Arc 3: Firing—3.02

~~~Railgun~~~

"Do you really think that's the best idea, Taylor?"

I stared at Dad, his eyes looking steadily back into mine, concern ever present there. Was it? Was I being unreasonable wanting to go out and patrol the day after being responsible for the deaths of others?

"I just want to test this ability, Dad. It's one you wanted me to develop, a way to protect myself when I'm not wearing a costume."

The look he gave me was shrewd. "And you can't do that at your lair? I can't help but feel you want to go out and get into another fight."

I didn't, did I? But if I were going to be honest, the idea of yet another confrontation with most of the Parahuman villains occupying my city didn't really frighten me. So maybe that was part of it. I admitted as much to Dad.

"I don't know. Maybe?"

Dad took a deep breath, then exhaled. As I watched, apprehensive, he gave me a contemplative look, the suggested, "Don't you have more work to do for Parian? To get ready for your opening on Friday?"

No fair, I thought. He was supposed to be all unreasonable and start yelling, yet here he was acting completely normal. Sighing, I said, "I do. I need to call her. But I could go afterward."

He gave a decisive shake of his head. "No. Not tonight. What's rule one?"

Annoyed, I argued, "I'm doing rule one! I'm talking to you about it now!"

"Yes and come up with a plan for what you are trying to accomplish. How is just going out and running around looking for a fight a plan?"

Shame-faced, I looked away. Dad stood up from the kitchen table where we sat and came over to my side. He reached out and squeezed my shoulder, which made me feel a little better. Then he offered, "How about this? Go talk to Parian and finish up the clothing. When you're done with that, get her to help you make a new undersuit, one that covers you from head to toe. Then go out to the Boat Graveyard for a while and use your new protection technique to see if there's anything you can't cut with it. While you're there, test to see how dangerous it would be to others around you. Remember, most of the Parahuman fights in Brockton Bay involve the gangs so there are almost always normal humans around. I know the last thing you want to do is hurt someone. This way, you get to figure out safer ways to use it. How does that sound?"

Actually, it sounded pretty good. I nodded, but demurred on one thing, "I do want to go out tomorrow night and patrol, though."

Dad's smile was mostly genuine as he agreed. "Fine. But we'll talk about tomorrow when it comes and figure out a plan. No shooting from the hip, okay?"

Relieved, I nodded. I rose and hugged him. "Thanks, Dad."

"You're welcome, Taylor. Take care of yourself."

"I will," I promised as I headed out, needing to catch the bus before they stopped running. I could always fly back under the cover of darkness, but getting to Parian's shop would be hard if I didn't get a move on. While I could always ask Dad to take me, I didn't want there to be any link between him and what I was doing in my extracurricular career.

I probably should have called ahead, but I already knew that Parian was putting in long hours this week getting ready for Friday so I didn't think there'd be any chance she wouldn't be there. Something which one glance at all of the lights on in her shop showed to be true.

I started to knock, but she'd told me I didn't need to bother if I didn't want to. So instead, I reached out with my power and turned the deadbolts that were locked to an unlocked position, then stepped inside, relocking them behind me.

Once inside, I was surprised by the changes in Parian's shop. Gone were the colorful advertisements for parades and events. What had replaced them was elegant and professional, mostly stone and crystal décor. Also scattered about were full size mannequins displaying a variety of our products, while a large seating area took up a lot of the remaining space in the front of the store so that someone walk around in their outfit in front of others so that their friends or family could judge how they looked.

I called out, "Parian, are you here?"

A second later, the woman came out of the back room. She didn't speak and her posture radiated a certain tension. Neutrally, she said, "Electra."

I was still sensitive to people not wanting me around from years of being bullied. I could already feel that vibe in Parian's tone. Trying to be strong, I asked, "Is something wrong? You don't look happy to see me."

Parian sighed. "Do you know who visited me today?"

Mystified, I asked, "Who?"

"Armsmaster."

Fighting a sinking feeling in my stomach, I stood there feeling more than a little shell-shocked as Parian continued, "He wanted a way to contact you. About a bounty on two people you killed last night, Skidmark and Squealer. He all but threatened me to get your contact information."

Stupidly, I asked, "Did you give it to him?"

Giving one sharp shake of her head, Parian said, "No, I did not. He ended up leaving here after I promised him I would have you call him as soon as possible. I then proceeded to call the number you left me ten times. Do you ever pay attention to your phone?"

"It was off."

She nodded sharply at that. "Of course it was. Look, if we're going to be business partners, you need to leave me a way to contact you where I can reach you faster than that. I already figured out that you're in school, so maybe I won't be able to contact you at a moment's notice, but it can't be this hard."

I nodded jerkily. She was right. I'd screwed up. "I understand. About the Merchants-"

Parian held up a hand. "Don't. I don't want to know. Electra, I'm not a hero or vigilante. The appropriate term for what I do is rogue. I don't want to get mixed up with your extracurricular activities. I'll continue to work with you but I don't want it to go any further. I especially don't need to know who you are under the mask. I just need a more reliable way to contact you."

I stood, my face getting redder the more Parian spoke. I felt rejected, which wasn't her fault. More importantly, I needed to let her know that her idea wasn't going to work. Unfortunately, I didn't think just words were going to do it. Deliberately, I pulled back my hoodie and took off the metal mask I'd made to hide my identity, much to Parian's discomfort.

"What are you doing? I told you-"

Wearily, I interrupted her, "Here's the deal. My power lets me read bio-electric fields, like the ones that people have. Unfortunately, they're just like fingerprints, no two alike. Even worse, when I see one, I don't seem to forget it. So since I've seen yours, Parian..."

"…you'll recognize me no matter how good my disguise is. Shit!"

Parian turned away from me for a moment, visibly distressed despite her costume's coverage. I offered, "I'm sorry."

She turned back to face me again, then hesitantly took off the awful blonde wig and doll mask. Underneath was the round face of a girl of Indian heritage. She slowly held out her hand as she introduced herself, "My name's Sabah."

I crossed the space between us in a handful of strides and shook her hand. "Sabah, I'm Taylor. Uh, Taylor Hebert."

Her lips quirked. "I'd say it was nice to meet you, but..."

Nodding my head, I agreed. "Yeah, it sucks. So what did Armsmaster want exactly?"

Sounding excited for the first time, Sabah said, "He said he wanted to give you the bounties on the two Merchant capes whose deaths you were apparently responsible for."

Suddenly, I felt queasy. Of course, I'd heard about the kill orders on the Merchant capes. Who hadn't? It had been big news in the city of Brockton Bay, where even villains like Lung and the capes of Empire 88 hadn't received similar orders. That a relatively small-time group like the Merchants had said volumes about what they'd done at the dance and how those acts had been perceived.

Did I want to claim blood money like that? Really?

Dad and I certainly weren't hurting for money these days. The settlement that we'd gotten from the school had been significant and had not only paid off the mortgage, but had also replaced Dad's old Buick with a shiny, nearly new Ford Explorer. My allowance was enough to allow me to buy clothes and other items whenever I wanted, not that I even needed that with the business I'd gone into with Parian. So I clearly didn't need the money.

On the other hand, if I did take it, I might be able to afford a few things that my power couldn't create, like a ballistic gel suit that I could use as an inner suit for my armor, something that might have helped against Squealer. I could also afford special auditory plugs for my ears and a host of other small items that would make me safer.

Without even thinking about it, I knew what Dad would say. He'd be pragmatic and say take it, then use it to both to protect myself and help others.

Although, just how much money could it be, anyway?

I chatted with Sabah for a few more minutes, then got to work on the remaining clothing items for Friday's opening. I finished them in what felt like record time, which earned me a weird look from her as she carefully checked over each item as I completed them. After a bit more of that, I started to feel insulted.

Finally, I couldn't stand it anymore and asked, "Okay, what's the deal?"

Hedging, she asked, "What do you mean?"

"I've been making these things now for weeks. Why are you acting like you did when I first started? Is there something wrong with them?"

Sabah stared at me, then glanced at the outfits I'd complete, then at the clock. Following her eyes, I was suddenly swept with a cold feeling as I realized just how fast I'd finished up the twenty-five outfits that had been left. It had been record time. I'd done them all in about an hour. Just over a two minutes per outfit.

Even more mindbogglingly, these had been some of the more complicated outfits; gowns, jumpsuits, and even a wedding dress, that would have taken me nearly that long each before. No wonder Sabah was giving me the stink eye, I thought. She was probably convinced I was cutting corners.

Only I knew I hadn't. Each cut of the material was perfect, as was every seam, edge, and opening. It was more than a little frightening as it indicated a rise not just in my power's strength, manipulating that much hardened metal cloth not being an easy proposition at the best of times, but more significantly, of my control.

Almost as fast as my eyes traveled down the patterns that Parian had done, my power responded by cutting and joining metal cloth in our creations. It was heady stuff, but at the same time, I worried about how I would be perceived should anyone else learn of this change. Especially a group like the PRT. After all, capes weren't supposed to get stronger like this, were they?

Sabah asked, "What exactly is going on? Have you been practicing a lot more recently?"

Shaking my head, I said, "No, not really. I mean, I have been training, sure. But nothing that should have allowed me to do this. It's..."

"What?"

Meeting the dark skinned girl's eyes, I shrugged. Not wanting to tell her the truth, I prevaricated. "No biggie. It's probably just me getting better at doing this after all of the practice I've had. Hey, while I'm here, can you help me design another undersuit?"

Successfully distracted, Sabah nodded. "Sure, but what happened to the one you already made? I know you've been fighting, but surely nothing damaged it? That stuff's crazy tough."

"No, nothing like that."

I hesitated, then pulled my hoodie up over my head, leaving me clad in just a tank top. The bandage on my shoulder was now visible and Sabah immediately exclaimed, "What happened to you?"

Feeling exposed, I muttered, "One of the Merchants stuck a thin blade up under my armor and managed to get it under my undersuit and cut me. It was pretty scary at the time. Of course, my dad freaked out."

"Of course he did! I mean, if my... ah..." Sabah glanced at my non-existent chest in my tank top, then continued, "Sixteen-year-old daughter got cut while going out and fighting Parahuman villains, I'd freak out too."

I murmured, "Fifteen."

Sabah threw up her hands in vexation. "Even worse! Seriously though, Taylor, you're only fifteen?"

Weakly, I said, "I turn sixteen in June."

Nodding decisively, the girl took command. "We need to design something that will keep you safe no matter what. Plus, you can use some of that bounty money to maybe get some air tanks so that you can be protected even from toxins and stuff."

True to her word, Sabah sketched out an undersuit for me that was perfect. It would cover me from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet, leaving only my toes, hands, and part of my face visible. She also made several helpful suggestions on ways to make the suit which involved creating fasteners in the suit's material that only my power could open and close. That way, I'd be able to get my feet through the relatively small diameter circles that were meant to hug my ankles and wrists, then seal the material behind.

Even better, the process had real world applications as we'd be able to use similar, if larger fasteners in the clothing we were making so that actual human hands could manipulate them. It was heady stuff.

All too soon, though, it was time to make the suit. Eying the sheet steel that Sabah had begun regularly stocking since we'd been working together, I reached out with my power and immediately tore it into tiny strips that I reformed into the metal rings that I used to make the cloth.

It was the first time I'd made more metal cloth since the strange increase in my abilities and I found it frighteningly easy. Whereas before, I'd have been sweating up a storm by this point and using my power to cool myself down, now I just blew right through and cranked out ten square yards of the silvery material. It took a moment longer to add a layer of black metal paint, then I 'baked' it all using my power.

I could feel the metal changing at a fundamental level, and again, this was a new feeling. I'd been able to feel this at least a little before, but never to this degree. I could almost envision the way the crystals within the metal were realigning, as I turned them into something similar, yet, at the same time, fundamentally different.

Deciding to examine that feeling more in the future, I set out to cut, then 'sew' the resulting material into a suit. The result looked great, but I'd need to try it on to make sure it fit, although I already had a feeling it would.

Seeming to have the same idea, Sabah suggested, "Why don't you use one of the new changing rooms and try it on?"

Wordlessly, I lifted the armful of smooth flowing black metal cloth and headed for the first of the changing rooms. Once there, I hesitated only a second, then stripped down to my bra and panties and put the suit on.

It was a perfect fit. But then again, I'd kind of known that it would be, the knowledge again having something to do with my power.

Staring at the figure in the mirror, I was kind of surprised by how good I looked. The physical regime that I'd been following had not only gotten rid of the incipient pot belly I'd been developing, but had given me real muscle in my arms, legs, and butt.

Not that I wasn't still a string bean, my chest pretty much non-existent, but at least I was an extremely fit one. Plus the glimmering material that fit so closely to me accentuated what little curves I did have.

"Hey, when you have it on, come on out and let me see it."

I opened my mouth, then hesitated. Did I really want someone else to see me in this? Even though Sabah was a girl, I wasn't sure my self-image was strong enough to bear someone else judging me that way. Then again, that was old Taylor thinking. The Taylor I'd been since getting my powers had done some heroic things. She'd even risked her life while not out in costume to save others. I couldn't let a little thing like body image derail that.

Opening the dressing room door, I stepped out. Sabah gave me a long look, then indicated for me to turn around. I did a quick spin, then looked at her to see what she thought.

"Looks good, Taylor. I don't see you having any of the issues that you had with your other undersuit. Also, would it be possible for me to see your armored suit sometime? I just wanted to have a look at what you make when you're not synergizing with me."

"Uh... sure?" I hated how weak my voice got at times when I was unsure of myself. Girding my loins, I straightened and spoke in a much firmer voice, "Yes, that'd be fine. I'll come by sometime soon and let you see it."

Parian paused a moment, then said, "I've kind of been meaning to talk to you about the name you chose. Since Armsmaster apparently knows that you and I are working together, could I suggest just using Tesla for now? Electra is just..."

I nodded. "Sure. I know what you mean. I wasn't thinking when I came up with Electra. Tesla it is."

She'd reminded me that I needed to give Armsmaster a call, but first I wanted to talk to Dad. Using the phone at Parian's shop, I called our home number.

"Danny Hebert."

"Dad?"

There was a new sense of urgency in Dad's voice as he asked, "Taylor, is anything wrong? Why did you call?"

"Actually I just wanted to run something by you..."

An hour later later and I was ready to make my call to Armsmaster. I was suited up in case he wanted to meet and I was near downtown on a roof in case he had a way of tracing the call despite my using a burner phone. Since he was a Tinker, I wouldn't put anything past him. I tried to keep everything that Dad and I had talked about in mind as I stared at my phone.

Hopefully, I wouldn't forget anything. Inputting the ten digits of the phone number he'd left me, I made the call.

~~~Railgun~~~

Colin heard the ring of his private line, one whose number very few people had. He went ahead and answered it, pleasantly surprised by the identity of the voice on the line.

"Hello, is this Armsmaster?"

"Yes. Tesla?" He cursed his abruptness, but it was a struggle at the best of times for him to effectively use the social niceties.

"Yes, it's me. Parian indicated that you wanted to talk to me?"

Colin noted the question mark at the end of the sentence indicating a slight sense of uncertainty on the part of Tesla. Then again, if she really was a teenage girl, that made a lot of sense. Focusing on how much this girl could help him, he tried to use that feeling to inject as much warmth and charm as he could into his voice. "Yes, I did. I'm not sure whether you know or not, but there was a Kill Order issued on the three Merchant capes. Since you were credited with the... defeat of two out of three of them, as a result you receive the bounty on them."

There was a momentary silence, then Tesla asked, "Do I have to accept the bounty? I mean, can I donate it to charity?"

Feeling a bit of anxiety, Colin said, "Yes, you can donate it, either officially in your costumed guise for tax purposes or unofficially. Or if you don't want to accept it at all, you can leave it with the PRT and it will be divided up among the various Branch Offices. Before you decide, however, can I meet with you face to face?"

"Why?"

There was a great deal of anxiety in that single word, something Colin was determined to relieve. Keeping his voice calm and even, he said, "You're not in any kind of trouble, Tesla. I wanted to ask you for a favor and investigate the possibility of us working together in the future."

"I... I don't know."

Colin remained silent, suddenly aware that if he spoke too soon he would almost certainly close the door that he'd managed to drive a wedge into. After nearly a minute's silence, Tesla finally said, "Okay, I guess that would be possible. When and where?"

"How about the warehouse area of the Docks? We can stay in the Merchant territory and avoid what belongs to the ABB."

Suddenly sounding decisive, Tesla stated, "That will be fine. I'll meet you at the corner of Rosemont and Twenty-sixth Street in an hour."

"I'll be there."

Hanging up, Colin felt a strong sense of satisfaction at his accomplishment. Now if he could only get Tesla to help him with his armor, it would be a perfect operation. Deciding to stop by and pick up her bounty money just in case she decided to take it after all, he headed toward the elevator leading to the ground floor.

~~~Railgun~~~

An hour later found me perched atop a building watching as a figure on a large, futuristic motorcycle made his way slowly down the narrow, almost alley-like street I'd chosen to meet in.

Of course, I'd seen Armsmaster coming for some time, and watched him and the surrounding area carefully using my Othersight, making sure it wasn't some kind of trap. Not that I thought someone with his reputation as a straight shooter would do something like that, but Dad had wanted me to be beyond careful. So I would be.

I let a couple of minutes go by after Armsmaster came to a stop before I glided down to land about twenty feet away from the armored Tinker. Up close, his silver accented dark blue armor was both impressive and intimidating. Harder and more angular than my own, the Tinker's armor was actually larger, as well. It was something which made sense as his armor was a complex and functional machine, whereas my own was simply a bunch of metal panels connected together that I moved with my power.

I could tell that Armsmaster was examining me as closely as I was examining him. Forcing myself to speak, I made the first move. "Hello."

The Tinker's voice was surprisingly mellifluous when he wasn't using it to threaten me. "Hello, Tesla. Thanks for meeting with me."

Deciding to be honest, I said, "Well, when you said you wanted to ask me for a favor, I was pretty curious. Uh... what did you want me to do for you?"

Getting off his bike, Armsmaster grabbed a large package off the back of it and tossed it toward me. Reflexively, I caught it, almost immediately realizing what it was because of my power. He confirmed it a moment later, saying, "First, I wanted to give you the bounties on Skidmark and Squealer."

Staring at the large package I was holding, I could already tell it was cash, then with just a small exercise of my power read the magnetic strips present and realized that every bill inside of the box was a hundred. Stupidly, I asked, "How much is it?"

Matter of factly, Armsmaster stated, "Two million dollars. Sorry about the bulk, but we pay bounties in cash as it's the only medium many of those who collect upon them will accept. Don't worry. The bills aren't marked, nor are they sequential."

I slowly nodded, then tossed the box of money over my shoulder and allowed it to hover there, holding it in the air using the magnetic strips embedded in the bills. Armsmaster nodded appreciatively, then said, "I wanted to let you know that I went to bat for you receiving the bounty. It was obvious to me that you were responsible for taking the Merchants down and should receive the bounty for it. I also wanted to apologize for coming on so strong the other night. Anytime there's collateral damage it's SOP... ah, that is, standard operating procedure for us to bring in the responsible capes to make an official report. At the time, I didn't realize how it would seem to someone who is relatively new to the cape scene."

I could feel the tension inside of me unwind as I registered Armsmaster's words. On one hand, my dad had warned me that if he wanted something from me, the man was likely to be nice to me. On the other, I don't think handing me two million dollars was what Dad meant by that.

Suddenly realizing I needed to speak, I said, "It's okay. I admit that I kinda panicked the other night. Plus, I got taken down pretty hard by Squealer's cannon. It did a number on me." Feeling myself redden, I added, "I had to go get cleaned up."

Armsmaster's mouth pursed and he quickly asked, "Nausea, disorientation, and vertigo?"

I nodded jerkily, then realizing that the gesture was hard to see when you were wearing so much metal, I spoke aloud, "Yes to all of the above. Plus, I think it might have had some kind of power nullification aspect to it as well."

Armsmaster's attention sharpened at my words. "What makes you say that? Glory Girl didn't report anything like that to us when we debriefed her after the events at Arcadia High."

Trying to be as professional as I could be, I said, "It didn't last long, and to be honest, I was so dizzy and sick to my stomach that I'm not sure that wasn't the problem, but I couldn't access my power for a short time after getting hit. It was... frightening."

Nodding, Armsmaster said, "I can see how it would be. When you say you couldn't access your power, was it the electromagnetic one that we've observed you using?"

"Yes. It's like there was a barrier between my power and myself."

Armsmaster frowned, and for a moment, I wasn't sure if it was what I'd said about Squealer's weapon, or something else causing it. After a moment, he said, "Well, I'm just glad you were okay. You know, the reason for the Wards is so that young heroes can be trained in their abilities so that they can be both effective and competent in their use. It also keeps them safe and pays money for college."

"No." Realizing how abrupt that sounded, I quickly added, "I mean, I don't think it's for me. There's enough drama at school without adding powers into it. Sorry."

He nodded again, but didn't seem all that upset that I wasn't even considering joining the Wards. Instead, Armsmaster asked, "May I ask you something about your power?" At my nod, he continued, "How do you create the crystalline structures in the isotopes of iron you use, like the clothing or those girders from the Merchant's lair? The reason I ask is because it has to do with the favor I wanted to ask for."

I stayed silent a moment, the abrupt change in the conversation throwing me off a bit. In my head, I could hear Dad's voice saying, "I told you so." Aloud, I finally said, "I don't know how I do it. I just know that when I use my power for a certain amount of time on a ferrous material, it gets really hard and strong. Is the PRT and Protectorate interested in buying costumes from Parian Designs?"

Armsmaster nodded. "Almost certainly. You and Parian can expect to be contacted by a member of the Procurement Department within a week. From there, it will just be a matter of figuring out a fair price for your services. However, I can assure you that the Protectorate is generous with its funds when outfitting its Parahuman members."

Shrewdly, I asked, "Costumes have something to do with the favor you want from me, don't they?"

~~~Railgun~~~

Wordlessly, Colin stared at the menacing black figure who stood nearby. It still threw him just a little at hearing the dulcet tones of a teenage girl coming from the medieval suit of gleaming black armor. It didn't help that he was already dissatisfied at finding out that Tesla wasn't a Tinker after all. At least, not in the traditional sense.

His earlier question, asked in a casual tone, had been designed to elicit information on exactly what the girl's power was, something which she had just given away, especially when he acted like he already knew. So Tesla was not a true Tinker. In a number of ways, that was a shame, as the two of them would have worked well together, he thought.

However, she was still responsible for creating the sample material that had been submitted to the PRT as well as strengthening the girders in the Merchant's hideout. It was an ability that seemed unique to her, at least so far as Colin knew, and he badly wanted to have it used on his own gear.

Deciding to be completely honest with his motivations, Colin nodded. "Yes, it does. Unfortunately, my armor does not lend itself to additions of the material you submitted to the PRT. What I was wondering was would it be possible for you to use your power on my suit and increase the tensile strength of its structure that way? I would be more than willing to compensate you out of my own personal resources with whatever amount you considered fair, up to half a million dollars."

There was a momentary silence, then Tesla asked, "Half a million dollars? To just make your suit stronger? That seems like major overkill to me."

Colin shrugged. His tone was dry as he said, "From my perspective, anything that allows my survivability to increase is virtually priceless. It's all I can afford, however."

There was another silence, then Tesla abruptly shook her head. "I won't charge you."

He fought down a sense of exultation because he didn't really know yet whether that meant that she would do it for free or even that she couldn't do it at all. In a neutral tone, Colin asked, "Why not?"

"Because it wouldn't be right. You go out and risk you life on a regular basis. It's one thing to charge the Protectorate for making new, safer costumes for their members. They have deep pockets after all. It's another to charge you when you're paying for it yourself. I'll fix up your suit for free."

No longer needing to fight down that feeling inside of him, Colin felt his lips curve into a genuine smile. "Thank you, Tesla. I truly appreciate it."

"Do you want me to do it right now?"

Taken aback, Colin asked, "What?"

Tesla gestured with one black clad arm toward him. She clarified, "Do you want me to fix up your armor right now? Or would you prefer to wait?"

Colin gave the decision careful consideration. In the end, though, he gave a regretful shake of his head. He explained, "As much as I'd like to have you use your power on my gear, including my motorcycle, it wouldn't be a good idea with me using them. One of the things your power does is to turn the material it acts upon almost into a superconductor, decreasing its resistivity to near zero. This affects both the thermal and electrical properties. With the amount of energy used by my armor, there's every chance I would electrocute myself if I didn't take certain protective measures. No, I'm afraid I'll have to do at least some redesigning first."

Tesla's voice was small as she said, "I didn't know that."

Colin nodded. "It's good to learn as much about your power as you can. Even if you don't want to join the Wards, I am willing to spend time helping you explore your power. For example, what is its effect when used on copper or other conductors?"

The girl's voice was even smaller as she said, "I don't know."

There was another short silence and Colin wasn't sure that he hadn't come on too strong. Finally, though, Tesla said, "I have to talk this over with someone else, but I'll tentatively agree to work with you on exploring the limits of my power. I-"

The girl's words were drowned out by a loud, booming explosion that could be heard echoing throughout the entire Dock area. Colin immediately set his suit's sensors to search for the explosion's point of origin. Thirty seconds later, his HUD had an answer scrolling across its display, when Tesla, who had been looking around, suddenly pointed and exclaimed, "It's coming from five blocks in that direction."

Turning to her, Colin asked, "How do you know?" Was this yet another aspect of the girl's power, he wondered? Certainly her answer agreed in all parameters with his own.

"I can see them. Lung's fighting with a group of Parahumans. I think it's the Undersiders, but I'm not completely sure. The giant things they're using sure don't look like dogs, but their costumes match their profiles on PHO."

Colin made a conscious decision not to ask Tesla how she recognized the Undersiders by sight, especially through several buildings. He suspected her power was far more versatile than any of them knew. The good news was that there was a strong chance he'd be able to work with her even if she wouldn't join the Wards.

Giving her a quick look, he said, "Stay here. I'll deal with Lung."

Almost before he'd finished speaking, Tesla was responding, "No. I'm going with you. I can't let others get hurt if I can help."

Deciding that little detail was going into his after action report, Colin said, "I'll take point. You focus on helping any civilians caught in the crossfire. If there aren't any, help the Undersiders. Whatever you do, don't engage Lung."

~~~Railgun~~~

I felt my heart pounding as I quickly agreed. "Okay."

Rising into the air, I rapidly followed the Protectorate leader's motorcycle, which seemed capable of incredible speeds. Even as I moved, I detected a burst of electronic signals emitted by Armsmaster, likely indicating that he was communicating with the PRT. It sounds strange, but at the time I didn't question being able to detect those signals, too excited by the upcoming battle to consider that it was the first time I'd really noticed something that could only be radio waves.

I followed as quickly as I could, falling only a little behind. My Othersight allowed me to see through obstacles and I already saw that one of the Undersiders was down, the boy who'd worn the black motorcycle leathers and the likely source of the black fog that lingered over parts of the battlefield. I noticed that it seemed to block a lot of my sensory abilities. There were still thin patches of it scattered around, and I couldn't see through them at all. It didn't make me especially eager to try to fight in or around them either.

I was also aware of the other members of the Undersiders desperately trying to dodge Lung's blasts of flame, while he wrestled with three of the huge creatures that the girl, Hellhound, must be responsible for. At least that was her power according to her entry on PHO.

I landed not far from where the fighting was occurring, and true to my agreement with Armsmaster, looked for anyone in danger. But the only non-Parahumans present were some of the gang members of the ABB, and even they were fleeing the battle. I immediately turned to watch how Armsmaster was going deal with Lung, shocked by how large the Parahuman villain had already grown. Just the sight of him sent a shiver of dread down my spine.

Standing at least nine feet tall, Lung was covered in silvery scales, his fingers and toes tipped with two inch long claws that looked like they were made of metal. His face was no longer recognizably human, instead a dragon's muzzle filled with far too many teeth beginning to extend out from it. He appeared to be more than a match for all three of the van-sized monsters that he fought, throwing them around like they weighed nothing.

Heart pounding, I watched as Armsmaster shouted, "Lung, stand down!"

When the Parahuman villain ignored the Protectorate leader, Armsmaster raised his halberd and fired his grappling hook at him, knocking him off his feet and into the building behind him. A second later, that corner collapsed, engulfing half his torso in broken brick and mortar.

The dogs he'd been fighting all piled on and began a savage tug of war using Lung's arms and legs that lasted for a few seconds before an enormous blast of white hot flame sent them scrambling back, yelping. Lung rose to his feet, sending debris scattering, and sent a similar blast toward Armsmaster who simply cartwheeled to one side, avoiding it completely.

Armsmaster had already fired off another shot from his grappling hook even while he was still spinning in midair and this one impacted Lung's jaw. The impact was a loud smacking sound, like a side of beef being struck hard, and it shattered several of the teeth in his muzzle with sharp little clicks. It was around that time that I registered a series of whistles, but didn't know where they were coming from and was too focused on the fight to look around for the source.

Shouting "Whl kwwll wooo!" Lung advanced on Armsmaster. Then with a ruthless cunning that I would never have expected, he sent a blast of flame toward two of the Undersiders who had momentarily stopped moving to try to drag off the body of the boy who was down. Armsmaster was out of position to do anything to save them, which was likely why the gang leader chose that moment to act.

Without hesitation, I launched myself forward and met the blast of flame halfway to its destination, my back toward Lung so that I could make sure his targets were all right. There was a momentary feeling of heat so intense it took my breath away and I could feel the skin on my lower back and the back of my legs stinging, then I redirected the heat up and away from me toward the open sky. Two pairs of eyes were staring at me through masks in utter shock and I shouted, "Run!"

Spinning my suit back around, I saw that Armsmaster had hit Lung yet again with his grappling hook, but this time the other Parahuman had managed to grab the end after it impacted him. He pulled hard on the line connecting the hook to Armsmaster's halberd, but the Protectorate leader merely released the line at its connection there, then moved forward to engage Lung hand to hand.

What followed was the single greatest exhibition of hand to hand fighting that I'd ever witnessed. Somehow, Armsmaster managed to fight Lung to a standstill for what felt like eternity, using just his halberd and own personal skill. In the main, he managed to dodge the blazing blasts of white hot flame that Lung sent his way, while dealing blows with his halberd that were clearly magnitudes stronger than they should have been. Somehow, those hits managed to knock Lung down, time and again. At some point, I grew aware that the Undersiders had fled, but so focused was I on the exhibition of skill that I was observing that I wasn't even sure which direction they'd taken

Ducking and weaving, spinning and cartwheeling through the air, Armsmaster's movements made my breath catch. Every blow Lung attempted missed, while at the same time, the armored figure seemed unable to miss and all too soon those silvery scales were streaked with blood as the bestial Parahuman grew more and more off balance. Unfortunately, that's when it happened.

Whether he was just the tiniest bit too slow, or whether Lung had become even faster along with the growth in his size, when next Armsmaster struck him, he wasn't able to move completely out of the way of a clawed blow that tore away half his breastplate. The force of the blow sent it sailing halfway down the block where it landed with a crash and made Armsmaster slam into a light pole twenty feet to one side where he lay crumpled in a heap, out cold.

I stifled the cry on my lips, forcing it back. It wouldn't do any good. There was no one there to answer it, the Undersiders having fled. Fighting the fear I felt, I levitated my armor to land right in front of Armsmaster. There I stood facing Lung.

~~~Railgun~~~

"We've got to go!"

"So go! I have to watch this!"

Lisa shook off Alec's hand and raised her head back over the edge of the parapet of the building two blocks away from where they'd been fighting Lung, her phone's camera recording the action. She saw Armsmaster go down, his armor nearly torn off of him, then Lung start toward the downed figure.

A couple of seconds later, she saw Tesla land in front of the Protectorate leader and crouch protectively over him. Without even meaning to, her power activated.

Will defend Armsmaster to the death. Views him as a comrade in arms. Feels tremendous respect for the man. Teenage girl under the armor. She-

Shaking her head at her power, Lisa wanted to scream at what she now knew was a girl to grab the other man and run. No one could face Lung when he began ramping up to this point.

It was why they'd tried to ambush the ABB leader, hoping to take him down before he grew too strong. But they'd been too slow, sufficiently delayed by Oni Lee that Lung had already been too ramped up to fight one on one. Not even all three of Bitch's dogs had been able to keep the man down, and Lisa had actually wondered if they were going to be killed in the resulting melee, which would have driven the girl berserk, likely leading her to attack Lung herself, no matter the futility of it.

If that had happened, her and Alec would have had to run for it, even leaving Brian behind. Lisa liked the African-American boy, but not enough to die trying to save him. It had been bad luck that he had gone down in the first couple of minutes of the fight, an unfortunate victim of getting hit by one of the dogs that Lung had flung through his darkness.

Without Brian's darkness, it was a lot harder to dodge Lung's flame. Lisa had immediately seen that the fight was unwinnable and had tried to disengage her team from the battle. But Lung wasn't allowing it to happen, and it was only Rachel's dogs that kept them alive over the next couple of minutes as they'd moved around frantically, dodging as much as possible.

Lisa's leg muscles had begun burning because of the effort she was putting forth and she knew she wouldn't be able to go at that pace much longer. It was one of the few times that she regretted not taking Brian up on his offer to learn to defend herself. To get into better shape. Now it might just cost her her life as she began to stagger while trying to still move.

It was at that moment that Armsmaster had arrived and immediately engaged Lung. He'd been accompanied by some new Parahuman who Lisa had no information on, but thought might be Tesla, the new cape who'd recently taken down the Merchants. She hadn't heard that Tesla was a member of the Wards or Protectorate, but maybe it was a ride a long, or something of that nature.

Certainly the girl had saved her, Alec's, and Brian's lives just now. If not for her intercepting the burning hot flame that Lung had sent their way while she and Alec had been trying to drag Brian, the three of them would be dead, or at a minimum left crippled and out of action by third degree burns. Lisa still wasn't sure how the girl had done what she did, but somehow, she'd managed to force the flame up and into the air. Was she a pyrokinetic rather than the Tinker she was listed as on PHO?

Deciding that she didn't need the resulting migraine for information that she could discover another way, Lisa instead focused her attention on the fight still going on in the street two blocks away. She blinked as an actinic flash momentarily blinded her, leaving after images dancing in front of her eyes.

What the hell had that been, she wondered? Unable to resist her curiosity over what looked like lightning any longer, Lisa tried to use her power to figure out what was going on, even knowing that she'd pay for it with a crippling migraine later.

Focused electrical current used as a taser. Much more powerful than anything man-made. Current is-

Discarding that line of thought, Lisa instead focused on what was happening as metal from all around the battle rapidly flew forward to impact Lung.

Control of ferrous material allows Tesla to move and manipulate metal. Control is electromagnetic in nature. Power is innate, not a device.

Feeling a sensation of shock tear through her, Lisa watched stunned, as the metal seemed to reshape itself in mid air after impacting Lung. This time, it wrapped him in its embrace, squeezing him while he roared in fury. Unfortunately, he was already tearing his way through it.

Lung wrapped in five tons of ferrous metal. Amount insufficient to contain him. Amount required-

Shaking her head against the migraine she was already feeling, Lisa focused her power once more on the battle. She felt sickened as needle-shaped points rose out of the metal surrounding Lung and stabbed deeply into his eyes sockets, then into the skull behind them, making him scream. The incredible bursts of flame that resulted lit the area, painting it in shades of color like a scene from Dante's Inferno.

A moment later, Tesla was wading forward through the flame, something long and black in one hand. Parts of Lung were being sent flying away as she swung what could only be some kind of blade over and over again, savagely chopping away at the ABB leader.

Blade made up of thousands of tiny vibrating particles. Blade has removed fifty percent of both of Lung's legs. One hundred percent of left arm. Seventy-five percent of right arm. Limb regrowth within sixty seconds. Lung's head fully detached. Lung deceased. Regrowth ceased.

Scrambling back from the parapet, Lisa turned and vomited onto the rooftop at the feet of her team. Her nausea lasted only a moment, then she spit hard, clearing her mouth. Staggering to her feet, her limbs still leaden, she said, "Let's go."

Rachel stared at her, then her eyes slid past her toward the dancing flames visible in the distance. Sounding angry, she asked, "What about the fight you were watching? It over?"

Unable to control the starkness of her words, Lisa said, "Lung's dead. Tesla killed him. We don't want to be anywhere around here if she decides to come after us."

"Fuck!"

"Huh."

She ignored Alec's shocked expletive and Rachel's grunt of surprise. Sticking her phone back into a pocket, Lisa scrambled up onto Brutus, holding Brian's form with one hand while using the other to grip a horn-like growth. Their leader wasn't going anywhere, but she'd make sure to hold him in place anyway as they moved. Nor was he badly hurt, just unconscious. She'd already used her power to ascertain that fact. Otherwise, even her curiosity wouldn't have kept her around.

Not that she'd liked what it had just shown her. What she'd just witnessed had been utterly terrifying, if fascinating, and it indicated that there was a new order in Brockton Bay.

In a way, it was the sheer ruthlessness that Tesla had used to take Lung down that had gained her attention. Few Parahumans went all out, if only because they knew that by doing so, they risked others doing the same to them. It made for a more civil world, turning the things villains got up to to more of a game of a cops and robbers than anything else.

But first the Merchants, and then Lung, had violated the rules of that game. The Merchants had gone after kids in a school, and while their leadership had almost certainly never meant to escalate in the manner in which they had, it had cost them dearly.

Lisa was aware that the Kill Order issued for the Merchants had already been collected upon. She didn't know who'd done so, but suspected Empire 88. Not that it mattered, the news on who it was would leak eventually, just as it always did.

She'd known that ripping off the ABB casino, the Ruby Dreams, some time ago was going to result in Lung coming after them. Despite her power, she hadn't expected the way he'd escalated the conflict. It was only when they'd engaged Lung that she'd realized that he intended to kill all of them, making them into an example to others who might consider stealing from his operation.

It made her reconsider the lifestyle she'd chosen, or rather, the one that had chosen her, remembering the choice she'd been given all those months ago. Then it had been join or die. Now, after witnessing what had happened to Lung, Lisa wondered if she'd chosen correctly all those months ago.

More than anything, she needed to get the hell away from Brockton Bay.

~~~Railgun~~~

I collapsed to my knees, radiating the heat of the half molten pavement to a point a hundred feet overhead. It was only through an act of will that I didn't throw up as my stomach roiled.

Instead, I considered what I had just done. I'd killed again. Lung was dead, not even his regeneration proof against having his head cut off.

I'd done it because he scared me to death, too elemental, too unstoppable to feel like I could just defeat him. Not much of a defense, I thought and considered taking off. But Armsmaster was still unconscious behind me and I couldn't leave him here helpless and unable to defend himself. Likely, members of the ABB still lurked in the surrounding area, even if I couldn't see any nearby.

Instead, I rose into the air until my feet dangled an inch off of the pavement. In truth, I didn't trust my knees to support my own weight, let alone even a portion of my armor's. I levitated to where he lay.

I lowered myself into a kneeling position next to his supine form. Hesitating a second, I removed one of my gauntlets and felt for a heartbeat. I couldn't actually reach the pulse in neck, his armor's fit thwarting me, but the gaping hole in his armor's breastplate allowed me to touch his chest where I could feel the steady thump of his heart.

Not that I wasn't already aware that he was still alive. The same sense that detected bio-electric fields let me know when one was fading, something which Armsmaster's wasn't. But if there was a problem with his heart, it would be better to know so I could tell the paramedics. Of course it would be even better if he could tell them himself.

So I tried to wake him. "Armsmaster! Wake up!"

Unfortunately, that did not bring him around. I decided not to mess with his armor as I didn't know what booby traps he might have on it. Instead, I rose back to my feet and decided to do something about the fires that were still burning.

I smothered them one by one with iron sand, then surveyed the battlefield, carefully avoiding examining Lung's decapitated form. In the distance, I could hear sirens approaching. Then a closer sound brought my attention back to my immediate surroundings.

I hurried over to where Armsmaster half lay. He was coughing hard and his spittle was tinged with blood. Worried sick, I asked, "Armsmaster? Can you hear me?"

With a final hacking cough, he fell silent for a second. When he finally spoke, it was a shock. "I hear you, Tesla. Report."

I felt both my eyebrows go up at the abrupt command, but if anyone had earned being a little cranky, it was Armsmaster. In as even a tone as I could managed, I said, "Lung's dead. The Undersiders are gone. I put out all of the fires which were burning. I..."

My voice trailed off as I ran out of things to say. Fortunately, Armsmaster filled the silence. "What happened to Lung?"

I hedged, "He was coming after you. After you went down, I mean. I though he was going to kill you. He'd already threatened to. I..."

Armsmaster's voice was surprisingly gentle as he asked, "What did you do, Tesla?"

"I killed him."

The starkness of the words lay between us like a barricade and I wondered if I'd thrown away everything that I'd been working for. While I hadn't gotten into trouble for killing the Merchants, Lung hadn't had a Kill Order looming over his head. Why not, I didn't know. But a hero was responsible for bringing him in alive if at all possible.

"You saved my life."

I was surprised by Armsmaster's words. I shrugged. Weakly, I said, "Maybe?"

He coughed hard, blood coming up again. When he could speak again, Armsmaster said, "Not maybe. I underestimated Lung. Made a mistake. My predictive program wasn't ready and I tried to use it on him. Nearly got me killed. If it wasn't for you, I'd be dead."

Involuntarily, I felt a sense of pride fill me. At the same time, I couldn't stop the words that spilled out of me. "It was the most impressive thing I've ever seen, you fighting Lung. For a while, I thought you'd take him."

Armsmaster's lips curved upward in a sardonic smile. "Skill and guts will only take you so far. Unfortunately, my gear was not equal to the test."

My voice small, I suggested, "It would be if I worked it over."

We both regarded one another in silence after my words and that was how they found us, the cavalcade of vehicles filled with members of the Protectorate and PRT troopers. Surrounded by dozens of people, many of whom were giving me suspicious looks, more than anything, I wanted to run.

Only the hand on my arm kept me from fleeing.

An hour later, as I sat in a chair facing the leader of the local PRT, Director Piggot, all I could think of was that Dad was going to be so upset at me for breaking the rules. With my luck, he was going to add two or three more just to deal with the situations I kept getting into. Joy.

~~~Railgun~~~

AN: Sorry about the delay in updating. Had a few issues come up recently, plus I spent my writing time watching the Olympics. Should be updating a bit more regularly for the next while.

The Rules:

Talk with Dad before I go out. Plan what I was trying to accomplish.

Buy a cell phone to call Dad or the PRT if I make a citizen's arrest.

Make and sell the metal cloth clothing to find out how good the money is.

Dad will wait up to make sure I get home all right.

Come up with a way to keep myself safe when not wearing my armor.

~~~Railgun~~~