"My first advice to you is: don't panic." said Armsmaster. "Public interviews can be stressful for a cape, even for veterans like myself. The fact that this will be your first, and with the Chief Director of the PRT, makes a healthy degree of apprehension understandable."
"I appreciate it, but I'm not worried." said Jack. "I've been looking forward to this."
Armsmaster studied him for a moment, then nodded. "You're telling the truth." He pressed the button on the wall to call the elevator. "That's a good attitude, but don't get cocky. I've seen capes go into live interviews with all the confidence in the world and come out wishing they had never been born. Fortunately for you, this will be a more accommodating environment. The interview will be recorded, not live, and the PRT will edit the tape before showing it to the public." A small frown passed over his face. "A luxury we can all too rarely afford."
>> Armsmaster was nearly done securing the time-stopped forms of the criminals when he heard a voice from the mouth of the alleyway. The smooth, professional tones of a television reporter. Probably that bastard Manzaneres from channel 4.
"...the scene where the thieves were taken down by a new hero who put a stop to their crimes - literally. Fantastic work, young man. How did you pull it off?"
The boy chuckled. "Like this!" He flung out one of the ropes he held and froze it in the air, as if to block the path of an imaginary foe. "Freeze, criminals! Your time is up!"
Armsmaster groaned. The puns. The boy had practiced them. Mouse Protector was bad enough as a colleague. To have one of her kind as a subordinate would be-
"Amazing! Fantastic! Astonishing!" fawned the reporter. An obvious trick to gain the boy's confidence, but the child was eating it up. "And what name should the people of Brockton Bay call their new hero?"
Armsmaster hurriedly secured the last set of cuffs and took off in a dead run toward the boy, shouting for him to stop, but he was late, too late-
The boy struck a dramatic pose. "Villains beware! Give up your life of crime or be put on pause forever, by the mighty power of the-"
Jack raised an eyebrow and gave him a sympathetic nod. "Ah. Helping us present our best face to the public?"
"Right." said Armsmaster. "We're the faces of heroism in Brockton Bay. We want to look good, the PRT wants us to look good, the public wants us to look good. If you make any embarrassing misstatements the PRT will clean up on the tape."
Hah. The PRT would scrub his 'mistakes' from the tape. In other words, the PRT would control the message he sent to the public. But he wouldn't let them steal his fifteen minutes of fame. This was his chance to address the world. He would have to send his message in a way the PRT wouldn't censor, or couldn't censor even if they wanted to.
"It's good to know-" Jack caught himself before he finished the sentence, stopped and took another tack. "It's good to know that you have my back on this. I'll try to learn from your example."
Jack suppressed a scowl. There was another problem. Armsmaster's lie detector. He had been about to say 'It's good to know the PRT has our back', but that wouldn't have been entirely true, would it? It would be troublesome, double-checking everything he said in the interview to make sure he wasn't crossing any lines. He didn't know the limits of Armsmaster's technology, and in any case Sophia had told him that Armsmaster's tools were constantly being refined and improved. He couldn't afford to take any chances.
The elevator door opened and they entered. Armsmaster hit the button for the fifteenth floor. Two from the top.
"I expect the director to give you softball questions. 'What inspired you to become a hero?'. 'How did you get up the courage to join an Endbringer fight on your first day out?'. 'What kept you going, when you found out the cost of using your power on Armsmaster's halberd?'. 'What do you want to tell the other survivors from Brockton Bay?'." Armsmaster paused. "You seem well-read about capes. You know about trigger events?"
"Yes." said Jack.
"Good. You don't need to worry about that, she won't ask you about yours. She'll be directing the harder questions at me. As leader of the Brockton Bay Protectorate, our conduct in the battle was my responsibility. I'll be the one she wants to answer detailed questions about the battle, and those that bear on PRT policy."
Jack couldn't suppress his scowl this time, and turned away to hide his face. In other words, Armsmaster wanted to control the flow of the interview. Armsmaster wanted to maximize the credit he got for their victory and send a message out to the public to shape policy. While he wanted Jack to obediently play the courageous rookie who followed the veteran's lead, a boy with his head filled with an earnest desire to be a hero and nothing else worth mentioning.
Not a chance. He wasn't their dog.
But he would have to choose his moves carefully. Armsmaster was surely preparing a scheme to control the public's first impressions of their collaboration. The man had to know that, if he left things as they were, Jack's contribution would be far more impressive to the public. True, it was Armsmaster's halberd that had enabled them to attack Leviathan. But at the critical moments of the fight Armsmaster had been reduced the role of a page, girding the knight for battle and then standing still and idle as he fought. Jack had been the one to wield the blade, to make the sacrifice by feeding it his flesh, to risk his life to deal the deathblow.
Jack would have to find a way to outmaneuver Armsmaster and get the credit he deserved. He would have to tread a thin line. It wouldn't do to oppose the man directly and draw his ire, but it would be a dangerous mistake to go too easy on him for the sake of the cameras. If Jack was going to a be a Ward under Armsmaster's direction then this was the time to set the tone for their future working relationship. Far better to make the man respect him as a forceful personality than take him for granted as a doormat.
The elevator slowed to a stop. Armsmaster led Jack down a long hallway, past a series of offices. Most of the doors were open, revealing a hive of activity. Administrators and support staff busy coordinating the relief efforts between the Protectorate, the locals, and the national disaster response agencies. The offices were surprisingly spartan and run-down, not what he would have expected for a major branch of the Protectorate. Then again, Boston was one of the first cities to receive an official Protectorate branch, so it's facilities were bound to be older than most. Jack felt a twinge of regret that he had never gotten to see inside the Protectorate's high-tech floating fortress in Brockton Bay, aside from one of the public tours.
Most of the office workers barely looked up as they passed, clearly jaded to the presence of capes by their service in the Protectorate headquarters. A few of the looked up, though, apparently recognizing Jack from the famous video. Jack gave them a smile and a wave as he passed, and delighted at the matching smiles that rose on their faces.
"...are you listening?" said Armsmaster. He had been talking, something about the proper way to hold oneself in front of the cameras.
"My apologies." said Jack. "I was distracted by the state of affairs here. Boston was hit harder than I thought."
"Yes. You won't get to meet the Boston Protectorate and Wards today. They're assisting the relief efforts, aside for a few off duty members and a Thinker who stays at headquarters."
Armsmaster opened a plain door labeled "Media Room A" and led them inside. The room was swarming with personnel. People aiming cameras and boom mikes, jotting notes, editing film clips on laptop computers.
At the far end of the room was a stage for televised broadcasts. A flag bearing the symbol of the Protectorate was draped from the ceiling at the center of the stage, with the flags of the Protectorate member nations draped on the left and right. A crowd of people obscured his view of the stage, apparently wrapping up another interview.
Jack stepped forward to approach the stage-
>> She didn't understand it. She had sat through the entire funeral feeling only a cold chill in her mind and a sense of guilt that she didn't feel more. Only now, a week later, was it finally hitting her. The tide of emotion she should have been feeling all along.
She sat on the couch, absolutely still, holding her head in the palms of her hands. Trying to keep her feelings under control. Mom had taken her call, said that she would be coming home early to keep her company. She would save her tears until then-
Jack turned to a gentle touch on his arm, a familiar voice.
"Jack Slash? Is that you?"
Jack grinned and clasped his teammate's hand in his own. "In the flesh. It's wonderful to see you again, Parian."
He tactfully neglected to mention that Parian looked much the worse for wear. Her doll-like mask was spiderwebbed with cracks, from when she had taken the brunt of Leviathan's water echo with only her golem for protection. Her elegant lacey dress was mottled with discolored patches where rips and tears had been replaced with new fabric. Everything below her waist was marred by brown and black stains, presumably from her work with the disaster relief crews, wading through dirty floodwater in the ruins of the Boston suburbs.
From the way she held herself, Parian's psychological state wasn't much better. It seemed that Sophia's account hadn't been an exaggeration.
Parian took a second to respond. "Yes. Yes, good to see you Jack. I, I came to watch your interview."
Meaningless pleasantaries, her eyes unfocused.
"I appreciate your support." said Jack. "We Brockton Bay capes-"
>> The Deluge. The wrath of Allah, with no ark to save us. Parian shut her eyes tight. She couldn't bear to watch, couldn't allow herself to comprehend, as her friends, her family, her city of Brockton Bay that she had failed to protect were all washed out to sea-
"-should stick together. We did everything we could to protect our city, more than anyone had done before. We couldn't save our people, in the end, but we can still honor their memory, preserve their spirit. Stay strong and set an example to the rest of the world, to inspire them to fight and kill Endbringers as we did, until the world is safe again."
Parian stared at the floor. "You still talk like that. Like everything worked out for the best. After we lost...lost every..." She cut herself short, lifted her eyes to his. "I thought so. That's how you are."
"I do consider myself an optimist-"
"That's why I came to watch." she continued. "To learn how you do it. I saw your video. You never gave up hope, you kept fighting like you didn't care how much it hurt you."
>> Anh's smile was teasing as she made her friendly critique, showing more insight from thirty seconds of wearing the dress than Sabah had had from hours of designing it. Sabah's heart sank. Another profession where she was second rate, even with her power to help her-
"Don't underestimate your contribution." said Jack. "You stalled Leviathan better than most seasoned veterans and lived to tell the tale. To be perfectly honest, you played a part in my own success, as well."
"Me? I-" Parian blinked, tilted her head. "You don't have to pretend."
"It's true. I tried my power on Leviathan and barely scratched his hide with my knives. I had myself convinced that I was useless to the fight. Then I got a wake-up call. A rogue from Brockton Bay kicking ass in her first Endbringer fight with nothing but a few bolts of cloth. After I saw that, I couldn't let myself rest without making a contribution of my own."
Her eyes widened a fraction. "Oh. You're...kind to say that."
"I told you, it's true. Don't ever think that your show of courage was for nothing. We gave our all to save the world from the Endbringer, and it took everything from every one of us to succeed." He leaned forward, whispered. "Let's talk later, okay? Catch up on old times."
She hesitated, then gave a slow nod. Jack turned to go, but she stopped him with a hand on his arm.
"Wait. I forgot. Here." She pulled a bundle from behind her back and pressed it into his hands. Black fabric...ah. A new black jacket and domino mask. A replica of the costume he had worn to fight Leviathan.
"The PRT people wanted you to dress the same like you did in the fight. An image thing." she said. "You lost your costume so I made you a new one."
"A pleasant surprise. I appreciate it." he said. He tossed aside the plain white mask the PRT had given him and put on his old costume, noting with approval that the jacket had the same hidden knife sheaths as the original. He gave her a winning smile. "Exquisite work."
Ah. That brought a hint of life to her eyes.
Jack bid her farewell and moved toward the stage. He almost bumped into Armsmaster. The hero was trying to escape a conversation with a man from a horror movie. One of the monstrous capes, a Case-53. A man without a neck, and with a hunchback so severe that his head was nearly at chest level. Grotesque growths studded his arms and legs, like a second set of muscles on the outside of his body, that forced him to stand in a stiff, rigid posture. The man's voice was ordinary, though, and animated with a kind of liveliness that came with desperation.
"Listen, man, my peril sense went directly from 'Holy shit this sucks balls' to a pure null, for both Weld and Sponge, just five minutes apart. There's no other explanation. They found a way out of the rubble from the Deathflood-"
"Or they lost their lives." said Armsmaster.
"No way! Weld is a tough SOB, and Sponge is one of those lucky idiots who couldn't get himself killed if he shot himself in the face. Look, Director Armstrong won't let me lead the search, but you're in charge of Brockton Bay, right? Just give me a boat and let me-"
"Your power doesn't give you a location, Hunch. They could be anywhere within a hundred square miles of flooded land. Or washed out to sea, or buried underground. It will take us weeks and a fleet of ships with metal detectors to do a proper search. That's the PRT's jurisdiction, not mine."
The man flinched at the lecture but didn't back down. "Please, man. I'm begging you. I can't leave them down there."
"Your loyalty does you credit, but if you haven't noticed, my city is now a flooded crater. I don't have any resources to give you. Keep the PRT updated and they will mount a rescue effort as soon as it becomes feasible."
Armsmaster pushed past the man and turned to Jack. "Let's go. We've had enough distractions."
Jack took a moment to meet Hunch's eyes and give him a sympathetic look. Armsmaster's leadership style left much to be desired. He had given Hunch the raw truth, explained why they couldn't mount a rescue in exacting detail, and then become irritated when he persisted in the face of the facts. Exactly what the desperate man didn't need. It would have been simplicity itself to curry favor with the man. Armsmaster could have sympathized with him, told him that he wished he had the resources to help, and made a harmless promise to put a word in with this Director Armstrong. A lost opportunity.
Armsmaster led Jack through the crowd of PRT media people to the stage. The stage was positioned in front of a large floor-to-ceiling window with a view of the Boston Skyline, colored by a faint purple tint from the forcefield protecting the building. In ordinary times it would emphasize the power of the Protectorate, the majesty of the city it protected. Odd that they were showing the backdrop now. The skyline would be patchy, with occasional buildings listing or collapsed and entire counties on the outskirts of the city reduced to flooded rubble...ah. An unobtrusive strip of cloth had been placed across the bottom of the window, discreetly screening the worst of the destruction from view. The PRT, at least, knew what they were doing.
The furniture on the stage had been arranged to give an informal atmosphere, one he would have expected for a televised talk show. Three comfortable-looking chairs around a small round table with the Protectorate and PRT emblems on the surface. The chairs bore the marks of subtle reinforcements, modifications to support capes with power armor or unusual physiologies.
But what caught his attention were the two women at the center of the stage who had just finished their own taped interview. His heart beat faster as he saw who he'd be joining on the stage. The pair of twin suns around whom the crowd of low-ranking personnel orbited.
One was a statuesque figure in a familiar black bodysuit, visor, and long, flowing cape. Alexandria. Her costume was nearly pristine, but had faint scratches and smudges from her work in the relief efforts. Probably calculated for her televised appearance to give her maximum popular appeal. Appearing perfect and spotless in this time of tragedy would hardly have cultivated solidarity with the masses.
The other figure was a hair shorter, a hispanic woman wearing a blue business suit with a straight-backed posture reminiscent of military training. She was middle-aged, he knew, but her smooth face and lively eyes made her look nearly a decade younger. She turned to him as he climbed the stairs to the stage and greeted him with a warm smile, one that he had seen countless times on the news.
"Good to see you again, Armsmaster. And welcome, Jack Slash. Our new hero of the day. I'm Rebecca Costa-Brown, the Chief Director of the PRT."
Jack grinned a mile wide. It probably made him look like an idiot, but he couldn't suppress it even if he tried. It wasn't every day he had the undivided attention of the woman who directed the most powerful cape organization in the world.
"It's an honor and a pleasure." said Jack.
The Director shook his hand. Her grip was firm and professional, and he did his best to match it.
"I want to be the first to thank you for your heroism in the slaying of Leviathan. It was thanks to your selfless and courageous efforts, along with those of our heroes, that we ended a threat that claimed millons of lives."
"Thank you. It's thanks to the examples set by heroes like Armsmaster and Alexandria that I got where I am today. Fighting with them was a dream come true." said Jack.
"I believe you two have met already." said the Director, with a glance to Alexandria. "But not in this capacity."
"It's official, then?" said Armsmaster.
Alexandria nodded. Her face was serious, but the corners of her lips had the faintest hint of a smile. "Yes. We had the swearing-in ceremony by teleconference, expedited due to the state of emergency. As of twenty minutes ago, I am the new leader of the Protectorate."