I was trapped, alone, left to rot. No one cared that I was gone. I was going to die.
If that was all then maybe I could be okay with it. Letting go, letting it all finally end. But I couldn't give up. I had to live for Dad's sake. He was the only one who cared about me, the only one who would look for me, the only one who would find me. I imagined what he would see when he opened the locker door, when he saw my rotting corpse inside. He would go mad. Not knowing who did it to me, not knowing why, never knowing anything because I was a miserable lying coward who couldn't get up the courage to give him a single hint of what they did to me every day in school.
I couldn't leave him in the dark like this. I had to tell him everything.
Something inside of me was growing. Welling up inside me, expanding and richocheting through the air, out of the locker, out of the hallways, out of the school, out into the open air of the city...
I did the only thing I could. I screamed.
I don't know where I was when she found me. Somewhere over the Atlantic, hours after I had flown out to sea. Perched on my ramshackle construct of shattered glass, staring at the waves and the featureless blue horizon around me. Anything to get away from the school, from the city, from civilization. To get away from what I had done. If I let myself think about it for a single moment then I wouldn't be able to stop myself from feeling. If let myself feel then I wouldn't be able to stop myself from, from...
That was when I saw her. A small black dot on the horizon, growing with each second. As she came closer I recognized my childhood idol, the founder of the Protectorate. Alexandria.
I had been so stupid. Of course they would come for me. They must know exactly what I did. If they hadn't figured it out immediately then my flight out of town was a dead giveaway. And of course they would send the Triumvirate after me. They were the greatest heroes, reserved for catching the worst villains. The irredeemable, the monsters, the mass murderers. I didn't have any illlusions about what category I fell into.
Alexandria drew closer and matched my pace, leaving a fifty feet of empty air between us. She spoke, her voice carrying over the wind.
"Taylor Hebert. We need to talk."
It was surreal, having the attention of one of the most powerful heroes on the planet. If I was still an innocent kid I would have been starry eyed and in awe. Now I was exhausted, physically and emotionally. I just wanted it all to be over.
"Um. Alexandria. Um. Are you here to arrest me? Are you here to...to take me to the Birdcage?"
"No, Taylor. I'm not here to arrest you. Before we talk there's one thing you need to understand. You're not at fault for what that happened today."
A joke? A lie to take me off guard? "You don't need to pretend. It was my fault. I admit it, I did it, it was me. I'm the murderer. I felt that power building up inside me and I let it out, I let it spread everywhere in the city at once, I, I'm-"
Alexandria shook her head. "It's very common to receive powers during moments of extreme stress. You were given powers that you didn't understand and you used them in desperation. A perfectly normal reaction during a so-called 'trigger event'. No reasonable witness or court of law can blame you for what you did. The fact that your power had such a destructive effect is simply an unfortunate tragedy. You're not a murderer, and you're not a villain. Not if you listen to what I have to say."
"Not a murderer? Do you, did you see what the school looked like? The beach? I, I couldn't even look without getting sick. The people who I..." I swallowed. I had thought I was too exhausted to care anymore. I had been wrong. My tears were coming back again. "Do you know how many people I killed?"
"We haven't been able to count the casualties precisely, in part because the local communications infrastructure is gone - cell phone towers, computers, radios. The current estimate from our Thinkers is two to six thousand dead, thirty to one hundred thousand wounded. Spread across the full extent of Brockton Bay and the surrounding suburbs."
...oh God. I had almost managed to convince myself that it had just been the places I saw in my panicked flight from the city. The school, the docks, part of the coastline. But this...what I had done was as bad as an Endbringer.
Wait. When I used my power in the locker I had been reaching out, calling out to Dad. Did that...did that mean that...
I felt a deep pit opening in my stomach. "My Dad. Is he okay? You know my name so did you check on him too, was he hurt? I, I need to go back-"
Alexandria's expression softened and she slowly shook her head. "I'm sorry, Taylor. He didn't make it."
I didn't have any words. Somehow I had known it all along but I ran away, distracted myself, did anything to avoid facing the truth. Hearing it from her, the finality in her voice...I couldn't speak, I couldn't think. I had killed him, murdered him. There was nothing left for me. Nothing in the world.
No, that was wrong. I had one thing left. Me, myself. The despicable beast that had destroyed everyone I cared about. The beast that was a coward and couldn't work up the courage to finish the job.
Suddenly Alexandria was in front of me, hands on my shoulders, looking into my eyes. "Taylor. Please. I know what you're thinking. It's natural for you to feel guilt. It's natural for you to grieve. But here and now, you need to control yourself. Don't add to this tragedy."
"I, I can't take this. Don't talk to me like that, like it'll all be okay. It's not okay, it's not, it's-"
"It's not okay, but believe me, Taylor, we can make things better. That's the question you need to answer now: where do we go from here?" She lowered her voice. "Taylor, listen. Listen and tell me if I'm wrong. I can tell your father was a good man-"
"He was a good man who thought the best of you. He believed in you. He belived you're a fine young woman who will make her own way in the world. He believed you'll live a long and full life and make him proud. Am I right?"
I managed a nod. "But now, what I did, I-"
"If he knew that you got powers, he'd want you to use them to help people. If he knew that you suffered a tragedy, he'd want you to overcome it. Am I right?"
I nodded again.
"That's what I'm here to offer you. A second chance."
Another sick joke. "...I don't deserve a second chance."
"I understand. You feel responsible for what happened today. Think about what that means, Taylor. If you accept responsibility for the tragedy today then you have a duty to redeem yourself. To make up for the harm you caused.
"If you take your own life, or if you run away, then you'll never redeem yourself. The public will blame you for everything. They'll have me hunt you down and throw you in the Birdcage. Would you really be satisfied letting yourself be locked away? Knowing that you squandered your power, that you used it only for destruction? Knowing that when people think of your mother and father, of their legacy to the world, they'll only see a pair of parents who raised a mass murderer?
"If you come with me, I'll give you a chance for redemption. I can make the public accept you as a hero, and I believe you can be a great hero. With your power you might even become as respected as our Triumvirate one day. Redemption isn't easy. It might take years, it might take decades. But one day you'll look back on your life, both the good and the bad, and you'll see that you've done good for the world. Isn't that worth living for?"
Vantage stepped onto the roof of the Los Angeles Protectorate HQ.
"About time, Vantage. They're almost here." said Rime. She pointed to the horizon. Two small specks in the air, growing larger by the second.
Vantage squinted in the sunlight. He hadn't gotten much sleep. Two days ago he had been pulled out of school by a high-priority emergency alert. The city of Brockton Bay was under attack by an unknown force, all communications knocked offline in an instant. The threat was labeled as A-class with a high probability of escalating to S-class, given that they were almost due for an Endbringer attack.
He had spent a tense five hours cooped up in HQ with the rest of the Wards, then received a terse message that the threat was resolved and that Alexandria was staying in Brockton Bay to help with disaster relief. No details on the nature of the threat, no details on what happened. As far as information was concerned, Brockton Bay was a black hole. And then Alexandria hadn't come back the next day, or the next...
It was the uncertainty that got to him. He was the captain of the Wards, but how could he lead them if he didn't know what the hell was going on?
When Alexandria was around, everything was easy. She was invulnerable, strong enough to take on most threats single-handedly, smart enough to come up with a winning strategy against even the most esoteric powers. She didn't babysit them, she didn't tolerate weakness in her team, but her presence always gave them that extra margin of safety. If the going got tough, they knew that she would pull them out of the fire.
All too often, though, Alexandria wasn't there. She was away fighting A- and S-class threats around the world. Or was in diplomatic meetings with capes from other countries, in publicity events with the Protectorate, in meetings with the Chief Director of the PRT. All in all, more than half the time they had to make do with Rime as their acting leader. She was good, very good even, but still mortal. If disaster struck here, in LA, they would have to face it alone...
This morning was a mixed blessing. Vantage had been woken up by a message that Alexandria was returning. A relief, yes, but the message also said that Alexandria was bringing in a new girl, a recruit for the Wards.
Now, it was natural for people to get powers in the wake of a disaster. According to his Parahuman: Theories and Patterns course, city-wide disasters generally created five to ten new parahumans. It was natural for the new capes to change cities, too, if their homes had been destroyed in the disaster.
But transferring a new recruit to Los Angeles? Something was up with the new Ward, something that merited Alexandria's personal supervision. The new cape must be powerful, unstable, or both. Probably unstable - the odds were that the girl had suffered in the disaster, lost her home or even her family. And yet he was expected to take charge of her, to be her team captain, without knowing anything about what had happened to her or to her city. How was he supposed to support a traumatized girl if he didn't know what traumatized her?
Vantage took a deep breath and faced the source of his anxiety.
The two figures approached the HQ and landed on the roof. Alexandria was pristine as always, without any indication that she had just dealt with a national emergency. Her expression was serious as always but her lips were drawn up in a smile. Not the broad and convincingly non-fake smile she showed off for publicity events, but the faint quirk at the edge of her mouth that meant that she was truly pleased with something.
The new recruit was intimidating. A female form ten feet tall, with skin that was a mesh of jagged shards of glass of all sizes and in all colors of the rainbow. Two massive wings extended behind her. On closer inspection, they weren't attached to her body - they were stacks of dozens of metal-tipped glass spears, packed together and hovering in the air beside her. A sea of smaller glass fragments formed a halo above her head. Her most striking feature was her face. Her features were frozen in place and twisted until they were almost unrecognizable as human.
A Case 53? A Changer? No, wait. He could see the dark shadow of a human shape buried inside the glass. She must have made made the angelic construct with her power, wearing it like a suit of armor. Some form of matter creation or telekinesis.
Alexandria stepped forward. "Rime, Vantage. I'd like you to meet our newest Ward, from Brockton Bay. We haven't finalized the paperwork yet, but for the time being she's going by the name Glassworker."
"Welcome to Los Angeles. I'm Vantage, the captain of the Wards here, but you can call me Anthony." said Vantage. He extended a hand for her to shake, then immediately regretted his rehearsed greeting. The girl's glass-studded skin would tear his hand apart.
Glassworker extended her right hand, then seemed to realize the problem. With a scraping sound of glass-on-glass, the shards forming her skin rearranged themselves into a smooth surface, fitting neatly next to each other as though they were solving a jigsaw puzzle. She took his hand in hers and shook it.
"I'm Taylor. Um. Sorry about the sharp edges. I'm, I'm still working on that. Improving my control, I mean." She spoke without moving the 'face' on her costume. Her voice had an odd high-pitched ringing to it, as if it was coming from resonations in the glass around her.
The glass on her face shifted into a caricature of a smile, too big and with too many teeth. Vantage kept himself from wincing. If she the glass on her face reflected her expression, then the default form it had taken when she first landed, when she wasn't paying attention...yeah, definitely trauma there.
Rime took her hand next. "Pleased to meet you. I'm Rime, the second in command here. We'll take good care of you."
Vantage tore his gaze from the new recruit and turned to Alexandria. "Ma'am, can you fill us in on what happened in Brockton Bay?" He was sure she would say something about PRT regulations and the media blackout, so he added "It will help us support Glassworker in her move to a new city if we know the truth about her hometown."
Glassworker took a step back, seemed to shrink into herself.
"Information about Brockton Bay is confidential while we finish the investigation, but Chief Director Costa-Brown will brief the media tomorrow morning." said Alexandria. "The short story is that a local cape created a shockwave that that caused silicon materials to shatter explosively. Glass, sand, computer circuitry. The shockwave was self-reinforcing, generating new shockwaves from each piece of glass it shattered. It propagated through the city and most of the surrounding suburbs until it ran out of raw material. Casualties number more than four thousand dead and sixty thousand wounded, with the numbers expected to grow over the next week because the infrastructure for medical services and communication has been destroyed."
Holy fuck. A villain with a power so broken that a single strike was nearly as bad as an Endbringer attack.
He turned to his newest Ward. "I'm glad you made it out okay, Taylor. I hope your family-" He stopped himself. Of course she lost someone close to her, that's why she's here. "If you lost a loved one in the disaster, I'm, I'm sorry for your loss." he finished lamely.
"Yeah. I lost my dad." she said softly.
"My condolences." said Rime.
Alexandria put a hand on the girl's shoulder. "Glassworker was protected by her power, but unfortunately her family was not. She has shown a great deal of courage under these trying circumstances. Just hours after losing her parents, she approached me and asked for help in becoming a hero. Her sole surviving relative is her grandmother in Phoenix, who gave consent for her to move to LA and work under my supervision.
"Glassworker will be staying in a guest room in our headquarters for the time being. I'd like you to give her your full support in this difficult time. In the long term, the PRT will arrange for her to stay with a local family, ideally one of our Protectorate or Wards. Rime, Vantage, I'd like your input. Please give me your recommendations for suitable households by the end of the day."
"Yes, Ma'am." said Vantage. "Taylor, I salute your courage. We take good care of our Wards here. If you need anything during your stay, or just someone to talk to, please don't hesitate to ask."
"Ma'am, please tell me that you caught the villain who was responsible." said Rime. Her voice was tight. Her own family had suffered at the hands of a villain who escaped from justice.
"We did, after a fashion. The culprit was a Tinker, a local villain named Leet. It seems that one of his-"
"Wait, Leet?" Vantage interrupted. "As in the youtube channel, Uber and Leet's Classic Gaming Showcase? Those clow-, um, I mean incompetents, actually made something dangerous? He's only rated Tinker 2."
Alexandria raised an eyebrow. "I'll have words with you later about what constitutes acceptable entertainment. Yes, it was him, although it took us a bit of detective work to pinpoint him as the cause. Leet, Uber, and their henchmen weren't available for questioning because they were all killed when the device went out of control. A review of satellite video footage showed that the shockwave originated in their lair, and Eidolon's psychometry confirmed them as the culprits. It seems that their device was a failed attempt to create a life-sized version of a classic arcade game, Breakout."
"That's...horrific." said Rime. "A child's attempt at entertainment causing an A-class disaster. We always knew this could happen, but now..." She paused. "I'm thinking that we need to crack down on the Tinkers upstate, the minor villains and the rogues who won't accept PRT supervision. We've been going under the assumption that the bit players who keep a low profile will stay out of trouble. But if this kind of disaster can be an accident..."
Alexandria nodded. "I agree. This is exactly why minors with powers need adult supervision. The disaster reflects poorly upon our organization, as well. The local PRT director survived, thankfully, but she has been fired for her failure to capture the villains before they became a threat. And for other failures of hers that have come to light in the aftermath of the incident." Alexandria looked at Glassworker. "There is one silver lining, however."
Glassworker shifted in place again, plainly nervous. During the discussion of the disaster her glass costume had slowly returned to its former state, smile disappearing and hands reverting to jagged edges.
"You mean the disaster has something to do with Glassworker's power?" asked Vantage.
"Yes. Trigger events often tailor a parahuman's powers to equip them to handle crises in their lives. Glassworker's trigger event protected her from the disaster by granting her the power of macrosilicakinesis - telekinetic control of glass and other silicon materials in large quantities and over long distances. Her power is effectively a mirror image of the shockwave's effect but with a superior degree of control. We're classifying her as a Shaker 10, with subratings Blaster 5, Mover 3, Brute 1, because of her ability to use glass constructs as ranged weapons, to levitate herself and others, and to form protective shields. The costume you see here is her own creation, sustained moment to moment by her power. An exercise in control."
Vantage gave a low whistle. No wonder Alexandria had taken her on as a Ward. Her ratings were the highest in the state, Alexandria excluded. And leaving her in Brockton Bay would have been a disaster. A new cape with power over glass, in a city thsat had been devastated by a glass-based weapon? The citizens there would never accept the poor girl as a hero, even if her unique power was proof positive that she was as much a victim of the disaster as they were.
He let his eyes wander to the massive, floating wings of Glassworker's costume. The girl's power was exceptionally strong and versatile. She could destroy silicon-based electronics and Tinker devices in an instant, subdue villains at a distance with glass prisons and guided missiles delivering containment foam grenades, smash through hard targets by using spears as battering rams, and control the battlefield by making barriers to protect her allies and floating platforms to carry them out of danger.
What it meant was clear enough. Alexandria was looking to the future. She saw Glassworker as a heavy hitter to be groomed for a top position in the Protectorate. But for Vantage, Glassworker was the exactly the person he had been wishing for, a balm for his anxiety. If he took good care of her, did his duty as the captain to train her in the tactics of the Wards...then when Alexandria was away, he wouldn't have to worry about a lack of firepower anymore.
Vantage stepped up to Glassworker and placed his right hand against hers, just close enough to brush against the jagged edges of her costume. She stared for a moment, and then the glass of her entire costume abruptly reshuffled itself to become smooth again.
"Sorry about that, Vantage. Um, Anthony." she said. "Like I said, I'm still working on my control, and I don't want to hurt you, so please be careful if you, um-"
"Don't worry about it." he said. "You have an impressive power, and a hell of a lot of potential. We'll help you handle it in any way you need. I'm glad to have you on my team."
He clapsed her right hand in both of his, looked into her eyes, and smiled.
"Welcome to the Wards."