Part Sixteen: Mining for Resources
[A/N: This chapter commissioned by Fizzfaldt and beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]
Carol poured hot water into the cup and stirred it to mix in the cocoa powder that was already in there. She added a splash of milk and a handful of mini-marshmallows, and stirred again. After repeating the procedure with a second cup, she picked them both up and took them back to where Amy was sitting on the sofa. "Here you go, honey."
"Thanks, Mom." Amy smiled as she took the cup. "Ooh, peeps. I love these."
"You're welcome." Carol playfully ruffled her daughter's hair as she sat down with her own cup. "You do understand that you're going to have to be more stringent with matters such as cleaning your teeth from now on, right? Your power isn't going to be there anymore to take care of little things like that."
"Oh, man." Amy's face fell, just a little. Then her shoulders slumped as well as she looked up at her mother. "You noticed?"
Carol smiled indulgently. "Honey, I'm the mother of two teenage girls. Vicky's always been a little slapdash, so I've had to sit on her a few times. I never had that problem with you, but about six months after you got your powers your bathroom prep times dropped off dramatically, with no increase in body odour or halitosis. I'm guessing you figured out how to make your power take care of things like that around then."
"Yeah." Amy took a sip from her hot chocolate. "I was running late a few times, and I just did the best I could. I didn't reek afterward so I started experimenting, to see how much I could get away without doing."
"Understood." Carol leaned back in her seat and sampled her own drink. It was pleasantly hot and sweet. "Well, you're going to have to unlearn all those bad habits now, I'm afraid. Teeth, proper application of soap, other body hygiene. Also, deodorant."
Amy rolled her eyes. "Well, at least I won't be wearing that damn burqa anymore. I used to sweat so bad in that thing."
"And then you trained your skin bacteria to deal with the by-products so you didn't actually smell bad afterward." Deciding to ignore the crack about the 'burqa', Carol raised her cup to Amy. "Nicely done, by the way. It's always gratifying to see someone using a power for something that doesn't involve violence or hurting people."
"Talking of Vicky," Amy said, sounding a little cautious. "Where's she right now?"
"Upstairs, in her room, sulking after I grounded her." Carol raised her eyebrows. "You're not allowed to tease her about it. She's already been punished enough."
"Oh, I wasn't going to do that." From Amy's tone, she'd been thinking about it maybe a little, but now she wasn't. "Can I ask what she did to get grounded?"
Carol thought about saying no, but it was clear that Amy was more responsible now, especially considering that she'd given up her powers willingly so that she wouldn't hurt anyone by accident with them in future. Besides, this actually involved Amy herself.
"It was about Zachary taking away your powers, actually," she said. "For some reason, she seems to think Zachary has ulterior motives, and that he'd Mastered you into letting him remove your powers. When she insisted on maintaining this delusion in the face of all reason and logic, I had her come home with me instead of going back to Arcadia and possibly causing a scene."
"Oh, wow." Amy shook her head with a surprised look on her face. "That's … well, she's been acting weird recently, so I shouldn't be surprised. And after the scene she made in the cafeteria, I really shouldn't be surprised. But …" She paused, then looked down at her hot chocolate. Clearly choosing to not say what was on her mind, she took another drink.
"But what?" Carol absolutely wanted to know what Amy was holding back. "And what do you mean, acting weird?"
Amy grimaced. "I don't want to get her in trouble, okay?"
"Trust me, she's already in enough trouble," Carol assured her. "Spit it out."
Still, Amy hesitated. She looked around the room, apparently not wanting to meet her mother's eyes, then finally sighed. "Okay. It's about Zach, as you can probably guess."
"I hadn't guessed that, but things are becoming clearer now." Carol gestured with her mug. "Go on."
So Amy began to tell her tale. To Carol, it was patently obvious that she was trying to ensure that nobody got unfairly blamed, whether it be Vicky or Zachary. Apart from that, the narrative more or less paralleled what Vicky had told her, though it filled in quite a few details that her birth daughter had 'inexplicably' left out.
"So then Zach gave me and Taylor a lift home," Amy concluded. "Taylor made a funny, then you came out while we were still laughing. You know the rest."
"Hmm." Carol considered the story, now that she had more in the way of details. "It's definitely unlike her to be so aggressive with a new cape, especially when it comes to things like feats of strength. You're saying Zachary didn't seem to hold a grudge?"
"Not in the slightest." Amy shrugged. "She came across as a real bit- uh, really unpleasant when he started asking me if I was happy. But when she offered to arm-wrestle, he went with it. He totally could've told her to take a long walk off a short pier and I would've cheered him on, the way she was talking to him. And I'm pretty sure he used some sort of power to make sure nobody else saw her losing the contest."
Carol nodded. That totally fit with what she knew of the young man. "And how easily would you say he beat her? All Vicky would say is that he cheated."
"She would." Amy rolled her eyes and wrinkled her nose. "He had Vicky beat from the start. I mean, Vicky was straining like she was trying to lift Mount Rushmore, but he was letting her only move his hand a little bit at a time. Then he brought it back, with basically no effort at all, while talking to me. That got her even madder. She did not want him speaking to me, especially about being happy as a superhero."
"Well, I'm sorry to hear that you weren't." Carol tilted her head. "So he really had no trouble winning? Vicky is very strong."
"Yeah, she is. But he's a whole lot stronger." Amy shook her head and chuckled. "Should've seen her face. When he decided the contest was over, he just pushed her arm over like closing a book. She acted like such a sore loser about it all that I decided I was gonna talk to Zach and Taylor again whether she wanted me to or not."
"And good for you," Carol said. "You're clearly happy with what you got out of it, so that's for the best."
"Thanks, Mom." Amy cradled the cup in her hands and looked across at her. "You're actually taking this a lot better than I expected. Stopping being Panacea and all, I mean. I personally thought you'd be yelling at me, or even grounding me like Vicky."
Carol waggled her free hand in the air. "Not having instant healing on tap will probably be at least a bit inconvenient, but New Wave and the Brigade got along for years before you came along, and we can learn to manage without you. So can the hospitals you were volunteering at. Let the doctors learn to do their jobs again." She tilted her head. "What were you thinking of doing with your life, now that being a professional superhero is no longer on the cards?"
"Well, I'm not going to be any sort of medical professional, obviously." Amy punctuated her statement by taking a drink of her hot chocolate.
"I'm not sure that it's all that obvious." Carol looked at her quizzically. "Even without your powers, you'd have the most complete intuitive understanding of how the human body works than basically anyone, ever."
"Yes." Amy sighed heavily. "And sooner or later, I'd inevitably be stuck in the position of knowing my powers could've saved someone while they slip away right from under my hands. No thank you very much. I'm thinking of maybe going into the visual arts."
"Drawing? Painting?" This was more than a little out of left field. "You've never shown any interest in that before."
"Have I ever had the option?" Amy raised her eyebrows. "I'm thinking of maybe putting that intuitive understanding of the human body to use by illustrating how it can come apart in the worst possible ways. Horror movies and the like. Trust me, when it comes to that aspect, I have seen it all."
Carol blinked. "Well, if that's what you want to do with yourself, I suppose." She leaned back in her seat to finish her drink. Despite it taking the loss of Panacea's powers (though they weren't gone forever, she reminded herself) she'd finally managed to heal the rift—that she hadn't even known was there!—between herself and Amy.
Now, if only I can figure out how to get through to Victoria …
Thomas was getting close; he could almost feel it. Following the wordless directions from his ghastly co-pilot, he was wending his way through the back streets of a small town whose name he'd entirely missed. This was not a good part of town. Hell, this wasn't a good part of the state. But Zachary wanted him to be here, so he was here.
Creep pointed at the side of the road, and Thomas obediently pulled over and parked. With the engine shut off, sounds suddenly seemed a lot louder. "Okay, I'm here," he said out loud. "What now?"
"Phone," croaked Creep. "Camera."
Okay, so he'd come all this way to take a photo of someone? He'd hoped that somewhere along the line he'd figure out what was going on, but that point had clearly not come yet. His phone was in his pocket, so he took it out to make sure he could activate the camera at a moment's notice.
"Split." Creep pointed at the corner up ahead. "Go."
Okay, so this was dangerous. Thomas had no problem with taking precautions. He divided the timeline and stepped out of the car in one of the lines. Leaving his other version trying hard to not look at Creep, he strolled along the sidewalk to the corner and stepped around it.
In the instant before the Master effect overtook him, he recognised Valefor. Then his mind was a warm mush with no thoughts at all running through it.
With an effort—Valefor's effect was doing its best to take over both of his instances—he dropped that timeline. For a moment he sat in the car, shaking from the close call. Then he reached under the seat and retrieved his pistol. So it's like that, is it?
Again, he split time and climbed out of the vehicle. He took a moment to check chamber; brass showed, so he was good to go. Okay, let's try that again.
I looked again at the gloves I was wearing. Even if I hadn't known what they really were, I would've thought they were cool and kind of stylish. Not something that I would normally be wearing. Or even be able to afford.
But Zach had given them to me, so that was okay.
"So what are we going to do now?" I looked at Zach, wondering how he wanted to top today's shenanigans. That he both could and would was a given. It was the how and what that I was curious about.
He smiled at me in a way I was learning to recognise; a smile that said there was something both weird and interesting in store. We were either going to fix something or utterly fuck up some bad guy's day … or both. I was absolutely down with that.
"We are going to meet a celebrity and a hero, and free both of them," he said happily. "Not many people will be happy with us, but it is the right thing to do."
"Celebrity?" I frowned. "Hero? Free them? I don't understand." Was there a hero imprisoned somewhere I didn't know about?
He beamed at me. "You will, Taylor. I know you will do the right thing. You are my hero."
Not much could make me blush, but he managed it with those four words. "I'm no hero. I'm just me."
"Yes, Taylor, and I am here to help you become the best you that you can be."
Well, what could I say to that? Sorry, but you've got the wrong Taylor Hebert? The amount of faith Zachary had in me to be heroic was … humbling. It wasn't like I wanted to disappoint him.
Not that I was sure I could. Whatever he wanted to do was basically what I would've done myself if I'd had the power at my fingertips that he did, and the information that he had access to. Our goals, broadly speaking, were in synch.
Of course, there had been that rough patch where I'd had to talk him out of killing Emma and the others, but he'd taken my words to heart ever since. And even then, I couldn't put my hand on my heart and say that I hadn't wanted to kill them at least once or twice myself.
"Well, okay then." I grinned and gave him a shrug. "I'll bite. How are we getting there?"
"It is a little far to jump, so I will carry you and run, if you are comfortable with that," he said. "Then you will get us into the place we are going."
I considered that. I'd seen him smack Assault all the way to Boston, and I figured he could jump that far easily, which meant he intended to go a whole lot farther. How much farther I couldn't be certain, but I knew one thing.
I was with him to the end of the line.
My grin widened. "Let's do this."
The corner was a left turn, so that was a bonus. Left-handed, Thomas activated the camera app on his phone and edged it around the corner, watching the screen. There they were, three of them. Valefor, a guy in jagged armour that he tentatively identified as Eligos, and a slender woman with long pale wispy hair-
Heart thudding, he yanked the camera back around the corner, clenching his eyes shut and attempting to purge his mind of what he'd just seen. If he was correct, that had been her. Never named, never referred to except in the most oblique of terms. Matriarch of the Mathers branch of the Fallen. He'd only ever seen sketches of her, rendered by computer from images taken via remote cameras. Enough detail had been altered, it was hoped, that she couldn't connect back to those looking at the pictures.
When it came to Masters, she was among the most terrifying of the lot … and the goddamn Simurgh was included in the list she was to be measured against. She was the sort of cape against whom the use of intercity missiles was recommended.
If someone saw her, she could see through their eyes and control what they saw. If they heard her voice, she could hear what they heard and control their auditory input. And if they touched her … she could put them through the most horrifying agony at will and at range.
While she couldn't force someone to do her bidding like a puppet, her power gave her a huge amount of leeway in dealing with people. Thomas suspected that even the bogeyman of bogeymen, Contessa herself, was unable to get close to the Mathers woman, unless she did so without ever directly thinking of her.
And here he was, doing exactly that.
As he registered that thought, he felt something else; a sensation of curiosity, as of someone looking around in a room they'd never been before.
In his head.
He dropped that timeline like a hot potato.
Retrieving the pistol from under the seat (he didn't bother checking chamber this time) he got out of the vehicle. "Okay," he muttered to himself, more to focus his thoughts than anything else. "Valefor and Eligos. What do I have to do here?" It had to do with his phone camera, he knew that much.
"Pictures," croaked Creep from the passenger seat. "Her."
Thomas stared at him in abject horror. "You have got to be shitting me."
Creep, it seemed, was not shitting him. "Send. Address."
Right on cue, his phone beeped. Looking own, he saw an alert for an email. The sending address was one of his own throwaway accounts, because why the fuck not? In the body of the email was another email address.
Now, he was more confused than ever. "Why? Who in God's name wants that?"
But Creep had decided to be dead again; slumped in the passenger seat, his sunken eyes stared sightlessly at the windshield. Thomas wondered again if he was just an illusion (which would explain why nobody could see him) or if he was actually there and nobody else could see him.
Clenching his eyes shut, he breathed out a long sigh, combining the word, "Fuuuuuuuuuuck," with it at the same time.
Was this what it had been like for others when he was using his powers to push them around like pawns on a board? He was beginning to suspect he understood why Tattletale had never liked him. It was fun being the chessmaster, much less so as the playing piece. Especially since pawns were so often sacrificed.
Phone in hand and pistol close down beside his thigh, he sidled up to the corner yet again. Fortunately, due to the strategic use of his power, the members of the Fallen had no way of knowing that he was there …
… except for the fact that there were half a dozen people on the street, all of whom were visible to anyone around the corner, all looking at him. The fact that they'd seen the pistol was evident from the way they were backing away. Nobody said a word, but they didn't have to. He instinctively knew that she could see through their eyes, and that she knew he was there.
In that instant, he knew he had to make a decision and make it quickly. Abort and retry with a new timeline, or just go for it?
Long-ago lessons in officer training had impressed on him that there was never a 'perfect' time to attack the enemy. In fact, if the situation did appear perfect, there was probably a serious problem he had yet to discern. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, 'good enough' had to suffice.
He slid the phone past the corner, eyes on the screen. The first thing he saw was a hand, reaching toward the lens, enormously foreshortened. Before he could react, the hand plucked the camera away from him and a head popped around the corner.
"Hi!" said Valefor. "You need to—"
Thomas brought up the pistol. If he was fast enough …
He wasn't. His mind was a warm mush of no thought, no impetus. Nothing.
"—drop the pistol."
He dropped the pistol.
Then, with an effort, he dropped that timeline.
Looking out through the windshield, he saw the people who had betrayed him. They were clearly under the woman's—don't think about her!—influence. If he did anything suspicious, she would be alerted, then she would alert her subordinates. And all Valefor had to do was see him.
Carefully, he took the pistol from under the seat and slid it into his waistband in the small of his back, where the fall of his jacket would conceal it. He wasn't a bulky man, but that should last long enough … he hoped. His job wasn't to shoot her, but to get a picture of her. Why? Worse, where was he sending it to? What unimaginable maniac would be okay with her getting into their head?
A saying he'd heard long ago crossed his mind. Not my circus, not my monkeys. If that was what they wanted, and if the alternative was being tormented every step of the way, then he would get that damn picture.
Taking a deep breath, he climbed out of the vehicle, yet again.
Zach let me down onto my feet once more. I stood ankle-deep in snow, but with my jacket zipped all the way up, it didn't bother me as much as it should have. All around us, mountainous terrain climbed jaggedly into the sky.
"Wow," I said, a long streamer of white vapour whipping away from my lips as I spoke. "Nice place if you like cold and desolate, but I'm guessing there's a reason you brought me here."
"Yes, Taylor, there is." Zach smiled, quite clearly unbothered by the wind that was even now blowing my hair to one side. He pointed at one of the nearby mountains. "You need to teleport us into there. Precisely two thousand, one hundred and thirty-three feet from this location, at fifteen degrees from true north and five degrees upward elevation."
I blinked behind my glasses. "I can't …" then trailed off. Behind my eyes, my teleport power had awoken and seemed to be processing his instructions. In another instant, I got the feeling that I knew exactly how to get there. "Um, maybe I can?"
Zach beamed at me happily. "I knew you could do it, Taylor. I have faith in you."
"Uh huh." I tried to ignore the rush of confidence this gave me. "Just one thing. Teleporting into the middle of solid rock isn't exactly conducive to ongoing health. Even I've read enough science fiction to know that one."
"This is very true, Taylor. But we will not be teleporting into solid rock." His tone was entirely matter-of-fact. "Not that it would matter. I would still protect you."
"Yes, yes you would." Because Zach was there to protect and help me. I was utterly sure about that by now. However, he'd given me the teleporting jacket, as opposed to keeping it himself. "So what's in there, if it's not a billion tons of granite?"
"I could tell you, but that would spoil the surprise. Do you really want me to spoil the surprise?"
He had an amazingly effective line in puppy-dog eyes. I tried to glare at him, then snorted in amusement. "No, I guess not. Okay, let's do this thing."
Without moving my feet, I took Zach by the arm and held him close. The last thing I wanted to do was leave him behind while quite literally teleporting into the unknown. While I was fully aware of what my jacket could let me do, Zach's feats were far and away beyond that.
Reaching inside, I connected to the teleport power and told it to send us to those coordinates. Just in case, I specified no flames for either departure or arrival. With everything in readiness, I triggered the power.
We'd used this before, when we were clearing up the Boat Graveyard. Then, the teleport had been simple and effortless. This time around, it was as though we were twisting our way through a piece of cloth that was being wrung out by King Kong. But the power had muscle behind it, and forced us through anyway.
After what seemed an eternity in transit (though Zach had always maintained it was less than a hundredth of a second) we popped back to reality again. When my vision cleared, we were inside what my frazzled brain initially defined as a nuclear survival bunker. Which I had not assumed we'd be finding. Much less an occupied one.
I knew it was occupied because all around us, women were jumping to their feet. They all wore a variation on the same clothing; orange coveralls, with words stencilled onto the cloth. I couldn't see what the wording actually said, because most of it seemed to be on the sleeves (mainly rolled up) and their backs.
It took me a moment or so to realise that the coveralls could also pass for prison wear. I clung tightly to Zach's arm, ready to teleport us out in an instant if things went sideways. Not that I thought Zack would lose, but there was no sense in antagonising these people for no good reason.
"Hello, Lustrum!" said Zach heartily. "You are looking well. I am not here to attack you."
Okay then. Casual it is.
Phone held casually in his left hand, right ready for a quick brush-and-draw of the firearm under his jacket, Thomas strolled once more up to the corner. If he stepped around the corner, Valefor would see him, and he'd be under the Master's control. But if he put the phone around the corner …
There was one real problem with that solution.
If he took the photo and sent it away without looking at it, he couldn't be certain that he'd gotten a photo of the person of interest. But if he did look, he would see her, and know who she was, and she'd know where he was. And for all he knew, she'd be able to look into his head and read his intentions. The briefings had never quite been able to pin that down about her.
What if they'd turned aside? What if they weren't even in view when he took the photo?
He hated not being certain about things.
Just as he came up to the corner, Valefor stepped into view, not two yards away. Thomas reacted as fast as he knew how; with one hand he threw the phone, while with the other he pushed aside his jacket and dragged the pistol from its hiding place. Valefor, already turning toward Thomas, recoiled as the handset arced toward their face. They threw up their hands to ward it off, and that was all the time Thomas needed.
The pistol came clear and swung into line just as Valefor batted the phone away, and Thomas fired without bothering to bring the pistol up to eye level. The first shot took the young man (or woman? PRT Intelligence were still unsure about that one) through the breastbone, and the second went into Valefor's mouth and blew out the back of their head.
Well aware that he'd utterly fucked up the mission—but it wasn't really his fault if he'd been shoved into a no-win situation from the beginning, was it?—Thomas turned to run.
He got all of ten feet.
As the maternal-looking woman waved a hand in response to Zach's words, I blinked and looked around at the people around us. Lustrum was a name I knew; parahuman leader of a feminist movement that bordered on cult-level loyalty, she had been sentenced to the Birdcage when some of her people had begun mutilating and murdering men.
I didn't know for certain whether she'd given the orders, or even known it was about to happen. Every group like that has its extremists, the people who are willing to push things way further than originally intended.
But that wasn't the important bit. The important bit was that Lustrum was in the Birdcage. Which meant that Zach and I were in the Birdcage.
Why were we in the Birdcage?
"Zach?" I asked quietly.
"There is a good reason for this," he assured me, just as quietly.
At almost exactly the same time, Lustrum spoke up. "If you're not here to attack us, boy, then I'm going to assume you have a really good reason for intruding on our space. I'm listening." Her arms were folded, which told me that she wasn't fully convinced we were worth listening to.
"Yes, ma'am. There is a good reason," he said politely. "I am here to offer each of you a way out of here. I will also be extending this offer to the men in the Birdcage, but I chose to come to your side first."
Lustrum's arms relaxed from their taut posture at his words. I was a little impressed, even though I'd seen his diplomatic capabilities before. Still, we were a long way from what I would consider as 'secure'. Also, what the hell? Letting people out of the Birdcage?
"You're saying that each of us can leave here, free and clear?" Lustrum tilted her head. "I have trouble believing that. There's always a quid pro quo. What's your price for our freedom?"
"Oh, no," Zach explained patiently. "I did not say it was free and clear. You are correct in presuming the existence of a quid pro quo. My price is your powers. Allow me to take your powers and I will arrange passage from the Birdcage."
Whew. That made a lot more sense than just letting a few hundred hardcore villains back into society. A hard bargain, sure, but totally fair, as far as I was concerned.
For a moment, Lustrum stared at him, then she let out a bark of laughter. "You nearly had me convinced, boy. Take our powers? Glaistig Uaine's the only cape who can do that, and it's a death sentence for whoever it happens to."
I raised one finger as if I were still in class at Winslow. "Ahh … ma'am? Ms Lustrum? That's actually not the case. I've seen him take powers from several capes, and they were still alive and well afterward."
She turned her head slightly, as if noticing my existence for the first time. I wasn't exactly surprised; when he needed to, Zach could command all the attention. "And you are?" she asked with a lift of her eyebrows.
"Uh, Taylor Hebert, ma'am. My mother was one of your people, back in the day. Before all …" I waved my hand at the concrete structure around us. "… this."
"Hm." She gave me a nod of recognition. "And how is she now?"
I grimaced. "She passed away a couple of years ago. Car accident. But she always said she didn't think you deserved the Birdcage."
"I'm sorry to hear that." Her tone softened by a few degrees. "So what are you doing, running around with this pretty boy? I know the type; all promise, no follow through."
Taking a deep breath, I squared my jaw, as much as I was able anyway. "And there you'd be wrong, ma'am. He's always done exactly what he's promised. He's been there for me over and over again, and asked nothing in return."
"Really." A world of cynicism rode on that word. "He'll let you down, in the end. They always do."
"Not this one." I made my tone as firm as hers, and tugged the Idiot Ball from my pocket. "See this? If I hit you with it, it'll take away your powers until I decide to let you have them back. And that's just the temporary version."
"Oh, so you're a cape too." But she kept her eyes warily on the brightly coloured ball. "Physical manifestations of a cape power are nothing new."
"I'm not a cape." I wondered privately how many people I was going to have to explain this to. "This is a power Zach took from Animos." I waited expectantly for her to recognise the name.
"I don't know who that is, kid." Her expression was beginning to close down again. "Maybe if you came in with something a bit more impressive, like Jack Slash's knife power?"
"I can't." My response was automatic. "Zach killed off the Nine, just the other day. Jack Slash included."
That got everyone's attention.
"The Slaughterhouse Nine? Am I supposed to believe that pretty-boy here wiped them out?" Lustrum gave a snort of laughter. "With what? The power of Axe body spray?"
"A PRT van," I responded flatly. "He threw it, from fifteen hundred miles away. I was there. I saw the whole thing."
Lustrum blinked, then looked more carefully at Zach. "Okay then, boy. There's clearly more to you than meets the eye. But I'm going to need more than just the word of some stranger. Mcabee!"
Slowly, hesitantly, a woman stood forth from the group in the common room. She hadn't been among those who had surged forward, and she was in the same drab coveralls as the rest, but I recognised her anyway. Paige Mcabee, otherwise known as Bad Canary, or just Canary for short. The yellow feathers growing through her equally blonde hair kind of sealed the deal.
Some advocacy group had apparently attempted to secure an injunction to let her have her say in court. The presiding judge had responded by pushing her trial through and committing her to the Birdcage before it could be implemented. It had made the news for a few days then faded away, as usual.
"Y-yes?" she asked. Her voice was startlingly melodious. I'd heard it before, listening to one of her songs on the radio, but it was always amazing to hear it again.
"Girlie there's gonna tag you with her little rubber ball," Lustrum ordered. "You tell me if you've still got powers. Then she's gonna give 'em back, and we'll see what's what."
I glanced sideways at Zach, unsure if this was the way he wanted things to go. He gave me an encouraging nod.
Lustrum turned to look at me. "I'd tell you to smack pretty boy with the ball, but I can tell even from here that's a no-show. Either you wouldn't do it, or it wouldn't work on him."
"It absolutely wouldn't work on him," I confirmed. "Or on me. And I could bounce it off everyone here, and it would only work on the people I meant it to."
"Yeah, yeah, bullshit powers are bullshit." She gestured toward Canary. "Whenever you're ready."
I didn't want to be cruel toward Canary. She'd never done a thing to me, after all, and I thought her singing was amazing. So I aimed to bounce it off her shoulder. It would come back to me no matter how I threw it, but I didn't want to give too much away. Aiming at the floor between us, I threw the ball lightly. It hit the spot I'd designated and bounced upward, aiming directly toward Canary's shoulder.
And then space folded in odd ways, and a young teen girl wearing what looked like a blackened shroud appeared, right between me and Canary. The ball bopped her on the forehead and arced back toward me. I instinctively sent the signal for it not to activate, but I felt an override push the power through anyway. With a most undignified yelp, the girl fell on her backside as the ball smacked into my palm.
The mass inhalation of shocked breath stood fair to lower the air pressure in the room by a significant amount, or maybe that was just my imagination. Lustrum, unsurprisingly, was the first to recover.
"Glaistig Uaine?" she asked doubtfully. "Are you … alright?"
Thomas came to with a feeling that something wasn't right. He was sitting in the car, with Creep lounging in the passenger seat. But that wasn't what was wrong.
The real problem was that Valefor was leaning in the passenger-side window, a shit-eating grin on their face. And the woman herself was right in Thomas's face, leaning in the driver's side window. Eligos was lounging against the bumper, clearly trying to be intimidating, but falling behind the other two by a long way.
"Hello," purred the wispy-haired woman. "I'm Christine Mathers. Most call me Mama. And you are?"
He reached for the other timeline, but it wasn't there. It must have dropped when Mama Mathers made him run smack into the wall. Motherfucking shitballs. No fallbacks. "Strike Squad Commander Thomas Calvert, PRT East-North-East," he heard himself answer before he could put a lock on his tongue. "Also, the supervillain Coil." What the living fuck?
"Oh, I'm sorry," said the androgynous villain, not sounding sorry in the slightest. "I've given you a few basic commands. Don't lie to Mama. Do what Mama says. Always tell Mama the full truth. Only talk if it's to answer one of us. Don't try to hurt Mama. Don't use any powers unless we say you can. Things like that." The smug look on their face could've rivalled Tattletale at her most aggravating.
"I was curious about what a stranger in town was doing sitting in a car for five minutes straight, staring at the corner I was fixing to come around," Mama Mathers said. "So we thought we'd come and check you out. But you're PRT and a villain? That's interesting. Real interesting. Were you here to pop me off, or try to arrest me?"
"Neither," he said willingly enough. "I was told to take a picture of you and email it to a particular address."
Mama shared a glance with Valefor. "Take … a picture of me? Really? And who told you to do this?"
"Creep," said Thomas. "He's a dead man who's been following me around for the last few days."
Valefor looked at him, and Thomas felt his mind dissolve into warm goo. "I told you to be totally truthful with Mama," said the echoing voice.
All of a sudden, he was back in his own head again. "I am telling you the truth," he protested. "Creep told me to do that."
"And where's this Creep now?" Mama Mathers, at least, seemed fine with this idea.
Thomas glanced at the passenger seat, which was where he'd last seen the body-bag-clad corpse. Creep was no longer there. Then he turned his head to look into the back seat. He wasn't there, either. "I … have no idea. He was right here just a few minutes ago. Dead guy, hole in forehead, wearing a body bag. You really couldn't have missed him."
Mama huffed a sigh. "Someone's messing with your head."
Thomas thought that was hugely ironic for her to say, but that wouldn't be an answer, so he couldn't say it out loud.
She then pointed at his phone, which was sitting on his lap. "You were going to take my picture with that?"
"Yes," he confirmed. "Creep said, 'Pictures. Her. Send. Address.' And then the address popped up on the phone." He opened the email page and showed them the address as given.
"The address it was sent from, who owns that?" Mama's eyes narrowed.
Thomas shrugged. "I do. It's one of my throwaways. But I didn't send the email."
"Someone thinks they're being smart," sniped Valefor.
"They always do." Mama smiled, the expression sending chills down Thomas' back. "Take your pictures and let me see."
"Alright." Thomas activated the camera and held it up so that her face was framed neatly on the screen. Then he took three pictures, the electronic click audible each time. He called the images up, and showed them to her.
"Nice." She nodded decisively. "Send them."
"Yes." He opened his email account, placed the appropriate address at the top, and imported the three photos. Then he sent them away. After a few moments, the phone dinged. "It says they got there."
Mama Mathers smiled again.
"Who dares?" demanded the girl on the floor. "The Faerie Queen will have your … uh …"
She paused as she flounced to her feet; I hadn't thought it was possible to flounce while wearing a shroud, but live and learn. However, that wasn't the problem. The problem was that everyone was staring at the girl, with varying degrees of shock and surprise.
"Sorry," I said hastily. "I was aiming at Canary, honest. You just got in the way."
"That's not the issue." Lustrum was rubbing her chin thoughtfully. "Faerie Queen, where are your faeries? Why are you standing on the floor? Why are you using just one voice to speak?" She paused. "Do you still, in fact, have your powers?"
While everyone was distracted and waiting for the answer, I gave Zach a glare and a discreet elbow to the ribs. The only person who could've overridden my choice on the ball was him, and we both knew it. But why would he want to depower Glaistig Uaine … oh.
"It's the powers, isn't it?" I hissed under my breath. "You want all her powers."
"Well, yes," he murmured in return. "She is not using them responsibly. The powers she has stolen still retain the personalities of their original users. Under her, they are enslaved; still conscious."
I blinked. That was a distinct revelation. Also, deeply horrifying. "Wait, did you just manoeuvre me into this position so this would happen? How did you even manage that?"
He smiled blandly. "My sister is very good at what she does."
Well, that was actually true. He had an extremely valid point. I just wished he'd warn me first about that sort of thing.
Glaistig Uaine stalked up to me, managing to make the motion both effortless and menacing. "You will return to Me that which you have stolen," she hissed, loudly enough that the words could be clearly heard in the silence. "Delay in this and My wrath will be endless." I was quite impressed at the way she could interject capitals into her speech.
For a moment, I considered doing as she said. Then common sense took over, along with the understanding that Zach and his sister had planned the whole thing. "Or not," I said. "I've taken your powers once—by accident, sure, but I still took them. What happens the moment I return them? You try to kill me, to ensure I don't do it again." I tilted my head toward Zach. "And then he has to take a hand, and then maybe one or two of the ladies here decide to step in on one side or the other, and he takes your powers away anyway, and it gets really messy after that. So … no. Let's not fight, and say we did."
She actually stamped her foot in anger. "They are My powers!" she shrieked. "Give them back!" With a sudden dart forward, she reached for the hand that held the Idiot Ball. Not entirely surprising, but it was getting a little tiring.
I intercepted her grab with my own hand, wrapping around both her wrists at once. (I have long fingers. Comes with being tall and skinny, I guess). With the Butcher's accumulated strength, I had zero problem in levering her away from me, then I started paying attention to the information flowing in from the glove holding her. Almost absently, I triggered a calming burst in her mind to stop her from trying to pull free.
"Whoa …" I said softly, then handed the Idiot Ball to Zach so I could pay full attention to the teenager who had once been the most terrifying cape on Earth. There was an original personality there, but it was utterly buried under layers and layers of what I could only describe as neural scarring. If this was the doing of her powers, and I couldn't think of what else could be responsible, then they had a lot to answer for.
"What do you see, Taylor?" Zach's voice was soft.
"Damage." My voice was flat and hard. "Can you make the removal permanent, like right now? I need to fix this."
"I can do that, Taylor." He placed the Idiot Ball in midair and left it there, then started pulling strings from it, spreading them into diaphanous sheets that he collected in large bundles. Flickering shapes began to surround him, vanishing into the bundled sheets.
In the meantime, I applied myself to fixing what I saw. The gloves gave me the information that I needed, when I needed it, allowing me to analyse the damage and figure out the best way to repair her mind. In the end I decided that reversion was probably the best idea. I'd leave her with the vague knowledge that she'd been Glaistig Uaine but none of the details. The 'Faerie Queen' personality could go on the ash heap, replaced by who she'd been before.
Amy had been right. Fixing brains was easy. Fortunately, I didn't have the ongoing urge to keep fixing things. But it actually took less time to deal with the damage than it had to decide how to deal with it. Stripping away the neural damage, I reverted her personality to what it had been before she'd gotten powers.
"And we have our first contender," I announced. "No powers, mental balance restored, ready to rejoin society. Any more takers?"
Zach was still in the process of bundling up the collected powers—I'll say this; she'd definitely been an overachiever in that regard—when a phone pinged in his pocket. Which was really odd. I hadn't thought of him as a cell-phone kind of guy.
"Ah," he said. "Could you hold this, please, Taylor?"
"Sure." I took the weirdly weightless mass of abstract concepts and cradled it carefully with one hand while keeping the former Faerie Queen comforted with the other. "I didn't know you had a phone."
"I did not," he agreed. "My sister loaned it to me." He took the handset from his pocket and activated it. "Oh, good." An email opened, and I saw a picture of a woman. Zach shut the phone down again. "Perhaps you should not have seen that, Taylor."
"Why not? Who is she?" This was the first secret that Zach hadn't just blurted out in front of me.
"Her name is Christine Mathers," he explained. "Among the Fallen, she is known as Mama. She has just attempted to contact my consciousness using her power. It will be quite a useful addition to my repertoire."
I blinked. "Right."
"The question is, what do I do with you now?" Mama Mathers looked Thomas in the eye. "You're totally loyal to me, but you can still screw up. What is your power?"
There was no choice but to answer. "I can split the timelines and choose the best one out of the two."
She glanced around. "This can't be the best choice you have. What happens when you pick one?"
Thomas shrugged. "I drop the other one. But there is no other one. I had just dropped one when you encountered me. This is it, for me."
"I see." She gave him a calculating look. "Who is giving you your orders? Above this imaginary Creep, I mean."
"I don't know." It was true. He didn't know for a fact, though he had his suspicions.
She reached in through the window and laid her hand on his arm. Almost immediately, fire bloomed through every nerve ending. A few seconds later, she let it stop. "How much of that can you stand?" she asked sweetly.
"It's Zachary!" he blurted. "It has to be! Nobody else fits the profile!"
"Really?" she murmured. "I might have to—"
Her words cut off and she fell to the ground with a strangled scream. Thrashing back and forth aimlessly with her eyes rolled back up into her head, she appeared to have gone into a grand mal seizure. Froth gathered at the corners of her mouth.
"Mama!" Valefor began to rush to her side.
Thomas took the opportunity to reach under his seat and retrieve the pistol. Leaning awkwardly out the window, he shot Valefor in the face. But that still left Eligos. He hadn't seen the wind-manipulating cape in a little while, which meant he could literally be anywhere.
A rhythmic thumping from the rear passenger quarter of the vehicle drew his attention, so he looked in the rear-vision mirror. And there was Creep, smashing Eligos' head against the side of the car, over and over again.
Holy shit, he's actually real.
Thomas got out of the car and looked down dispassionately at Mama Mathers' convulsing body. He didn't know exactly what had happened to her, but he could make an educated guess. "Enjoy," he said, and kicked her in the face as hard as he could. He would've done more, but he didn't want to piss off Zachary.
Then he paused, as Creep shuffled around from behind the vehicle. "Please tell me I can kill her."
The dead eyes settled on the supine woman, then back to Thomas. "No."
Rolling his eyes, Thomas got back in the car and drove away.
The heady taste of triumph was tempered with the knowledge that while Mama Mathers was almost certainly out of the game, Zachary was in no way done with him.
End of Part Sixteen