One More Trigger

Part Twenty-Nine: Director Piggot is Unhappy (It Must Be Tuesday)

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

April 26, 2011
Office of Director Piggot

Things were looking up for Emily Piggot. For a given definition of 'looking up', that is.

On the one hand, the Nine were gone, once and for all. It was a weird feeling to know that the first actual extermination of an S-class threat had taken place in her city, on her watch. It hadn't been exactly at her direction, but she was willing to ignore that piddly little detail.

She'd felt even more rattled when they were defeated and captured the first time around, which seemed counter-intuitive. Now, she supposed, she was used to the idea. Then? It had never been done before. Nobody had even come close. And for it not to be the PRT, not the Protectorate, not even one of the big-name glory-hound teams out there, but a bunch of relative newcomers who'd pulled it off … she hadn't known what to feel.

Of course, the Samaritans had also poached a Thinker out of an established team of villains after slamming the door on an attempted bank robbery, uncovered the shitshow that was Thomas Calvert's career as Coil and apparently recruited Panacea and Glory Girl out of New Wave. This winning streak merely served to prove that their victory against the Nine was as far from the definition of 'fluke' as it was possible to get in the English language.

Make that 'victories'. Plural. Jack Slash's return and attempt at payback had not been unanticipated, but all of Emily's preparation had gone by the wayside when the Samaritans had politely requested (through Vista) that the PRT stand down so they didn't get in the way. Emily had gone with her gut and done as she was asked, and the Samaritans had delivered.

Now, she had Mannequin and Bonesaw as live prisoners, and Burnscar and Jack Slash on slabs in the morgue. Or rather, in steel cages in the morgue, under twenty-four-seven armed guard, with life sign monitors hooked up to the bodies, until the green light could be given to immolate them once and for all. She wouldn't be satisfied until the remaining members of the Slaughterhouse Nine were reduced to ash, and the ash sealed in the same sort of glass plugs that nuclear waste was stored in.

When it came to S-class threats, there was no such thing as too much paranoia.

Her phone rang. She picked it up. "Piggot."

"Ma'am, you have a call," her secretary said. "It's Sparx, of the Samaritans."

Her mind raced. While she had nothing personally against the red-haired leader (inasmuch as they had one) of the Samaritans, she couldn't think of anything that might have cause the girl to contact her directly. Vista, after all, was their liaison (and doing a bang-up job of it) and such things were her duty. The problem was, only one potential topic for the call sprang to mind.

Is this about the Nine?

She didn't want it to be, because if Sparx was calling her it was important if not urgent, and as she currently had the Nine in the best possible position she could have them in—captured or dead—it meant something was about to change. For the worse.

But she hadn't hung on to her position as Director for ten years by hiding from unpleasant revelations. "Put her through."

"Good afternoon, Director." Sparx's voice was brisk but not urgent. Emily let go the tightest edge of her tension. While she was absolutely certain this was not a social call, it didn't sound like a life-and-death situation. "I have an unusual request to make of you, but first I'm going to put Vista on the line."

Before she could say more than "What req-", the phone was apparently passed over to the Ward who was currently acting as liaison to the Samaritans.

"Director, this is Vista." The girl's voice was oddly formal, and Emily's instincts notched back up a level of alertness. "Would you like me to give you the code of the day, or are you satisfied that it's me?"

Emily had spoken to Vista enough times that she would've recognised the youngest Ward's voice anywhere, but that wasn't the issue. "We'll skip it this time, I think," she said easily. Which was of course code for I need a covert code. "How are they treating you?" Translation: Are you under duress right now?

"It could be a lot worse," Vista replied without the slightest hesitation. This was the best possible answer: she was not under duress or being made to do anything else against her will. "Director, the reason we're calling is that Sparx needs to make a request of you, as she said." She took a deep breath. "I have personally witnessed an information exchange that has convinced me that she is entirely justified in making the request, and before you hear it, I urge you to give it your full and unbiased consideration."

It wasn't hard to unpack the meaning behind her statement. Whatever the request was, it held a great deal of importance to the Samaritans. Moreover, they had communicated that urgency to Vista, who also believed in it. But at the same time, they were of the opinion (probably based on information given to them by their rebranded supposedly-ex-villainous teammate 'Athena') that if they simply sprang the request on her out of the blue, she'd turn it down out of hand.

In addition, the 'information exchange' clearly referred to a Thinker insight. As Athena was the only Thinker on the team, her prior allegiances rendered whatever intelligence she'd passed on to them more than a little dubious, in Emily's personal judgement.

For a villain who claims to have rebranded to the side of light, Tattletale certainly enjoys rubbing who she used to be in everyone's faces. What's she trying to talk them into doing now?

"You understand, I can't base a lot of weight on revelations from an ex-villain, no matter how convincing they sound to you," she said, doing her best to soften the blow for her inevitable refusal. If they thought she was likely to refuse a request even when it didn't supposedly come from Tattletale, what did they think she would say when she knew it did?

"Director, you don't understand. This isn't coming from Athena." It wasn't? That was news. "It's from an outside source, one that we trust implicitly."

Emily frowned. She'd had hints before that the Samaritans had access to a Thinker who wasn't officially on the team, but this was the first time that Vista had directly referred to such a person. This required her to rethink her automatic stance on the matter. "Are you at liberty to inform me who it is? In fact, do you know who it is?"

"Yes, I know who it is. They would rather not divulge their identity to the PRT just yet. Not until every single gang-related leak is plugged. I just know that they're very good at what they do. And if they say something's likely to happen, I would lay odds on it happening."

"… hmm. Okay." Emily nodded, though Vista had no way of seeing the gesture. "Put Sparx on. I'll give her a fair hearing." It burned just a little that their undisclosed source didn't trust the PRT's information security, but as much as she hated to admit it, information was somehow getting out to the ABB and Empire Eighty-Eight. Either gang would go a long way toward getting access to a powerful Thinker, and neither one was a stranger to atrocities.

"Hello again, Director." It was Sparx again. "Thank you for agreeing to listen to my request."

"I'll give it a fair hearing," Emily said cautiously. "I've made no other promises."

"I'll take what I can get." Sparx took a deep breath, audible over the phone. "Director Piggot, we both know you know who Athena was before she joined the Samaritans. Are you aware of any criminal activity by her since she took on the name Athena?"

Emily frowned. This could not be the request. She looked at the question from several angles before answering. "I haven't been at her side twenty-four-seven, but I will admit that I've received no reports of any such activity on her part."

"I doubt you'll get any," Sparx predicted confidently. "She seems to be positively enjoying life as a superhero. And in fact, her involvement was what ensured our clashes against the Nine, both times, ended so positively."

"Once again, I wasn't there, but I can understand how such a thing may have happened. Also, her enjoyment of the situation may end up working against you. If you get into a situation which sours her toward heroism, you may well end up facing against a criminal Thinker once more, one who knows all of your secrets intimately." Emily allowed herself a tight smile. Capes were useful to the PRT as muscle against other capes, but she didn't like them and she had a hard time trusting them.

"Even in that case, it'll be our problem and not yours." Sparx spoke in a pragmatic tone. "But I wasn't trying to sell you on the idea of Athena being permanently on the side of good now; just that rebranding a former villain, and giving them a chance to redeem their previous actions, is not an impossible goal. Would you admit that this is possible and even plausible, and if successful would be an active plus for society as a whole?"

"Let me cut you off right there," Emily said. "Yes, I am aware that your team has taken on one minor villain and succeeded so far in keeping her on the straight and narrow. We've allowed this mainly because it would have been too problematic to extricate her from your roster, partly because she's shown the capability to be a productive member of cape society while on your team, and partly because some of us are interested in seeing what happens next. For the record, I am not one of the latter." She paused to gather her thoughts. "Now, I'm not entirely certain why you're bringing this up now in conjunction with—"

She paused, eyes opening wide at the connection her brain had just made. It was insane, but it was the only one that made any kind of sense. For a distinctly twisted definition of 'sense'.

"No," she snapped. "Not a chance in hell. Not happening." Sparx had to have known there was no way she'd ever sign off on handing over a member of the Nine.

"What's not happening, Director?" At least Sparx was smart enough not to push straight back. The days when Emily had been susceptible to being wheedled into something she didn't want to do were long gone. "At least tell me what you're saying no to. It might not even be what you think."

Emily huffed a sigh. "Fine, but keep T—Athena off the line. I've agreed to talk to you, not her." It was a simple mantra: Never let the Thinker talk. They were almost as bad as Masters, in their own way.

"Absolutely," Sparx agreed, so readily that Emily got the impression she'd made that decision before picking up the phone. "So what are you saying no to?"

"You want me to release Bonesaw into your custody." Emily couldn't believe she was saying it out loud. "And I'm telling you it's not going to happen."

"Well, it's true that I was calling up to ask you for that." Sparx sounded quite matter-of-fact about the situation. "May I ask you why you're against this?"

Emily snorted derisively. "You mean, apart from the fact that I represent a law enforcement agency, and that I'm sworn to uphold my oath, which involves not allowing people like that little menace downstairs to ever see the light of day again?"

"For a hypothetical, let's say apart from that, yes," agreed Sparx blandly.

"Okay, then. For a hypothetical." Emily tried not to sneer the word. "She's dangerous. That one girl is responsible for more death and suffering than any normal serial killer in history. They don't hand out Kill Orders for nothing. If you had chosen to end her on site, we wouldn't have cared in the slightest. As it is, if she gives us the slightest bit of trouble while in custody, we're not just authorised but advised to perform a summary execution. Does that answer your question?"

"It does." Sparx still wasn't pushing the issue, which had Emily feeling oddly off-balance. "Is it okay if I ask some more questions? Seeing as you told Vista you'd give me a fair hearing, I mean."

She had said that, hadn't she. "Go ahead."

"Thank you. You were an officer in the PRT before they made you Director, right? So you went through boot camp?"

Emily wasn't sure where this was going. "We all did," she confirmed cautiously.

"Pretty rough there, wasn't it? Did you ever think they were being too hard on you?"

The drills had made things precisely as tough as they'd needed to. Ellisburg had proven that. "It was rough, yes, but it was necessary. You don't make people into soldiers by coddling them. Why are you asking this?"

"It'll be clear in a minute. So, it's safe to say that you came out the other side with skills and attitudes that you didn't go in with?"

"Well, of course." Emily shook her head. "Nobody goes through boot without being changed. Get to the point."

"I've got another hypothetical for you. Suppose parahumans were like the 'mutants' in those old comic books. Everyone hates them, they've got to be kept under control. Now, in that world, someone just like you joins the local version of the PRT. Not to kill mutants, but to keep ordinary people safe. But during boot, they realise this person—you—is an absolute prodigy when it comes to being a soldier. So they decide to train 'you' to kill mercilessly, whoever they point you at. Mutants, even ones who haven't done anything, normal humans who are hiding them, maybe people just suspected of being mutants or hiding them. They want you to be their attack dog. Kill on command."

Emily felt a shiver down her spine, but she steeled herself so it didn't come through to her voice. "I'd drop out of boot. Walk away."

"Assume that's not an option." Sparx' voice was smooth, relentless. "They have drill sergeants on you twenty-four seven. You can't get a moment to yourself. When you're sleeping, when you're eating. Everyone else is doing normal training, but you're on punishment details and eating crap food, sleeping about two hours at a time. You can't handle the pressure anymore, so you agree to take the training, just to get a moment's respite. And just like that, they're off your back. You get extra privileges. The other recruits salute you. Everyone praises you. The more training you accept, the better they treat you. And then you start going on missions. It's easy. One shot, one hit, one kill. It's emphasised to you, over and over, they're not really people, just … things. Targets. And for every one you take out, you get recognition and rewards. So my first question is: under this scenario, how long would it take for you to start enjoying the work?"

For a long moment, Emily sat with her mouth open, wanting to claim that she would never become something like that, that people weren't like that. But then, slowly, she closed it. There were some people she'd known in boot ...

"Not long," she admitted quietly. "A year, maybe less."

"Mm-hmm. Now, let's suppose that instead of eighteen, they start you on that training at age six. When you just don't have the mental or emotional resources to push back. And let's say the drill sergeant in charge has a talent for getting inside your head and figuring out exactly which buttons to press, to get you to do what he wants. You become that killer. You even begin to enjoy it. Now, this is my last question." She paused for a few seconds. "Can you truly be held responsible for what you've done?"

With those last words, the trap closed around Emily. She'd been aware that this would come around to Bonesaw in the end, but she'd been expecting another 'how long would it take to enjoy it' query. Slowly, she closed her eyes. God damn it.

"Director?" asked Sparx. "Are you still there?"

"You've made your point," Emily gritted. "But I can't just release her into your custody."

"Why not?" Sparx somehow made it sound like a simple question with a simple answer. "You're literally the highest-ranking member of the PRT in the east-north-east region. We both know you have a wide range of latitude for how you carry out your duties. You could hand her over, and the only way it would be illegal would be if you failed to report the chain of custody to the Chief Director."

She was correct … again … but Emily refused to accept that it could be just that easy. There was more to it than just 'because I say so'. "She's dangerous. Both in what she can do, and what she's got implanted in her own body."

"Panacea already disarmed her of everything that could be used to hurt someone," Sparx reminded her. "And with both Athena and Panacea keeping an eye on her, how far do you think she'd get with any shenanigans? Plus, I have it on good authority that she'll behave herself. There's a less than five percent chance that she'll try reoffending if she joins us."

This was not going the way Emily had imagined it. "I can't just, well, hand her over to a bunch of teenagers. You're only a few years older than her. There's not an adult among you."

"We have three adults who were involved with the formation of the team from the beginning. They're willing to take responsibility for her."

While that actually addressed a few questions that had been sitting in the back of Emily's mind about the Samaritans, it didn't make her feel any better that Sparx had anticipated the question. "Why are you so determined to have me hand her over? It's not like you're lacking in capability."

The tone of Sparx's voice was frank and open. "To be honest, Director, I was in your camp. I wanted nothing to do with her. Right up until I found out that unless we get her on our team, we've got a fifty-fifty chance of losing two or more members from the Samaritans in the next few months. And yes, 'losing' as in 'being killed'. I don't want to lose any of my friends, which is why I'm talking to you. Our outside source is scary good."

Scary was right. If Emily's surmise was correct, their source was the reason they'd pulled off the coup against the Nine. And probably a few other things that she hadn't become aware of yet. Which triggered another thought. "Wait a minute … did your source make a prediction about you asking me about Bonesaw?"

"I'm going to opt not to answer that one, Director." Sparx kept her voice level, keeping Emily from reading anything from the tone. "I like to believe in free will, and I suspect you do too. I know if I was given a prediction stating what my behaviour would be in a specific circumstance, I'd likely do the exact opposite to prove that I can't be predicted. Basic human nature. So, I'm neither going to confirm nor deny that anyone said anything about how you're going to act."

Which meant that a prediction had been made, and Sparx didn't want to lie to Emily. Which actually suited her; if she didn't know the number, she could pretend it had never been made. Still, she didn't like this at all.

"Even with all that, I'm disinclined to give her the slightest chance to break out," she reiterated. "We both know how dangerous she is, no matter how harmless she looks …"

"What if we use that prion powder to take away her powers for the duration?" Sparx said it artlessly, but she'd kept it back until now, undoubtedly to use as a trump card. "Until we're certain she's over whatever influence Jack Slash left on her. Until Athena's had the chance to undo the horror that's been done to her mind."

"Wouldn't she be immune to her own creation?" This was the only thing that had been holding Emily back from bathing the little shit in the stuff.

"Not if Panacea says she isn't."

Which put the whole affair into a totally new light. Bonesaw without her power and her implants was … a young girl. A girl who'd been severely traumatised by a total psychopath into becoming a serial killer but still, just a girl. With Panacea and Athena to monitor her, and her powers removed for the duration, the harm she could do was minimal. "And you're certain you need her on your team to avoid having two members die."

"As sure as I could be without actually going and finding out for myself, yes." Sparx chuckled. "And one more thing, in case you think Bonesaw isn't going to be sufficiently punished."

Emily frowned. She'd just been thinking that. "Yes?"

"She gets Athena's close and personal attention for the next few months. Think about that for a moment."

That brought a shudder. "I'd rather not, thank you. Very well; you've made your points. Give me a day to think about it, and I'll get back to you."

"Thank you, Director. I'll await your call."

Emily hung up the phone and turned her chair so that she could look out through the reinforced-polycarbonate window at the skyline of Brockton Bay. Already, she was figuring out the most efficacious way of explaining to Chief Director Costa-Brown exactly why she'd chosen to transfer Bonesaw into the Samaritans' custody. They'd already worked miracles; if they could get one-tenth the heroic effort from her that she'd put into hurting people, that would be good.

Another shudder went through her body. Having Athena looking over my shoulder, twenty-four seven? I think I'd opt for execution, myself.


"She's going to go for it?" He waited for Lisa's nod before he clapped Emma on the shoulder. "Nicely done."

Emma ducked her head, pleased at the praise. "Lisa gave me the roadmap. I just followed it."

"Don't sell yourself short," Lisa advised her from the armchair she was sharing with Amy. "I can tell people how to do this stuff until I'm blue in the face. The number of people who actually listen instead of deciding they know a better way … well, let's just say, they're few and far between."

"And that's why Emma's the leader of the Samaritans," Taylor noted.

"I'm not the leader!" Emma protested, looking around. "We're a team, not a … a leader and the rest of you guys!"

"Well, you're the best leader we don't have," Taylor amended with a grin. "What I was about to say is that you're good at what Mr Barnes says a leader should always be able to do."

"Giving orders and taking suggestions," Madison filled in. "Honestly, Ems, I'm not sure why you're so worried about it. We're gonna treat you the same whether you're the leader or not. It's just that the public thinks you are, so we might as well pretend it's official."

Emma rolled her eyes. "Fine." She glared around at the others, who were concealing grins; or, in the case of Taylor, not even bothering to try. "You all suck."

"Trust me, I understand your position here," Danny advised her. "Being in charge is a thankless job. But you are good at seeing the big picture and figuring out what to do next, even if it's to tell Taylor or Madison to do what they do best. I suggest you roll with it, and delegate as much as possible. It's how I get by."

"Yeah, yeah," sighed Emma, pushing her hair back from her face. "I guess … the idea of bringing Bonesaw onto the team, even with all the precautions we're going to be taking, has got me running in circles inside my own head screaming 'I don't want to be in charge!'."

"Hey." Amy got up from the armchair and wrapped Emma in a hug. "None of us wants this to go bad, and if we all work together it won't." Pulling Emma around in front of her, she pressed her forehead against the redhead's. "But even if it does, I trust you to make the right calls. You're good at what you do, which is something a lot of capes in this city can't say." She chuckled knowingly. "Trust me on that."

"Goddamn it." Emma's voice was rough as she pulled Amy into another hug. "I though we were supposed to be trying to keep your confidence up, not the other way around."

Amy smirked at Lisa as she rubbed gentle circles on Emma's back. Lisa nodded in reply and gave the healer a thumb's up. "Hey, you've all been awesome to me. This is me giving some of that back."

"Well, I appreciate it," Emma assured her. "Even if I'm a bit grouchy right now, at being press-ganged like this."

"Well, who else should it be?" asked Taylor cheerfully. "Vista's got years of experience, but she's the liaison."

"Uh huh," Vista agreed. "If I didn't have the Wards, I'd be joining you guys in a shot."

"And if you did, we'd be nominating you for leader," Taylor segued without missing a beat. Ignoring the way Vista's eyes widened, she went on. "I'm pretty sure Amy's not leader material …?"

"Amy is definitely not leader material," Amy agreed firmly as she stood back out of the hug. "Amy prefers to stand back and award points for style."

"Exactly." Taylor gestured toward Lisa, who snickered at a joke only she could detect. "I mean, we could put Lisa up for team leader, but …"

"But I'm pretty sure Emma would volunteer for the position, just to save the team from me," Lisa said with another snicker. "I'm good at handling people, just so long as I never have to see them again. Team members, not so well."

"Which leaves me and Madison," Taylor said. "And I suppose I could step up if I had to, but I feel more comfortable with you in charge. You're more confident, I mean."

"Pfft, shows how much you know me." Emma shook her head firmly. "Half the time, I'm trying not to panic. The other half of the time, I'm wondering if I should panic."

"Which describes the position of leader very adequately indeed," Danny observed. "Alan and Rod are satisfied with you running the show for the moment. But if you're really set against it, we can have a talk about that."

Slowly, Emma shook her head. "No," she decided. "It's okay. I was just grousing about not being part of the decision-making process. But I can handle it."

Danny squeezed Emma's shoulder again, putting all the supportiveness he could into the gesture. "I know you can."

The Next Day

"What, really?" Riley stared through the Perspex at the overweight Director. How I could rebuild her, the almost-constant impulse in the back of her head suggested. Make her into a living tank. Rocket thrusters for legs. By the time I was finished with her—

"Yes, really." Piggot glared back at her with a sour expression that suggested the woman had an idea what had been going through her mind. "It's been suggested to me that giving the Samaritans the chance to rehabilitate you bears a slightly higher chance of working for the public good than executing you out of hand. And of course, the Kill Order can always be reinstated. So there's that." She sounded pleased at the prospect.

"Yes, please," Riley said sweetly. "Do keep reminding me that you have my life in your hands at every opportunity. I've never been in that situation before. Ever." She batted her eyelashes at the Director, wishing Panacea hadn't found and removed the dart launchers.

They would've executed her if she still had them and tried to use them on anyone, of course. Along with her offensive implants, that irritating biokinetic had removed all of her defensive modifications as well. As a result, she was now several pounds lighter and no harder to kill than any other twelve-year-old girl. Which was utterly unfair, in her opinion. What right did Panacea have to remove all the things she'd so painstakingly implanted into herself? Hadn't she ever heard of the Second Amendment? Or the Fourth?

Piggot bit back whatever she was going to say next. She took a deep breath then spoke in a dangerously calm tone. "When they contacted me, my first impulse was to say no. In fact, I did say no, several times. But then they made a few arguments which convinced me of their side of the matter. So, you are going to be placed with the Samaritans on a purely probationary status. This can be revoked at any time by either myself or any member of the Samaritans. Note that they seem to believe that there is something worth saving in you, and I'm giving them the chance to find it. Is there anything about this that you don't understand?"

There were several things Riley didn't understand. Primary among those was the fact that she'd never expected them to actually take her up on the suggestion to rehabilitate her, or for Piggot to sign off on it. But unless this was Piggot's idea of a cruel April Fool's joke, four weeks late—and she'd lay long odds on the obese woman to have had her sense of humour surgically removed long since—it seemed she really was going to be turned over to the Samaritans. Where all she had to do was bide her time until she could whip something up that would let her escape. Just because they said Mr Jack was dead—there was a sudden lurch inside her, which she tried to ignore—didn't mean she couldn't be Bonesaw anymore.

"No, it all seems clear," she said sweetly, lying through her teeth. That wasn't really what a good girl did, but it seemed to be a small thing. "So how many PRT soldiers are you going to have stationed with the Samaritans to keep an eye on one little girl?"

Piggot eyed her suspiciously—well, more suspiciously—and shook her head slightly. "None. Vista has been embedded with the Samaritans as a liaison and will be our representative on site. If she gives you an order, you may presume it comes from me. That's not to say you are not to take direction from any of the Samaritans; they all have authority over you. Any attempt to escape will result in revocation of your probationary status." Her voice was flat, as though she didn't quite believe she was saying this. As she leaned in toward the Perspex, her voice dropped to a growl. "I am required by law to make sure that you understand everything I've told you, though I really don't give a damn if you do or not. If the Samaritans decided tomorrow that you were too much of a danger and executed you on the spot, I would fill out the paperwork with a song in my heart. Is that absolutely understood by you?"

Her intensity really shouldn't have bothered Riley. Mr Jack had been capable of making threats in a light-hearted way, and he'd always smiled when slaughtering innocents. It was kind of his thing. Crawler didn't really make threats; he just ate people. The Siberian did the same, but she was somehow a lot scarier when she did it. Not to Riley, of course. To Riley, she'd been a mommy figure who could never be hurt and would never go away. And who would tear through a small town so that she could lay bodies at Riley's feet, to be experimented on and incorporated into her spider-bots.

But here, in front of her, was a woman who managed to be intimidating without powers. Riley figured it was the fact that she was currently vulnerable, and that Piggot gave off the very distinct impression that she wanted to order the Perspex opened up so that she could take a pistol and blow Riley's head off. Not for fun, or because she wanted to see the blood splatter, or because she liked killing, but because she specifically hated Riley and all she stood for.

"Yes." Riley did her best not to let the quaver into her voice, but she suddenly realised she didn't want to give Director Piggot the excuse to do just that. "I understand, Director Piggot." It really sucked being under the power of someone who despised you and was willing to hold over your head everything you'd been doing over the last six years, just because she could.

"Good." The smile wasn't any more pleasant than the scowl. "You will be wearing light restraints while you are being transported to the Samaritans. This is regulation. Any attempt to escape will be met with severe penalties." The phrase go ahead, make our day floated in the air without ever quite needing to be spoken.

"I understand." She probably didn't have to say it again, but it was undoubtedly a good idea not to provoke the woman who could kill her with a word.

From there it went relatively quickly. She was given a neutral coverall to replace the kid-sized prison fatigues she'd been wearing. These were, she noted, double-bagged and then placed into an incinerator sack. While she hadn't actually been able to do anything to booby-trap them, she had to admit their precautions were adequate for if she had. Likewise, the coverall was almost certainly bugged six ways from Sunday. If she managed to escape, she'd have to ditch it fast … along with the electronic cuff they fitted around her ankle, which she was going to need tools to remove, or take her foot off. Something she was prepared to do, in the event. Getting another one wouldn't be too hard. Not in a city this size.

Doing her best to project harmlessness, she went along with all the preparations without even a murmur of protest. Two of the PRT goons joked about an explosive collar … oh. They weren't joking. There was actually one in inventory, but as she was going outside of PRT custody, it wasn't permitted by regulations.

Now, an explosive collar, that could be problematic, especially since she'd had the potential ability to remove her own head taken away. Right now, decapitation meant dead. She was going to need access to a full lab to fix that little problem, and she suspected she wasn't going to get that any time soon. So it was probably a good thing she wasn't getting the collar.

The transportation was taken care of by an unmarked van, with no windows. If she hadn't enhanced her vestibular system years ago, she might have felt motion sickness, but all she felt were the changes in acceleration and direction. Four PRT soldiers in full armour, two with heavy-duty tasers and two with containment foam sprayers, watched her at all times. She couldn't help but feel obscurely pleased at the implied fear in which they held her. Mr Jack had always said that fear was as good as respect, and both was better.

The van came to a halt and the two PRT soldiers next to the rear doors opened them and got out. One beckoned to her. "End of the line, kid."

Were they going to execute her after all? Those words could be taken several ways. But then, beyond the soldiers, against the brightness of the day, she saw familiar figures. Sparx, her hair extended and waving around her head. Ladybug, surrounded by a swarm of bugs. Disbelief overrode her worries and she awkwardly scrambled out of the van. They were outside the city, next to what appeared to be a maze made up of movable panels, with a set of walkways above. What it was for, she had no idea.

Neither was she concerned. Raising both hands, she pointed them at Sparx and Ladybug accusingly. "You can't have your powers back! My prions should've taken them away until I gave them back!"

"Yeah, about that." The voice caught Riley's attention and she looked around.

Panacea stepped forward, pulling back her hood. In her eyes, there was a level of surety that Riley had never seen before in the pictures she'd studied of the healer. Mr Jack had once suggested that she could bring Panacea into the team as a new member, but now she wasn't so sure. Even if Mr Jack hadn't been killed, which she still wasn't convinced about. Oh, they'd said he was dead, but she found that hard to believe, given the upgrades she'd given him.

"Did you do that?" Looking at Panacea, Riley gestured toward Sparx and Ladybug. "That's very rude, you know."

"Oh, you haven't seen rude yet." Panacea stepped forward, holding out her hand. "Open wide."

Riley focused on the grey powder coating the healer's finger. "What? No! No way!" She'd built the prion powder so it wouldn't affect her, but there was no sense in taking chances. One step at a time, she began to back away from Panacea.

Bright red hair tendrils snaked about her arms and legs, fixing her in place. "Uh-uh," Sparx said reprovingly. "What Panacea says, goes."

"Let me go!" demanded Riley, struggling vainly against the unbreakable bonds. As Panacea neared her, she clamped her mouth shut and twisted her head away.

"Yeah, that's going to happen," the healer said, reaching out and taking hold of Riley's shoulder. Riley felt her body lose its tension, her head turning to face Panacea and her mouth opening obediently. "Time for you to take your medicine."

She strained to do something, anything, but her body refused to obey. I should have installed that berserker mode. The finger, covered in grey powder, approached her mouth. She tried to bite, but her jaw was slack. So not fair.

The finger touched her tongue. She felt the sensation spread through her mouth, heading for her brain. I'm immune, I'm immune, I'm immune.

"In case you were wondering, you're not immune," murmured Panacea.

And that was when Riley felt her power slipping away. As she desperately tried to hold on to it, it faded away until nothing was left. The insights, the urges, all gone.

Panacea took her finger out of Riley's mouth and stepped back, breaking contact. "You can let her go now. She's been depowered."

Riley glared at her. "That's not fair."

Sparx smirked and folded her arms. "No. But it's so damn satisfying."

End of Part Twenty-Nine