Chapter 23

"I have some bad news." Dragon's voice came in through a speaker while her image appeared on an otherwise empty monitor screen. "The virus has infiltrated the security camera firmware."

Armsmaster offered a grunt.

He caught the words, but he was only half paying attention.

It had been a sleepless night. Not just because of Overmind's capture or Piggot's call for full hands on deck. Armsmaster had left most of those matters to Miss Militia, seeing his time more efficiently spent in PRT headquarters' on-site lab. Guard duty and patrols were only marginally better than twiddling his thumbs, and he hadn't the patience to be haranguing personnel that ought to know better.

And, as always, the less time spent dealing with the Wards, the better.

More importantly, Miss Militia didn't require sleep. And she couldn't tinker. The current distribution of labor maximized productive outcomes.

"If it's in the firmware, it's been there for a while," Armsmaster answered absently. "We'll have to check with the supplier. This might be bigger than us."

Beep. Beep. Beep.

A short, dull alert sounded from the nearest computer. An indication that a dangerous operation was starting. Whrrssh zizz zizz. Mechanical arms spun up, shooting out a series of lasers. The beams swept over the knife Armsmaster had taken off of Overmind, loosing tendrils of smoke.

Armsmaster looked up. Data poured out in the form of charts and tables. A quick glance at the spectral analysis revealed that the knife consisted primarily of ferrous materials, but the tinker-tech equipment also showed a couple of exotic readings that matched the data taken when he carried out the same test on Overmind's baton.

Another product of Archer, as expected. Armsmaster tapped a few buttons in disinterest, then made an official request to have the knife transferred to his lab on the rig. The equipment here was insufficient for further study.

Then his eyes turned back to the container that had swallowed his soul.

A thin, metallic strand floated in green liquid. Real, living cybernetic muscle. A marvel of tinker-tech of which Armsmaster had never seen the like.

From where Unit 09 got it, Armsmaster didn't know. But the original, shoddy storage equipment provided plenty of clues. The Tinker was new, inexperienced, and underequipped. But no matter how young, it didn't change the sheer potential the little strand represented.

Self growing. Self maintaining. Rather than a machine, the muscle tissue more closely resembled a metallic organ. One that, if Armsmaster's readings were right, was fully bio-compatible and could even draw the majority of its nutrients from the human body.

To others, it might have represented strength. To Armsmaster, the thread represented so much more. Freedom. Freedom from the daily drudge of maintenance. Freedom from the limits of humanity. Freedom from his growing weakness.

What he saw was hope.

"I don't know how I overlooked it before," Dragon continued. Her digital avatar shook its head, forlorn. "My best guess is that the virus was set to evolve in the background and only after having been touched did it trigger and enter a highly aggressive mode of reproduction."

"Regardless of how it got there, we'll have to purge everything and do a hard reset," Armsmaster grunted.

He turned the container in his hand, watching as the tissue contracted – breathing in the surrounding nutrients. Armsmaster had, of course, transferred the cybernetic muscle to a more suitable storage device. The current jar would maintain the composition of the solution and stabilize internal temperature. By his estimates, the perfected environment would speed tissue growth by eighty-three percent and, more importantly, extend the muscle's life from days to months.

"Which will take the technicians days to complete," Dragon observed. "And, if you're right about the supplier being compromised, won't stop the virus from infiltrating again. For now, I've installed antibodies on all the local machines to try and slow it down, but they're clever little things. It won't take much time for the little fellows to adapt..." Dragon stopped. "You really can't take your eyes off it, can you?"

Clunk. Armsmaster put the container back down onto the lab table. Turning in his chair, he finally offered Dragon the focus she deserved.

"As you stated, the virus has already been taken care of," he replied in gruff defense. "And I fail to see how further input will facilitate the solution."

Dragon sighed, sounding exasperated. "Go ahead. Tell me what you've figured out."

"It's not nanotech," Armsmaster said, turning back toward the container. "The individual parts are roughly one order of magnitude larger than the average cell found in the human body. More importantly the individual units are differentiated. Therefore, rather than a collection of organisms, the tissue is better described as a single, multi-cellular organism."

"No risk of uncontrolled proliferation then," Dragon noted. "I would really like to meet the Tinker behind the design."

Armsmaster grunted. "Neo-Taiping or independent?"

"I'm thinking Neo-Taiping. Their new leader, Machina, is probably a Tinker, and we've already seen signs that they're working with the Undersiders," Dragon answered. "If so, it shouldn't be too long before Machina reveals her power publicly."

Absently, Armsmaster made a note to revise his patrol routes. If he was lucky, he'd get additional samples.

"I ran it though the few tests. The performance is promising. Compared to natural muscle, the force output is three-point four times higher, and the twitch speed thirty seven-point-five percent faster. The energy efficiency is a bit lower, but – "

"The back force on your endoskeleton would break your bones in short order," Dragon interjected. She gave him a stern look. "I know what you're thinking, Colin."

Armsmaster's lips twitched when Dragon used his civilian name. Given that he was in his suit, he was currently 'Armsmaster'. He refrained from responding. They'd had that argument before, and Dragon's answer never changed: it's good for you, and I won't make a mistake.

"The output can be dialed back," he argued instead. "The nutrient requirements are a bit of an issue, but they can be supplemented by taking pills. I've already calculated the right dose."

"Colin, you really ought to consider this carefully before you go forward with it," Dragon said softly.

Armsmaster's fist tightened.

"One-point-two seconds," he growled. "That's the daily increase in my regime just to maintain the status quo. In four years, even if I had the time, my performance would start to falter. The number of villains is increasing, and I'm falling behind. Each minute I spend maintaining myself is a minute I could spend tinkering or investigating a crime."

Dragon sighed. "This is about Dauntless isn't it?"

"It has nothing to do with him," Armsmaster snapped.

"Really? Then you've calculated the down time necessitated by the surgeries? And remember, there will be multiple of them. By looking at your records, I can already see that the cybernetic muscle has a maximum life cycle of five years."

Armsmaster's lips tightened into a line. "The performance gains more than make up for the loss."

"If performance is all you're concerned about, you'd be better off abandoning the front line entirely and spending all your time in the lab," Dragon pointed out.

Armsmaster twitched.

"Colin, it's not healthy to lie to yourself," Dragon nudged softly.

He looked away.

"Maybe it is about Dauntless," he finally admitted. "But it's about more than just him. It's about the Protectorate. Don't tell me you haven't heard the talk? They want to replace me with the 'hometown hero'."

"And you don't think he has what it takes," Dragon supplied.

"He doesn't," Armsmaster said flatly. "His power is strong, I grant that. But Dauntless has no initiative. He never takes command. He never makes a suggestion. He only patrols where he's told to, and doesn't put in more than the minimum hours required. Dauntless isn't a hero. He's a salary worker."

"There's nothing wrong with being a salary worker, Colin. People join the Protectorate for a lot of reasons. Not everyone is as driven as you are."

"They damn well should be," Armsmaster declared. "How many people have died because we aren't trying hard enough? How many criminals walk the streets? How many people have been robbed, raped, or murdered because we're falling behind? The Protectorate doesn't need part-time heroes, no matter their power. It needs dedication. Devotion. A willingness to fight against the darkness no matter how long or how hard."

"And all of those are things I admire in you, Colin," Dragon said. "But that's all the more reason not to be careless when changing the very core of your being."

"Then what do you suggest?" Armsmaster demanded, angrily.

"Personally, I think you should leave the Protectorate."

"And let Dauntless take charge?"

"No, and leave it to Miss Militia," Dragon said calmly. "You know she has the correct character for the job, and you'll never find a better time for it. Thanks to Unit 09, the ABB and the Merchants – "

"The Neo-Taiping is the ABB by another name," Armsmaster interrupted.

"I know you don't like mercenary groups, but –"

"I don't like villain groups," Armsmaster interjected. "And the Undersiders and the ABB are villains. I don't have a problem with actual mercenary teams. Whether Unit 09 qualifies has yet to be seen."

Dragon gave him a look.

"I don't trust them," Armsmaster grunted, folding his arms in front of his chest. "I know they've pulled in a lot of villains in the last few weeks, and I'm willing to give them credit for that. But they're reckless. They have no regard for the law. More importantly, we don't know who they're working for or why."

"You should give them the benefit of the doubt," Dragon replied. "They've done a lot of good. And their hearts seem to be in the right place."

"And a lot of bad. They're murderers."

"You know that was an accident."

"Felony Murder is still murder under the law," Armsmaster retorted.

"An accident," Dragon repeated. "And given what we've uncovered, Overmind might not have been wrong in her pursuit."

Armsmaster's frown deepened. He didn't disagree with Dragon. He hated recklessness, but no matter what the law said, he damn well knew that if it was one of his men in those exact same circumstances, he wouldn't have held it against them. More to the point, the more they learned, the more Alexander stunk.

"She should have handed him over to me," Armsmaster finally grunted.

"Yes, she should have. And maybe in a different situation, she might have," Dragon breathed. "But we're getting off topic."

Armsmaster relented. "Don't think I don't know where this is leading. You want me to join the Guild."

"I'll admit, I do want that," Dragon teased. "But, mostly, I want to see you happy. The Protectorate doesn't suit you, Colin. It was good for you in the beginning. You needed the support. You needed the guidance. I know your dream is here. But there is more than one way to fulfill your dream. Better ways."

Armsmaster looked away. His hand shook. He knew what Dragon was saying. Go independent. Form his own squad. One free from the Protectorate's rules and regulations. He had thought of it before. Many times. But his thoughts always turned back to the Protectorate. To Eidolon, Alexandria, and Legend. To the dream of being the head of a major division. Not just in a city like Brockton Bay, but a big city like Chicago or New York. The new generation. Proof that he had achieved what they had achieved. That he was a hero.

It hurt to think about giving it all up. It hurt all the more that Dragon was probably right. Without all the bureaucracy, in group like the Guild, he could do bigger, more important things.

"I'll think about it," Armsmaster said. One thing was for certain, there would never be a better time. "But not until things settle. The Empire is Unit 09's next target, and I want to be there to see them fall."

Armsmaster's eyes turned back to the container and the metallic stranding floating within. "And I'm not giving up on it either."

"And you shouldn't," Dragon said. "Really, it's a marvelous piece of technology. Just take it slow. Please, if only for my sake. It's easier to tear things out than put them back in."

He nodded, giving the green liquid one last forlorn look. Then, glancing at the clock in the corner of his visor, Armsmaster started putting his tools away.

"Will you leave me in the loop?" Dragon asked.

"Piggot doesn't like it when you listen in," he replied.

"What she doesn't know won't hurt her," Dragon teased. "Besides, part of the reason I came was because I'm interested in the case."

Without a word, Armsmaster stepped out of his lab. No response was needed. That he left his camera on was answer enough.

The halls were thick with troops. Armsmaster moved through the crowd, nodding as he passed through checkpoint after checkpoint. Director Piggot's office was on the second floor, a short elevator ride up from the lab. When he arrived, Miss Militia was already inside.

"Good, you're here," Director Piggot said, looking up. The heavy woman's gaze was hard and well rested. Without a word, she started gathering a series of folders set on her desk.

Miss Militia offered a sharp nod of welcome, which Armsmaster returned. Compared to the Director, Miss Militia looked ragged. Not tired. Miss Militia didn't require sleep, a power Armsmaster greatly envied. Just ragged, as though she could use a shower to wash off the day's dinge and sweat.

"Then we're ready to proceed?" Miss Militia asked.

"As ready as we'll ever be," Piggot retorted.

The Director pulled herself out of her seat, stepping around her desk before shoving a folder into Armsmaster's chest. Armsmaster took the offering then started flipping through it.

"The two of us will handle the interrogation. I trust you can handle the outside," Piggot said, her words carrying a harsh command.

Miss Militia smiled. "Since things have stayed quiet for this long, hopefully that's a sign the peace will last."

"We don't rely on hope," Piggot retorted callously. She turned to the Tinker. "Read quickly, then destroy it. I don't want our prisoner spending anymore time with her lawyer. And turn off your camera. The contents are classified on the highest order."

"She has a lawyer?" Armsmaster murmured gruffly. He didn't turn off his camera.

"Quinn Calle, a specialist in parahuman law."

Taylor Hebert. Fifteen years old. The picture showed a girl much younger than the one Armsmaster expected, which only went to show that impressions weren't to be trusted. More importantly, she was a minor.

Armsmaster's lips twisted. That made things more complicated. He glanced through the rest of the pages, looking for anything of value. There wasn't much. Records from Winslow High. Falling grades before an abrupt exit, signs he'd seen far too many times. A dead mother, which may well have been the start of the trouble. And...

An arrest, made yesterday afternoon after a fight with Sophia Hess.

Armsmaster's eyes narrowed.

"Can you get me more information on this?" Armsmaster sub-vocalized.

"I'm already looking," Dragon answered back. "But knowing Sophia's background, it would be better to not to make any assumptions."

"That Overmind and Shadow Stalker fought in civilians clothes is more than a mere coincidence," Armsmaster retorted darkly.

"Colin," Dragon said, her tone positively chiding. "They went to the same school."

They did? Armsmaster flipped a page back. Winslow High. He frowned, then realized he didn't know which school any of the Wards went to. Nor, for that matter, did he care to learn. All he needed was for them to show up, do their job, and not cause any trouble.

"Done?" Piggot asked impatiently

Rather than answer, Armsmaster closed the folder then pushed the entire block into a slotted machine near Piggot's desk. Roller wheels sucked the papers in, turning them into ash.

Seeing that he was finished, Piggot made a sharp gesture for him to follow then pushed her way outside her office.

"I've sealed Overmind's personal records at the directorate level. You aren't to share her name, age, or any identifying characteristic with anyone for any reason. We have enough problems already. Last thing we need is one of Coil's moles getting their hands on Overmind's identity and using it to turn this catastrophe into an outright war."

Armsmaster grunted. "What's our plan?"

The two of them stepped into the elevator, bypassing a pair of PRT agents standing guard outside the door. Armsmaster silently punched the button for the basement floor.

"Director Costa-Brown wants us to apply pressure and push her into the Wards," Piggot said, snidely. "A waste of time if you ask me."

"A good man is dead because of her," Armsmaster growled.

"We can't keep her," Piggot reprimanded, pausing to give the Tinker a sharp look. "The other directors have refused our call for backup. Unit 09, apparently, isn't worthy of national intervention."

The elevator stopped. Ding. The doors opened. Compared to the upper floors, the basement halls were colder, illuminated only by florescent lights. Officers were posted at ever corner, all within easy sight of one another. Each of them carried heavy backpacks and containment foam dispensers.

"Oh dear," Dragon sighed into his ear.

"What is it?" Armsmaster sub-vocalized.

"Well. I'm pretty sure I've found Taylor's trigger event. Colin, be careful when you talk about the cafe. When it comes to Sophia, she might be a little touchy."

Armsmaster almost missed a step. "Sophia has something to do with it?"

"You know I won't answer that, Colin. Just, be careful."

Director Piggot came to a stop outside a conference room. Two PRT guards stood outside with three more just down the hall. Containment foam all around. Not even a sidearm. Piggot was taking no chances at escalation.

"I'll lead the interrogation," Piggot commanded. "We keep this simple. We shake her down then take everything we can get. At the end of the day, she walks. Is that clear? We don't have a strong enough charge to nail her with. This fight isn't worth waking up to ruined city this time tomorrow morning. The other directors left us out to dry. I refuse to eat a bullet on their behalf."

Armsmaster grunted. Piggot's way of phrasing things didn't sit well with his gut, but this wouldn't be the first time he had gotten his hands dirty.

"Colin, can you get me official permission?" Dragon inserted.

"Understood," Armsmaster answered gruffly before switching subjects. "Dragon came here as backup. She deserves a part in this."

Piggot scowled, then relented as though it pained her. "She can observe. But this is our turf. No intervention. No games. Are we clear?"

"She won't interrupt," Armsmaster answered for his partner.

"Good," Piggot said sharply. Then she pulled open the conference room door.

The first thing Armsmaster noted was Quinn Calle and Overmind quietly conferring. The two of them went silent as they entered. Armsmaster looked past the latino lawyer to study the girl beside him. Overmind's face was hidden behind a blank mask, but he could fill in the image from the mugshot taken last night.

What struck him most were her eyes.

Overmind's gaze was sharp, hard, and most of all, confident. They were not the eyes of a fifteen year old girl meeting a famous Protectorate hero for the first time. Nor was it the defeated gaze of a criminal captured by the police. She showed no anger. No fear. Just calm. A calm confidence as though she were already in complete control.

It was an image Armsmaster had witnessed many times. Overmind held the same dangerous gaze as Alexandria paired with the hardened callousness of Kaiser. She was the picture of a woman who held no guilt, no doubt, and no hesitation.

To see all that in a fifteen year old made Armsmaster's heart rumble with anger, whether for Overmind's lack of remorse or the world that made her, he did not know.

Regardless, it didn't change his irritation.

Armsmaster stepped back, placing himself against the wall while Piggot pulled out a seat. With a quick and subtle tap, the Tinker's armband released inaudible ping which scanned the room for any unauthorized listening device.

Except for Quinn Calle's phone, the room was clean. He gave Piggot quiet nod. Taking his cue, the director began.

"Taylor Hebert."

Piggot's voice came in harsh contrast to the interrogation room's cold silence. Overmind's gaze shifted a notch, but beyond that the girl barely reacted. Armsmaster glowered down at her, exuding threat by mere presence. It was an old tactic that had served him well.

Overmind's eyes did no more than flick in his direction.

"That's right. We know your name," Piggot continued. "And not just that. Danny Hebert, head of hiring for the Dock Workers Association. I wondered what he'd think, seeing his daughter in an interrogation room."

Finally, he saw the girl twitch. A slight tightening of her shoulders before she relaxed.

"She's quite mature for her age," Dragon commented.

"She's a hardened criminal," was Armsmaster's sub-vocalized retort.

Quinn Calle let out a cough. The lawyer flashed a handsome smile, his friendly image slightly offset by the scar that started at one nostril then ran along his cheek bone.

"Are we done getting to know each other?" he said lightly. "If so, then perhaps you can start by answering what my client is being charged with. You see, I've spent all morning trying to figure it out, but I still can't get a straight answer."

"That's because the list is so long it took hours to draw it all up," Piggot retorted coldly. The fat woman slapped a thick folder she had been carrying down on the table. "Take a gander if you like. It's quite the chilling read."

"How nice," Quinn Calle quipped, pulling the folder over with a bland smile. "I do love a good piece of fiction."

Piggot gave a disdainful huff. Her gaze shifted to Overmind.

"While your lawyer is otherwise engaged, perhaps you can start by explaining yesterday's altercation with Sophia Hess."

Dragon sighed.

"We have to know whether she was targeting Sophia or Shadow Stalker," Armsmaster sub-vocalized.

"I know the reasoning, I just wish it weren't necessary to be so cruel."

"I thought the charges were dropped," Quinn answered, still scanning through the pages.

"That was before we learned your client was a cape," Piggot retorted. "Depending on how she answers, those charges might be reopened."

"I believe my client has already rendered testimony on this issue," Quinn pushed back. "I see no reason she should reiterate it now."

"I want to hear it from her own mouth," Piggot returned sharply.

Overmind frowned. Quinn nodded in her direction, giving permission.

"What's there to say?" Overmind answered. Her frosty voice held an undertone of anger. "She threw hot coffee at my friend then tried to punch me in the face."

Truth, Armsmaster's HUD indicated. He wasn't sure he believed it. Partial truths read just a true as complete truths. And while Overmind's words matched the evidence in any case where Caster was involved there were too many ways the facts could be twisted.

"Don't press," Dragon reminded.

Armsmaster said nothing.

"You expect me to believe that a random high school girl attacked you unprovoked?" Piggot replied in snide retort.

"Yeah, that's exactly what I expect," Overmind snapped back. Her hands clutched at the edge of the table. "And Sophia Hess isn't a random high school student. She's a psychopathic bitch."

Quinn Calle made a sharp cutting motion. "Is that all?" he asked with a steady smile. "Or are you going to continue to harass my client on behalf of a girl you and I both know has a criminal record?"

Piggot scowled. Overmind's gaze jerked to her lawyer in surprise.

"Colin, please," Dragon whispered.

Armsmaster's expression twisted, but he interjected before Piggot could say her next piece.

"On that matter, we have no more questions."

Director Piggot turned, her gaze tinged with annoyance. Armsmaster just grunted and gave no further reply.

"Thank you."

"She was stressed. We could have used that to create an opening," Armsmaster grumbled into his comm.

"Triggers are touchy subjects. If you pushed, she might have turned hostile. That's not what we want. What we're looking for are answers and cooperation."

Armsmaster didn't respond. When it came to people, he trusted Dragon's instincts better than his own... even when he thought she was too soft.

"Then since that silliness has been disposed of, let's proceed with the main fare." Quinn Calle pulled out a clipped set of papers. His lips quirked and his voice held a tremble of amusement. "Brockton Bay Central Bank. Really? Are you preparing a criminal trial or a circus?"

"We have video records and a witness," Piggot said coldly.

Truth. Armsmaster frowned. "I thought wedidn't have anything?"

"The director is stretching the truth," Dragon explained quietly. "To claim we have video is questionable at best and a witness more so."

"Video taken by a standard camera and not run through any kind of tinker-tech filter?" Quinn asked with a raised brow. "And you can, of course, prove your witness hasn't been Mastered, right? Because if you can't, my partners will enjoy making a show of sending up their own witnesses – everyone of which will swear that the PRT was robbing the bank and Unit 09 came to stop them."

"The video was taken by helicopter and meets all required legal standards," Piggot's response was clipped.

"Ah yes. I've already seen that lovely piece. A pity it only shows the end of the fight making it impossible to tell who is who much less who started what. More than enough room for reasonable doubt, don't you think?" Quinn lifted the page and placed it to the side. "Let's put this one over here for now. If I'm lucky, I'll get a few more humorous pieces to share with my compatriots back at the office."

Piggot glowered. Unperturbed, Quinn thumbed through the remaining pages before pulling out second set of paper-clipped sheets. After giving it a glance, he gave a theatric shake of his head.

"The Teeth in Boston? You want to charge an independent hero for intervening amidst a clear and present parahuman danger?" he scoffed. "You don't have the guts. No DA would touch it out of fear of setting precedent, and the public relations backlash would destroy you. Forget the court case, your career wouldn't survive the indictment."

"The director would've been better off if she just stuck to the charges with merit," Dragon observed.

"They weren't supposed to be this prepared," Armsmaster retorted, eyes narrowed.

"He is quite good, isn't he?" Dragon commented.

Armsmaster merely grunted. Piggot remained quiet while she glared across the table. The silence dragged on for minutes while Quinn continued to sort through the papers.

"Are you done making light of the charges?" Piggot finally interjected, breaking the quiet. "Or have you finally accepted the severity of the situation?"

The director's eyes skewed toward Overmind. The girl stared coldly back.

"Hmm, somewhat interesting," Quinn noised, placing the bulk of the stack on his right. A few, thin pages remained. "But I think only this one here is worthy of discussion."

Tot tot. Quinn tapped on the paper twice in emphasis.

Overmind leaned, her eyes sweeping across the first few paragraphs. Her nose scrunched. "I didn't kill anyone."

"You don't have to kill anyone to be guilty of Felony Murder, Miss Hebert," Piggot shot back. "That Alexander Derkach, a rewarded officer of the force, died while you were in the process of committing a crime is enough."

"That's correct," Quinn agreed, his words aimed more at his client than the director. "Though, to find my client liable for the Alexander Derkach's death, you must first show that my client committed crime punishable with a maximal sentence of life imprisonment during the act that supposedly lead to his death."

"Assault with a parahuman power. Aggravated assault of a Police officer or Public Servant. Kidnapping. Resisting arrest," Armsmaster rattled off. "All of which I recorded." He paused, eyes tightening. "With a camera that complies to all the rules and regulations."

"How thorough, but," Quinn tisked. "Of those allegations, only kidnapping rises to the level required to invoke the Rule of Felony Murder."

"A crime which we can easily prove," Piggot quickly countered. "Not only that, we can show that Miss Hebert and her team engaged in reckless, even deadly, acts in their attempt to illegally seize Officer Derkach."

"A man, who I might remind you, is suspected of murder in the first degree," Quinn retorted. "If I were to argue such a case before a jury, I would say that my client is guilty of nothing more than being over eager in her heroism. A crime, which I might point out, many a Ward has committed."

"Wards are protected agents under the law," Piggot returned. "As you well know. Miss Hebert, however, is a rogue parahuman at best and an established villain at worst."

"I see, so you are going to accuse my client of unregistered vigilantism under the HERO act of 1987? Because, under those legal precepts, that is all my client is guilty of."

Armsmaster growled.

"Technically, he's right," Dragon credited. "Though whether a judge would allow it or the jury would buy it is rather questionable."

"An interesting argument," Piggot relented, giving a breath of ground before snatching it right back. "But all this hinges on whether you can prove that Alexander did, in fact, commit murder. Because if Miss Hebert made even the slightest mistake, we have her dead to rights."

"The bug bombs, the blood stains, and the powder residue on Alexander's hands would all support such an assertion. Never mind the questions of character that will arise when the jury hears that an Officer of the Law was carrying illegal weapons and engaged in unsanctioned activities at night."

"Most of that evidence is controlled by my department, and I'm under no obligation to share it with the court," Piggot answered sneeringly. "And I'm rather curious how it is that Miss Hebert ascertained that blame falls on one of my officers in the first place."

"One of your officers?" Overmind suddenly questioned. Her cold gaze bored into Piggot's own. "Tell me, how did Alexander's wife and children react when they heard about his death?"

His wife and children?

Armsmaster's teeth ground. His vision went red. Before he could think, he was already moving. Bang! Gauntleted hands smashed down onto the table, making the other end jump. Quinn startled. Overmind remained utterly still. Armsmaster glared down at her, his figure looming threat.

"Do you think a man's life is a joke!"

Armsmaster's roar was broken by Piggot's own reaction. Instead of jerking forward, the director jerked back. Her chair skittered behind her with a shrill skree. "Where did you hear about that?"

Overmind stared. Armsmaster stood frozen, his mind caught by sudden confusion. Piggot continued to glare with furious eyes.

"I said, where did you hear about that?" Piggot repeated, her tone seething.

Something was wrong.

"What is it? What did I miss?" he said hurriedly into his speaker.

It took Dragon an entire second to answer. "We weren't told, but half an hour ago, just before this meeting, the PRT sent someone to inform Alexander's family. But there was a problem. They didn't know who he was!"

Armsmaster turned. "Why wasn't I informed?"

Piggot merely scowled at the Tinker's rumbling anger. "It wasn't relevant to the interrogation."

"It wasn't relevant?" Overmind interjected, her young female voice harsh with cynicism. "That Alexander was Coil's is pretty fucking relevant."

Armsmaster's fist squeezed into a ball.

"I know what you're thinking, but Piggot's right," Dragon said quickly. "It shouldn't have come up."

It shouldn't have come up? Armsmaster paused. Dragon's timely intervention stopped Armsmaster from blowing his top and instead sent his mind bounding in a different direction. It shouldn't have come up. Why shouldn't it have come up?

Because Overmind shouldn't have known.

A sudden, terrible dread spread through Armsmaster's veins.

"Whether or not Officer Derkach worked for Coil has yet to be determined," Piggot said, coldly.

"Cut the bullshit," Overmind returned.

"Dragon," Armsmaster sub-vocalized, his voice an almost audible rumble. "The virus. You're absolutely sure you wouldn't have missed it?"

"Oh no," Dragon whispered in return, her voice almost distraught. "I don't know how we didn't notice before. In hindsight, it's so obvious."

The chill in his heart grew stronger. Dragon didn't need to say more than that. Armsmaster had already made the same connections. The virus was in the firmware. How did it get there? There were only two ways. The first was that the virus infected the supplier. But that meant the virus had been in the PRT systems for months, a pill that was hard to swallow.

But the other possibility was equally implausible.

The virus could jump air gaps.

And that meant only one thing, a parahuman power. But, as far as the PRT knew, no such parahuman existed. Further, parahuman powers were limited by range, so the cape had to be here. For all that to come together all at once was unbelievable.

Unless, the cape had been brought directly into PRT headquarters by themselves.

Bang! Armsmaster pounded the table with his fist. He whirled angrily toward the girl sitting across.

"You hacked our systems," he accused.

Overmind just looked at him.

"What are you saying?" Piggot asked, startled.

"Remember virus I reported last night?" He suddenly thrust at a finger in Overmind's direction. "It's hers."

Piggot's expression turned incredibly ugly.

"If I might remind you, my client is recorded as a Master 7 with her control limited to biological insects," Quinn inserted.

"A preliminary rating," Piggot retorted. She turned back to Overmind, eyes boiling. "Miss Hebert do you have any idea what you've done? Hacking a government database is a very serious crime."

"I don't understand? It's you who doesn't understand," Overmind replied evenly. "I'll make things clear. Right now, I have complete control over the entire building. That's every containment foam dispenser, every alarm, and every automatic door. And that includes that tape recorder you have running in the room on the other side of that mirrored window over there."

Piggot ground her teeth. "Are you now resorting to threats?"

"I'm resorting to facts," Overmind replied coldly. "You wanted to play hardball. Well, we can play hardball. So let's start with the core question. Why should Unit 09 continue sitting around outside instead of ripping their way in?"

Piggot glanced at Armsmaster. "How bad is it?"

Armsmaster glowered. "If her control of electronics is anything like her control of bugs, the entire building is a death trap," Armsmaster ground out in admission.

"Dragon can – "

"'Dragon' is a drone suit. Archer can take her out in one shot," Overmind interrupted.

Armsmaster startled. "What did you say?"

"I'll explain later," Dragon suddenly interjected over the comm.

"She's telling the truth?" Armsmaster almost growled in return.

"It's complicated," Dragon hedged. "Please. I'll explain later. I promise."

"Even if it's as you say, the PRT doesn't respond to threats," Piggot said darkly. "So don't think this will earn you any benefits. If anything, you've just made your situation much worse."

"You still haven't figured it out?" Overmind huffed. "You aren't negotiating with me. You're negotiating with her."

Overmind held out her hand. With a wan smile, Quinn surrendered his cell phone. The dark haired girl slapped it down on the desk. The audio feed crackled with life.

"Hello. Hello? Can anyone hear me?" a female voice sounded over the phone's speaker. "Why on earth do they make these things so complicated?"

Piggot's expression shifted. The large woman coldly reclaimed her seat. "Caster, I presume?"

"Oh good, I was worried for a moment that I wouldn't get through. Overmind isn't causing you too much trouble, is she?"

Making a small wave, Piggot directed Armsmaster to take a step back. Armsmaster grumpily obeyed the implicit order, folding his arms angrily as he stood against the wall.

"Your partner has infiltrated our systems and done untold millions of dollars of damage," Piggot shot back.

"Ah. I see. Well, accidents happen," Caster's voice returned, utterly blasé. "If anything you should be glad that it wasn't more serious. Like, perchance, an assassination."

Armsmaster's eyes narrowed at the insinuation.

"Whether or not one of your allies was attacked by one of my agents, the law remains unchanged," Piggot said coldly. "Or does Unit 09 think it's above the law?"

There was a pause.

"Yes. That's exactly what we think," Caster's voice crackled.


"Excuse me?" Piggot sounded after a moment.

"What? Were my words too difficult to understand?" Caster returned snidely. "Then allow me to state things more clearly. Legal authority inherently derives from a monopoly of power. A power which, to be succinct, you do not possess. Therefore, it follows, that the laws do not in fact apply to myself. Or, for that matter, to any member of my unit."

"I'll admit, you possess a great deal of power. But if you think that PRT will ignore your blatant criminal acts, you are very wrong," Piggot said darkly.

"I expect no such thing. Actions have consequences. Both mine and yours. But, make no mistake, what we are engaged in is not a discussion between a resident and a government, but rather a negotiation between sovereign states. And what has occurred between my agent and yours is not a crime, but rather a diplomatic incident. Am I clear enough already?"

"That's certainly a novel way of looking at it," Dragon commented.

Armsmaster scowled.

"I see," Piggot stated after a long moment. The fat woman settled against the back of her chair. "Then accepting that this is a 'diplomatic venture', how does Unit 09 plan on resolving this incident?"

"That depends on you. If you are eschewing responsibility for the sniper's attack, then matters are simple. You let Overmind go, and we do not sanction you for your failure to control your own agents."

Piggot's eyes narrowed. "Neatly avoiding your own responsibility in harming my agents and the damage done to my facilities."

"A harmless tussle, nothing more," Caster said calmly. "And seeing as how I'm willing to overlook your agent's action – authorized or not – I see no reason you cannot do the same on behalf of a handful of computers."

"It's more than a handful of computers," Armsmaster grunted angrily.

"And are those worth more than a life?" Caster shot back.

Piggot raised a hand, cutting off Armsmaster's response before he could retort.

"And if I do not 'eschew' responsibility?"

"Then I flatten your headquarters in reprisal," came Caster's cold response. "Please understand, it's not so much that I want to. Rather, it's that I have to. Examples must be made. As a high level official, I'm sure you understand."

"Oh, I agree completely," Piggot ground out, her tone verging on threat.

"So, as said, the decision is in your hands," Caster continued, ignoring the last response. "The question you ought to be asking is what do you want?"

Piggot leaned back in consideration. Long seconds ticked by in silence.

"She's not actually planning to play their game?" Armsmaster sub-vocalized.

"I don't see why not?"

"They broke the law."

"People break the law all the time, Colin. The law isn't the authority on right and wrong. It is, at best, an approximation," Dragon replied quietly. "And regardless of the moral considerations, the practical ones remain. Caster is right. In this case, the law defacto does not exist because we have no ability to enforce it."

"Unit 09 joins the Protectorate as an independent team," Piggot said suddenly. "The PRT takes credit for your prior accomplishments. In return, we grant you full immunity for all prior crimes on your record and any you deem fit to share – should they be within reason."

Armsmaster raised a brow, startled.

"She expects them to agree with those terms?" Armsmaster sub-vocalized.

"Of course not. Its just a probe to see what she can get."

"Impossible," Caster returned, as expected. "My current contract does not allow direct association with the government. I might be able to wiggle in as a subcontractor, if I get permission. But I would want to be properly compensated. And I would reserve the right to continue my private ventures or refuse assistance whenever I saw fit"

"Even if I agreed, the other directors would never accept those terms," Piggot retorted.

"Then we are at an impasse."

Piggot tapped a finger in consideration. Then she leaned forward, so that her bulky body pressed against the table. "I want the Butcher."

Silence. Armsmaster straightened up. Overmind, who had been staring off into space with disinterest, suddenly turned her gaze toward Piggot with a keen look in her eye.

"Doable. But my partners insist that you must first prove you can transport and hold him."

"If I may?" Dragon's voice suddenly sounded out over the intercom. "I've already prepared a special cell in the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center. As for transport, with some retrofitting, I should be able to use one of my suits. That is, if you can confirm the Butcher's teleportation is limited to line of sight."

"It is," Caster confirmed.

Overmind spoke up. "The Butcher's power transfers on suicide."

"Ah? That makes things rather troublesome," Dragon mused.

"A small matter which I'm sure can be resolved," Piggot interjected, waving the issue off. "The Butcher for Overmind. Are we in agreement?"

"Not just Overmind. I want her identity sealed and her legal record wiped. No charges. No retractions. I'm sure Mr. Calle can arrange everything to my satisfaction."

Quinn Calle smiled, hands folded. "I'll be happy to draw up the paperwork on behalf of my client."

"I can let Overmind go now, but immunity will have to wait until we get the Butcher," Piggot declared.

"Acceptable," Caster replied.

"I'll need some samples," Dragon quickly added. "Blood, tissues and the like."

"We'll arrange something," Caster answered. "Is that all?"

"No. One last matter," Piggot stated. The director's eye turned toward Armsmaster then Overmind in warning. "I don't want this to happen again. So the next time we find ourselves in a disagreement, we settle this 'diplomatically' on neutral ground. Am I clear?"

"Perfectly," Caster replied. "Overmind, I'll see you in a bit. Mr. Calle, I'll leave the rest to you. And Director Piggot, it was a pleasure."