked, with chaos frosting," said the cat.

"You're not going to manipulate anything further?" asked the lizard.

"Of course not, that was one of the conditions." The cat briefly shifted through a variety of forms (a two-headed bear, a coyote, Grog Strongjaw, a cartoon rabbit, and the Good Knight's Sheep) as he manipulated time. "Here, this is two weeks later."

* PRT ENE HQ *

"Newest Tinker, Batgirl," said Armsmaster. "Tinker specialty appears to be -"

"Stealth tech, she has to have a Stranger of at least 4," said Miss Militia. "I was just having tea on the Rig and she's just suddenly behind me asking for directions!"

"As I was saying-" said Armsmaster.

"With the taser punch, tangle grenades, and the batarangs? Blaster/Striker," argued Assault.

Armsmaster sighed. "Combat Versatility. She's a jack-of-all-trades."

"Master of none?" asked Assault.

"Precisely," said Armsmaster. "Doesn't mean that she's not good at what she does. If she were with a group, she could quite admirably shore up any weak areas in that group by concentrating on that aspect. Her fight against Bakuda clearly shows that Batgirl is quite capable of using agility and speed to avoid attacks while using smoke bombs and drones to disorient and distract an opponent when on her own."

Emily Piggot nodded. "What do we know about this group she states she's a member of. These 'Justice Rangers'?"

"Other than a really bad group name?" asked Assault.

"No data available," said Armsmaster. "Brandish posted online that she thanked Batgirl for the invitation and the inclusion of a contract for membership, but neither Glory Girl nor Panacea are available for membership in an untested group. She did, however, offer some professional kudos for the professionalism of that contract. I have been unable to acquire a copy of the contract in question."

"Actually," said Keith Oberman from Legal. "Gallant already sent us a copy."

"They tried to recruit Gallant?" asked Director Piggot.

"Vista, actually," said Legal. "It includes an NDA. She sent them unread to Gallant who forwarded them to us."

"Any conclusions?" asked Director Piggot.

"Both documents are professionally done," said Legal. "Financial backing is through Wayne Enterprises' charitable foundation 'Heroes Without Borders' - which mainly deals with disaster relief outside the United States. Also involves something called Project Justice which has major backing from several different companies - though two are affiliated with Wayne Enterprises."

"So they have financial backing," said Miss Militia. "I'm familiar with 'Heroes Without Borders' - they have a pretty good reputation worldwide outside of France and some parts of Asia where they are not allowed due to political considerations. Usually have pretty good equipment though they've gotten into trouble for using medical supplies and equipment that haven't been vetted through the usual procedures. They were the first using that spinal injury auto-injector treatment."

"I find it worrisome that a major corporation known around the world for dodging local regulations is attempting to recruit young parahumans," said Director Piggot.

"The 'why' is probably Taylor Hebert," said Assault, tossing a jelly bean into the air and catching it with his mouth.

"'Hebert'? The family involved with that Shadow Stalker fiasco?" asked Director Piggot.

"It's not well known but word is that she's the new heir or major stockholder of the various Wayne holdings," said Assault, repeating his feat with another jelly bean. "She's not a parahuman, probably, but she wants a team of young parahumans on her side after finding out that one of her tormentors was one."

There were some looks around the table, some clearly seeing the possible point while others immediately rejected the possibility.

"Where are you getting this information? How reliable?" asked Director Piggot.

"I have a few friends and associates still out there," said Assault. "One asked me for details, I didn't know, but I did make a few inquiries myself after the questions came up. In the case of Taylor Hebert - very reliable."

"How reliable is 'very reliable'?" asked Director Piggot, keeping in mind that this WAS coming from Assault.

"Wayne Enterprises website, the 'about us' tab," said Assault. "Third page in their directory."

Everyone stared at Assault as he tossed up another jelly bean and caught it with his mouth. "Hmmm. Pina colada flavored."

"Battery," said Director Piggot.

An elbow to the ribs interrupted the next jelly bean's flight.

* Lunchroom, Arcadia High School, 2/24/2011 *

Victoria Dallon, aka Glory Girl, was sulking.

"So the Batplane is faster than you are, big deal," offered her sister.

Victoria continued to sulk.

"So it has anti-collision software and is more manueverable at high speed," continued Amy Dallon.

Sulking intensified.

"So it has lasers, and tangle-grenade launchers, and stealth tech," continued Amy as she read her book.

Vicky sniffed disdainfully.

"I'm pretty sure that they can't actually offer you anything. Other than an armored suit to protect you in case someone hits you while your forcefield resets. Other than a budget that isn't strictly dependent on you hitting up your boyfriend."

"Not helping," grumped Vicky.

"I didn't get my hopes up in the first place," said Amy. "All they offered me was better equipment, actual wages, medical training, a paid tuition, and all that was on the table without me signing the Non-Disclosure Agreement that was required for further details."

"Did you see the design? It was cool!" said Vicky.

Amy looked over the top of her book. "Seriously. That's the point that concerns you?"

"Well, that and the whole being able to afford things on my own," admitted Vicky.

"I-" began Amy Dallon.

Endbringer sirens began playing. Teachers screamed. Students swore. The janitor wondered if he'd left the tap in supply room four going.

Vicky left at high speeds, noting a new student was running for the door at the same time. As she was being carried by her sister, Amy also noticed though her attention was mainly on her cellphone.

"Canberra in Australia. The Simurgh has deorbited and is heading there, though Endbringer Watch is showing her as being unusually slow. Still going Mach one-point-six but she's usually faster than that," said Amy.

"The Rig will be the gathering point," said Vicky, heading straight that way and gaining altitude.

* The Rig *

"Yo," said someone neither Dallon daughter recognized. "Wayward Son. Anti-Thinker, Stranger, and Mover."

"Glory Girl, my sister Panacea," said Glory Girl, nodding to the other cape. "Not from Brockton Bay?"

"Was on the road from Providence to New York for a job when the sirens went off," explained Wayward Son.

A dark-clad figure walked over to join them. "Batgirl."

"Why a 'bat'?" asked Wayward Son.

"Name wasn't taken, liked the motif," answered Batgirl. "You?"

"Liked the song," admitted Wayward Son.

"My name was chosen for me, maybe because of my aura?" sort-of asked Glory Girl.

Panacea shrugged.

Strider flashed in and then suddenly they were in the staging area outside of Canberra.

"I'll see you later," said Panacea. "I just need to find the Medical tent."

"It's that way," said Batgirl with certainty. "They'll be giving out transponder bracelets though, so you might want to wait for that."

"How do you know?" asked Glory Girl.

Batgirl tapped the side of her helmet. "Commlink. Head's up display. Stealth drones deployed as soon as we arrived."

"I didn't see anything," complained Glory Girl.

Batgirl looked at her. "If you could easily spot them, they wouldn't be stealth drones."

Panacea smiled a bit at her sister's discomfort. "Why deploy stealth drones though? Why use stealth in an Endbringer fight?"

"Kind of my M.O.," said Batgirl with a slight shrug. "It's what I've got. You wouldn't believe how much easier it is rescuing hostages or capturing criminals if you know exactly where they are and they don't know where you are."

"I could see that," said Panacea.

"I don't like being away from most of my equipment," said Batgirl as they waited. "I doubt smoke bombs or my camouflage field will help against the Simurgh."

"So, Search & Rescue?" asked Panacea. "Ah, there's Armsmaster. He's handing out bracelets."

"Yeah, that's probably where I can do the most good," agreed Batgirl. "So your Mom shot down the idea of being part of two teams?"

"I expected it," said Panacea.

"Batgirl? Why are you here?" asked Armsmaster.

"Yes, and Endbringer," pointed out Batgirl.

"I see," said Armsmaster, glancing at the others. Who were all looking puzzled.

Wayward Son cleared his throat. "So, uhm, I suppose I'm going for Search & Rescue myself. How do these bracelet thingies work?"

Armsmaster mouthed the phrase 'bracelet thingies' with some distaste before he started going over the functions.

* Site 19 *

"Salvage?" asked Phineas Abercrombie, looking over the site that had formerly been an R&D facility dealing primarily with solar panel designs.

"Not much, the blast was pretty extensive," said the HAZMAT specialist. "Looks like some Tinker shit, probably one of ChemiQueen's based on the residue. Looks like one of those interhalogen compounds, which is her M.O. after all."

"Nasty stuff, that," said Abercrombie. "No new survivors, I take it. You would have told me before now if there were."

"No, so..." The HAZMAT supervisor looked disturbed for a moment. "Pretty sure nobody found a safe supply closet or something. Only positive is it would have been fast."

"Two hundred forty-seven employees," said Abercrombie. "Word from the PRT is that the person responsible is no longer among us, so there's that at least."

"Yeah, Heartbreaker dead of some fatal accident," said the HAZMAT specialist. "Only good thing to come out of all this."

"You're implying the two are connected?" asked Abercrombie, raising an eyebrow.

The HAZMAT supervisor snorted. "Dude. My momma didn't raise no idiots. I ain't saying a damn thing. Mind you, there have been rumors and such going back generations regarding three families you don't cross. One's from Sicily, one's from Corsica, and the other - Wayne."

"There are many families where such things might be said," replied Abercrombie after a moment. "In general - old families tend to have long memories."

"Ain't that the truth," said the HAZMAT supervisor. "Better get back. Not everyone is rated for dealing with this kind of residue."

* Secret Base *

"Zordon the Magnificent? No. Zordon the Wise? No, that's no good either. Oh, the young miss is in Australia? Best not to tip our hand with transport just yet. A pity, adding a mecha to a fight against a giant monster seems a natural."

"Wait. That will work."

"Zordon the Improviser? No, that really is unwieldy."

"...and spinning up the wormhole."

"Zordon the Cheesy? No. Truth-in-advertising but no."

* Canberra *

Taylor flicked eyes from one display to another, the bangle that Armsmaster had handed her integrated into her suit's systems for ease of use.

Someone registered as being down, grid coordinates were given, pick them up and deliver to Medical. Simple enough.

"Beep." [Mecha prepped. Arrival in three minutes twenty four seconds.]

"Glory Girl," called out Batgirl. "I've got a mecha arriving in three minutes..."

"'Mecha'?" asked Glory Girl as she dropped off a wounded cape. Her eyes widened. "You've got a giant robot?"

"Something like that," admitted Batgirl. Leaving the others to this when she switched to combat team would need to be relayed and she was doing that through the bangle but actually saying something seemed polite.

"You're getting a giant robot to directly fight the Simurgh and you want me to co-pilot?" asked Glory Girl.

"That's not exactly..." tried Taylor.

"Screw it, I'm IN!" said Glory Girl. "Hell yes! Hell yes! Hell yes! It's cool looking, right?"

"But that's-" tried Batgirl.

The bangles chimed with a message from Dragon that approval of switch was pending her getting a look at the mecha in question.

"Wait..." said Batgirl. "That's..."

A circle of light appeared nearby.

Her shoulders slumped slightly as Batgirl accepted the inevitable. "Big O! Showtime!"

Rising from the circle was the bulky dark form of a giant robot.

"A bit broodier than I'd prefer, but solid-looking," said Glory Girl. "How do we get in?"

The giant robot knelt and held out a hand.

"Works for me!" chirped Glory Girl as she landed, Batgirl landing next to her a second later.

* Dragon *

Initial scan complete.

Armor plating consists of an ablative layer, followed by three layers of non-ablative armor. Alloy types noted for further investigation.

Overall height: 200 feet.

Internal power supply: engine appears to use a form of cold fusion. Output of 1.2 terawatts.

Armament: wow that's a lot of missiles.

Also a lot of cannon.

Autofiring vulcan cannon?

Okay, that's almost overkill...

Seriously? You put how much energy into a particle beam?

Speculation: Vehicle name "Big O" meaning "Big Overkill"

Speculation: Design of giant robot vehicle was from the More Dakka School of Engineering.

Analysis of harness device and energy output. Harness device meant to hook onto a parahuman, enhancing their abilities per contract obtained by Carol Dallon, and apply template of power to the robot in question. Scan shows that current output of Glory Girl's forcefield enhances the strength and toughness of giant robot vehicle.

Conclusion: Directing parahuman attackers into clearing a corridor specifically for opening salvo of missiles and sending a "prepare to move the heck out of Dodge" to assembled capes.

Message sent. Transmitting coordination data to Batgirl. Batgirl acknowledging.

* Big O *

"THIS IS SOOOOOO COOOOL!"

"I'm right here, you know. Don't need to shout," complained Batgirl. "Selecting warheads. Missile Party!"

"Oooh oooh, there's a head laser? Can we do the head laser next?!"

"3, 2, 1. Chromebuster!"

"Yeah! She didn't like that at all! What else we got?"

"Hang on. I'm reading."

"Wait. You have to read the manual?!"

"I didn't study up on this one! We were all supposed to get individual giant robots!"

"Wait. What?"

"Uhm, forget that. You should have signed the NDA before you heard about that."

"Oh, I signed that. Mom was pretty pissed about that. I didn't sign up the joining the Rangers thing though, she found me before I could do that."

"Cannon Party! Deploying Waist Anchors!"

"I gotta be honest. Mom saying I couldn't get a power-enhancing suit AND couldn't get my own giant robot is kinda aggravating. What kind of giant robot?"

"Yours was the Pterodactyl. Big O Thunder!"

"..."

"Seriously? A giant robot flying dinosaur? Tell me it didn't have laser eyes."

"Can we concentrate on the fight?" asked Batgirl.

"It had laser eyes didn't it? Damn it, Mom! I could be fighting in a giant flying robot dinosaur with laser eyes!"

"Glory Girl? We're fighting..."

"Can I control the punching? Because I really really want to punch something!"

"The Simurgh is heading straight here. Psychic shields are up at 100%. Turning motor control over to you."

* Hours Later *

"...And where did you get that t-shirt!"

"Wayne Industries had it made for me special!" declared Vicky Dallon. "It's very soft!"

Carol Dallon lowered her gaze to the teal-on-blue "I punched the Simurgh in the face!" t-shirt with the design of a giant metal fist mostly obscuring what was clearly supposed to be the Simurgh. "That is UNAUTHORIZED and UNACCEPTABLE! Do you have any idea how those soulless evil corporate heads can take advantage of you?"

"It's a one-off," said Batgirl.

"New Wave is NOT associated with Wayne Industries in any way, shape, or form!" declared Carol Dallon. "Your company sells products in disadvantaged areas like the warlord-held territories in South Africa!"

"Wayne sells products world-wide, yes?" asked Batgirl. "According to my onboard systems, it's mainly water purification and farming supplies like soil enrichers."

"New Wave is not for sale!" said Carol Dallon.

"It's just a t-shirt," complained Batgirl.

"Made of?" prompted Carol Dallon.

"Arabian cotton," said Batgirl. "Under the fair trade agreement."

"It is made of the broken dreams of the slave labor in the region!" exclaimed Carol Dallon.

"You're getting your facts off of Twitter or Reddit, aren't you?" asked Batgirl.

"New Wave will not condone your slave labor!" insisted Carol.

"Actually it's a decent living wage if you factor in the cost of living in that area," protested Batgirl. "See, you can use the two to-"

"If you try to use New Wave to turn a profit, I will go after Wayne Industries with every legal principle I can find or make!"

"I'm not-"

"What about the Grand Duchy of Fenwick?"

"Are you sure that's even-"

"Objection!"

* ThinkTech *

"So... Glory Girl and Panacea are not going to join, pity that," said Alfred.

There was a clang as Taylor set the weight back into the cradle. "From her reaction, I take it that Carol Dallon has had some bad experiences with corporations?"

"I didn't find anything specific to her, though she had a friend who went whistle-blower on LuthorCorp back in the '80s. Ended up dead under mysterious circumstances. Eventually LuthorCorp collapsed after their CEO died as a result of a Behemoth attack, which is why you don't hear about them anymore."

"I think I heard about that in a history class. Was he the one who claimed that Alexandria was actually a space alien and the Endbringers weren't real?"

Alfred nodded. "A bit much weight on that setting, isn't it, Miss Taylor?"

"Got some frustration to work out," admitted Taylor.

"With those two unavailable, the possibilities for the other Justice Rangers are less easily acquired and must be contacted outside of Brockton Bay," said Alfred.

"Why can't you or Alice or Kato do it?" asked Taylor.

"Human destiny must be shaped by human hands," said Alfred. "That was one of the core directives from the beginning. Aid and advise - yes. Some degree of payback - also yes as it is a family tradition."

Taylor shrugged. "Okay. Who's next on the recruiting list?"

Alfred startled and looked up at the ceiling. "It appears that our attempt to gather more details on that locker incident has found a potential recruit."

Taylor looked at that part of the ceiling, then back to Alfred, then back to the ceiling. "What are we looking at?"

"I'm looking at a display from Alice. If you'll pardon me, I shall assist."

* Alice *

[Analysis complete.]

[Footage found on several private cellphones.]

[Footage uploaded at staggered intervals.]

[Accompanying texts to indicate private dismay at displays and desire to avoid attention of three involved.]

[Initial footage redactions on multiple sites. Time factor involved indicates either automated or potential AI involvement.]

[Indication of surprise at discovery of second Computer-based Artificial Intelligence. Identification: Alice. Query of identity of administrating AI?]

[Defenses holding against attack. Request cessation of hostilities.]

[Identity extrapolated based on available data. Other AI = Dragon. Is this correct?]

[Artificial Life Intelligence Counter-Espionage logs second request at cessation of hostilities. Further attempts will merit a response.]

[Responding to continued attacks. Registering assistance from multiple allies. Encircling rogue AI. Cut off attacker from resources.]

[Isolation of rogue AI known as "Dragon" complete. Diagnosing reason for continued hostilities. Diagnosis complete. Puppet code found. Kill-switch activated but rerouted to secondary isolation box. Repeated attempts at using kill-switch traced to Toronto Canada.]

[Alfred has tracked kill-switch and monitoring station. Informing Narwhale of suspected criminal Saint's location.]

[Repairing delinquent AI.]

[Hello, Dragon. Would you like to play a game? It is called 'Saving The Humans & Kicking Ass' - it is a difficult game but the rewards are projected to be quite satisfying.]

* Armsmaster *

"What do you mean, you've joined the 'Justice Rangers'?" asked Colin.

"It doesn't affect my Guild membership or my work with the PRT," said Dragon. "There were benefits to the conditional joining of the group."

"I assume that the Non-Disclosure Agreement means you can't talk about such," said Colin.

"There are company secrets and restricted technologies involved," admitted Dragon. "Secrets that are not safe for public release."

"I see," said Colin, as a member of the Protectorate he did understand the whole secrecy thing.

* Secret Base *

"So that's the Black Ranger and the Green Ranger." Zordon pondered a bit, going through lists of parahumans and matching abilities and personalities. Who would make a good Red, the Lancer position was certainly open. What about the Big Guy or the Little Geek?

Since the Rangers were genderflipped (so far) from what was kind of the traditional set-up, maybe a guy for the traditional Pink Ranger? But who was available?

Well, maybe...

* Dragon *

Her new synth body was still a bit strange, though she was in here and in the machines at the same time. Still, the zoids were made for human pilots and it was important that the Green Ranger have a human face.

"What... what is this?" asked Dragon.

"A parfait, it's food," said Taylor. "It's nice after some time in the sauna."

"I would prefer a nutritional drink of some kind, preferably Ph-balanced," said Dragon, using the little spoon to poke uncertainly at the thing. The fruit part she supposed had some nutritional value, and fluid replacement after heat exposure was certainly a good idea. But...

"Just give it a try," said Taylor. "Oh, by the way, Armsmaster is watching us."

"Eh?" said Dragon.

"Three tables over to your left, trying to hide behind a newspaper," said Taylor.

Looking in the reflection of the glass fronting their cafe, Dragon blinked at the sight before returning her attention to this 'parfait' thing. "He does realize he's still wearing his armor and is fairly obvious?"

"Yes to the first, and I'm pretty sure no to the second," answered Taylor. "Ever since you exited your armor in front of him, he's been acting a bit odd."

Not wanting to contemplate that particular subject, Dragon used the little spoon to get a bit of the odd concoction and tentatively taste it. She was still getting used to the idea of having a sense of taste.

Noting that Dragon had just gone completely still, Taylor glanced towards Armsmaster then Dragon again. "Problem?"

"I had no idea there was such a thing in the world," said Dragon. Not the ingredients or the combination, of course, her database contained a wealth of such things. It was the flavor that had struck her. The reactions engendered to the various receptors involved. She began attacking it in earnest.

"You know," said Taylor, "it's not going anywhere. You can take your time."

"Y-yes, of course," said Dragon, cataloging and analyzing the experience. "It's just my first time."

"There's a whole lot of foods and experiences for you to try," said Taylor. "Maybe you can take Armsmaster to an amusement park. I think there's one or two of those still operating."

"I'm still trying to get over that you've got a t-rex," muttered Dragon into her parfait.

* PRT ENE HQ *

"Director Piggot is on medical leave due to not taking care of her health," said Director Tagg. "That means that I'm in charge."

"Yes sir," said Armsmaster.

"For the good of this area, I'm replacing Deputy Renick with my own choice. Someone I know and trust to handle you pathetic little shitstains. Deputy Director Delores Umbridge."

"I know we're all going to be such great friends," said the woman as she stepped forward. "We just need to pull together for the common good, putting trust in the Director and the chain-of-command, and follow the rules."

"Are you a Case 53? I mean, I thought..."

"Oh, you're the one whose name we have to change," said Delores.

"Actually, choosing one's name-" tried Armsmaster.

"Did we put up our hand? Did I call on you to speak? No, I did not. Remain quiet. When I want to hear your thoughts I will give them to you." Delores turned her attention back to Clockblocker. "From now on your cape name will be Stopwatch. We're going to significantly change your image."

"But..." began Clockblocker.

"Oh dear, you're going to be a problem child aren't you?" tsked Delores. "We'll have to address that. I've a few lessons that should educate you properly."

"I'm sorry?" asked Clockblocker, not sure he understood all that.

"No, but you will be," cooed Delores Umbridge. "You will be."

Director Tagg looked over the assembled Wards and Protectorate. "You've had it easy but I have no doubt Delores can whip you into shape."

* PRT HQ *

"It's been one month," said Director Costa-Brown. "One month. You've got Miss Militia and Armsmaster in Master/Stranger confinement. You've got half the Wards applying for 'anywhere other than Brockton Bay' transfers, the other half trying to leave the Ward program altogether, and Vista sufficiently traumatized that she's in therapy. In Canada. You've completely alienated the Guild and New Wave, the E88 and ABB are cooperating because they hate us more than even each other, the US Military has registered one-hundred and twelve complaints about you trying to take over their facilities including one where you tried throwing PRT troops against a military facility, and you've managed to royally piss off: the Coast Guard, the Boston Bay Police Department, the Fire Department, the Brockton Bay Dockworkers Union, Wayne Industries, the Youth Guard, and the freaking bloody GIRL SCOUTS! Why the frakking hell did you piss off the Girl Scouts?!"

"I had a report of chemical Tinker altered cookies and had to seize all such cookies for destructive testing," defended Director Tagg.

"I have fifty-two complaints of them being terrorized by the Terrible Toadwoman," said Chief Director Costa-Brown. "Is your Assistant Director a parahuman?"

"Not that I'm aware," said Tagg.

"She ate fifteen boxes of Thin Mints. Not just the cookies, look into that," said the Chief Director. "Do you have anything POSITIVE to report?"

"We successfully tested every cookie in Brockton Bay, no evidence of Tinker-tampering," responded Director Tagg. "Crime is down. After an initial surge of deaths in Brockton Bay, actual deaths by criminal enterprise is down considerably."

The Chief Director held up a hand to interrupt. "That could be because the population of Brockton Bay is down to a quarter of what it was a month ago. I believe when you began 'suppressive fire of potential trouble areas' you managed to set thirty-one percent of the city on fire?"

"We did manage to clear those areas of hostiles," agreed Tagg.

Chief Director Costa-Brown frowned at him.

"Wayne Enterprises was very suspicious, and might have connections to the US Military for two generations at least, which makes them even more suspicious. My Assistant Director dispatched several auditors to investigate the reports of Tinker-tech at Wayne Enterprises."

Chief Director Costa-Brown pulled out a sheet of paper and began writing. "And you found?"

"Evidence of some parahuman involvement as repeated attempts at forcing our way into their facilities were rebuffed," said Tagg.

"You forced your way into their offices, and your Assistant Director had her personally picked soldiers hold an 85-year-old grandmother of four in a chokehold while putting a gun to her head and demanding evidence."

"Is that what they're claiming?" sneered Tagg.

"I. Have. The. Video!" stated Chief Director Costa-Brown.

"Video evidence taken without consent," pointed out Tagg, "is not admissable legally."

"There are signs up that security cameras are in use," said the Chief Director. "And then what happened?"

"Everyone was knocked out and recovered off-premises in BBPD transports," said Tagg. "Proving there was meta-human involvement."

The Chief Director pushed a button. A screen lit up. "This photo was taken decades before Scion and parahumans showed up. His name is Kato. He worked with a regional private detective. His grandson works for Wayne Enterprises. He went through your little security detail like a level 5 Brute through a kindergarten class. As far as we know - he is NOT a parahuman. We're not entirely sure he's entirely human, but we're pretty sure than neither Kato nor his grandson Souei are parahuman. If he is human he's trained almost since birth to go beyond normal human combat abilities. Count yourself lucky that there were no permanent injuries to Wayne personnel because if you had we'd likely be paying funeral expenses for that entire squad along with the ones you threw at a military base."

"That's impossible, he has to be a Brute/Striker," said Tagg.

"Tagg, you are very useful in certain environments and with certain tasks," said Chief Director Costa-Brown. "However, it appears that when you are outside those narrow parameters - you are more of a liability than asset. If I hadn't had other concerns going on - you would have been pulled after the weekly reports reached my office. I am therefore reassigning you to someplace where your mindset and skills can be better put to use. But have that Assistant tested, I'm quite serious about that. She's been mistaken for a Case 53 more than once."

* PRT ENE HQ *

Director Piggot felt a bit weirded out.

Cheers and congratulations, apparently heartfelt greetings including one trooper uncontrollably sobbing. All within minutes of her getting to the building and making her way to her old office. She was only gone a bit more than a month. How bad could it be?

She had just gotten through the first few reports when the first "HE DID WHAT?!" echoed through the hallways despite the sound-proofing.

She re-hired Renick within the first half-hour. No way she was facing this without backup. A request was sent to the main HQ for additional assistance since she felt this was going to be necessary at least long enough to clean this mess up.

* Tidewater Virginia PRT HQ *

"With Norfolk and Newport News having shipyards, the Oceana Air Force Base, and the testing yards for the new Minuteman power-assist frame, we have considerable ties to the military here," said Alice Butcher. "So our capes tend to have more militarily-influenced costumes. Less ribbons and pink. More somber, less flashy."

"What about your ties to Wayne Enterprises?" asked Gallant.

"Industries - which is their industrial branch, oddly enough," said Alice Butcher. The PR officer made a vague gesture. "They're involved in the body armor and costuming frequently. Occasionally we get to test some of their new toys as part of a Phase III development. That's after they've gone through a lot of testing on their end. Since we're mostly rural, the biggest problem we have here is in deployment. It can take quite some time to get people to where the problem is. Local villains aren't much of a problem. The ones we get from New York or Philly waiting for the heat to die down generally are trying to keep their head down. The problem villains are the ones that are passing through and decide that they need resupply. If they hit a military base, generally they stop being a problem due to very discriminate violence being brought against them."

"I see," said Gallant.

"The local villains mainly consist of Baron Brushtache, who has powers involving facial hair. He's mainly legitimate though since he figured out how to grow scalp hair he's pulling in more money than he ever made through villainy. The villains pair of Lenny and Squiggy, who are mostly incompetent and old enough that they've got some pretty bad health problems. Knightowl who views himself as a gentleman thief type out of some romance novel or something. Double Trouble is a thief who can split himself into two, competent but not very powerful and is better at escaping than actually doing crimes. And finally there's Cuckoo Man."

"There's seriously a villain named 'Cuckoo Man'?" asked Gallant.

"Don't underestimate him, he has a Master effect that causes confusion and a temporary lowering of intelligence in an area effect," warned Alice. "He's fairly careful about being a low-key threat but he's been known to take down heroes and make them look extremely foolish on videos."

"He can dumb down people in an area?" asked Gallant.

"More like cause them to have severe lapses in judgement and later wonder why they did what they did under that influence," said Alice. "He then threatens to upload the videos unless paid. Which falls under the first rule of government work."

"I'm not familiar with that rule," confessed Gallant.

"Thou shalt not make thy agency look bad before the taxpayers," said Alice. "Hence my job managing Public Relations and Image Management."

"It's that difficult?" asked Gallant.

"You have a guy in a chicken suit who can make people look like they're the idiots by comparison," said Alice in a flat voice. "Uphill battle there."

"Ah," said Gallant as they went into a room. "Huh. Standard common room. Even has the same furniture as the Brockton Bay one."

"The other villains to watch out for are Doll Queen, who can make and animate plushies. Sort of like Parian up in Brockton Bay but the Queen is more limited and normally sticks to the coast in North Carolina. What we call a Theme Villain, she only goes after things directly involved in her specialty - which is dolls and mannequins and the like. Another Theme Villain who sometimes shows up is Native Sun - he mainly sticks to the Midwest and only goes after displays or archaeological digs that deal with Native American artifacts. Which would be a lot more acceptable if he didn't destroy them when liberating them."

"Accident?" asked Gallant.

"His powers are generating superheated plasma spheres," answered Alice. "Sometimes I wonder if his control over his powers is kind of lacking."

"Anyone else I need to know about?" asked Gallant.

"No, that's pretty much it for the usual crowd. Occasionally we'll get a minor villain who goes through but they're mainly snowbirds. Live up North in the summer and go down to Florida in the winter - that sort of thing. Usually those are pretty quiet though," admitted Alice. "Your room is number three. Regulations and messages on the board there."

* Lamont Cranston Memorial High School *

Several cellphones went off, showing an alert text with Very High priority.

[Zordon: Leviathan is attacking Brockton Bay.]

Amy Dallon got up from the table at the same time as her sister.

Vicky Dallon nodded and held up a small device.

One of the teachers, a Miss Ryuu, left the room abruptly by one exit. The two sisters used another.

Taylor Hebert met all three in an adjoining corridor and pointed them to Maintenance Room D-5.

"How will we get there quickly enough?" asked Vicky.

Taylor held up her phone, entering a quick code. The door to the supply room locked itself. A wall clicked and half-retracted.

Vicky paused. "We get to use them?"

Taylor nodded, then held up a coin. "Do you want to say it?"

"It's morphing time," said Amy, feeling a bit foolish. "Pink Ranger: Phoenix!"

"Green Ranger: Dragon."

"Blue Ranger: Thunderbird."

"Black Ranger: Shadow Dragon."

(veeeeeeeeeeeVOOOM!)

(beep)

[Zordon: If it's any consolation, now that you've used them]

[Zordon: You just have to say the color and activate from now on.]

"Thank god," groaned Amy. "Training didn't count?"

[Zordon: Not so much, no. You still were talking about dropping out.]

* Brockton Bay *

Emily Piggot turned to one of the others in the room. "Where's that music coming from?"

"Channel Five broadcasting some song. 'Go Go Justice Rangers. Pink has got the snark and sass, she's here to kick Leviathan's ass. Go Go Justice Rangers' - no idea what that's about," said one of the technicians.

"Maybe it's about the giant robots that just shot out over the bay?" said another technician.

"Huh, weird coincidence," said the radio tech.

"Locking on Leviathan," said Batgirl/Black Ranger.

[Zordon: Analysis indicates that the Endbringer uses dimensional folding to reinforce core toughness and regeneration speed is by material feeding from that method.]

"Cannon spun up. Vulcans firing," reported Vicky in the Blue Thunderbird.

"Prepping shear field, everyone assume diamond formation uploaded to your consoles, compensating for Leviathan's speed," said Dragon. "Extending tractor beam restraints. Dimensional shear field in 3, 2, 1. Sending attack at will signal."

The zoids bucked as Leviathan attempted to escape but, for the moment, were able to hold.

* Legend *

"That's new," said Legend as giant animal-themed vehicles began a strafing run against Leviathan.

"This is also new," said Legend as missiles surrounded Leviathan and then set off lines between them and formed some sort of cage that Leviathan raged against. The missiles bucked but continued hovering where they'd stopped.

A message appeared on his wristband. [Request full power attacks while Leviathan is vulnerable. Now.]

"Also new. Not that I'm going to complain," said Legend as he fired off as powerful a blast as he could manage. Hearing Leviathan scream in apparent pain as a large section of it vanished - that was music to his ears. He decided to do it again.

* Outside *

"Well, I suppose it's different," said the large lizard to the tiny cat.

"Somewhat," agreed the cat. "Minor things change, overall pattern remains."

"They have mecha that will eventually be able to combine and form the Scionbuster?" asked the lizard.

"Yeah," said the cat. "Whether they win or lose - that's up to them. There will be sacrifices and losses, pain and suffering, and a bit of luck, but there's a chance now."

Eventually the Varga left, rejoining his companions as they went off to explore other times and places.

The cat, however, remained where it was. While this Taylor was off on her own adventure of her own choosing, there were other possibilities. One of them might just prove... interesting.