Part 8-0: Sleight of Hand

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

Monday, October 17, 1994
PRT Department 04: Chicago
New PRT Building

The hallway ahead was dark and forbidding, but I didn't care. Touching the visor of my helmet, I whispered the command word. As if by magic—well, it was magic—I could suddenly see perfectly well, all the way down to the end, where the two lizard-like beings—kobolds, unless I missed my guess—waited with crossbows at the ready.

"You see them too?" whispered Lisa, flicking her bottle-green gaze sideways without ever looking directly down the corridor at the would-be ambushers. Even with pointy ears and almond-shaped eyes, she was still the Lisa I knew well. No amount of elf makeup would expunge the smug grin from her face. Or maybe elves were naturally smug. I wouldn't have been surprised.

Mm-hmm, I murmured without moving my lips. Wonder if they've forgotten that elves can see in the dark too?

"Half-elf," she corrected me. "They probably can't tell at this distance."

I snorted. Persons of elvish descent. There. Happy now?

"Just so long as you don't call me a tree-hugger. That's probably speciesist, or something."

I've never seen you hug a tree in my life.

"Exactly my point." She reached up and scratched randomly at her jaw. "Walk in front of me. I need visual cover for a second."

Shrugging my shoulders and making a show of re-settling my shield, I did as she asked, strolling across in front of her. The instant she was out of sight behind me—my armour and shield made for a good screen—she pulled her bow off her shoulder and nocked an arrow. The twang and whisper of the arrow whipping away down the corridor happened half a second later; I could've sworn I felt the fletching brush my hair.

One of the kobolds gurgled and fell over, clutching at the arrow now impaling its neck. The other screeched with rage and brought its crossbow into line, but I stepped in front of Lisa again, my shield held defensively. I felt the impact as the bolt shattered on the steel shield—a lot more expensive than wood, but definitely better at stopping things from getting through—then I stepped out of the way again as it frantically tried to crank the string back for a second shot. Lisa's second arrow made sure it didn't have to worry about that, or anything else, ever again.

Nicely done. You've been practising, haven't you?

She gave me a smirk as we headed down the passageway toward the two corpses, alert for any more surprises. "Always."

So, is Annette still going to have a nice, safe healthy pregnancy? I'd gotten the news in September from Danny and Annette. They were both over the moon about it, unsurprising since they'd actively planned for it rather than being surprised out of the blue. But I was still a little paranoid, so I bugged Lisa about it from time to time.

"Oh, yeah. Ordinary pregnancy, uneventful birth—" She was interrupted by a long, dull, booming noise that echoed down the corridor.

I looked around. What's that?

"Your boss, knocking at your door. I'll save some treasure for you. Kiss before you go?"

You better. I raised my visor. Her lips tasted of dust and blood and magic potions. A speck of dust drifted into my eye, and I blinked—

—then opened my eyes in my office. "Come in," I called out, closing the word processor window I'd been working on.

It was a little odd, being in Chicago again after the extended road trip that had taken Kinsey and me through nearly every state in the contiguous 48, as well as across to Hawaii and back. We'd returned to a new building, one where everyone was still settling in. This actually helped somewhat; that, and the absence of one Robbie Gordon.

I had a new office, which I'd set about making my own. As my orderly and personal bodyguard detail, Kinsey was right next door; he got to look people over before they ever got to me. While I was still very firmly a part of the Intelligence division of the PRT, I was neither in charge below Hamilton nor subordinate to anyone else apart from him. Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton had set it up that way and tended to growl at people if they asked why I got preferential treatment.

In days gone by, some may have complained about that, or even tried to go over the Lieutenant-Colonel's head to complain to those higher up (by 'some' I mean 'one', and by 'one' I mean Robbie) but it seemed enough of the stories had percolated through the division that nobody gave me flack about it. In fact, I occasionally found myself being approached by people who wanted my read on a particular subject. I was happy to help out; anything leading to a more effective Intelligence division was fine in my book. At the same time, I would usually give them a few pointers for improving their analysis technique, thus cementing my reputation as the go-to person when all else failed. Once in a while, Lisa would give me a heads-up before they came to me, allowing me to give them the solution on the spot and doing my reputation no harm whatsoever.

Yet, all was not wine and roses for Captain Taylor Snow, PRT (Intelligence). A crunch point was fast approaching. Behemoth was due in the first week of November, which I'd passed on to Hamilton with the certain knowledge that he'd convey it to those interested parties above him in the chain of command. I hadn't given him the date or location, though I'd officially narrowed it down to the Australasian region.

Nobody in that area of the world had been happy about that little heads-up. I'd heard the Australian teams were gearing up for the conflict, pushing hard with their training in total war scenarios (because fighting Behemoth was nothing less) combined with search & rescue. Even the criminal capes were keeping their heads down, lest they be targeted for a 'training exercise'. This wasn't a bad idea, because Gavel (still seen as a hero; the unwritten rules weren't really a thing yet) was taking it as an even better excuse than normal to bring the hammer down (literally) on anyone he considered to be a viable target.

In the Southeast Asian area, the capes tended more toward flamboyance and 'movie star' personae, not unlike those I'd seen in India. They didn't quite follow the Garama/Thanda divide (not that they would've used those terms even if they did), but it was close enough for me to keep a handle on. The 'bright' capes were putting on a huge show, boasting that they would protect the population and defeat the monster, while the 'dark' capes … weren't saying much of anything.

My office door opened and Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton (as predicted by Lisa) entered; no salutes were given, as we were both uncovered, but I stood up and went to attention. "Sir," I said, giving him a nod.

"Be seated, Captain," he replied, just as the second person entered the office. This was Myrddin, head of the Chicago Protectorate branch and one of the quirkier capes in a profession where wearing brightly coloured spandex and taking on a weird name was seen as perfectly normal. I'd seen him a few times, walking around the new PRT building, but we'd never spoken more than two words to each other.

"Greetings, Captain Snow," the newcomer said, bringing his gnarled wooden staff down with a thump at his feet. I had to admit; between that, the cloaked robe, and the beard, he could really rock the Gandalf look. By all accounts, he was an effective and empathetic hero, for all that he put on the wizard act. "I've heard much about you. It's good to meet you at last."

Back in my Brockton Bay, I hadn't yet gone over to the heroes when he was murdered by an Echidna clone, so I'd barely known him. It was good to see him get a second chance, just like everyone else in the world. "Likewise, sir." I offered him a polite smile. "Is there something I can help you with?"

"As it happens, yes there is." Myrddin took a step forward, so I could see the steel visor covering his upper face under the cowl of his robe. "I'm told you are close to pinpointing the next emergence of the Behemoth. Do you have any new insights as to when and where this might be, and any weaknesses the creature might suffer from?"

Well, no, I was going to keep all that secret, I thought sarcastically but did not say. "Uh, Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton was setting up a meeting between myself and the members of, uh, the original Protectorate …" I let my words trail off, irritated at myself and trying not to show it. For half a second there, I'd been about to say 'Triumvirate', which wasn't a thing in the here and now. Five years I'd been back in time, and I didn't need to trip myself up now because I wasn't paying attention.

"That is correct, Captain," Hamilton said promptly. "The meeting has been scheduled for ten AM on Wednesday the twenty-sixth. That's not too early, is it?"

I deliberately looked down at my notes for a second, then I met his eyes and shook my head. "No, sir. I should be ready by then. All the indicators will be set, and I'll do my best to give them hard data on a place and time."

"Good, good." The relief fairly radiated off him, and I felt bad about misleading him yet again. But not too bad; what I was going to do had to be done, and pulling the wool over his eyes was the least of my sins. "What can you tell us right now?"

To give Hamilton credit, he was very good at not jogging my elbow. I did my job (and did it well, thank you very much) and pretended to work on predicting the next attack. In return, he gave me a free hand, which allowed me to make preparations he had no idea of.

What the heck, I decided. Why not throw him a bone? "It's not Australia, sir," I said truthfully. "He's going to come up somewhere in the Indonesian archipelago. Jakarta or one of the other major cities. And it'll be in the first three days of November. Maybe the second, but I can't be sure about that."

I could see Myrddin wanted desperately to ask if I was sure of my findings, but he'd probably been spoken to very firmly by the other members of the Protectorate about not offending me. "Ah," he said instead. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't Krakatoa in that region?"

I knew exactly what he was aiming at, because I'd asked myself that very same question. Behemoth had never caused volcanoes to erupt, but that didn't mean he couldn't … or wouldn't. "It is indeed." I'd done my homework on the area, just in case. "And it's less than a hundred miles away from Jakarta. But the region is extremely volcanically active; Krakatoa is merely the one everyone knows about. There are no fewer than four volcanoes closer to Jakarta than that." I took a deep breath. "Can he make a brand-new volcano erupt in the middle of any city in Indonesia? I don't know, but if there was anywhere in the world it was going to happen, this would be it."

Myrddin muttered something under his breath which sounded remarkably like a good old-fashioned American swearword; not wizardly at all. "I … see. Thank you for your candour, Captain Snow. Do you have any good news for us? Has your crystal ball gazing given you any insights into its weaknesses?"

"No weaknesses that I can pick out, sir," I told him candidly. Hamilton had to have told him I'd worked hard at studying everything about the thing people thought was humanity's greatest foe. It had made for some boring nights. "I've got a few insights, but I don't think they'll actually help beat him. At best, I believe we can avoid making fatal mistakes when fighting him." I let my voice trail off suggestively.

"Well, it's more than we've had to work with before," he said. "I'll take anything I can get."

I acknowledged his point with a nod. "Okay, then. Most of the places that are normally vital points on humans aren't viable targets on the Behemoth. There might be something important in his chest, but I doubt there's a brain in his head or vulnerable nerve points anywhere on the body. Destroying the eye won't do a thing; he can see by other means. Making him bleed doesn't slow him down in the slightest. I'm pretty sure his body doesn't work on anything we recognise as biology, so there's no exotic poison or disease we could hit him with. When he's damaged, he heals from the inside out. Deep wounds become shallow wounds become no wounds. Also, the outer skin is the most fragile part on him. The farther in you go, the denser his flesh becomes, so the longer you leave any given wound, the more it will simply fill itself out from within, leaving you back at square one. And finally, the way he fries people from the inside out? That's an auto-hit effect. It gets anyone who ventures closer than thirty-two feet, not sure why that specific range. Only some Brute-rated capes are immune. I've got tentative numbers that say the temperatures are in the fifteen-hundred-degree range."

Myrddin shook his head. "And you said you only had a few insights. You've just rewritten the playbook on how to fight the thing, from the ground up."

Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton frowned slightly. "This isn't a criticism, Captain, but why do you call the Behemoth 'him' rather than 'it'? Doesn't that run the risk of humanising it?"

"Possibly, sir." I met his gaze. "He's shown himself capable of deep cunning, so I'm doing my best to not dismiss him as an inanimate object or a robot. And at the same time, I've dealt with some pretty despicable examples of humanity, so I have no problem with lumping him in with them."

Myrddin chuckled warmly. "She's got you there, Lieutenant-Colonel. Well, thank you, Captain Snow. Your insights were a little disturbing, but they've helped me recognise where I was going wrong with fighting the creature before. And they may just save lives when we fight it again." He paused. "Do you happen to have those points written down somewhere, so I can brief others on them?"

"Certainly, sir. I can have an annotated bullet-pointed list on your desk by the end of the day. Hopefully, we'll have fewer casualties this time than in New York." I was being absolutely honest when I said that part. Certain casualties were inevitable if I stuck with my plans, but … well, omelettes and eggs. And if it worked, many fewer people would die.

I watched them go while I mulled over what I'd told them. It was all basically true; ironically, most of it had been figured out by Lisa herself during the Leviathan fight. I knew he had a core in his chest that would kill him if destroyed, but if I gave them that direct hint, they'd throw themselves willy-nilly into the furnace for the chance to destroy him.

Behemoth wasn't a huge obstacle to my plans—well, apart from the several hundred thousand deaths every few months, of course—but I didn't want Leviathan sinking any landmasses, especially Newfoundland, now that I had Andrew Richter exactly where I wanted him. And the very last thing I wanted was the Simurgh sticking her nose into my business. So, my intent was to cut that particular chain of events off at the pass.

Lie, cheat, steal and kill. It was what I'd told Andrea I was willing to do, once upon a time. This still held true, and I saw no reason not to carry out what I intended to do. One human death to prevent millions more. It was a fair trade.

So why do I feel like shit?

Taylor's Quarters
Later That Afternoon

Snapping back to reality, I took a deep breath and licked my lips to dispel the lingering taste of dust and blood. The second of the two letters I'd been writing, the one to Gladys, lay on the desk before me. I had no memory of writing it, just that I knew what it pretended to say and what it actually said.

I didn't pretend to know how the encryption system Lisa had created worked, save that two entirely innocuous letters, one written to Danny and the other to Gladys, contained within them a third letter intended for Andrea. Their entire part in all this was to give her a copy of each of the letters. She would enter them both into the custom decryption program Lisa had written, and like magic, the third letter would emerge.

This was the point when her loyalty would be tested. I had no doubt she would hold faithful to me and to the cause, but the instructions I was sending her way weren't just to carry out quasi-legal activities. Outright crimes would be committed as a result of those instructions; innocents were likely to get hurt and possibly killed. But if I wanted the meeting on the twenty-sixth to be successful, it had to be done. More to the point, there had to be no suspicion that the crimes had any connection whatsoever to the meeting.

A long time ago, when I took a bunch of black widow spiders into Brockton Central Bank, I'd told myself I was going to Hell for what I was doing. Now more than ever, I was sure this was the case, but I didn't care.

I might be going to Hell but I'm going to save the world first, dammit.

Friday, October 21, 1994; 8 PM
A Brockton Bay Nightclub

Andrea showed her ID to the doorman and gave him a flirty wink before he let her through. In truth, she'd been getting into clubs since she was seventeen, being somewhat developed for her age while possessed of a distinct amount of chutzpah. Now that she was of legal age to drink, she didn't actually have to charm her way past security, but she liked to keep in practice anyway.

As she'd expected, there were four people waiting for her at a table; Danny, Annette, Gladys and Franklin. Despite being her age, none of the others showed the same level of comfort she felt in surroundings like this. Still, they had drinks (two of them non-alcoholic) in front of them, as well as what food the place offered.

As she came up to the table, all four got up to greet her. "Hey!" she said happily. "How are we all doing? Annette, I swear, pregnancy definitely suits you. Wanna take a spin on the dance floor?"

"Maybe later," Annette demurred, giving her a hug and kiss. "Right now, I just want to enjoy the music before my eardrums fall out."

"Your loss." Andrea dropped her handbag on the seat where they'd been sitting, keeping her purse in hand. "Say, keep an eye on my stuff? Need to visit the ladies before I get a drink." She gave Gladys a saucy grin. "Feel free to look inside. Might give you and Franklin some ideas in the bedroom."

Gladys laughed and shook her head. "Seriously, Andrea. Are you ever going to grow up?"

"Not if I can help it." Giving Danny a pat on the cheek and blowing Franklin a kiss, she moved away toward the aforementioned female bathrooms, bumping and grinding to the beat as she went.

She still enjoyed the ambience of places like this, though she may have lied a little bit to Annette. Sometimes she didn't even really feel like coming out and mingling with the college girls (and boy, did they seem to get younger every year) as opposed to kicking back with her feet up and watching some shoot-em-up on the huge screen in the new place. But this was part of her cover, so she came here anyway.

She attended to her needs amid the gleaming white porcelain tiles and fixtures—this club at least kept the bathrooms clean and patrolled them regularly for passed-out patrons—all the while catching the eye of a couple of the girls who were washing their hands alongside her. Just because she was getting old and fuddy-duddy, though not as much as Danny—seriously, marriage seemed to have straight-up aged him by twenty years—didn't mean she couldn't still enjoy herself.

Outside again, she went and bought the aforementioned drink, light on the alcohol and heavy on the decorative fruit, and went back to her friends. As was her usual way, she shuffled herself in between Danny and Gladys and sat back, shoving her purse back in her handbag. "So, how have we all been?"

Franklin didn't have much to say—he was distinctly uncomfortable in places like this, being unaware of the true purpose of the meeting—but Gladys provided several anecdotes from her position of vice principal of Winslow that had Andrea giggling over her drink. Danny chimed in with a few more from the Dockworkers, and Annette did her best to top Gladys with stories from Brockton Bay College, where she was working on her assistant professorship. Andrea retaliated with some of her own, causing Gladys to blush and Danny to laugh out loud; all the while running her hand up and down the length of her handbag. The compartment just inside the top, which had been empty and unzipped when she came in, was now zipped up, with sheets of folded paper inside. Excellent.

She went and got another drink and one more for each of her friends—water for Franklin and Annette, who were quite clearly driving—and spent the time thoroughly enjoying their company. Halfway through her second drink, she left the table to dance with some college girls, then led one off into a shadowed corner she knew for some serious makeout time. That was fun too—it was always fun—but she knew the girl wouldn't be coming back to the apartment with her.

She might be willing and eager, but to Andrea her pupils were just that little bit too dilated; she had to be on something. And even if she hadn't been, Andrea just wasn't in the mood for an all-nighter. Besides, she never took her conquests back to the high-rise, and she was seriously getting addicted to that bed.

Eventually, after they'd spent enough time in the place to make it look authentic—Danny and Annette had a turn on the floor, then Andrea and Annette and Gladys just for fun—they decided by mutual silent agreement that the night was done. When they got outside, the evening chill and the sudden lack of pounding music was almost a shock to the system; Andrea took a deep breath of cool night air and realised anew just how much she disliked stale cigarette smoke. One of these days, she figured, they'll ban it in places like that.

"Well," she said. "It was nice seeing you guys again. Catch you up again soon?"

"Sure," Danny agreed. "Maybe someplace quieter next time. My ears are still ringing."

"Softy," Andrea chided playfully, though hers were still buzzing slightly as well. Then she spotted something that made her frown. "Guys? Does that look right to you?"

It didn't take Danny and Gladys long to see what had gotten her attention. The college girl she'd made out with was being guided down the sidewalk by two guys who had to be at least ten years older than her. If the unsteadiness of her footsteps was anything to go by, the girl was either very drunk or she had another drug in her system.

"It does not," Danny agreed grimly. Along with Andrea, he set out toward the three, long strides eating up the ground so that she had to break into a trot to keep up. She watched as he unfastened his watch and slipped it into his pocket almost without thinking; it seemed his time in the Dockworkers had not gone astray.

"Hey! Stop!" Andrea called out when they got close to the trio; the end of the building was not far away, with a dark alley beyond. She didn't want to let them get that far if they had nefarious intent.

One of the guys glanced over his shoulder, then the two increased their pace, hustling the girl along.

Oh no, you fucking don't. Andrea ran ahead. "I said stop! Are you deaf?" To punctuate her words, she grabbed the guy on the left by the arm.

"Fuck off!" The guy pulled free and shoved her, hard. She was caught off balance, but Jim Kinsey had painstakingly taught her how to fall, and so she turned it into a roll that ended up with her back on her feet. Her outfit came out of it a little the worse for wear, but that didn't matter in the here and now.

The delay had allowed Danny to get around in front of them. He was taller than both, even if he wasn't as heavily built, and they paused for a moment. "My friend said stop. Where are you taking that woman?"

"Fuck off! What's it to you?" retorted the one who'd shoved Andrea.

His friend, clearly the quicker thinker, held up his hand disarmingly. "She's my girlfriend. We're getting her home. You can see she's had too much to drink."

"Yeah?" Andrea ducked in, then came away with the girl's purse. "What's her name, then?" As she spoke, she unclipped it and opened it up.

"Hey, that's hers!" shouted the man. "Give it back!"

Andrea danced away from his reaching hands. "When you tell me her name."

"Fuck you!" The foul-mouthed one of the pair stepped forward and punched Danny in the chest, making him stagger back.

"Hey," slurred the girl. "Where's my purse?" She looked around blearily at Andrea. "Hey, I 'member you. You good kisser."

"So are you." Andrea smiled at her, just as Danny recovered and dropped a solid one-two into the guy's solar plexus. "That man there, is he your boyfriend? What's his name?"

"Of course I'm her boyfriend!" interrupted the other one. "My name's Joe, isn't it, honey?"

"And what's hers?" Andrea pressed. She pulled out a driver's license. "Going once …"

"Give me that!" The guy lunged forward, reaching for Andrea and the purse. She tensed, ready to go on the offensive, but it wasn't needed. From over her shoulder, a sizzling left hook took the guy in the cheekbone and lifted him off his feet. Gladys stepped forward past her, fists up and cocked, ready to deliver more mayhem.

"Never seen 'im before," the girl mumbled, then leaned against the building, swaying. "Don' feel so good …"

"It's okay, hon." Andrea moved past Gladys and the other guy and steadied her, ready to step back out of the way of potential vomit. She'd been down this road before, far too many times. This close, she could definitely see the girl's pupils were far too dilated for even the dimness outside the club.

A couple of meaty thuds had her looking around; both men had been dropped on the pavement, one on top of the other. Danny and Gladys stood over them, looking rather pleased with themselves. While Danny had a grazed cheekbone, Gladys had not sustained a single mark. Andrea wasn't surprised; from what she heard, Gladys coached the school boxing team and Winslow hadn't lost a match in some time. Danny's style was more rough and ready, but he'd certainly prevailed.

"Think she's been spiked?" asked Gladys, rubbing her knuckles and looking the girl over.

"Signs point to yes," Andrea confirmed. She turned so that the driver's license she was holding was illuminated by a nearby streetlight, and squinted to read the name. "Veronica, hon? We're gonna get you home safe, okay? Do you live on campus, or in town?"

"Campus," said Annette, who had approached with Franklin. "I recognise her now. Danny and I can drive her back there and get her safely into her dorm."

Heavy footsteps heralded the approach of two of the doormen; Andrea turned, giving them both her most innocent expression. "Oh, hi," she said, projecting 'bubbly ditz' as well as she knew how. "Can we help you?"

The doormen blinked, clearly not used to that exact approach. "What happened to those two?" one asked, pointing at the groaning men on the ground.

Annette stepped forward. "I'm a teacher at Brockton College," she said crisply, then indicated Veronica, whom Andrea was still supporting. "This girl is one of my students. I was out for drinks with my husband and our friends, and we saw her being manhandled away by these two. She doesn't know them. I suspect her drink has been spiked."

"Nobody spikes drinks in our club," the other doorman said reflexively. "It doesn't happen."

Andrea let out an audible chuckle. "That's bullshit. Someone's dealing shit in that club. Her pupils are so dilated I can't actually tell the colour of her eyes."

"We're taking Veronica here back to the College, to her dorm room," Annette stated. "Unless, of course, you want us to stay and wait for the police …?"

The two doormen glanced at each other, and then the one who had denied the spiking shook his head. "No, just go."

"Oh, trust me, we're going," Annette said. They got several yards farther on before she spoke again, this time to Andrea. "Do you think she'll be okay to go back to her dorm? Or should we take her to the emergency room?"

"Take her back to the College," Andrea said firmly, still supporting Veronica. "She's still conscious and walking, mostly, so she only got a light dose of whatever it was. Probably just enough that she wouldn't be able to fight back. If you take her to the emergency room, they'll make her sit and wait for hours, then tell you they can't do anything for her except let the drugs work their way out of her system. Then they'll charge her an arm and a leg, plus a random vital organ for just existing."

Danny grimaced. "I wish you were wrong." He looked back over his shoulder. "And I wish we could do something about that sort of thing."

"Maybe an awareness campaign?" suggested Franklin. He blinked as everyone looked at him. "What?"

"That's actually a really good idea, sweetie," Gladys said. She slid her arm around his waist then looked at Annette. "Telling your students not to go out drinking is probably pointless, but if you could assemble a list of places where people have had their drinks spiked, you could tell them where not to go."

"Hmm," Annette murmured. "That definitely sounds doable." She turned to Danny. "Could you check with anyone in the Dockworkers who has heard of that happening to people?"

"Absolutely." He nodded with conviction. "Those places make most of their money off the college crowd. It's why they don't card them too carefully. If the look like losing that trade, they're going to have to pull their socks up."

"One step at a time," Andrea observed, then turned to Gladys. "Thanks for stepping up. I probably could've taken him, but not like you did."

Gladys shrugged. "Hey. All I had to do was ask myself, what would Taylor do?"

Andrea grinned. She probably would've pulled her pistol and shoved it up his nose. "Darn tootin'."

Andrea's Apartment
Some Time Later

With a ragged sigh, Andrea collapsed into the chair in front of her computer. She hoped Veronica would remember enough of the night's events that she'd be more careful about her drinks—and about what drugs she voluntarily ingested—in future. College students were infamous for not having the greatest of judgement, but she herself had managed to figure it out after a few close calls.

If I'd just brought Veronica back here for a roll in the hay, that wouldn't have happened, she mused. But then, those two jerkoffs would've targeted some other girl. Probably best the way it happened.

Reaching out, she flicked her computer on. Taylor had described what the improved versions of computers would look like in the future and she felt vaguely envious of her future self, getting access to all that cool stuff. As it was, she had to spend time carefully loading programs and making sure she didn't mess up by transposing keystrokes or something similar. Spies in the future probably have it a lot easier than me, too.

With the letters typed in, she hit the button to do the decryption, and watched as it scrolled down the screen. The first part was the standard run of instructions for how to improve the war chest, followed by the personal message from Taylor to her. It was always nice to read and she did so, several times. As usual, she was tempted to save the message somehow, but Taylor had impressed on her not to do this, so she didn't.

Under that, though, was something which wiped away lingering regrets and replaced them with very real consternation. Taylor wasn't playing anymore. The mission into Canada to remove Heartbreaker had been technically illegal, though not a single law enforcement agency had a problem with the results apart from, "Hey, maybe give us a heads-up first?"

But this was a whole level above that again.

"Jesus fucking Christ," she murmured, staring at the screen.

Contact your mercenary group. Have them use their cut-outs in Los Angeles to provoke an incident between civilians and Protectorate capes, leading to anti-authority protests. This has to escalate into attacks on the PRT and Protectorate buildings, or credible attempts to do so, by the morning of the twenty-sixth. Every single member of the LA Protectorate must be engaged with this on that date. I'll tell you why when I see you next.

Leaning back in the chair, Andrea buried her fingers in her hair. "Fuuuuck," she groaned, closing her hands into fists and yanking at her own scalp. "Taylor, what the fuck are you doing? What have you gotten me into?"

No answer was forthcoming from the screen. She had no way of contacting Taylor, of asking the questions she desperately wanted to have answered. By rights, she knew, she should inform the authorities of what she'd been asked to do, but she never seriously contemplated it for even a second. Doing that would be a horrendous betrayal of the trust Taylor held in her for every second of every day, and of the future she and Taylor were trying to bring about.

People were going to die. She was aware of it, and she knew for a fact Taylor was aware of it as well. In fact, she wouldn't have been even vaguely surprised if Taylor knew exactly how many casualties there would be, and the names of each one. Every single one of these people was someone who hadn't invited this fate; most probably didn't even deserve it. But in giving Andrea this instruction, Taylor had condemned them to death or potential injury, just to insure … what? That the Protectorate in Los Angeles was tied up for one specific day? Why did she even need that?

At the end of the day, Andrea knew it didn't matter. She had committed herself to following Taylor's lead long before this point. Doing so had made her a very rich woman, but that didn't matter either. What mattered was Taylor, and her vision for the future. A future where the human race had more of a chance to not be consumed by fire and terror and blood, where mankind could look to the sky and dream of hope. And although it seared her soul to do so, she had to be able to accept some collateral damage along the way. All she could really do was hope to be able to minimise it.

After jotting down the investment instructions, she sighed again and set about feeding the copies of the letters into her shredder. The mercenaries were just that; mercenary. So long as she continued to pay them their extremely generous salaries (and supplied them with the best toys) they would be loyal to her. Some small part of her hoped they'd at least be dubious about the instructions she was about to give them, but she knew otherwise. They would absolutely do what they were told.

Pulling out the semi-secret drawer under her computer table, she looked at the collection of burner phones and picked one at random. She already had the number memorised, so she slid the drawer closed and pressed the power-off button on the computer. Taylor had given her a series of code phrases to use at times like this, but the sanitised words weren't actually going to help much to assuage her conscience.

Turning on the cell-phone, she got up and strolled to the window. Carefully, she punched in the number, then plugged in the earpiece that would alter her speech just enough that anyone listening in wouldn't immediately recognise her voice. Outside the window, the street was empty; not even a parked car.

"Hello?" It wasn't the voice of the man she was paying to run the show, but one of his subordinates. Someone had to stay up in case the phone rang, after all.

"This one just came down from above," she said, entirely truthfully but misleadingly, playing the part of 'just another cog in the machine'. "We need a garden planted in the Valley." Meaning Los Angeles; each major city had its own codename. A 'garden' was an extended mission, rather than an in-and-out, while 'planted' meant people might get hurt. "The cuttings you've already collected need to be delivered …"

She spoke crisply but carefully, not rushing her words but taking care not to talk for too long. While Taylor had assured her that nobody was attempting to track her calls yet, there was no sense in not taking basic precautions. When she was finished, and she was certain the orders had been received and understood, the ended the call and turned off the phone. Popping it open, she took out the SIM.

Because of course Taylor anticipated the need for deniable cutouts in LA, she told herself, running her hand over her face. This whole thing's going to look entirely spontaneous, but in reality it's her pulling strings from behind the scenes.

Wiping both phone and SIM clear of any intrusive prints, she dropped them both in separate Ziploc baggies and stored them in a drawer. In the morning, she would go for a drive and dump them down a couple of storm drains. Right now, however, she needed a long hot shower and then bed.

Taylor, I love you dearly and I miss you terribly, but I hope we don't have to do too much more of this. It's not nearly as glamorous and fun as I expected it to be.

Then again, if saving the world was a fun and glamorous business, everyone would be doing it.

Los Angeles
Saturday, October 22, 1994
(The Next Day)

Life was good for Manny Cruz, though it hadn't always been.

At nineteen, he was a paid-up member of the East Ninety-Four street gang with a nine tucked in the back of his waistband. Right up until the Ninety-Fours had gotten into a shoving match with some other know-nothing crew over the wrong wall getting tagged, and it went south way too fast. Pieces came out and he saw too many of his homies popped without even a chance to shoot back.

Manny made it out of that hot mess, but he had to stay on the downlow, trying to wait for the heat to die down. Trouble was, some pieces of shit from his old hood had decided to play nice with these new guys, and he knew damn well they'd point him out if they saw him cruising the block. Which was why, when he got the offer from these out of town jerkoffs, he stepped up.

They were some kinda political activist bunch, as far as he could tell. But he figured he knew what was going on; they'd get people all worked up, then when riots and stuff happened, they'd hit big-money places and take them for all they had. After it all died down, they'd just fade back into the woodwork.

It was a good trick. Manny wished he'd thought of it first. But now he was part of it, and they were paying him just to chill and play video games until they needed him to go out and do shit. He was down with that.

So when the call came through, he was motivated enough to go and do what he'd been told. It wasn't what he'd been expecting, but the money was good so what did he care? The trick was getting a cape to do what he wanted, but the crew he was with had it all figured out.

All he had to do was play it by the numbers. And if it meant having his arm in plaster for a bit, the bonus coming his way would take the pain out of that too.

South Central LA

"Hey, stop!"

Los Angeles was a big city, and the LA Protectorate building could only hold so many capes. Which meant the patrols they went on were more a case of showing the flag (or 'flashing the spandex', as one wit put it) than any serious attempt to reduce the local crime rate. Sure, Alexandria could stop a bank robbery in about fifteen seconds (twenty if they had capes along) but that just meant the serious robbers waited until she was busy elsewhere. The chances of a crime actually happening in front of a cape was minimal to zero.

Which was why Robert Maxwell, superhero and two-year veteran of the mean streets of Los Angeles, was caught unawares by the sudden shout as he cruised down a suburban street just above rooftop height. He paused and looked around, wondering if someone had called out to him—maybe an actual cat was stuck in an actual tree?—before he saw the kid legging it down the sidewalk with what looked like a woman's purse tucked under his arm.

For a moment, he paused in honest disbelief, but then "Thief!" floated up from below. He couldn't see who was actually shouting, but that didn't matter. That kid was really booking it, and in his experience teenagers in LA never ran anywhere unless there was a real good reason.

Like, say, they'd grabbed someone's handbag.

Holy shit, I actually get to catch a purse snatcher! Stretching out his arms, he accelerated downward, swooping toward the kid. Unless the little shit was a Mover, he'd catch up before they hit the corner. "Uh, Dynamax to Console," he said as an afterthought. "Got a snatch-and-grab artist here. I'll call it in once I've got hands on."

That was all he had the time to say, because at that point he came up behind the purse snatcher. He'd been trying to work on something cool to say when he grabbed the perpetrators, but nothing really suggested itself. "Hold up!" he shouted, grabbing at the loose flopping hoodie the guy was wearing. Latching on, he pulled to a halt in mid-air; if he did it right, the guy's legs would go out from under him and he'd land on his back and spend the next thirty seconds counting the cute little tweety birds while Robert zip-tied him and called it in.

But it didn't happen that way. Instead, the guy ran straight out of the hoodie, which was bad enough. But then he dived sideways onto the road. Robert clearly saw him fling his arm out directly in front of a car that had been rolling down the street. Tyres screeched and the car came to a halt, but not after the front wheel had gone clear over the kid's arm. He didn't hear the bone break, but he sure as hell knew it had happened anyway.

"Ahh!" screamed the kid. "What the fuck? You threw me on the road! Fuck! You tried to kill me, you cape piece of shit!"

Hovering in mid-air, Robert looked around. Even though they'd all ignored the shout to stop the thief, everyone was now looking at him.

"Oh, fuck."

Half an Hour Later

Rebecca Costa-Brown turned away from the earnest young hero for a moment. Lifting her helmet, she pinched the bridge of her nose, wishing she could go out into the Badlands or someplace and punch something until this all began to make sense again. Then she dropped the helmet back into place and turned to face him once more.

"So, you heard someone yell for him to stop, but you didn't see who," she said, not so much to clarify it in her mind as to give him a chance to add more detail.

"Yes, ma'am, that's correct." Dynamax was a solid hero who hadn't screwed up before to the point of being called into her office. He did flight and energy blasts and could manifest a personal force field, but nothing extraordinary. He was also white, whereas the Cruz kid and most of the witnesses to the event were Latino. As was Rebecca herself, but she wasn't counting that. Her role in all this was to figure out what went wrong and how not to do it again, and it wasn't going well.

She waited a moment for him to elaborate, then nodded and went on. "And then you heard someone call 'Thief', and you saw him running, and you flew after him?"

"Yes … uh, no," he said, stumbling over his words. "I heard someone call 'thief', but I think I saw him first. I remember vaguely wondering why he was running so fast."

"Good, good." That was how he'd told it first. The fact that he wasn't changing his story when nudged to do so meant he was recalling things in sequence. "And what happened when you grabbed him? What happened to the handbag?"

"There was no handbag," he admitted, clenching his eyes shut in remembered embarrassment. "It was a rolled-up backpack with one strap hanging free, tucked under his arm. Nothing in it. No reason for him to be running."

"And did you find the person who called out?" Rebecca pressed.

He shook his head. "Nobody admitted to it. Everyone just said they saw me fly after him and throw him on the road. Which I didn't do."

"I believe you," she assured him, and it was true. Every tell he was giving off indicated that he'd been trying to pull a righteous bust, and he'd been decoyed into something more.

Someone was attacking the LA Protectorate for some reason. There wasn't any specific lack of anti-cape fanatics in the US, and LA sometimes seemed to have more than its fair share. The question was, which nutbar group was behind this, and what was their end goal?

Still, there was no harm in crossing every T and dotting every I. "Now, I want you to think really carefully. Have you ever met this Manny Cruz before? Do you think he might know you from your civilian identity? Can you think of any reason he might have for personally framing you for injuring him?"

"No, ma'am." He shook his head firmly. "I've never seen the kid before. Or if I have, I don't remember it."

Which didn't make it a definite that they'd never met, but Rebecca considered it relatively unlikely. Dynamax wasn't prone to antagonising the citizenry, and she'd never heard anything bad from anyone else working with him. Which meant that she was back to her original conclusion.

"Dismissed," she said. "Go hit the showers."

"Thank you, ma'am." The door closed behind him, but she wasn't even paying attention anymore.

This was a put-up job. Someone had a video camera in just the right place to make it look like Dynamax really did hurl the little shit into traffic. Three different people called the news and reported it even before the cops got there. They're blowing it up right now, pushing the race-hate side of things. It's going to get worse before it gets better.

Rebecca knew damn well that if she could get access to the Cruz kid for just fifteen minutes, she could sweat the whole thing out of him. But he was officially the victim here, so she had no access. All she could do was try to anticipate what was going to happen next, and cut it off before it got too bad.

She stared at the TV across the room, which was playing the same damned news clip with the sound off for the tenth time running, and frowned. Even WEDGDG, when she consulted them, hadn't been able to muster a coherent response.

What the fuck is going on here?

Monday, October 24, 1994
PRT Department 04: Chicago

"Have you heard the news out of Los Angeles, ma'am?" Kinsey carefully put my morning coffee on my desk, then laid the paper beside it.

I took up the coffee and sipped it. "Thank you, Kinsey. The Cruz thing? Has that blown over, or is it still being exacerbated?" The front page of the paper gave me my answer; a blown-up photo showing a march with signs protesting the violence against Manny Cruz lay just under the headlines.

"It's not going away anytime soon, ma'am," he confirmed with the wisdom of long experience. "So, you think the original incident was a frame job, rather than just a simple accident?"

I raised my eyebrows. He thought the same thing about it that I did, but we often tested each other this way. "How often do accidents of that magnitude happen in our line of work? No, someone wants to whip up anti-cape sentiment, and Manny Cruz was just the patsy. He probably doesn't even know who he's really working for, or why they ordered him to jump into traffic."

"I think you've got something there, ma'am. Are you going to be looking into it?"

There was a knock on the doorframe to my office, and I looked up to see Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton standing there. Immediately, I rose to my feet, and Kinsey and I went to attention. "Sir," we chorused.

"At ease," he said, entering the office. "Captain, I suspect you were discussing the very thing I was coming here to talk to you about. What are the chances I can get you to put one of your other projects on hold to look into this Manuel Cruz affair in Los Angeles?"

I took a deep breath. "Sir, my main overriding project right now is to get all my ducks in a row for the meeting on Wednesday. After that, I'll be able to look into the LA thing and tell you if it's capes or normals behind it, where they can probably be found, and rough out a good idea of their end goals. With any luck, it'll have petered out by then but if it hasn't, I'll personally fill in Alexandria on who she needs to be punching to finish it off herself."

He gave me one of his rare smiles, his eyes twinkling behind his glasses. "Snow, if it was any other one of my analysts saying that, I would advise them to check the size of their boots. With you, I know better. I will advise the Director of the situation. Captain, sergeant; carry on."

"Sir," we said again as he left. I sat down again and took up the paper to see if they'd printed anything new. On first glance, it didn't seem so.

"I'll leave you to it, ma'am," said Kinsey, heading for the door leading into his office. "I'm guessing it won't take you long to get to the bottom of it, given the other messes you've helped unravel."

"Thank you, Kinsey. I appreciate the vote of confidence." Sipping at my coffee, I carefully read through the rest of the paper. In one of the classified ads I picked out something I'd been looking for, that Andrea would also be checking on; the coded message that said the LA group were ready for the next step.

Folding the paper, I set it aside and started the process of booting up my computer. You go get 'em, Andrea.

Wednesday, October 26, 1994
0953 Hours
PRT Department 04: Chicago

I had to admit, Alexandria's body double was perfect in every way. I'd met her, as both Alexandria and Rebecca Costa-Brown, and my brain was still trying to convince me that this was really her, not some copy. However, Lisa had been just as adamant this would be the double, so I knew (in this instance) better than to believe my lying eyes.

Of course, she was making it easier on herself by impersonating Costa-Brown, not Alexandria, though I knew for a fact the double was actually a cape with the power of flight, just in case. She wasn't too bad at projecting the concept of 'I own the room' either, which was something I was still working on. But it wasn't her presence I was concerned with; it was Alexandria's absence. The very last thing I needed was for a high-powered Thinker to be spotting things I really didn't want spotted in the middle of my presentation.

"As Alexandria is still enmeshed in the problems in Los Angeles," she stated as she walked in the front doors, "she has asked me to attend this meeting in her place."

Which was, I had to admit, a mildly amusing way of telling the truth at the same time as lying her ass off. In any case, the 'problems' in Los Angeles had escalated to the point that someone had set off a truck bomb next to the Protectorate building, injuring three and killing one. The current consensus was that the dead man was the driver of the truck, but they were still trying to identify him.

This wasn't the only incidence of violence, just the most striking of them. A satchel charge had been set off against the outside wall of the Los Angeles PRT building, shaking the structure and gouging a shallow crater out of the concrete, but neither hurting anyone nor breaching the interior. If I hadn't known this was going to happen (and had been the ultimate cause of it all) I would've been somewhat concerned. As it was, I was still concerned, but I knew how to end it.

According to Lisa, we'd managed to tap into a simmering undercurrent of resentment, which had only required a few strategic nudges to erupt into open violence here and there. It seemed there was a crazy almost on every street corner ready to pull out a gun and shoot at someone for something. All they needed was a cause, any cause.

But that was something I was going to have to deal with afterward. Right now, I had a meeting to chair. "That's perfectly fine, ma'am. If you will come this way."

She followed along, looking around with professional curiosity. The building was still fairly new and to my knowledge, Alexandria hadn't popped in for a visit yet, though she'd probably memorised the floor plans, just because she could. I paused outside the conference room we'd be using and opened the door for her. "Just in here, ma'am."

She was the last to arrive, mainly because she'd had to rely on mundane methods of transport. Eidolon, Hero and Legend were all there, as well as Myrddin. Director Rankine and Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton had more or less invited themselves to the meeting, as I'd known they would.

Everything was going to plan … I hoped.

As the faux Chief Director took the spotlight for a moment, I crossed the room to where the hot-water urn was situated on the coffee cart. "We have a few more minutes before this meeting is due to start, so allow me to pour you drinks, ma'am and gentlemen."

This was where a part of the plan that I'd been nursing along since April came in. I'd been stalled on it until Andrea had managed to hire a substances Tinker and keep him out of the hands of the Uppermost.

Synth could produce any normal, mundane substance, so long he had the chemical ingredients to do so, and manufacture the means to store them indefinitely and safely. He could also manufacture 'perfect' drugs; biochemical substances that had precise effects on the human system, with no problematic side-effects to speak of. Again, nothing impossible. He couldn't make an elixir that granted the ability to fly, for instance. But he could manufacture a substance that, in the presence of caffeine, caused a person to become extremely suggestible, but which would be entirely neutralised by such things as sugar or milk.

These were not random stabs in the dark on my part. I had checked with Lisa to see who would be attending the meeting, and what their choices of beverage were. Everyone took tea or coffee. Everyone but Eidolon took either sugar or milk (or sometimes both) in their drinks.

The sachets Andrea had gotten to me were already in the boiling water, long since dissolved. All I had to do was pour the cups, and the show could begin.

"Do we have time for this?" demanded Eidolon. "We're all busy people here. There's no need for a tea party."

I froze, my hand inches from the first cup. If he refused to drink, then I doubted my presentation would have its desired effect. I'd have to think of some other way of dealing with him. Shooting him in the back of the head probably wouldn't cut it.

"Excuse me, sir?" Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton may have been a superior officer, but he still had a way of saying 'sir' that would have shaved tungsten carbide. "I do believe when a lady offers refreshments, it is only courteous to accept them."

"He's right." Legend, ever the gentleman, stepped up. "My apologies for my comrade, and I would very much appreciate a cup of coffee, Captain Snow."

Hero nodded, part of his helmet faceplate sliding apart to expose his mouth. "Me, too. I keep meaning to install a coffee vendor in this thing, but I can't think of what to take out."

Director Rankine and 'Costa-Brown' shared a chuckle at the weak joke, and Rankine nodded at me to start making the coffee. My homework on what each of them preferred actually came in handy now, as I handed them each out what they normally drank. Eidolon grudgingly accepted his and took a seat at the table with everyone else as I went around to the large whiteboard and sheaf of papers on a flip-stand.

"Hopefully this won't take too much time out of your day, ma'am, gentlemen." I flipped the whiteboard over to show the diagram I'd done of Behemoth, with notations pointing to various parts of his body. "I'm presuming the information I passed on to Myrddin has been disseminated?"

Myrddin nodded, and Legend murmured agreement. I pretended not to watch as Eidolon took a sip of his coffee, then looked appreciatively at it and took another one.

"Good," I said, and I meant it in more ways than one. "Now, as I explained to Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton once upon a time, the Behemoth is a creature of chaos. He either goes where his attack will cause the most upheaval, or he goes to where the upheaval is already in place. At the moment, there are various nationalist protests going on in Indonesia, which will shortly come to a head, which is why the attack will take place there."

"What about Los Angeles?" asked the faux Chief Director. "There's unrest there as well."

"I did look into that," I said truthfully. "It's too recent, and too shallow, to really attract him … this time. If it keep up and gets worse, then I'll consider that to be a problem. Right now, all indicators are that he will arrive in the middle of Jakarta, on the first of November, an hour or two either side of midday, local time."

Silence greeted my announcement, which wasn't surprising. Getting twelve hours of warning had been huge for New York. I'd just handed them six days. I could see all of them working to get their heads around it.

"What," quipped Legend to break the tension, "you couldn't get us a street address?"

A chuckle ran around the table, which I joined in on. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Eidolon take another drink of coffee. "Not this time," I said lightly.

"But next time?" asked Eidolon. "What will you be able to give us then?"

"Maybe there won't be a next time," I replied. "I have some ideas on where he comes from."

Dead silence fell once more, so much so I fancied I could hear a clock ticking on the wall in the next room. I filled it by flipping the first sheet of paper over on the flip-stand, revealing a blank silhouette with a question mark in the middle.

"I think it's a cape. Not Behemoth himself, but whoever calls him."

That broke the deadlock. Everyone was shouting at once. Except, I noticed, the faux Costa-Brown. As good as she was, I didn't think she felt like pitting her fake credentials against everyone else's very real powers. The person shouting the loudest was Eidolon, but I just had to wait until he subsided.

"—sake, sit down," Hero told him. "She'll tell us what she means by that."

Or was made to subside, one of the two.

I flipped the next sheet. "The three options here are: hero, villain, neutral. I dismissed the idea of a villain controlling him, mainly because what villain could resist gloating to the world, and extracting ransoms from entire nations not to attack them?"

"That behaviour would very quickly earn a Kill Order," observed Myrddin astutely.

"It would," I agreed. "And yet, villains still earn Kill Orders on the regular. The threat does not deter them as often as it should. I'm not inclined to think it's a villain. Or a neutral, for that matter. Is there someone going along afterward, cleaning up the messes for a hefty paycheck? No. There's no profit motive, here."

"Captain Snow," said Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton slowly. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but you seem to be suggesting that it's a hero doing this."

"I am indeed suggesting that," I agreed. "All unawares, but still a hero. Because a hero doing this on purpose would be no hero." I let my gaze linger on Eidolon for just a moment, here.

Now, the fake Costa-Brown spoke up. "So, what you're saying is that it's a hero who doesn't know they're doing it?"

"That's my belief, yes." I looked at the heroes in the room one at a time, and again I looked at Eidolon a fraction longer than the others. They wouldn't notice it, but in his state of mind, he definitely would. "A hero who desperately wants to be seen as the best hero in the world. Pushing themselves to be better every day, reaching into the very depths of their powers and going above and beyond to find that last, final effort. That's the sort of hero I'm thinking of, right now." Once more, at the words 'right now', I looked directly at Eidolon.

"Okay, assuming this is true." Hero sounded like he didn't want to believe it, but at the same time didn't want to reject what I was saying in case it turned out to be accurate. "How do we even tell who it is? I can't help but think that describes basically every hero in the Protectorate, and certainly every hero in this room. We've all put our lives on the line, more than once."

Legend shook his head. "No, no, what I want to know is, how do we deal with them once we find out who they are? They're heroes. Even if they're doing it, it's not on purpose. What do we do? Kill Order? Good luck getting proof. Prison? The best case there is that the monster breaks them out."

Costa-Brown's body double cleared her throat. They turned to look at her, and she gestured toward me. "Perhaps we should give Captain Snow the chance to answer those questions. She seems to see most clearly of all of us when it comes to this."

Well, that was one way to put me on the spot. "Despite my reputation, I'm not a Thinker," I began carefully. "I can only see the shape of things. The hero who's doing it ... they're powerful enough to stand up to the Behemoth in single combat. They're not a B-lister or a back line hero. This is meant to provide a challenge, to let them face a worthy opponent. Something that can take a hit and land one in return, but won't go down like a chump when everyone else hits it. They would need to be in there swinging; otherwise, what's the point?"

Hero nodded. "Well, that narrows it down a little," he conceded.

I nodded to acknowledge his words. "Plus, from what I've seen, most heroes don't actually give their all. They hold just a little bit back, so they can pull themselves out of danger if things go south. This hero ... isn't like that. They believe in being a hero. When it comes down to it, they will throw one hundred and ten percent at the bad guy, worrying about themselves last of all."

Now I had them thinking, worrying. I think I'm like that, but am I like that? Am I accidentally summoning the Behemoth? I could see Eidolon, Legend and Hero glancing from side to side, Eidolon most of all. I'd sunk the hook deep, and now I had to make it count.

"You asked what we should do if we found out who it was." I shook my head. "Nothing. I certainly don't feel qualified to stand in judgement over someone like that. This might sound like a cop-out, but accusing others would just lead to witch-hunts. I may have my suspicions, but I'm definitely not accusing anyone in this room." As if by accident, I let my eyes rest on Eidolon once more. "No, it would be up to that person to realise the truth, and ... deal with the matter themselves."

Director Rankine sat up at that. "Do you mean retirement, Snow? Because I've heard the rumours about parahumans not being able to not use their powers. Or are you advocating suicide, because that sounds more than a little grim? Couldn't a cape who finds out they're somehow controlling the monster learn how to simply ... stop it from attacking? Maybe even turn its power to heroic ends?"

I kept my tone formal. "Sir, I never promised answers in this meeting. Analyses and data, yes, but I don't pretend to know all the answers, or even most of them. However, to answer your question: if my logic is correct, it was a heroic impulse that caused the Behemoth to be summoned in the first place. I'm not sure I want to see the result of a second heroic impulse formulated with the intent of overthrowing the first."

Legend shuddered. "No. Neither do I. That's a hard pass." He tilted his head queryingly. "Did you have any other nightmare scenarios you would like to inflict upon us today, Captain Snow, or was that the end of your presentation?"

"That was the end of it, yes," I confirmed. "I hope you can use what I gave you."

"A six-day lead, plus a definite time and place for the emergence of the Behemoth?" Hero might have been rolling his eyes, but I couldn't be sure behind that visor. "If we can't make good use of that, then I'm pretty sure we'd have to hand in our superhero cards."

"It remains to be seen whether my information is correct," I said. "If anything else comes up, I'll get the information to you as expediently as I can."

"Understood." Legend stood up and came around the table. "I've seen your work before, and trust me when I say I have faith in your ability to pull a rabbit out of a hat." He held out his hand. "On behalf of all the people you saved in New York—thank you."

I shook his hand. How could I not? I couldn't very well confess to him how much I blamed myself for the people who still died; or worse, would have survived but died because of my actions. "No, thank you. That means a lot."

There was a little more cross-chatter then the heroes filed out, escorted by Director Rankine. Each one took with them a précis of the material I'd covered in the meeting, including Eidolon. Or rather, in my eyes, especially Eidolon.

Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton remained behind, saying nothing; at least until the door closed behind our illustrious guests. Casting a cynical gaze my way, he raised his eyebrows. "A little harsh on them, weren't you, Snow? I'm used to it, but I understand capes dislike hearing bad news."

I suppressed the twinge of amusement at hearing him use the slang term that was old in my time but still new here. "I'm sure Legend is a big boy, sir. He wouldn't be running the Protectorate if he couldn't handle things like that from time to time."

Hamilton let out a bark of laughter and slapped the table; had we not been on duty, I suspected he would've slapped me on the shoulder instead. "Isn't that the truth? I have to admit though, as used to your revelations as I am, you still caught me by surprise."

"I believe that's kind of my job, sir." I started clearing up the coffee cups. Each of them, I was pleased to see, was empty. "Could you please send Kinsey in, so I can finish cleaning up? I've got to start work on the LA thing."

"I believe I can manage that, Snow. Let me know how you get along." He left then, humming what sounded like a marching tune.

There was one thing left to do. When Kinsey came in, I set him to washing the crockery and cutlery, while I manhandled the urn to the other sink and very carefully rinsed it out.

Then I set to work pretending to review the reports on the Los Angeles situation. The mercenaries would have pulled back out of the area by now, I knew; what I was going to bring down the wrath of Alexandria on would be purely the homegrown talent. And there was always more of that.

Tuesday, November 1, 1994

If he hadn't known the truth of it, David would've thought for certain the Behemoth had indeed forced a volcano to erupt beneath the urban area of Jakarta. The smoke and fire certainly added to the illusion. But it was merely houses and other buildings burning.

The population was fleeing the epicentre as he swooped lower, clogging the streets. Grimacing, he toggled his helmet radio. "Why weren't the people evacuated earlier? We've known about this for six days!"

Alexandria's voice answered him, as cool and unflappable as ever. "Politics, mainly. Also, most of them have evacuated. The trouble is, a lot of them have nowhere to go."

"That's not good enough." As he watched, a bolt of lightning skipped along a crowded street, bouncing from building to building and frying everyone in its path. "People are dying down there. We have to delay him, give them time to get away."

"No." Alexandria's slim form flashed past him, into the cloud of smoke and ash. A moment later, he felt the impact as she impacted the beast. All the heroes they'd gathered were likewise in there, pummeling the Behemoth or doing their best to rescue civilians. "You heard what Snow said about volcanoes. If we give the thing a chance to get set up, it might just bring one up under everyone's feet."

He had indeed heard what Snow had said. Her words had haunted him for the last six days. Every time she'd looked at him with that steady gaze, as though she knew what he didn't. Silently saying, you called the monster.

He didn't know why he believed her so implicitly, but there it was. Everything she'd said, he knew was the absolute truth, beyond the shadow of a doubt. Everything she'd said ... and everything she hadn't said.

I'm not accusing anyone, she'd said, then looked at him. She didn't have to accuse him; her tone and gaze and attitude had made it unnecessary.

I called the monster. It became clear as day to him. I needed a worthy opponent. She was being merciful to me, allowing me to reach this understanding, without shaming me.

I know what I have to do.

He swooped closer, curling around a bolt of lightning that snapped at him. Closer he came, and closer again. Now he was in the raging, swarming hell of energy that the Behemoth threw out in all directions.

But he wasn't close enough.

He struggled on, pushing past force-blows that tried to knock him back.

Finally, he was in the death zone. Thirty-two feet from the monster. He wondered vaguely how Snow had known that.

His radio was screaming static at him; abruptly, it cleared. Hero's tech, no doubt. Alexandria's voice sounded in his ear. "What are you doing?"

His voice was dreamy as he answered. Finally, he had found his true definition as a hero. "What I must." I never wanted anyone to get hurt.

Concentrating, he rid himself of all protective powers. Just for an instant, with Alexandria screaming his name in his ear, he hung motionless in the air, utterly unprotected.

Checkmate, beast.

And then the heat flushed through him, and he burned.


Rebecca was swooping in toward Eidolon, heedless of the maelstrom of energies. She didn't know what had gotten into him, but she knew she had to get him out. Ever since the meeting with Captain Snow, he'd been off, and she didn't know why because she hadn't been there.

She broke through into clear air, and saw him. Uselessly, she shouted his name.

And in that instant ... he ignited. Between one heartbeat and the next, he combusted like touch-paper in a furnace. By the time she got to him, all that was left was his helmet, falling through the ash-laden air.

She caught the helmet and stared at it. Then she realised one more thing.

The monster had stopped.

End of Part 8-0