I am not Wildbow, I do not own Worm, and I am making no money from this story. This story is beta'd by the fabulous SlowMercury. It would not be the great story it is without her, in so many ways. Thank you, SlowMercury!
Chapter One: Unsinkable Ships
January 31, 2011
The smoke was heavy on the ground, and even 50 feet up in the air, it wasn't much easier to breathe. Intrepid coughed slightly, trying not to let his partner notice. If Strapping Lad had even a hint of how much he currently hurt, Intrepid knew he would be grounded immediately, and he knew it wasn't necessary. Not yet. He could stand with his team for another round at least.
The wristbands relayed the next set of coordinates and Intrepid joined his teammates in racing towards the apartment building. It was surprisingly intact despite being well within the most recent blast radius. Behemoth had continued north, swatting at Alexandria yet again, and the Wards took advantage of the distraction to grab as many injured capes as they could.
Intrepid was directed one floor up from his teammates, where he found a single cape leaned against the wall under a broken window. Glass had fallen around her, and her clothes didn't seem to offer much protection. She was talking into her wristband, staring out the window, oblivious to her rescue as Intrepid flew closer.
"I need a flyer to get me up above Behemoth. I can end this. Damn it, send me anybody!"
There was no response from the wristband as Intrepid settled beside her. She glanced at him without surprise, though she hadn't acknowledged his approach in any way. "You can't evacuate me. I can kill him. I can end this if I can just get above him. The angle's wrong from here, I need to get up above him. Will you take me?"
It was the sort of split-second decision that got him in trouble all the time. On one hand, if she'd been asking Dragon for a ride and had been denied, there might be a good reason. On the other hand, it was a chance to end the fight and save a hell of a lot of lives. Really, it wasn't a choice at all.
He scooped her up bridal style, feeling jeans that were sticky with blood but not hearing any sound of pain. She looped her arms behind his neck. Together they climbed into the air, passing the 5th story of the buildings around them, then the 10th, then the 15th. All the while, they angled towards Behemoth who was still wading north through the streets of New York, now chasing Alexandria at a decent clip, made mostly of long bounds. Watching the range of the monster's jumps, Intrepid added another 100 ft to their height, now flying above some of the shorter buildings around them.
The wind was screaming past them as she leaned up to yell in his ear, "Whatever happens, don't drop me!"
They were nearly on top of him now, and he didn't have time to ask what she meant. As they began to match Behemoth's speed, Intrepid noted that he didn't look so scary when he was far enough away to be covered by a basketball and also, he might be a little punch-drunk from fighting. Without warning, the girl hooked one elbow around his neck, and let go with the other so that she was half-hanging from him and half-facing the enemy.
She made a motion with her free hand that ended with her pointing at Behemoth, and shouted something that Intrepid couldn't understand over the sound of the wind. Starting from the end of her finger, a distortion rippled out like a force field. A moment later, it was obvious that it was falling away from them, growing as it dropped away. The field seemed suspended between six green vertices, connected with a cross-cross pattern of green lines. As it expanded, closing in on Behemoth, the green lines suddenly networked.
A moment later, the net touched Behemoth, still matched to his velocity, and there was a rush of wind and an updraft that turned Intrepid head over heels. By reflex, he clutched his passenger tighter and held on as they were thrown through the air.
Just as suddenly, it was over, and Intrepid forced himself upright, hovering against gravity, still supporting the now-limp cape. He opened his eyes, and froze.
His first thought was that he'd been moved in time. The buildings were repaired, pristine, the road a rich black with perfect yellow lines and the glass windows around him gleamed in the sunlight. Behemoth was nowhere to be seen.
Slowly, he hovered toward the street and realized that the civilians were still missing, and all the capes were still assembled. Only the enemy - and the destruction - was gone. He touched down, still using his power to reduce the weight of his passenger so that he could hold her easily, and realized only after the fact that his ankle felt great. So did his lungs, and his neck, and the scarring in his shoulder that he had been told would never heal. In fact, looking around, everything looked like he felt. The whole city, every costume of every cape, even the weeds, looked like they'd gotten a good night's sleep, a hot shower, and a hearty breakfast. He glanced down, and stopped walking.
After the miracle around them, the cape's condition was a harsh blow. Her jeans were still soaked in blood, and now that he was paying attention, he could feel more pumping out over the hand resting at her knees. Her hair was blond at the roots, but matted with dirt, soot, and more blood. Her jean jacket was sliced through, and her blouse was torn to the edge of modesty. Only her mask was intact - a white leather that covered her entire face from upper lip to hair line, with semi-large eye holes. She was wheezing unevenly, but was otherwise unconscious.
He knelt to put her on the ground where he could assess her injuries, and realized as he did so that the armband was silent. For the first time since this miserable day had started, the list of injuries and deaths had stopped. Casual inspection didn't show any obvious source of bleeding - her jeans weren't even ripped - and he took a moment to send a message to Dragon as he gathered her up again to head to medical.
"We need a healer."
"Panacea is standing by." Hearing Dragon's personal voice, and not a computer generation, was shocking. Processing what she said took another couple seconds. By that time, he was already flying full pelt for the staging area. A heartbeat later, a beam of light solidified over his shoulder. A glance showed that Legend had decided to shadow them. The hero looked grim and serious, not at all like the smiling PR posters and interviews had portrayed him.
Intrepid wanted to twist around and ask what was going on, but the medical staging area was already in view, and he focused instead on slowing from his 30 mph cruising speed without jostling his passenger.
When he landed, Panacea was waiting next to a bed, and he carefully set the girl down on it. Immediately, Panacea put one hand on her exposed arm and the other on her abdomen and bowed her head in concentration. Legend landed behind them, and Intrepid suddenly realized that he was standing in the middle of the Triumvirate, with a good portion of the rest of the mobile Protectorate standing a ways off, watching. Alexandria was standing a few yards away talking to Eidolon, and Intrepid could see Ranger, Eidolon's second, listening closely. The familiar faces of his local Protectorate leaders helped, but Intrepid still felt a little overwhelmed by the fact that he was standing in the presence of so many important heroes.
Even though Eidolon was the head of the Houston Protectorate, Intrepid hadn't had much interaction with him, and what little experience his did have was not nearly enough to lessen the impact of seeing America's three greatest heroes standing side by side by side.
"She's healing slower than usual, but I've managed to stabilize her system." Panacea announced, and instantly Alexandria and Eidolon were right there.
"I wasn't aware that your healing could be resisted?" Alexandria asked, and Panacea gave her a glare. Intrepid wanted to laugh in nervous respect. Standing up to Alexandria took serious backbone, or stupid heroism.
"It's not an active resistance, just a slower response. It happens sometimes, but most of her wounds are healing without issue. There is however a disconnection between her inner ear and the relevant portion of her brain which I can't effect."
"Her inner ear?"
"She's deaf." There was a moment of silence, and Intrepid had to struggle to keep from laughing at the irony. Yes, he was definitely punch-drunk and coming off the high of combat. But he'd have to live with it, because he was currently standing among the most powerful capes in America and he hadn't been asked to leave yet.
After exchanging a significant glance with Eidolon, Alexandria suddenly turned to face him. Intrepid swallowed and forced himself not to take a reflexive step back. Alexandria was talking to him! Even knowing intellectually that Eidolon was the stronger cape, Alexandria was somehow much more intimidating.
It took only a moment to put his thoughts in order. "Strapping Lad, Young Buck, and myself were assigned to medical evacuations. We were directed to a high rise that Behemoth had already passed, and we found a number of capes on the fourth floor. I didn't recognize them. Only two were critical, so I proceeded to the fifth floor where I heard yelling. She was shouting at her wristband, asking for areal assistance to carry her above Behemoth. There was no answer. She asked for my help directly, and told me that if I wouldn't help I could leave because she refused to be evacuated. She said she could kill him. I decided it was worth a chance."
Here Intrepid took a deep breath, and wished that Alexandria would blink. He was trying to meet her eyes, but every couple seconds he would have to glance away. She had a very commanding presence.
"I flew her up above Behemoth, I'd guess about 200 or 300 feet above him. We were matching his pace when she leaned up and told me not to let go. Then she shifted to face more towards him, pointed, and there was a sort of field that started falling towards him. It a criss-crossed design, not solid, and when it hit Behemoth there was a huge gust of air. When I got us right side up, everything was fixed."
"Can you draw the design on the field?"
He nodded, and took the paper that was offered to him.
"It started out like this." He said, drawing a shallow V and then a second one upside down on top of it, to create a diamond with an open triangle at each end. He drew it big enough to take over the whole page. "It expanded as it fell, and then this appeared." In the center diamond, he repeated the pattern. Because of the shape of the diamond, it created a row of 3 connected diamonds. "Then it filled in like a net, but the center was always the densest part of the design."
Dragon's voice spoke from one side, and he saw an open laptop with her face displayed. "It's a Nordic rune called Inguz. It has a lot of possible meanings, most associated with death or rebirth. It's also symbolic of an ongoing action, or of an end that leads to a new beginning. It is associated with male fertility."
"Or it's a diamond net pattern, growing from the inside out." Eidolon said, sounding irritated. "No way to know without asking."
"Well, I can't wake her up, but I can tell you that she will wake up soon." Panacea said, finally removing her hands from the cape. "I've done everything I can."
The comment made Intrepid take another look around the ER room that was serving as the receiving triage area today. Everything had been touched with the same miracle as the rest of the city: there wasn't a single drop of blood nor a patient to be seen. The cloth on the chairs was bright blue, and the white paint looked fresh. Metal gleamed everywhere like it had been polished. The superheroes filling the room liked they were ready for a photo shoot.
"We will need a translator for her." Dragon said, "I've contacted a local service but the administrator isn't sure if they have anyone in the area. I'll call the evacuation shelters closest to you next." The screen went blank as Dragon signed off and turned her computer to other purposes.
A cape in a simple suit and domino mask walked over to their group and spoke to Alexandria without waiting to be acknowledged. "None of the other capes in that building remember seeing her. They do describe a green-ish force field that went up as Behemoth passed them and absorbed some sort of energy blast. The windows were blown into the building by a strong wind, but there was no other damage. There are no reports of her powers or costume in any database we can find. Today may have been her first cape fight."
"First cape fight?" Alexandria asked forcefully.
"Dragon has supplied us with the recordings of her requests for an air lift. Her voice is certain when she says that she can kill him. A more minor thinker was already directing a cape her way when Intrepid arrived on scene. She knew what she was doing, but somehow she got that experience without us seeing hide or hair of her before."
"Could she be a time traveler?"
"We don't believe so." Belatedly, Intrepid realized that this man was representing the thinkers and precogs who were working together to coordinate the fight against Behemoth.
"Is she a hero?" Legend asked. Intrepid sucked in a breath as it hit him that the high concentration of power wasn't just about curiosity and authority. They were carefully surrounding the cape that had killed Behemoth in case she was unfriendly. It was unthinkable, to take advantage of her while she was down, violating the Endbringer truce, but that was exactly what they were doing. The thinkers were scrambling for as much information as possible while she lay there, defenseless.
It didn't make perfect sense, because it wasn't necessary for Panacea to heal her if they thought she might be a threat. But he realized that part of the reason he was still on-edge was because everyone around him was ready to fight at the drop of a pin.
"We don't believe she's a villain." The thinker replied, and Intrepid forced himself to pay attention to what was happening right now. It was a good thing, to take precautions against an enormously powerful cape. That's all this was, caution. No one had crossed any lines, yet. "The use of white in her mask and blouse is a good sign, and the casualness of exposing the back of her head, as well as the simplicity of entire costume speaks to the fact that she is likely a rogue or hero. Additionally, very few solo villains respond to Endbringer calls."
"Your powers don't tell you anything more concrete?"
"She appears to be resistant to most Thinker powers. Only mildly, but with the limited data available…" Alexandria nodded in understanding, looking concerned.
"Stay here, and see if you can read more when she wakes up."
It was a long seven minutes to wait. The Protectorate continued to talk, discussing what little was known about the prone cape, and occasionally other heroes arrived and went to stand with their teammates in forced casualness. At one point, Ranger approached him and told him to rejoin his teammates outside. The thinker immediately countermanded the idea, and explained that his was the closest thing they'd found to a friendly face. He was the only one with personal interaction they knew about.
Ranger wasn't happy, and Intrepid noticed that he stayed within arm's reach thereafter. By contrast, Eidolon hardly seemed to notice that Intrepid was there. He was evidently satisfied to leave the Ward to his second in command, as usual.
The actual waking up was anti-climactic. She groaned a bit, shifted slightly, and opened her eyes. She looked around, and then sighed. Cautiously, either to avoid startling the heroes or to respect her aches and pains, she sat up on the hospital bed. "The Triumvirate I know," she said with a cadence that was slightly off but otherwise perfect English. "Can we start with introductions for the rest, first?"
"You are not deaf?" Alexandria asked, her voice calm but her body much more tense than it had been a moment ago.
"I am. But I read lips well. If you speak at a normal tone and speed, one at a time, and face me, I will be able to follow. If you go too fast, I will tell you."
Immediately, she glanced away from Alexandria to look at Intrepid. Without meaning to he said, "I'm Intrepid."
"Intrepid." She repeated with a smile. "You were the one who lifted me?"
"I was." She was still looking at him, so Intrepid did what felt natural. He waved at Ranger, over one shoulder. "This is Ranger. We're from Houston."
"How did you know?"
"He is the one most protective of you. Five adults here, 20 more in the room, and he's worried about you. Even though you're the only one not scared of me." Intrepid felt himself smiling back, because she was right. Several major powerhouses had lined up for the worst case scenario, and he couldn't help but think that Buck was going to be real jealous when he found out Intrepid had had front row seats to the cape that had killed Behemoth.
She looked to the man in the suit. "You are a thinker?"
"Company." He said, a little shorter than Intrepid thought was necessary.
"I've never heard of you before."
"I have a very specific skill set." To Intrepid, that sounded ominous. But she treated it like a normal reply, and glanced back at Alexandria, who was ready with a question of her own.
"What is your name?"
"I told the wristband. I am Contract." Intrepid didn't see any way that contracts related to force fields, healing, banishing, restoring, or destroying. He could almost see the others trying to make the same connections and failing.
"How long will the reprieve last?"
"From Behemoth. How long until he reappears?"
"Never. He's gone. Permanently."
"And the restoration of the city? Also permanent?"
"The healing and restoration is a one-time event. It has been healed. Now it will begin to suffer normal wear and tear again."
Dragon's screen switched back on. "Hello everyone. I've located a translator and sent a cape to fetch her, she'll be here in a few minutes. Hello Contract."
Contract smiled at Dragon like she had smiled at Intrepid. Not personal, but honest. "Thank you for the courtesy, but I won't be staying in New York much longer. Now that the Endbringer is dealt with, I'd like to get out of town before the truce ends."
The adults exchanged looks, and Alexandria asked the question they all seemed to be thinking. "You're a villain?"
"No. But I do have enemies, and I don't intend to let them find me."
"We can protect you."
Contract's face got a little colder. "Is that an offer or an order? I can protect myself. I'm not looking to join any team."
"You're a lone hero capable of defeating an Endbringer. Every villain in the world will want to eliminate you or control you. We can help."
Contract was quiet for what felt like a really long time. "Okay then. I guess I'm your newest Ward." Alexandria and Company both looked shocked for a split second before they hid it, and Contract laughed. It was more bitter than amused.
"I'm not an idiot. Successfully resisting the might of the Protectorate and a thinker specifically focused on understanding and manipulating human behavior is pretty long odds. Nothing less than potentially catastrophic power will get past the capes in this room, and I just saved New York, so I'm not eager to break it again, thanks. I don't want to shoot my way out and you know it, making all bluffing impossible. Surrender is the only logical option."
Intrepid felt his gut clench a little at her speech. She sounded resigned and jaded. He half expected the Triumvirate to tell her it was a misunderstanding, they wouldn't hold her against her will, she was free to go. That did not happen. Instead, she was led in one direction and Ranger gently directed him in the opposite direction, out the door and towards the transport that would take them back to Houston.