Finding the Way
Part Twenty-Eight: Shell Game
[A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]
PRT Building ENE
1350 Hours EDT
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Armsmaster ignored the interruption, his eyes fixed to the eyepieces of the viewer while he carefully eased an almost microscopic component into place on the latest iteration of his Halberd.
"Colin. Your phone is ringing."
Such was his focus that he managed to block out Dragon's voice as readily as he blocked out the repeated tones of the phone at his elbow. Just a little more …
Finally, it clicked into its designated socket. He eased the waldo away and pressed the button to change out controls. The micro-welder flared to life and affixed the component in place …
As soon as he shut down the welder, something cold and hard closed on his left earlobe, pinching sharply. He jerked his head back, reflexively going hands-off on the controls before they could do something drastic to his current project.
"Ow!" Rubbing his ear, which had been released as soon as he moved, he glared at the errant waldo which was even now folding back into place on its stand. "Dragon, was that you?"
"Yes, you idiot. You've been ignoring your phone for the last ten minutes." The image on the screen had an expression of exasperation that matched her tone perfectly. "Answer it before I do it for you."
With a start, he realised that she was correct. Snatching up the phone, he blurted out, "Armsmaster."
"About damn time, Mr Wallis." Director Piggot's growl sounded particularly irritated this morning. Which wasn't altogether surprising; she hadn't been too happy over the last few days. He had no idea why, but he was just glad that he wasn't on her bad side. Or rather, that he hadn't been on her bad side up until now. "Your performance review is due today."
Colin grimaced, closing his eyes in a futile attempt to shut out the harsh reality which had just intruded on his world. What, today? "Didn't we have one just a few months ago?"
"Yes, we did. And another one's due today. You have a habit of ducking out of these things, so I chose to contact you directly instead of leaving you a message. Report to my office." The tone of her voice left him in no illusion as to her state of mind. While he wasn't great at dealing with people, he knew 'pissed off' when he heard it.
He took a deep breath, trying to salvage something from the situation. "Can we … reschedule it?"
"Certainly. You'll just be stepping down as team leader until you take it." Her voice was hard and unyielding. "We have much to go through. It's best to get it over with today. I've blocked out half an hour in case we go longer than I've projected."
To his internal horror, he actually considered that for a second. To step down as team leader meant that he'd have more time to Tinker, and he could possibly put off any more performance reviews for the foreseeable fu … No, dammit. This isn't gonna beat me. I'm better than that. I don't care how much this sucks, I have to beat it. Leave the Director in no doubt that I'm the only choice for team leader. " … all right. I'll be up in five minutes."
"You've got three." She cut the call off before he could protest. He stared at the phone, then slowly placed it back on the bench. Whatever was irritating the Director, it was now affecting him directly. He couldn't put matters off any longer, not without risking that she would actually go through with her threat. With his luck, Dauntless would end up as team leader, and there was no way in hell he was going to be accepting orders from that … that upstart.
If I hadn't answered my phone, she might just have done that anyway. At least now I've got the chance to head it off. He drew a deep breath, realising just how much he owed his fellow Tinker right now; the stinging in his pinched ear notwithstanding. "Thanks, Dragon," he said with a grimace. "I owe you one."
"You were in the middle of Tinkering. It's understandable," she replied with a hint of a smile. "Go ahead. I'll clean up here." Suiting action to word, she started the waldos moving again, clearing away his workshop faster and more efficiently than he would've been able to.
"Okay, fine," he conceded. Picking up his helmet from the bench, he put it on first, then let it power up while he was donning the gauntlets. The self-test showed his armour to be green across the board, with two exceptions; the red lights for those blinked out as the gauntlets linked into his armour's systems. "Wish me luck."
"Good luck," she said cheerfully as two of the larger waldos transferred the Halberd to a holding rack. "Just remember, whatever you do: don't be yourself." She chuckled as she said it, so that was probably a joke. He hoped.
"Very funny," he snapped. This time she did laugh, so he decided that he'd been correct in his assumption. "Who else would I be, anyway?" An eye-flick to the helmet HUD sent the correct signal to his workshop door and it opened before him.
"The mind boggles," she replied to his back; from her tone, she was almost definitely smirking. "Assault, maybe. Or possibly Velocity."
He managed to escape before any more possibilities occurred to her. She hadn't mentioned Dauntless, which he suspected was due to her knowledge of how Colin felt about the man. Colin was still touchy about any comparison to him which, while it wasn't Dauntless' fault exactly, still led to tensions within the team.
Two minutes and thirty-seven seconds later, he strode into Director Piggot's office. He waited until the door was closed and locked behind him before he took off his helmet. The issue wasn't with the helmet; as ergonomically comfortable as he'd designed it, he could wear it all day without a problem. However, he knew damn well that Piggot liked to look people in the eye while she tore strips off of them, so off it came. It was easier all round to not aggravate her on the matter, especially with her given mood. "Reporting as directed, ma'am," he said.
"Good." He was relieved to note that she didn't look or sound as angry as she'd been over the phone. Also, oddly enough, she didn't seem to have a performance review document in front of her. "Have a seat."
He blinked. "Ma'am?" It was standard procedure for the individual being reviewed to remain standing. This kept them alert and reduced the chance of complacency. He began to wonder what was really going on. Nothing else about Piggot was out of the ordinary, but that didn't mean she hadn't been Mastered, or replaced by a Stranger.
She flicked a hand; the irritable gesture was one he'd seen a thousand times before. "I said, sit down. This is not a performance review. That was merely a ruse to get you into this office in such a way that every rumour-monger in this building is commiserating with your plight rather than wondering what's really going on." Her steel-grey eyes became flinty with anger. "What you hear in this room goes no farther without my express order. Do I make myself absolutely clear?"
"Yes, ma'am." Belatedly, he lowered himself into the reinforced chair. "What's the problem?" Whatever it was, for Piggot to be going to these lengths to keep the information so secure, it couldn't be good.
"The problem, Armsmaster, is that we've lost Pathfinder and Compass Rose." Her voice was brimming with anger as she spoke. Before he could ask, she went on. "No, they aren't dead. It's worse than that. Three days ago, Pathfinder decided to go off the reservation, and of course Compass Rose went along with him. You may have noticed the distinct slump in gang-related crime over the past few nights?"
Colin had indeed noted it, but he'd reached the tentative conclusion that the gangs were holding off for something big. The gangs could always be relied on to screw things up in some way or another, usually when the PRT was looking in the wrong direction. "I'm assuming it's connected in some way?" Then a couple of very large dots connected in his head. "Wait—you're saying that Pathfinder did something to them?"
The Director looked mad enough to chew up horseshoes and spit out nails. "Yes. He even took me along for the ride. Kaiser, Uber and L33t, and Accord. They all got the same treatment. He threatened to disappear them if they didn't leave town—or in Accord's case, promise never to come to Brockton Bay in the first place. They all agreed, except for Kaiser. As far as I know, he's still down there, wherever Pathfinder left him." She subsided, still visibly seething.
"'Down there'?" Armsmaster frowned. "Where?" The phrase sounded ominous.
"Underwater," she replied shortly. "Somewhere. He said it was half a mile under the Atlantic, but I'm no diving expert. Any part of that statement could've been a lie. But I have no doubt that it was an infeasible distance under the ocean in some direction. And as far as I know, Kaiser's still there."
To say that this put a new complexion on matters was to seriously understate the situation. "That … could be very bad. Especially if the other villains find out about it." He didn't know exactly what they'd do—villains, as a whole, tended to forego the whole 'cooperation' thing unless matters were dire—but it wouldn't be good. Of course, this counted as 'dire' almost by definition. "What's been done about Pathfinder?"
"Nothing, yet." Piggot's expression twisted. "Officially, he's on paid leave, along with Compass Rose. Unofficially, he's been fired. After he left me here, he teleported away again. I've been spending the time in between doing my best to locate where Kaiser may have been taken, and hoping that Pathfinder has an attack of common sense. Unfortunately, neither one has panned out."
"Ah." He tried to recall if there was a specific PRT directive covering this kind of situation. None came to mind immediately. In the case of superheroes leaving supervillains to starve to death without official permission … "So, what are you planning to do about it?"
Her expression twisted sharply. "I'm telling you, in the hope that you can provide some new insight that I can use. I'm not going to be telling the rest of the PRT or Protectorate unless I absolutely have to." She skewered him with a look. "Do you understand why?" It was less a question than a statement: if you don't understand why, ask.
He nodded slowly. "If the PRT were alerted, they would almost certainly go on the offensive against Pathfinder and Compass Rose. This could be … bad." Which was, he knew, a massive understatement. Any single member of the PRT was impossible to hide from Compass Rose, and was always vulnerable to being grabbed by Pathfinder. Anyone coordinating an attack against the two of them would be an obvious target, and key members of the Protectorate could likewise be put out of the way with relative ease. He didn't think the Triumvirate would be any sort of pushover, even to those two, but if matters got out of control to that extent, both he and Emily would be looking for new work. And I've worked too hard to get where I am.
Piggot nodded grimly. "We understand each other, then. Unless and until they start targeting PRT or Protectorate assets, we keep this on the down-low. We won't be idle, however; we'll continue to try to gather whatever information we can on their movements and activities. And by 'we', I mean 'you'." She gave him a meaningful look.
At last, the reason she'd told him about this dawned on him. "And by 'me' you mean 'Dragon'. Correct?" He could've kicked himself for not figuring it out earlier. Piggot was old-school PRT; if she decided a secret needed to be kept, she'd take it to her grave. There was no way in hell she would've just decided to bring him into the loop, local head of the Protectorate or otherwise. But his secure comms link with Dragon would let him tell the Tinker without anyone else getting wind of it.
She favoured his realisation with a slight inclination of her head. "Very good, Armsmaster. Tell her from me that she's got full authorisation to search every traffic cam, every CCTV database, every repository of public footage she can access within the jurisdiction of the PRT. I want to know where Daniel and Taylor Hebert have gone and where they're staying. We need to find them before they do this again, and perhaps kick off a cape war."
Armsmaster nodded. "I'll tell her." He rose and picked up his helmet. "Was there anything else, ma'am?"
"Yes." She smiled briefly. "Find them for me and you won't have to worry about the performance review." What she left unsaid, of course, was fail to find them and it's your ass. Still, he heard it loud and clear.
"Message received and understood, Director." He fitted his helmet back on to his head. As it reconnected to his armour, he watched the status reports ripple across the visor HUD.
"Good." She nodded sharply. Reaching across to her computer, she turned it on. "And one other thing."
He turned his head to look at her. "Ma'am?"
Her expression wasn't quite a smile. "Remember that you've just had the singular displeasure of being reviewed by me. We don't want people getting suspicious."
It wasn't often that he smiled, but this was one of those times. "You're assuming this wasn't an unpleasant surprise, ma'am."
Slowly, she nodded. "Understood. Now get to work."
Turning, he went to the door and opened it, his jaw already setting grimly. As he strode along the passage toward the elevator, he couldn't help wondering. Where the hell have they gone? And what are they doing?
PRT Building ENE
0859 Hours EDT
Sunday, May 29, 2011
(Three Days Earlier)
Lisa keyed the mic. "Clockie, you might want to check around the corner to your right. The last one's hiding behind the dumpster there." She grinned as she leaned back in the chair and stretched. Being in the Wards was actually kinda fun, now that she was used to it. Rachel was patrolling with Armsmaster all the time now; the pairing made for a rough and ready kind of teamwork that was nonetheless very effective, not to mention efficient. Of course, Rachel and even Brian were better at the field work than Lisa, but she didn't mind riding the console desk at all.
"Got him!" Clockblocker's voice was a crow of triumph. "Insight, you're friggin' awesome!"
"Yeah. I know." Lisa turned and offered Aisha a high-five. The younger girl laid off on munching popcorn to return it. Technically, Aisha was undergoing training to become a Ward while her costume and name were finalised. In reality, she hadn't felt like going out and about that day, and she couldn't stay at home alone while Brian was on duty. Lisa had just about weaned her of the habit of throwing popcorn at the computer screens, but she didn't think Aisha would ever really do well on monitor duty. There was a certain lack of attention span going on there.
"Hey, Lise." Kid Win—Chris—pulled out a chair and sat down, just as the hour ticked over. "Anything happening I need to know about?" He was the only Ward, apart from Lisa, who honestly seemed to enjoy monitor duty. He also had a strong crush on Taylor, which was kind of sad.
"Clockblocker and Aegis are dealing with some smash and grab idiots down on the Boardwalk," she reported crisply. "Vista and Gallant are signing autographs at the Forsberg Gallery. No trouble reported there. Board's pretty well clear." She clicked the mouse to sign herself out of the system, then pushed herself away from the monitor desk, letting the chair roll to a stop before she got up. "All yours."
"Sure thing," he agreed, rolling his chair over to take up her vacated slot. "So, how you getting on with learning the monitors, Aish?"
Aisha rolled her eyes. "I can do it," she said. "But after about ten minutes of the same shit all the time, I just wanna jam a pen in my eyesocket, you get me?" She spun her chair in a circle. "It's so fucking boring." Dropping her heels to the floor so the chair dragged to a halt, she leaped up. "So, Lisa. One on one? You pick the game."
Lisa chuckled. "Gimme five. Just gotta go tinkle and wash my face. Set the game up. You pick which one." She rose from the chair and stretched again, rotating her shoulders from side to side, which caused three different vertebrae to click in her back. Sitting still for long periods of time did that. Still, it was better than being shot at, or chased by murderous supervillains. Humming a tune, she meandered off toward the bathrooms, stopping at the kitchenette to set the coffee machine going. If there was one real benefit to being in the Wards, it was that they had an excellent coffee machine.
As she entered the Wards' bathrooms, she could hear Aisha cackling as she sorted happily through the stack of games next to the console. With a grin, she suppressed her power so that she wouldn't figure out what the game was going to be before she got back out there. Which, in turn, was why she was caught unawares when brownish-purple smoke billowed before her. A gloved hand grabbed her arm; before she could even yelp in surprise, she was standing on an uneven expanse of red sandstone. And, oh yeah. It was night-time again.
"What the fuck?" she demanded, letting her power out to play. Constellations indicate southern hemisphere. Time of night would make it Australia. I'm standing on that thing they call Ayers Rock. "Why are we in goddamn Australia?" On the heels of her question, her power probed the two capes before her. "You've done something. Screwed up. Pissed off Piggot. And now you want something from me."
"We're here because it's remote, there's photos of it, and nobody comes up here after dark," Pathfinder explained. "You're here because we need some information from you." A flashlight clicked on, and she saw that he was offering her a notepad and pen. "Specifically, a list of people."
"What people?" she asked blankly.
He told her.
Baumann Parahuman Containment Center
0607 Hours PDT
Sunday, May 29, 2011
Paige didn't really like it when Susie wanted to share the bunk with her, but it was one more tiny sacrifice to be made in order to survive inside the Birdcage. It wasn't as though Susie—Lantrai—had ever forced herself on Paige, or was even really a lesbian, any more than Paige was. But they were cellmates, and both were reasonably pretty. This meant that one of the top girls in Lustrum's coterie would take notice of them sooner or later, and the 'courtship' would begin. Rather than be forced into something that they definitely didn't want to do, they'd turned to each other. It wasn't love, or even any sort of real passion, but it helped ease the loneliness a little. The trouble was that sometimes Susie got a little clingy and wanted to share Paige's bunk, just to cuddle. Sometimes Paige was okay with this, but more often she was not. It was easier not to complain, though, so she just went along with it.
Susie, being the taller of them, was behind Paige with an arm around her waist; she didn't seem to mind that this put her back up against the cell wall. Paige had to admit that it was just a little comforting, although she still wasn't altogether sold on some of the things she'd done with Susie. She had trouble sleeping this way, which was why she was half-awake when the intruders appeared in the cell.
The first thing she knew about it was when a large burst of purple-brown smoke erupted into the middle of the cell. Her eyes wide, not daring to scream, she watched as the weird cloud dissipated to reveal a man and a girl, both tall, both costumed. The girl leaned toward Paige with a finger held across her lips in a shushing motion. Paige didn't need to be told twice, especially after she noticed the pistol in the man's hand. There were no guns in the Birdcage, which meant that these two had come in from the outside. What they were doing in Paige's cell, she had no idea. Not getting shot was a really good idea right now, so she wasn't going to do anything stupid.
"Shh," whispered the girl, really quietly and somewhat redundantly. "We're not here to hurt you, Paige." She knelt down beside the bunk and leaned close. "I have it on good authority that you shouldn't be here." Her voice was now a murmur, barely above the threshold of hearing. The girl paused; after a moment, Paige realised that she was waiting for an answer.
"I don't think I should be here," Paige whispered back, as quietly as she could manage. "But they wouldn't let me talk at the trial, and the judge ignored the three-strikes rule and sentenced me to the Birdcage even though I'd never done anything else wrong." She felt hot tears stinging her eyes at the reminder of how the trial had gone. A torture device masquerading as a gag, Brute-level restraints, and her hands submerged in buckets of containment foam; they couldn't have done a better job of portraying her as a dangerous parahuman if they'd tried. Paige still wasn't convinced her so-called lawyer had even been there to try to defend her. Maybe he was there just to make it look good while they twisted the law into a pretzel in order to condemn her to the closest approximation of Hell that existed on Earth Bet. I wish I could've told him to go fuck himself. But she didn't really mean that. Violence, in any form, was anathema to her.
"That's what I thought." The girl nodded toward Susie. "What'd she do?" She sounded … thoughtful.
Paige grimaced. "She took the mayor of some midwest town hostage, along with his family. Then she demanded they pay part of the ransom in cheeseburgers, because she was hungry. They drugged the burgers, of course. So when she gave the mayor's kids some of the burgers, they got sick. Allergic reaction. The youngest one died. It got blamed on her, the mayor called in some favours, and she got Birdcaged." It was a story with which she was familiar. Susie had told it enough times.
"But she never intended for them to get hurt?" Due to the dimness in the cell and the goggles the girl was wearing, Paige couldn't see her eyes to gauge her mood, but her voice sounded at least a little sympathetic.
"No. She was really upset by it." Paige heard her voice start to rise. Behind her, Susie stirred slightly. She took a breath and held it, to calm herself down. Susie quieted again. "She didn't want that to happen at all. All she was doing—trying to do—was get some money in a hurry." She wasn't the best judge of character—witness the reason she was in the Birdcage in the first place—but she believed Susie's insistence on that matter.
The man nodded, or at least Paige thought he did. "Right then," he murmured. "This is how -" As quietly as his voice was pitched, it was still a little too loud; Paige felt Susie begin to stir again. Before she could warn the guy, she heard the characteristic deep breath that Susie always seemed to do just as she woke up.
"What the hell?" That was Susie's voice, right by Paige's ear, speaking at normal volume. After the low-toned conversation from before, it sounded like she was shouting. And in fact, as she kept talking, her voice rose in volume. "Who the hell are you, and what the hell -"
The man moved fast, lunging in past Paige to grab Susie. At the same time, she felt the girl's hand wrap around her own wrist. Bright sunlight burst upon her eyes, and she landed on her ass, on soft sand.
PRT Building ENE
At the Same Time
Lisa finished washing her hands and strolled out of the bathroom, her head still spinning from what had just happened. While she wasn't really sure what Pathfinder and Compass Rose had done to earn the Director's ire, she owed them so much—for Coil and the Undersiders both—that she hadn't even considered not giving them what they wanted. Though what they want with the names of the Birdcage inmates who got shafted, I really don't want to know.
"Hey, you all right there, Lisa?" Aisha craned her head around from the sofa as the game screen began to load. "You spent so long, I was startin' to worry. Thought you mighta got lost."
Chris' head began to turn. Shit—no. Move along, nothing weird going on here. "Hah, no," Lisa said with a smile that felt like a weak imitation of her usual smartass grin. "But you might want to wait a while if you need to go. Kinda unpleasant in there right now."
Aisha cackled out loud, while Chris whipped his head back around to study the monitor screens with commendable intensity. "Oh, man. That takes me back. Remember pizza night in the old hideout? How Brian always used to order anchovies on the pizza?"
Lisa remembered all too well. Brian was a nice guy, but letting him eat anchovies led to the bathroom being uninhabitable by man or beast for the next twenty-four hours. So it fell to Lisa to distract him while Regent snuck the phone into the other room and changed the order. Brian always bitched about how they screwed up the order, and they never told him why.
"Why?" asked Chris, evidently screwing up his courage to ask the question. "What's wrong with anchovies on pizza?"
Lisa shook her head gently, even as Aisha cackled again. "Just … if you guys are ever getting pizza in, and Tenebrae wants anchovies, don't let him have them. Just don't."
"Ah." This was a subject Chris was apparently familiar with. "So noted. Aegis is the same with mushrooms. I have no idea why. Apparently super-adaptability doesn't translate to making that sort of thing not stink."
Aisha laughed so hard she fell off the couch.
Somewhere in the Tropics
1410 Hours GMT
Sunday, May 29, 2011
"What the hell?" demanded Susie, jumping to her feet. She stared wildly around, whipping her short dreadlocks from side to side. Paige was equally stunned, though she supposed she shouldn't have been, given the manner in which the two had appeared in the cell. Slowly she climbed to her feet, while Susie reached down and grabbed up a handful of sand, letting it run through her fingers. "Where the hell are we? What did you two do?"
Paige didn't bother asking; she just looked around. They were standing on a beach composed of the same fluffy white sand that was still running through Susie's fingers, quite a bit of which now decorated the seat of Paige's pyjama bottoms and the palms of her hands. Overhead, the sun sent slivers of brilliance down between the fronds of a huge palm tree. Looking out at the expanse of sand, she had to shade her eyes from the reflected glare of the sun, and from its glitter off the small wavelets making their way into shore. The ocean, and the sky above it, looked so gorgeously blue that it made her chest hurt.
"We're on a small island off the coast of Africa." It was the man who spoke. While both of the capes were taller than Paige, he was significantly more so. In addition, the long-coat gave him a certain air of authority. "As for how you got here, we teleported you. I'm Pathfinder, this is Compass Rose."
"Woooo!" screamed Susie, then grabbed Paige and spun her around in a circle. "I don't know how the hell you pulled this off, girlfriend, but I love you for it! We're outta the Cage, baby!" Pulling Paige close, she delivered an exuberant kiss to the singer's lips. "Now let's go find a bar with guys in it, so I can get drunk and laid and forget the last six fuckin' months!"
Compass Rose—despite how tall she was, Paige estimated her to be eighteen or nineteen or so—shook her head. "You won't find that around here. Nobody lives here. There's no fresh water, and no reliable food source. The closest civilisation is fifty miles that way." She pointed out over the ocean. If she squinted, Paige fancied she could see a faint shadow on the horizon.
"The hell?" Susie turned toward them, fire starting to wreath around her clenched fists. "Why'd you bring us here then? Is this some sort of sick fuckin' joke to you?" The irony, of course, was that while Susie could fly, she could only cover a dozen or so miles at a time. Paige knew this because Susie had told her; she wondered if the newcomers also knew it.
"We brought you here because we wanted to talk to you in private, and you were starting to get a little loud," Pathfinder stated flatly. He folded his arms. "But if you want to keep wasting our time, go right ahead. We've got all day."
Paige cleared her throat timidly. "Is this anything to do with what you were talking about before? About how I—I shouldn't be in the Birdcage?" She inhaled the breeze that came in off the ocean, redolent with the odours of salt and seaweed. While she'd never been one for the beach, it was the most glorious thing she'd ever smelt.
"Both of you, in fact," agreed Compass Rose. "I've studied your files, just in case there was ever a breakout from the Birdcage, and because I was kind of curious. And it turns out there's a certain number of you who don't deserve to be in there." She looked from Paige to Susie. "Also, because we've become less than convinced that the PRT knows what it's doing, these days."
"Okay," said Susie. "So why bring us here? Instead of, say, LA? Or hell, even Jersey? Why the middle of goddamn nowhere?" Her fists had unclenched, and she looked more curious than angry now.
"Because we didn't want you just bolting on us." Pathfinder unfolded his arms. "You wouldn't get away, but it'd be awkward and irritating to round you up again. Besides, we've got another reason. Specifically, we need to hide out for a while, and the Birdcage is the one place on Earth that nobody will be looking for us."
Paige stared at him. "You want to … stay there?" She shook her head. "That's …" Words failed her, and she shook her head again. "I can't even …"
"It's so goddamn crazy it's brilliant," Susie said. "You're right. Nobody's gonna come looking for you there. But you're also locking yourselves in with the most terrifying fucking villains in the world. Ever think of that?"
Pathfinder waggled his hand from one side to the other. "Well, for that matter, I was thinking of putting something to them. Something that might ease tensions a little, at least until we can work out a more permanent arrangement." He paused, most likely for effect. "I was thinking of introducing the concept of 'day release' to the Birdcage."
End of Part Twenty-Eight