One More Trigger

Part Thirty-Four: Play Stupid Games …

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

Saturday, April 30, 2011; 01:45 PM
PRT Building
Director's Office

Emily Piggot was not a parahuman. She'd been specifically tested for the potential, years ago, and it had been concluded that she was among the fortunate majority who would never trigger with powers, no matter what the stimulus. (She considered it fortunate, not the testing body). Her utter lack of a corona pollentia, confirmed every year at her insistence by an MRI scan, gave her a sense of personal security. I'll never be one of them.

While nobody below her in the chain of command (and that meant essentially everyone in the PRT building and the ENE Protectorate HQ) would say to her face that she was bigoted against capes, the occasional rumour to that effect had surfaced in her hearing. Had she been charged with such, she would have denied it strenuously; was it bigotry to believe that capes were untrustworthy when she'd seen evidence of it herself? And when those under her command were literal children, treating them with kid gloves merely gave them the excuse to expect more of the same when the fact of their powers required that they act with the same level of discipline as any armed adult.

Still, she was fully aware that she had misstepped massively when it came to Flechette and Parian. Had she recalled the conversation with Vista, her conversation with Flechette would have had a different focus. Perhaps not with the same potential level of success, but she felt confident that there still would have been a good chance of convincing Flechette to bring Parian into the fold.

Her reasoning was simple: in her experience, there was no such thing as a useless cape. Every parahuman, everywhere, possessed some means of bringing the fight to the enemy, and to be a known neutral cape in the semi-active war-zone that was Brockton Bay was just asking to be targeted by one faction or another. She'd heard horror stories of Tinkers being literally forced to commit murders as a way of coercing them into one gang or another, or of their loved ones being murdered in turn when they refused to play ball. Was it so bad that she'd tried to save Parian from being forced down that path? Especially since the Empire had apparently been trying exactly that?

Apparently … yes. It was. And thus, the current clusterfuck.

Normally, it would be an odyssey of Sisyphean proportions for Wards to resign at all, much less on such short notice. The PRT regulations had been drawn up to ensure that any such attempt would be as long-winded and painful a process as possible, drawn out into days and weeks of negotiation and counter-proposal, until all the lawyers involved had their pound of flesh and more. But Flechette and Vista had short-circuited the whole affair by using her own words against her. It was a given that both Biron parents would be arriving at the PRT building within the next day or so, fighting for the chance to sign the papers that would forever separate Vista from the Wards, and thus get into their daughter's good books. And Flechette was an adult in her own right, so for her it was already a done deal.

Technically, it was possible that Emily's career would survive the sudden resignation of two effective and capable Wards. She was sure it had happened before, though she couldn't be certain exactly when or where that might have been. Perhaps they would even cut her some slack because of the endless stresses piled on her from the location she was in; her office, after all, covered PRT activities over the entire ENE region of the United States of America. Including the festering cesspit where she actually resided.

Technically, maybe. But she knew deep within the withered, blackened depths of her soul that even if she retained the Directorship after this, her career would be forever blighted. The Powers that Be would take every excuse to cut her out of the decision loop, especially when it came to anything regarding Wards, anywhere, ever. Even her judgement concerning matters within Brockton Bay itself would be scrutinised and second-guessed to a fare-thee-well.

They wouldn't overtly fire her, she suspected, if only because they wouldn't want this sort of thing becoming public knowledge. But the subtle pressure would be on for her to resign, from here on in.

Well, the joke was on them. Renick, as able an administrator as he was, was entirely unsuited to doing the top job. He hadn't wanted it when he was thrust into it before she ever arrived in Brockton Bay, and he still didn't want it. She liked and respected him as much as she did anyone in the building, and that was not something she was about to dump on him.

If they could bring in someone both willing and capable, she'd resign in a heartbeat to enjoy her military pension and health care. But not before then.

At that moment, as though divining her thoughts, her phone rang. She was entirely unsurprised to see the name on the caller ID. "Hello, Director Costa-Brown. I've been expecting your call."

Hebert Household


Lily could have sworn she was walking on air, from the sheer lightness of her heart. The stress and strain of the last few days had just vanished, thanks entirely to the goodwill and assistance of Vista and Team Samaritan. Not all of it—there was still the issue of the Empire making moves on Sabah. But now she knew exactly what was going on there, and she had a whole team backing her up that was totally willing to deal with that shit.

Exactly how good Team Samaritan were, she'd learned first-hand. The mission to go into ABB territory and lift Oni Lee out from among his loyal minions could've gone so badly, but it hadn't. The basic plan had involved contingencies for foreseeable and unforeseeable circumstances; they'd run it by the numbers, and it had worked.

This, of course, had led them to the understanding that it was the Empire, not the ABB, who had designs on Sabah. Who had thrown a grenade at her, in order to frighten her into seeking refuge within their ranks. Alan Barnes—the whole team, including the Dad Brigade, had unmasked to her after she'd quit the Wards—had introduced her to the term 'false flag operation', which had a long and infamous history. Lily didn't care about the name. She just thought it was a shitty thing to do.

"So how are you feeling?" Athena—Lisa—gave her an understanding grin from the kitchen door. "Still stuck in 'when's the other shoe dropping' mode? I know I was like that for a little bit after I joined."

"It's kind of like that," Lily confessed. "It was like I was facing all bad options, then Missy called you guys in, and all I can think is, 'why didn't I do this earlier'?"

"Because you didn't know you could." Taylor spoke up from where she was sitting on the sofa with Emma and Madison. "I'm not going to say that Director Piggot was deliberately trying to make you think you didn't have anywhere to turn, but …"

"But that's exactly what she was doing," Lisa finished, strolling into the living room with Riley in tow. "Like it or not, in places like Brockton Bay where the villains like to give the impression that they're allowing the heroes to exist because it's too much trouble to exterminate us, it's basically the Wild West all over again. And when that happens, you get cowboys." She and Riley made for the same armchair but neither yielded, so they ended up wedged in side by side.

Lily tried to imagine Director Piggot in a ten-gallon hat and chaps, and failed utterly. "So you're saying she was breaking the rules?"

"Rules?" called out Danny from the kitchen. "In situations like this, rules are for people who fail. If she'd succeeded, there would've been a slap on the wrist and a weasel-worded apology, but Parian would've been inducted into the Protectorate all the same. I've seen it before in other situations. Success excuses a lot of shortcuts."

"Not that you're going to get an apology," Emma advised her. "That would involve them officially admitting that Director Piggot went off the reservation, and thus opening themselves up to all sorts of unpleasant scrutiny. So it'll be like it never happened. Nobody saw nuthin'. And in a few weeks or months, she steps down with minimal fuss, to be replaced by a new face."

Madison cupped her hands in front of her mouth and pretended to blow a trumpet fanfare. "All hail the new boss, same as the old boss."

Lily nodded. "… right. So, assuming the PRT decides to ignore me from now on, where do we go from here? I mean, the Empire tried to pull that shit on Parian. You guys said you had ideas?"

"We do," Emma confirmed. "The first thing we have to acknowledge is that it's essentially suicide to try to match their strengths with our strengths, because even though we've got a lot of variety and some strong hitters, they've got numbers and some power on their side as well."

Taylor rolled her eyes. "Since when have we ever tried to attack someone on their strengths?"

"Never." Lisa grinned. "Lily, you remember the Oni Lee grab? Sit tight; that was nothing compared to what the Samaritans are capable of."

"Actually, that's something I've been meaning to ask," Danny said, coming to the kitchen doorway. "Lily, were you intending to join the Samaritans, partner with Parian, or go independent for a while? It's not going to change our plans for the Empire Eighty-Eight, but it'll be good to know your intentions going forward."

Lily blinked. "What, I've got a choice? I mean, I'd love to join, but I thought that was the expectation anyway. It's why I haven't said anything."

"Oh, no, no, no." Madison shook her head. "You're our friend. We helped you out because Missy told us about your problems. And because nobody else was doing anything about Oni Lee, of course. It would be great to have you, but there's no obligation. We're not the PRT, after all. I mean, Emma might look like Director Piggot, but—yipe!"

Emma raised an eyebrow as she retracted the two tendrils of hair back along the sofa. Madison shook her hand back and forth, and stuck her tongue out at her teammate. "No fair."

"Right," drawled Emma, then turned her attention back to Lily. "What she said, more or less. Of course, we know that you're in a relationship with Parian; will it cause tension between you two if you join us, given that you used to date Madison?"

Lily raised her eyebrows as she looked at Madison. "I can't see it being a problem, can you?"

"Not me." Madison shrugged. "We had a nice time, but it's over and done. Hell, if you wanted to bring Parian around to say hi, we could gossip about you behind your back and I could make sure you're treating her right." Her mischievous grin robbed her words of all sting.

The more Lily thought about that, the better it sounded. Besides, she wanted to introduce Sabah to everyone, and get her opinion on whether she should join. (Or rather, get her blessing to join.)

"Okay," she said decisively. "I'm going to do that. So, when do we start planning how we're going to take down the Empire Eighty-Eight?"

Danny fielded that one. "Missy's arranging for the final paperwork signing to cut her loose, and Vicky and Amy are no doubt wowing New Wave with a totally over-the-top version of how you girls grabbed Oni Lee. They'll be over this evening, along with Rod and Alan, and we'll have the brainstorming session then."

"This evening …" Lily considered that. "Would it be okay if I brought Parian around? I'm sure she'll feel a lot better once she knows for certain that something's being done."

"Well, duh," Emma said, before Madison could. "What part of 'we want to meet your girlfriend' have you not actually been picking up on, here?"

Riley raised her hand for attention. "Hey, you know if you join, they're gonna make you do exercise? Like on a track? And shoot at you with paintball guns?"

Lily nodded. "Vista's been telling me about it. She's really enthusiastic. I gotta admit, I'm kinda intrigued, especially seeing the sort of teamwork you guys have got going on here."

"Oh, great," groused Riley, rolling her eyes. "Another exercise nut." Then she squawked and flailed as Lisa wrapped an arm around her neck and applied a noogie to the top of her head.

"Don't worry," Emma advised Lily. "You'll get used to it, then you'll start enjoying it too." She glanced at Taylor and Madison, and all three chorused in a robotic tone, "One of us … one of us …"

Lily shook her head at the horseplay, but she couldn't stop the grin from breaking out over her face at the same time. Even though they could be totally silly from time to time, these were her kind of people.

Empire Eighty-Eight Safe House


Victor popped the top off the beer and slammed half of it back in one practised move. He was back in his ordinary clothing, but the Oni Lee mask was still hanging at his belt. Raising his bottle, he clinked it against Max's glass.

Max raised an eyebrow as he took a drink. "I presume from your attitude of cheer that the mission was a success?"

"Goddamn right it was a success," Victor agreed. "Parian and the heroes are totally convinced that the ABB are trying to lean on her. Just a few more nudges, and she'll be open to talking to people who can maybe protect her. Like us." He leaned forward. "Also, get this. Oni Lee's off the board."

"What?" Max blinked. He didn't like being out of the loop like this. "The PRT wouldn't have the manpower or the guts to go into ABB territory like that. Not without taking heavy losses."

"That's true, but I know this much." Victor raised a finger. "Glory Girl dropped him off in the lobby of the PRT building about an hour ago, then flew away without saying a word."

"New Wave took him down?" Max frowned, not at all sure where this was going. "Why wasn't it on the news?"

"It wasn't on the news because it wasn't New Wave." Victor took another hit from his beer. "The whisper is that it was Team Samaritan, finally finishing the job with the ABB."

"Team Samaritan." Max digested the concept. They were a relatively new team on the block, but they'd gone from strength to strength. While they didn't patrol the city regularly, they'd taken on serious hitters—including the Nine, twice—and won handily. The rumour was that Lung had been taken down by the red-headed Striker called Sparx, before the team was even formed.

So far, they hadn't bothered the Empire Eighty-Eight, though while Hookwolf and some of the others considered that to be simple good sense on their part, Max was beginning to wonder if it was more a case of 'we haven't bothered yet'. Certainly, the lightning raid on the Merchants just the previous day had come as a nasty shock to everyone, cleaning up the entire cape contingent in a matter of minutes.

Yes, they were the Merchants; a bunch of drug-addled wannabe villains did not equate to the cream of the Empire. But still … the Merchants had still possessed enough in the way of power that nobody had done this to them before. And now they were all behind bars, and the police were cheerfully mopping up their underlings with zero fear of reprisal.

And today, if Victor's sources were correct, they'd reacted to the staged attack on Parian with swift and accurate force, capturing a teleporter from the middle of his territory before handing him over to the PRT. On the upside, this removed the last obstacle in the Empire Eighty-Eight's way. No other significant cape gangs (aside from Faultline's Crew, and they could be safely ignored) held territory in Brockton Bay; they could expand as far as they liked.

On the downside … Team Samaritan had captured the Merchants and Oni Lee in two consecutive days. At this point, the Empire Eighty-Eight were the biggest hitters on the block. Would Team Samaritan target them next, or would they assume the Empire was too big to be taken off the board? Given previous performance, he wanted to assume the latter … but he couldn't be sure.

"Put all forces on alert," he said. "There's a chance they'll come after us next. If they do, I want to be ready. How many men can you have on the street, armed, by tonight?"

"Guns, about a hundred, maybe a hundred fifty," Victor said at once. "Other weapons, another two hundred."

"Do it." Max considered his options. "See what you can do about acquiring more firearms. A lead pipe isn't going to do much about someone who can fly, or electrocute you from a distance."

"Got it." Victor eyed him with concern. "You really think they'll come after us next?"

Max spread his hands. "Do you see anyone else poised to take over the entire city?"

Slowly, Victor nodded. "I see your point. I'll get the word out, right now."

"You do that." Max leaned back in his chair and sipped at his drink. Team Samaritan were good, he couldn't deny that. But were they good enough to defeat an Empire?

He thought not.

Later That Evening
Hebert Household


Amy sat on one side of Lisa on the sofa, with Riley on the other. The six chairs had been brought out of the kitchen to seat Taylor, Madison, Vicky, Missy and Danny Hebert, with one spare; being the tallest, Taylor and Danny had both turned theirs around to sit with their arms crossed on the chair backs. Alan Barnes had claimed one of the armchairs, while Emma perched on the arm.

"You know," remarked Danny, looking around the crowded room, "it might not be a bad idea to invest in a base of some sort. This was much easier when it was just you three girls."

"We also had a lot fewer options," Emma noted. "Amy, Missy, Lisa, even Vicky—they've all helped the team out in some way."

"Wow." Vicky rolled her eyes. "Talk about damning with faint praise. 'In some way', hah. I happen to be awesome, thank you very much."

"And that awesomeness is a lot more effective when competently directed, I think we'll all agree," Amy observed with a grin. "Or have you not kicked ass more thoroughly since we started hanging with Team Samaritan?"

Vicky wrinkled her nose. "I'll grant you that it's been easier," she conceded. "A lot less flailing around, a lot more satisfying punching."

Lisa's head came up. "They're here." A moment later, Amy heard the squeak of brakes as Rod Clements' car pulled up on the street.

"I'll get the door," Taylor offered, and jumped up. She headed through to the entrance hall; Amy heard the front door open. "Hi," Taylor said a moment later. "Come on in."

She came back into the living room a moment later, followed by Lily and another girl. Petite and blonde, the newcomer was wearing jeans, a jacket, lace gloves, and a porcelain doll-face mask. Rod Clements followed behind both of them, closing the door as he entered.

Everyone stood up, and Danny stepped forward. "Hello, Parian," he said warmly. "I'm Danny Hebert. You just met my daughter, Taylor." He gestured at the surrounding group, all free of masks. "As Rod probably told you, we talked about it, and decided that unmasking to you was the best policy, so we didn't have to worry about who knew and who didn't. However, you don't have to if you don't want to. It's your identity."

Parian shared a glance with Lily, who nodded encouragingly. Reaching up to the mask, she removed it, revealing that the blonde curls were an attached wig. Amy blinked as she realised that Parian was actually a rather pretty Middle Eastern woman. "Hello, my name is Sabah—"

"Wait, I know you!" exclaimed Madison. "You were with Lily after the dance!"

"Guilty as charged," Lily admitted with a grin. She took Sabah's hand. "I've always been a sucker for a damsel in distress. We've been together ever since."

"And that's fair," Emma agreed. "Hi, Sabah. I'm Emma Barnes and this is my dad. That's Madison, you probably know Amy and Vicky Dallon already, that's Lisa and Riley; and last but definitely not least, that's Missy."

"Don't worry if you forget any names," Madison added. "Feel free to ask. Oh, and we reserved the armchair for you two."

Sabah ducked her head shyly against Lily's shoulder. "It's really nice to meet you all. I wanted to thank you for going after Oni Lee for me, even though Lily says it wasn't him."

"Well, no, it wasn't," Emma said. "But that doesn't matter. He's done enough other stuff. As for the guy who did do it …" She took her seat again on the arm of the chair. "That's what we're here for tonight. To figure out how to explain to the Empire that you just don't do that to people."

"Especially since they're just as likely to get violent with Sabah once they realise she's not the 'right' colour for them either," Lily added, a grim set to her jaw. "So, we need to put an end to this as soon as possible."

Everyone got comfortable again; Rod took his chair, while Lily sat in the armchair and pulled Sabah down to snuggle in her lap. "Okay, then," Alan Barnes said. "Empire Eighty-Eight, from the top. Who wants to lead off?"

"I'll do it," Taylor said. "Kaiser. He can generate iron or steel from hard surfaces to form whatever shapes he wants, and can retract or dismiss it again at will."

"Query." Lisa raised her hand. "How do we know he can retract or dismiss his generated metal?"

"Simple deduction, my dear Watson," Taylor grinned at the look on Lisa's face. "He generates full-body jointed armour to wear into battle. Would you do that if you couldn't get it off again without requiring a pry-bar?"

Lisa put her hand down again. "Fair point. Continue."

Taylor nodded. "He's clearly got an ego, otherwise he wouldn't have called himself an emperor. Charismatic, considers himself a leader of men, but has only a moderate grasp of strategy and tactics at best. Otherwise, his forces would've taken Coil's down long before we did that ourselves."

"A good summary," Rod Clements said. "Next?"

"Purity," Emma began. "She seems to be separated from the team at the moment. Not committing crimes against innocents, but she was hitting ABB places on the regular after we took down Lung. I think maybe she's trying to make the jump to hero, but she's not really communicating it that well. Anyway, energy blasts that can wreck whole city blocks, but if you can get in close she's a glass cannon."

"Good, good." Danny Hebert nodded approvingly. "Krieg?"

Amy listened as Madison reeled off the Empire cape's known abilities, along with potential ways to get around his kinetic-manipulation power. She'd already been aware that Team Samaritan studied villain capes, and had done some study of her own, but it was way cool to be sitting in on a session like this as a veteran of the process. With each new cape whose capabilities and motivations were dissected and examined, Sabah's eyes widened and Lily looked more and more impressed.

Partway through the process, Danny Hebert got up and went into the kitchen. Lisa followed him in there; a little later, they emerged with trays bearing fruit juice and chopped pieces of fruit. Sabah accepted a glass and a piece of apple with a murmur of thanks, but did not take her attention away from the ongoing recital.

Once it was over, Emma giving a potted description of Rune's capabilities, the girls sat back and Danny took the floor again. "Okay, then. Strategies for taking down the Empire?"

Emma glanced at Taylor and Madison and made a couple of gestures. No words were spoken, but Taylor nodded, and Madison made a so-so gesture with her hand. Emma cleared her throat and addressed the gathering. "We're thinking we'd locate them with a flytrap, then start out with a Blind Man's Bluff leading on to Survival of the Unfittest. After we hit what we figure is a good number, we switch to shock and awe and steamroll the rest."

Amy blinked, not at all sure what she'd just heard. Beside her, Lisa let out her breath in an almost soundless oh. Riley, on the other side, frowned in confusion.

Alan Barnes raised an eyebrow. "Honey, suppose you unpack for the rest of us?"

Taylor grinned. "Oh, you're gonna love this."

The Boardwalk
Sunday Morning, May 1st, 7:35 AM


The sun had been up for an hour or so, which meant the day was still cool but warming up. Taylor didn't care; she sat on the bench facing out to sea with sunlight on her face. Eyes closed, she leaned back and relaxed, just enjoying the morning.

This was not to say that she wasn't doing other things at the same time. With the network of booster bugs Amy had helped her put into place, she was tapped into the entire seething, humming, living mass of bugs right across Brockton Bay. What they saw, she saw. What they heard, she heard. And sometimes, she acted.

Here, she disrupted a mugging by having a wasp sting the perpetrator's hand and make him drop the knife. There, she flew a bunch of bugs in front of a five-year-old's face to stop her from running into traffic.

She couldn't fix every problem, but she could fix enough of them.

As for the one at hand, she had a bunch of bugs hanging around Parian's stall. Not in a swarm, and not even all the same type of bug. The leaf-bugs Amy had manufactured for the Nine's second showing were among this number, mainly because of their active camouflage ability.

Rod Clements had just stopped by Parian's stall with Madison and Missy in tow, and had purchased a princess doll that bore a striking resemblance to Madison herself. Sabah was really very good at what she did. While the gorilla was still in the process of being fixed, Alan Barnes had donated another stall, and a pugnacious-looking rabbit with boxing gloves was mock-sparring with itself to amuse passers-by.

Lily had wanted to be nearby as well, but they'd managed to persuade her that too many people lingering in that vicinity wouldn't help the sting and may just blow the whole operation. As it was, Taylor's bench was a good hundred yards north of the stall, and she wasn't even looking in the right direction; not that she needed to.

And then a couple stopped by the booth, vaguely matching Sabah's description of the helpful people from the day before. Taylor didn't tense, but a few bugs flew to spots where they could get a better look. A moment later, Sabah tapped her foot in the shave-and-a-haircut tempo they'd agreed on, picked up by the leaf bug currently resting on it. A ladybug landed on her hand briefly to reassure her that the message had been picked up, before flying off again.

At the same time, Taylor sent the signal to everyone else around: Game on.


"Oh, hello! How are you feeling today?"

Sabah's eyes widened fractionally behind her mask as she recognised the couple from the day before. Her heart-rate quickened, but she reminded herself that there were members of Team Samaritan nearby, keeping an eye on her. She belatedly remembered to tap out the tune with her foot as she answered.

"Oh, still a little shaken, but I've decided that I'm not going to let them win." The scripted words sounded horribly wooden in her ears, but the man and woman didn't seem to be suspicious.

Smiling brightly, the woman nodded. "That's the spirit. Though you'd probably be a little safer if you had people watching your back. I mean, you never know if those people are going to come back and attack you again."

"That's true." Sabah nodded, suddenly glad for the full-face mask. There was no way she could keep up this sort of act if they could see her expression. Of course, if they knew she wasn't white, they wouldn't even be trying to recruit her. They'd probably be trying to kill me instead. Not exactly an improvement.

"Say, how much is that doll there?" asked the man. He pointed at one of the several she'd finished; more or less at random, Sabah suspected. Buying something would be intended to endear them to her.

Still, a sale was a sale, and she didn't care if it was Empire money. It would spend just as well as any other cash. She named the price, got the money, handed the doll over, and gave change. All very mundane.

Of course, he then presented it to his companion, who played up the cutesy scene; no doubt for Sabah's benefit. As the woman hugged it to herself, Sabah could tell they were both observing her covertly to spot her reaction. She wanted to stick her fingers down her throat and gag at the saccharine sweetness, but she put a coo in her voice as she thanked the couple.

Once they walked off, she heaved a sigh and sagged back in her chair. She'd known they weren't there to harm her, but to get on her good side. Still, dealing with people like that was nerve-wracking at the best of times.

I am not, she decided, cut out to be a spy.


"That's it," Emma said, watching the two stink-bugs (Taylor's sense of humour was apparently dubious at the best of times) move away from the large pretty beetle sitting on the matchbook between them on the bench. "They're gone."

Lily drew a huge breath of relief. "I can't believe how casual you're being about this. Right now, if this was a PRT op, the radio channels would be going nuts and there'd be about three cars tailing them."

"Making it about a hundred times as easy to spot," Emma noted. "We've gamed this type of scenario out before, several times. They're working out of our playbook, now. Let's go pick Taylor up and see how she's doing."

Getting up, they went to a vendor and acquired frozen yoghurt, then kept walking. After a couple of minutes, Taylor came into sight, heading in their direction. She accepted the third frozen yoghurt and they stood in companionable silence at the curb eating it until Alan Barnes pulled his car up next to them.

"All good?" he asked as they climbed into the car; Emma in the front, Taylor and Lily in the back.

"Better than I expected, actually," Taylor reported. "They talked in the car. I snuck a booster bug in and got most of their conversation." She produced a notepad, on which was written a series of strange symbols, and passed it forward between the seats. Emma took it and glanced over it, her eyebrows rising by the second.

"Well," she said once she'd taken in whatever the notepad had to say, "operational security is not their strong suit."

"You can read that?" asked Lily. "What language is it?"

Taylor snorted with amusement. "It's secretarial shorthand. I started learning it when I realised I could listen in on entire conversations. I could use a recorder, but that looks weird in public."

Emma cleared her throat. "Him: That went well. I mean, I thought it did. I think she liked it when I gave you the doll.

"Her: I don't know. She seemed nervous to me. Did she seem nervous to you?

"Him: Well, wouldn't you be nervous if someone chucked a grenade at you yesterday?

"Her: True, but she didn't jump all over the idea of having backup like you said she would.

"Him: Give it time. We need her to see us as friendly faces. You can't rush things like this.

"Her: What if she hears that Oni Lee's been captured and decides she doesn't need protection anymore?

"Him: Then a bunch of those mean, nasty, no-good ABB mob her next week and kick her stall down, and maybe give her a kicking, too.

"Her: And what if she joins, then finds out that we're the ones who tuned her up?

"Him: By that time, she'll be known as a member of the Empire. It's not like she'll have anywhere to go.

"Her: I hope you're right. Victor doesn't tolerate mistakes like that.

"Him: Yeah, but jobs like this are why we earn the big bucks. That's where it ends."

Taylor nodded. "That was all they said before one of them turned the radio on."

"Got it," said Alan Barnes. He glanced sideways at Lily. "You okay?"

Belatedly, she realised she'd been sitting forward in her seat, fists clenched. Slowly, she sagged back again. "Yeah ... it's just, when they talk about Sabah like some piece of meat for trade or ownership, I want to go track them down and kick their heads in myself."

"Yeah, I can kinda understand that," Emma said comfortingly. "Remember when I zarked Lung, that first time we met? I thought he'd killed Madison, which was why I went at him so hard. We're allowed to get angry. Just don't let the anger own you."

"And if you do find yourself in the position of putting an end to some well-deserving asshole," offered Alan Barnes from the front seat, "try to make it someone who's already got a kill order. Cuts down on the paperwork considerably."

"Right." Lily decided to submerge her anger in snark. "So, how do I get a kill order declared on Victor, anyway?" It wasn't quite a joke, and she was sure the other three people in the car knew it, but they laughed anyway.

"So yeah, the flytrap worked nicely," Taylor observed. "Each time they meet someone new, I'll put bugs on them, and in a day or so I'll be able to start mapping out a network. By next Saturday, I should have most if not all of the Empire Eighty-Eight's cape roster identified and located. We'll be able to plot their movements in real time, and figure out patterns."

"Identified?" Lily was startled. "You mean, their secret identities?"

Taylor shook her head and laughed. "No, no. If we get really lucky, we might fluke onto an identity or two, but I was talking about how we could determine which of the people we're following is a cape, and which cape they are."

"While they have no idea that we've even got them under surveillance," Emma noted with some satisfaction. "Thus, Blind Man's Bluff."

Lily shook her head slowly. "You know, you guys could be really scary if you tried. Just saying."

Taylor grinned at her, though her tone was almost cartoonishly deadpan. "Fear my skittering minions. Mwahahaha."

"Yeah, not actually helping."

Hebert Household Basement


Taylor leaned over the map table that had been set up. "And solid identification of Victor … there." Carefully, she placed a token on a particular address. "I've got a booster bug on site, and he's in costume."

"Nice." Emma grinned. "Anyone else there?"

"Not at the moment, not in costume, anyway." Taylor pursed her lips. "You know, technically, we could grab him, but …"

"… but if we do, the others'll go underground so hard they'll pop up in Mexico," Emma finished for her. "Once we've got all of them located, that's when we start picking them off."

"Yup." They shared a high-five.

As they headed upstairs to the kitchen, Emma glanced at Taylor. "So, where's Riley?"

"Oh, Dad took her to Weymouth, along with Lisa and Amy and Missy. Socialising time. It's going well, actually. Riley's really starting to come out of her shell."

Emma grinned. "And I bet Lisa and Amy and Missy are hating the chance to window-shop and just be themselves."

"Hating. Yeah." Taylor smirked. "Let's go with that."

Medhall Building
Monday, May 2nd, 2011


With his desk clear, Max picked up his phone and tapped in a specific number. Victor answered promptly, which was good news in itself. "Yes, sir?"

"I'm just checking back with you on the progress you're making with Project P." On the extremely unlikely off-chance that his office was bugged—it was swept on a weekly basis—he made it a rule not to directly allude to illegal business if he could help it.

"Moderately good, sir." Victor sounded pleased with himself. "Cartwright and Hodges reported making contact and beginning the foundations of a rapport. The concept of friendly backup has been raised, though she hasn't responded. I'm thinking we might need to reinforce her feeling of insecurity, next Saturday."

"That sounds like a plan," Max agreed. "I'll leave it in your capable hands. Let me know how it turns out." He ended the call and put the phone down. New recruits were always good to have—the unpowered rank and file liked to see capes backing them up—so he hoped Victor wouldn't take too long to reel Parian all the way in and land her.

As for the other problem—the looming spectre of Team Samaritan—he had to admit that he didn't know what was going on there at all. They hadn't so much as smacked Empire footsoldiers around for light exercise since taking down Oni Lee. Every safe house had stocks of bug spray in case Ladybug decided to send a swarm in to clean out the place, and he was working on installing water sprinklers for dealing with Sparx' taser hair, but even that hadn't been necessary.

Oni Lee had been (in the inimitable phrasing of Hookwolf) a grade-A fucking moronic dingleberry to go strutting around his territory without serious backup. Max wasn't exactly sure how Team Samaritan had extracted him without losing people; hell, he wasn't sure how they'd captured a teleporter and kept him captured. But he was determined that his team would not go the same way.

Taking up his phone, he typed in a text, which he sent to a specific series of numbers.

'Meeting tonight, 1930. Location 3B. Discussion of upgraded security provisions.'

With a tap of his finger, he sent it winging away through the electronic aether, to its various recipients. 'Location 3B' was actually the sub-basement of the Medhall building; the '3' designator was to make it seem less important if the authorities happened to seize someone's phone.

We'll get through this. The Empire Eighty-Eight has been around for more than ten years. Team Samaritan has nothing on us.

That Evening


Taylor's head came up, and she reached for the notepad that sat next to her plate. "Hm. That's interesting."

Lisa looked at her with unfeigned interest, while Riley pretended to pay more attention to her meal. "You can't leave it at that. Spill, o mistress of bugs far and near."

"Well, Victor's spending time with a woman who has to be Othala. Or rather, I found a costume in her closet that looks a lot like Othala's. And someone else came over for dinner. Either a non-cape friend, or maybe Crusader from the age and body type. Definitely not old enough to be Kaiser." Taylor scribbled in the pad as she spoke. "Anyway, they all just got in the same car and they're on the move."

"Are they costumed?" asked Danny. If the Empire was heading out to cause mayhem, it might be worth notifying the PRT operations line. Whatever difficulties they might be having with Director Piggot right now, he liked to think they were all on the same side here.

"Nope. All in civvies." Leaving her plate behind, Taylor got up and headed for the basement door. "I want to see where they're going."

Danny followed along as a matter of course, with Lisa close behind. Riley, for all her professed lack of interest, came down behind them, carrying her plate in one hand and fork in the other. In unguarded moments, she'd been heard to express her appreciation for regular meals and properly cooked food. The way to a person's heart might not be solely via their stomach, but it seemed to be working that way with Riley.

Standing back from the table, Taylor left the marker showing Victor and Othala where it was and put a beetle on the map, crawling over the paper to match the position of the car. Danny grinned as he watched the casual display of power; the villains were being tracked in real-time, to a degree of precision that even modern technology might have trouble matching, and they had no idea.

"And that's how you kept tabs on where we were?" asked Riley, indicating the slowly moving insect. "Just standing back and watching our position on a map from miles away?"

Taylor tilted her hand from side to side. "Not this specific means, but yeah, in a manner of speaking. Inside the school, definitely. Nobody pays attention to bugs, especially if they're camouflaged."

Riley shook her head. "This team is pure BS. Why haven't you taken over the city yet?"

Danny chuckled at that. "If you'd ever spent five minutes in administration, you'd know why not. This place would be a nightmare to organise." He pulled out his phone. "I'm going to let Alan and Rod know what's happening."

"Probably a good idea." Taylor eyed the beetle critically. "I don't know what they're planning on doing, but they're headed into the richer area of Downtown."

When the beetle came to a halt, Danny and Taylor leaned over the table to more closely examine its position. Lisa didn't bother, but her eyes widened anyway. "Shit," she murmured.

"What?" Riley was too short to get a good look at the map, so she gave Lisa an irritated glance. "Where are they? What's so special about that place?"

"Is that right?" asked Danny. "The placement, I mean?"

Taylor nodded soberly. "It is. All three of them just walked in through the back door of the Medhall building. Still in civvies."

Danny summed it up for everyone there. "Well, I'll be damned."

End of Part Thirty-Four