A/N: Wow, this fought me the entire way. But we're done, so let's just get on with it.
The Masks We Wear Chapter 17
The atmosphere in the conference room was decidedly tense. Despite the number of people sitting in the chairs that sat around the table, none said a word, the only sound the ticking of the clock that hung on the wall.
A squeak of hinges broke the silence as all the heads in the room turned toward the source of the noise.
"Sorry." Dauntless apologised sheepishly, the Grecian hero aborting the move toward his Arclance, the rub of his armour against his chair responsible for his current situation. After a moment, the assembled Parahumans turned back to the previous focus of their attention, still silent.
Good. It looks like they can learn after all.
Emily Piggot supressed a smirk as a momentary flare of satisfaction flitted across her mind before it was squashed with ruthless discipline.
"Would anyone like to tell me how this happened?"
She didn't shout. She didn't rage. Her voice was perfectly controlled and calm.
Even so, the ambient temperature of the room dropped a few degrees at her statement, a few of the present heroes shivering despite themselves.
No-one spoke for a moment, realising despite her outward appearance, the Director of the PRT ENE was indeed annoyed. A small huff from Miss Militia's direction bought a small spark of amusement, but was quickly quashed by the situation.
A movement out the corner of her eye and the whirr of servomotors heralded Armsmaster's rise from his seat to stand at the head of the table nearest the screen. Pressing a few buttons on his armour, the screen at the far end of the room flared to life, depicting a thoroughly tattered Winslow, bullet holes and plant life adorning it in equal measure.
"At one-thirteen this afternoon, a call was-"
The armoured Tinker stopped, working his jaw as he was interrupted in his speech, managing to somehow look surprised despite the helmet that obscured half of his face from view.
"But we will get to that later." She continued, turning a small glare on the man before sweeping her gaze round the rest of the room.
"What I want to know is how a team this large and well equipped has sprung up under our nose without us knowing a thing about it."
The ensuing silence was somehow even more oppressive than before.
Despite her rather black humour, the question was a valid one. These 'Toa' had turned from a pair of reasonably well-equipped thorns in the Protectorate's side, to a team that just by sheer numbers alone could potentially give the Protectorate a run for their money. As it was they outnumbered every villain team in the bay save for the Empire. And wasn't that a sobering thought.
Seeing no-one else stepping up to answer the question, Armsmaster stepped up to answer the question.
"We still have the Thinker department working on the issue, but the preliminary reports suggest-"
"Forget the reports."
Once again, silence.
Despite her cold attitude, Piggot rarely made a point of speaking across someone.
Armsmaster stopped once again.
"If we have to find out the answer, only after the event, then it's no use. No, the problem is that we didn't know about it beforehand."
Piggot sighed, rubbing the bridge of her nose in exasperation as she finished before straightening and turning to look at the assembled Parahumans once more.
"But that's a problem for tomorrow. What do we know?"
Armsmaster didn't waste any more time, another press of a button changing the image on the wall.
"As we know, the term 'Toa' refers to a Maori warrior or champion, one who protects the village from threats, be they opposing tribes or wild animals. This appears to drive Artakha, and by extension the rest of these 'Toa' in their approach to fighting crime. While Shadow Stalker is the member with the most appearances in combat, it is Artakha that is often seen assisting the emergency services in their duties, clearing paths to wounded civilians and ferrying needed medication and medical assistance to those in need, sometimes entirely forgoing ongoing battles in order to do so."
"She perceives the Protectorate to be failing in their duties of protecting the people of the city, and despite not attempting to use this to discredit us, her view has been thrust into the public view. This, along with the goodwill engendered by this latest conflict see the Toa as valid alternative to the Protectorate in certain areas of the city. With the tensions between the gangs being what they are, this is something we can ill afford."
Piggot fought down a grimace. New triggers never took into account the powder keg the city was at the best of times, and these 'Toa' running round annoying the two biggest fish? Was it any surprise there was now outright war on the streets?
"Bring them in."
Armsmaster turned to look at her, pausing in his speech.
"It goes without saying that these 'Toa' are the catalyst for the current state of affairs. You spoke to one of their number, a 'Fragarach'?" A nod. "Good. Contact them and arrange a meeting. They need to learn they can't just run around with impunity. Not anymore."
Another nod and a press of a button were her only response before he launched back into the briefing.
"The first Parahuman to take the title of Toa was Artakha."
A press of a button and the image beside the Tinker shifted to a girl in a suit of gleaming silver armour, a vaguely tribalistic helm atop her head, frozen in the motion of bringing the blunt end of her spear down on the back of an Empire thug.
"While her first public appearance was to intercede in the Empire engagement with the Dockworker's Union, the Tinkertech retrieved by Velocity suggests otherwise."
The screen changed again, this time focusing on a large silver pistol resting on a mess of metal many recognised as characteristic of the Boat Graveyard. Whereas many pistols had a uniform barrel shape, or even tapered toward the end, the Tinkertech splayed into three prongs at the end, forming a somewhat spherical shape, leaving the top open.
"Although Velocity was unable to identify those involved, due to the sounds reported and the evidence left behind at the scene, it is likely the weapon was left behind after a weapons test or a practice spar between Artakha and Shadow Stalker. Given this, Artakha is more than likely the Tinker for the Toa, and is the one responsible for outfitting her team. The attack on the Dockworkers likely happened too soon both for Artakha to complete her weapons, or outfit Shadow Stalker with like armaments, hence the absence of the weaponry she is currently wielding."
"Despite this however, she appears to follow a set theme in the advent of her armour. Her own combat style is reminiscent of tribal armaments, namely her usage of spear and shield. This is also found in her usage of modular masks similar in design to the tiki masks of the region. Her abilities in other classifications stem from this phenomenon."
Another button press.
This time the screen shifted to display four different images of Artakha, the familiar silver armour and spear ever-present, but each image portrayed a different mask encasing the Toa's head.
"Several masks have been seen, specific designs reappearing, each appearing to bestow an additional power onto Artakha granting her enhanced speed, strength and even flight to name just a few."
"So she's a Trump too? Great."
The utterance was hard to pinpoint amongst the slight fervour the declaration caused, the murmuring only to die down immediately as Assault spoke up.
"So they may not even be Parahumans then?"
"I mean, the connection's obvious right?"
The red-hued Striker leaned forward in his chair, levelling an incredulous look at the rest of the room.
"Look, Artakha has a pretty defined idea in her head of what a Hero should be right? We've all heard what her views are. So she sees us as not doing our jobs right? So after getting her powers, she refuses to join up with us, and instead pulls up a name from her past, one that originates from clear over the other side of the world and means nothing to us, and sets out to give it a new meaning. I'm impresses with the girl."
"Are you done with your theories Assault, or do you have anything useful to add?" Growled Piggot, one hand massaging at her temple.
The man just smiled before turning to Armsmaster.
"I'm guessing you have a picture of the aftermath right? The ice guy?"
Nodding once, the Tinker manipulated his interface once more, the screen switching once more to a street dominated by the jagged wall of ice that split the road into two distinct halves.
"If she believes that we're not doing our jobs, then given her determination, she'll aim to do something about it. She'll want to do what she sees we can't. And you're right. There isn't a way in which a team this large, this co-ordinated can just spring up overnight. So it didn't. You say she's a Trump that can give herself additional powers through these Masks of hers? Well who have we seen with them recently?"
"What makes you think that these guys who call themselves Toa are Parahumans at all?"
Chief Director Costa-Brown leaned back in her chair with a sigh as the monitor in front of her winked out, leaving her staring at her own reflection in the screen that had once held Emily Piggot's stern countenance.
You're more right than you think Emily. The head of the PRT mused as she idly rang up her receptionist to forestall her arrangements for the immediate future. This was something that needed to be addressed now.
She's far more limited than you think. But there's no way you could know that without having inside information, but what concerns me is the speed at which her team and her popularity have grown in such a short period of time. Considering everything, we should probably be thankful, but even still…
The statement uttered, a glowing portal opened just to the left of the office door. Stepping through without hesitation, the Director found herself in a familiar room. Blank white walls, minimalist features belying the fact that this was the last habitable place on an earth that was otherwise entirely scoured of life, and the centre of the organisation that would save the rest.
Only one other person was present as the clicking of her heels resounded throughout the otherwise silent room, causing the already present individual to look up at her approach. Looking away from the data pad she had been browsing, the woman known only as Doctor Mother regarded the Director with an inscrutable gaze, immediately being able to discern that something had changed.
"She's already gathered them." The Director pre-empted the Question. "Artakha already has her team. All Five of them."
A single raised eyebrow was the only reaction the other woman gave.
"Already?" She repeated. "Seems like sending Ignika to speed up the process was not entirely needed then. Still, she needed to know what she is up against. We have enough problems to deal with without this Makuta tracking down Mata Nui. All the more reason to keep him here. Still we now have a chance."
The Director grimaced at the statement.
"Yes. A chance. We can't even test it. We'll just have to be sure the alterations will work like he said they would when the time comes."
A tightening of her brow was the only outward sign of her thoughts as the Cape turned to peer at a seemingly mundane wall, thoughts running through her head.
"Hopefully better than ours did." She grimaced, thinking of yet another failed 'experiment', the most recent of a long list of hopes dashed. "The clones are yet to demonstrate any 'Toa' traits, so it seems like that method of bolstering our forces is unfeasible. How goes the analysis on the armour?"
As one, the two women's gazes shifted over to the corner of the room where a pair of armour stands took pride of place. One was mostly empty, save for the unresponsive form of the Ignika, sitting dormant on the head of the stand.
The other was more occupied.
From the waist down the stand was like it's other, empty. The torso, however was a different story. Gleaming golden armour rested upon the stand, made up of six distinct pieces. Chest, shoulders, shield, gauntlet and the helmet shaped like a Hau rested innocently on the metal frame, their stillness belying their power.
"We won't know until someone puts it all on." Doctor Mother sighed, turning away from the stand. But we have no reason to believe it won't work as he said it will. But we shouldn't rely on it, no."
"We have other contingencies in place."