Colin drove through streets that hadn't looked this good in over a decade, and scowled.
These parts had always teemed with vermin, and the city's newest vigilante had transformed that army into labor. Grime had been scoured from buildings, weeds no longer sprouted from cracked concrete. Graffiti had paled or disappeared, and something similar had been done to the ubiquitous stains from water damage and rot. For once, the streets weren't an obstacle course of sludge and garbage.
He balled his fists around his bike's handlebars. It even smelled better – ocean salt. 'Caster's territory'. It was a bad joke.
Superficial, all of it. A thin veneer easily seen past by anyone who cared to look. This... mockery of improvement? It wasn't repair, hell, it wasn't even maintenance. It was a PR-friendly gang tag. Symbolic, he was sure. If something looked better, it was tempting to believe it actually was.
It fit a vigilante. No matter how good their actions looked, in the long term, they only accelerated the erosion.
Colin's career had been too long to still believe vigilantes fixed anything. Sooner or later, they bit off more than they could chew, ran into the wrong power, and they left behind chaos – chaos the Protectorate would have to wrangle back into order. Much like he was doing now, keeping the peace in Caster's area. Running damage control for a damned vigilante with more power than foresight. It was necessary, but no matter how he looked at it, this wasn't where he was most useful.
At least Piggot had approved his request to attend the meeting Caster's teammate was supposedly having with the PRT today. Even if nothing came of it, investigation was at least productive.
Colin turned south onto Lord street, ground his teeth when the buildings around him still showed signs of Caster's claim.
He wasn't blind, and distaste didn't make him incapable of objective investigation. He could admit there was some foresight to Caster's actions – the way she'd avoided retaliation despite doing as much as she had was proof enough. Her actions were deliberate, calculated, and while there wasn't a chance in hell her motives were selfless, she could've caused bigger problems. Provoking the major gangs would've been catastrophic.
But in its own way, that was something he could resent too. So much power, and she'd chosen to fight crime where it wouldn't fight back. She'd chosen to do what was easy, not what was hard.
Good things came from sacrifice, and her brand of vigilantism only took – even from him. How many inhabitants of the city looked at Caster's recklessness and wondered why he and his Protectorate hadn't done the same things sooner? Like it was that fucking simple.
They'd learn eventually. He just wished they'd remember.
Colin was still in a foul mood when he pulled into the PRT's parking lot. His patrol had ran the planned course, but the cape had shown up early. An improvised text feed in his helmet was updating him on what he'd missed.
At 6:47 PM, a woman in costume had stepped out of an alley, casually walked up to the front entrance of the PRT building, where she'd obeyed the officers stationed in the lobby without objection. After proving she had powers – some kind of portal-forcefield – she'd been escorted to one of the interview rooms, where she was currently behaving herself.
A more visible entrance than the PRT would've instructed her to make, likely calculated. At least she'd refrained from idiotic power stunts or problematic statements to civilians.
Colin entered the side entrance of the building and moved toward the elevators, passing security checkpoints and biometric scanners with resigned ease. Minor delays were utilized double-checking his suit – it'd been a while since he used this version, and his footsteps were obviously too loud. Dampeners still calibrated to autumn conditions. Not something he could adjust without opening up the armor, but there were software settings that could compensate. Easily managed during the elevator trip two floors down.
A chrome steel hallway took him to his destination, a narrow room that observed an interview chamber through a one-way mirror. He wasn't the first one there. A silver-and-gray suit of armor greeted him as he entered.
"Armsmaster, sir. Good to see you."
"Gallant." Colin gave the lad a nod. Good. Piggot was on the same page about needing information on these independents. He turned to the ongoing interview inside, to the cape who sat opposite to a PRT employee. Her costume was black and white in equal measure, leanings to heroic convention in the lines and overall shape. Light and practical armor – and of higher quality than a complete newcomer should be able to gather. What drew his attention more, though, was what her costume didn't cover. Her tall stature, straight black hair down to her shoulders, and a right arm that ended just below the elbow.
The PRT didn't aggressively pursue civilian identities without abundant cause, but when a cape volunteered this many clues... better to have and not need. He'd talk to Piggot about it later.
"It's my sincere recommendation that you consider another option," the PRT employee said, a red-haired woman in suit. She sounded exasperated – an argument? "It's for your own sake, too. Consider how the public would view you."
"I'm not worried." No identifiable accent. "I think even the public would agree some things need killing."
"If it's a slayer-of-monsters theme you're going for, there are available alternatives. Less upsetting alternatives."
"I considered some. They didn't feel right. So no, thank you. You can consider it poor taste."
Colin spoke to Gallant without averting his eyes, "What is she calling herself?"
"Assassin, sir. Despite how the conversation sounds, she's not very attached to it."
There was something more, then, some kind of theme or message. No particular connection to her teammate's moniker. It could refer to her power, but the report called her power 'brightly Scion-gold'. With that kind of aesthetic, assassination wasn't the obvious association. So why call attention to lethal potential?
Already, there was a nagging feeling he was overlooking something.
"What else did I miss?"
Gallant glanced down at the notes he held – written in cipher, Colin noticed. It could stand to be more complex, but good lad. Caster was almost definitely looking in.
"She said she's part of a team of four. Assassin, Caster, Rider, and a fourth who hasn't picked a name. A non-combatant member for the time being, apparently. Seemed truthful."
Colin nodded. Good enough for now – he'd run the recordings through analyses later. He scratched his beard, guarding his mouth from lip-reading at the same time. "Your power?"
"I'm seeing a lot of confidence, sir. The kind you don't get without a lot of experience or having more than a few aces up your sleeve. The only time it wavered a little was when she named her team. They're calling themselves the Servants."
Colin frowned. Whose servants? The public? The name wasn't bad, but it was humble, when Caster's actions and demeanor were the furthest thing from it. Another piece of the puzzle – he could think about its place later.
"Right now, she's feeling... conflicted about something that's close to fondness. I'm sorry I can't be more specific. It's distracting her from the conversation."
In the interview room, the discussion about Assassin's name was winding down – it seemed she would be keeping it. Just as well. If she wanted to shoot herself in the foot, by all means.
"Very well," the PRT employee said, resigned. "I'll move on to the main topic. Are you intending to formally register your team with the PRT today? You were unclear when you made your appointment."
Assassin shook her head. "Not in the official sense, not yet. No team with Caster on it would qualify for the benefits, and we're not interested in giving up our civilian identities for now. I'm here as a show of good faith, and to make an offer you'll refuse."
A small pause. "I will of course hear it, though if I may, it sounds like you're not giving our organization much of a chance."
Assassin gave a dismissive wave with her good arm. "Not my intention. I only meant to say I understand your position." After a guarded nod from the PRT employee, she continued, "My team is looking to arrange, legally, a base in this city. We also intend to monetize our powers in the near future. We could use someone familiar with the relevant legislation."
The tens of thousands dollars looted by Caster isn't enough for them? The thought began rhetorical, but Colin realized it shouldn't be. It said something that they were trying to secure a more sustainable source of income. Arrogance, primarily.
"And," the red-haired PRT employee said, "if I understand you correctly, you're suggesting that person could be provided by the PRT. You want to be assigned a liaison?"
"It would serve mutual goals. We'd exchange information, coordinate, cooperate. The PRT would have some oversight. Frankly, as much as we'll ever accept."
"That's... certainly unconventional. You realize that level of involvement would still require you to submit your civilian identity. Assuming you do, in fact, intend to pursue this legally."
Assassin shrugged. "I can't speak for the others, but I'd be willing to give you mine. I'll be purchasing a residence in this city soon. The PRT wouldn't struggle matching a black-haired amputee to this mask anyways."
She sounded sincere. Was sincere, if his lie detector was accurate – the certainty was lower than usual, but still within the confident range. At least she wasn't fool enough to expect anything other than disappointment.
"It's out of the question, sir?" Gallant asked.
"We'd be trading a precious appearance of legitimacy for a worthless appearance of oversight. The association would be a liability besides. It's worse than nothing."
And she knows it. Knew it with certainty, even though the offer had apparently sounded, on some level, feasible to a not-unintelligent Ward.
The nagging feeling he'd felt earlier crystallized into clear thought. Her costume. That arm. Her confidence and knowledge. Everything pointed at experience. And despite that, like her teammates, she'd kept a distinctive power out of any PRT-accessible database. A cape calling herself Assassin had left no witnesses of a previous cape career.
Damn Piggot's hesitation to brand them villains.
"I don't expect a favorable response, but the offer's on the table." Assassin turned her head, very deliberate, almost mechanical. Staring directly at him. "I understand the need for caution, but peeping isn't very gallant. I'll be generous and assume I'm not looking at an ambush."
Colin didn't startle. Caster. Was Assassin in contact with her teammate somehow? Or did she have perception powers of her own? His active sensors weren't picking up on anything.
"Please don't misconstrue their presence," the PRT employee said, calmly. "A sudden confrontation was deemed too forceful, so they were asked to wait outside. This meeting is being treated strictly as a potential team registration. If you have no further business with the PRT, the Protectorate would appreciate your time for questioning, but that's entirely optional." A fairly transparent half-truth, even without his equipment.
"And how would it look if I refused?" Assassin sighed. "I'd sincerely rather not, but fine. Let's try communication."
"Armsmaster. Gallant," Assassin said as they entered the room. The names were emotionless, more acknowledgment than actual greeting.
"Assassin," Colin returned, managing a neutral tone himself. He offered his left hand, and after a moment, Assassin stood to shake it. Minimal hesitation, no particular eagerness, nothing besides Gallant's power registering on his instruments. Individually, none of that meant anything, but it let him cautiously dial back his suspicion of an unreported striker power. Someone cut off her arm. It would've been for a reason.
As Assassin shook hands with Gallant, Colin considered his approach. As much as he'd like to confront and let his lie detector do the heavy lifting, an experienced cape wouldn't let critical information slip so easily. Worse, she wasn't under arrest. Demand answers too aggressively and she'd have her excuse to leave. These 'Servants' had sent a teleporter to the table. The message was transparent enough.
Seating herself, Assassin gestured at the other chairs. "You had questions. I can try my hand at answers."
"Let me confirm something first," Colin said. "You've made yourself sound like the leader of your group. Can we proceed on that assumption?"
"It's fine. I'm the closest thing." After a moment of Colin's silence, she clarified, "No one leads because the others wouldn't follow. We're similar enough people it hasn't caused a problem yet. If it means anything to you, I'm the most senior member."
Truths, or at least conviction. What kind of team was this? No clear leadership. Little attachment to names. Hesitant about their group as a whole. Was the group unexpectedly fragile? A potential avenue to break them apart and recruit the pieces into the Protectorate?
No, that was being premature. Three or four capes didn't just happen to make an introduction like theirs. There had to be something to unify them in the first place.
"And your members all intend to be heroes?" Their specific goals were of much greater interest, but this seemed safe enough territory.
Assassin shrugged. "Caster would tell you right and wrong have little to do with what we label ourselves, and I don't disagree. The PRT hasn't branded us villains. I suppose we're heroic enough."
Colin clenched his jaw. The gray area of vigilantism wasn't anywhere near that simple, and she obviously knew it. But the truth of the matter was, Piggot was tolerating them for now. While he represented the Protectorate, he couldn't take a different stance.
"For what it's worth," she continued, "I came here today hoping to make allies, or avoid making enemies if you think I'm being presumptuous. You have concerns about Caster, so ask. It's her intention to look unpredictable and dangerous to enemies. We don't consider the Protectorate one."
Protocol discouraged engaging villains – or independents, Colin supposed – in a way they clearly wanted, but there wouldn't be a clearer opening to drag out some truth.
"Then let's have you explain some matters." He brought up a text file on his helmet's display. "Caster claimed she informed the police about her targets six hours in advance. We've been able to verify this to an extent, which speaks in her favor, but several major sites were clearly targeted without warning."
"Caster has a list of neglectful or corrupt police officers. She intends to address them eventually. You're welcome to a copy if you think something can be done sooner."
Nothing that was verifiable immediately, but it was something. "I'll have that list, and urge Caster to leave this to appropriate authorities. No one benefits by handling this in a way that further alarms the public."
"You've met her. Did she give you the impression she trusts the system?"
Damnation. No counting on this Assassin to curb her teammate then. They'd have to rush the investigation. Caster wouldn't be able to get away with attacking law enforcement as openly as she had criminals, but it'd be idiotic to count on sensible decisions from her. The fact she hadn't made any big moves since that first night... was it the silence before another storm?
"Assuming you have proof, I can... comprehend distrusting regular authorities. But your group's involvement makes this our jurisdiction. It'll be handled appropriately."
"Protectorate aside, you say that like the PRT is deserving of more trust." Her voice was light, curious. "It doesn't exactly have a stellar record. I believe Caster caught six costumed criminals that night. Are they even still in custody?"
"That's confidential information." Frustratingly, the truthful answer was a simple yes.
"Okay, so let's say they are. I think we can agree not all of them will make it as far as parahuman detainment. None of them are criminals who desperately have to be jailed, but monsters like Hookwolf haven't been handled any better."
Colin gritted his teeth. Birdcage-bound and escaped twice, a stain on his record. Was she needling him intentionally? Hadn't she been sent out to contrast with Caster's attitude?
"I'm not saying we won't cooperate. I'm here to reach out after all. But don't expect to change our methods with words. When Caster told you we don't subscribe to your brand of heroism, she didn't mean we don't understand the PRT's illusion of a functioning system. She meant we reject it."
Ah. That brand of vigilantes, were they? No-name rebels, convinced they understood a subject experts in the field still fiercely debated. Colin suppressed a scoff. "You'll forgive me if I don't credit every newcomer vigilante with a perfect understanding of the bigger picture."
"We don't have much stock with you yet, so I won't contest that," Assassin said, unconcerned. "But we understand enough to see it's starting to fail, and it isn't going to get better. Look at the rest of the world. You could call this city the American forefront of that same failure. In a way, that's why we're here."
Do they think they've discovered something new? That decline was precisely what the Protectorate fought back every single day.
"And you believe Caster's recklessness is the answer?" Colin's tone made it perfectly clear what he thought about that. Perhaps too much, if Gallant's glance was any indication. "She's staved off retaliation with shock and awe for now, true, but it'll happen eventually. And if they can't find her, innocents get caught up instead. Why do you think we've been guarding the neighborhoods she's all but claimed?"
Assassin leaned forward to rest her arm on the table. For a moment, it seemed like she'd have the audacity to ask for tea. "Caster's introduction was about sending a message. In a month's time, you'd understand without me needing to explain. If I explain now, it'll just be words. I'd really rather not."
A deep sigh – or the movement of one, but strangely not the sound. "Look, we understand why the PRT is how it is. The cape code on one side, the three strikes act on the other, written and unwritten conventions to prevent fights where everyone loses. Part of a necessary balance. Of course we're on board with that—"
"—in principle. But it doesn't function because of some lofty solidarity, hero and villain united against the Endbringers. It functions because it benefits villains overwhelmingly more. Monsters like Lung and Kaiser are allowed to gather profit and power as long as they're quiet about their murder, their drugs, their prostitution, and all the heroes receive is a little leeway to throw more bodies at the Endbringers. It can't possibly last."
It's reality. The reality we fight to change.
"We need villains to behave. The PRT settles for villains appearing to behave, and that's our problem. Caster saved lives, stopped crime in a third of the city, freed girls as young as thirteen from the ABB, and now she's a bigger problem to your Director than slavers and Nazis. Because it was noisy. You don't think that's absurd?"
No. Not if he looked at the bigger picture, the longer term. Each time a cape like Caster barged into public awareness, people were reminded to fear parahumans a little more, a fear reflected in acceptance, funding, in recruits. Things that risked crippling the Protectorate years down the line, with effects rippling out to the rest of the world. Winning fights wasn't enough to win the war. Saving innocents wasn't.
Colin couldn't shake the feeling his answer would've been different ten years ago.
"I think," Gallant's calm voice filled the silence, "that heroism isn't just about fighting crime. It isn't just about helping people. The Wards, the Protectorate, we're examples. The public looks at us and we foster in them the principles we stand for, to strive to be excellent. Caster... I don't mean to offend, but all she inspires is fear."
A small pause. When Assassin spoke, it was quietly, almost sad. "It's a nice sentiment. But that's a war against human nature, and you're choosing the wrong weapon. Laws and punishment exist because expecting decency has never been enough. It isn't enough with capes, not when trigger events choose the worst of us, the most broken. When powers are given to people who have power and want more, whatever their reason." A small tilt of the head – Colin wasn't sure what at. "Too much power concentrates in the wrong hands. Hands not so easily swayed by positive messages and good PR."
These were ideas that appeared in parahuman studies. A reader? "And you think intimidation is the right weapon?"
"Effectiveness is. Monsters need stopping. More moderate villains need to be reminded about the lines they can't cross. If we show it can be done in Brockton Bay, it can be done elsewhere, and I'm convinced there will be responsible heroes willing to try. I even think the public could get behind it."
Pieces of the puzzle slotted together. Servants. A self-effacing team name, with individual names that were closer to roles than identities, even for capes. A theme that others could join? The suggestion they'd come to this city for a reason. Were they starting a movement?
The idea of less compromising heroism wasn't complicated. It wasn't new either – he was sure there'd been groups that waved a similar banner. All the same, he'd be a fool to dismiss it. Backed by enough power and success, magnetic enough champions, any message could get traction; Caster had demonstrated power, Assassin clearly had alluded to a plan, and the message itself was more seductive than most. Colin considered himself as much soldier as hero, but even so, it was easy to imagine the temptation.
Fighting the war without being hamstrung by considerations his gut told him were secondary. A heroism where he wouldn't have to spend so much godforsaken time on also being a politician. There would be targets, he would take them down, and it would actually make things better. Things had been that simple once. Better times, he was honest enough to admit. Before his stagnation.
How many of his team would be tempted? Hannah and Robin wouldn't, he suspected, but the others? Assault? Battery? Triumph? Dauntless? The Wards? Who didn't chafe under PRT restrictions sometimes? He had, more than once, even during this conversation.
Colin refocused on Assassin. Was that her aim? She was adversarial, yes, but always toward the PRT. Not once had she attacked the Protectorate, or even grouped them together.
From half-formed thoughts and a strange chill, meaning coalesced. Assassin. It was the role someone took upon themselves to end to something. Forcing change, not with a knife or poison, but whispers in the ears of soldiers, stabbing into the obvious vulnerability almost every hero shared.
We're heroes. Of course we want to do more.
A ringing pierced the silence, a sound that turned cold with realization. It wasn't just a phone. It was all of their phones.
Colin stood with enough force to dent the chair with his armor, sending it clattering into the wall. Where? Which one? The alert was appearing on his helmet display. Australia.
He glanced at the vigilante. Plenty of people signed up to Endbringer alerts without any intention to participate. Was she one?
"If that look is a question, your protocols don't allow you to bring independents to Simurgh attacks without a psych eval. Don't fucking test people with an Endbringer." Then, quieter, "If it were up to me, I'd be there."
Without wasting time on goodbyes, Colin left her and Gallant in the interrogation room, already arranging security overrides ahead of him to shave off precious minutes. Assassin's portals… no, this wasn't the time to subject himself to unknown powers. Foolish. Some focus must still be lingering with the vigilante.
She would've attended, would she? Truth, like her every other statement.
Perhaps, at the end of the day, he could afford to leave it there. If these new independents were enemies, they were enemies of the PRT, not the Protectorate. That may still reflect on him to an extent, but it ultimately wasn't his fight. Let Piggot manage that squabble.
He had the war to worry about.