"It was a random thought," Contessa said. "But it's going to change everything."
Their conspiracy had been trying to save the world for years, using means that would be called reprehensible by anyone who wasn't intensely aware of the alternative.
Hurting a few for the sake of the many had seemed like a trade off that had to made, and at one point Contessa would have thought that she was immune to the moral quandary.
Now that there was an alternative, thought, she found herself reluctant to turn normal people into monsters simply for the chance of creating another parahuman to fight the Endbringers or Scion.
"I asked the Path if there was a way to create superhuman powers that did not involve the Entities."
Alexandria, Eidolon and Dr. Mother stared at her. Simply asking the question was absurd. Powers came from the Entities; that was a basic axiom that Cauldron had been formed around. They harvested powers from a dead Entity even as the other spread them around the world, but sometimes there were...problems with the process.
"And there was?" Alexandria asked. "Some sort of Tinker invention?"
Contessa shook her head. "Another world. There's a world with naturally occurring capes, and people there have discovered ways to artificially induce those powers. We have the same basic genetics, although it doesn't express naturally here."
"And you've found out how to do this?" Dr. Mother asked.
Contessa pulled out an attache case which she opened. Inside were six syringes.
"Are the powers good?" Alexandria asked.
Contessa shook her head. "One power per person, and most are relatively weak, but there are others that are much more versatile than anything we have. They have actual telepaths, and time travelers, and people who can copy the powers of others without limits."
"That...sounds useful," Alexandria said. "Especially the time travel."
"Their precogs are better than ours as well. Some of them could actually target Endbringers and Scion."
The shards that created powers were limited so the users couldn't attack the Entities that handed them out. Precognition was even more limited.
"Why aren't we recruiting right now?" Alexandria asked.
"That would is a hellscape where a virus had killed ninety percent of humanity right now," Contessa said.
"They have time travelers," Contessa said. "From the past. Their present keeps flickering back and forth as time travelers change things. The people who live there don't notice, except maybe the precogs, but if you are trapped there when the timeline alters...you are erased from history as though you had never existed."
"Could we use that against the Endbringers or even Scion?" Eidolon asked excitedly.
Contessa shook her head. "We fight on their time schedule, and I can't predict when that will be. Besides, some of the timelines don't last very long. The one where they made the vials available to everyone lasted only twenty two minutes. The current one is going to last at least six months before it gets changed."
"You didn't get the formula?" Alexandria asked.
Contessa shook her head. "It was too well guarded to get to in less than twenty two minutes. They've got experience with every sort of capes, and people with abilities to nullify even our powers. This was the best I'm going to get for the moment."
"So we analyze the formula with our best Tinkers," Alexandria said. "And then we change our business model?"
"Unlike trigger events, I can get an idea of what power the formula will give. It's not like handing out shards; it's the same formula for everyone. The powers they get depend on their own genetics."
"So we offer the shards to anyone who is likely to get a weak power," Alexandria said,"And this new method to anyone likely to get something useful."
Having a thinker power on top of being the most powerful brute in the world had always seemed unfair to Contessa, but she'd never said anything. Alexandria was a very useful person in both her public and secret identities after all.
She nodded. "Five of these vials need to go off for testing. From what I understand from the Path, creating the formula is not going to be easy, but it's going to be useful."
"And the last vial?" Alexandria asked.
"The Path has something else in mind for it," Contessa said. "Door!"
A doorway opened, and three men stepped into the room. One was a minor villain who had gained his powers from Cauldron. He was able to erase memories, which he mostly used to steal, leaving people confused about what had happened. He could also put people to sleep. As part of the deal for him to gain powers he owed favors; this was one of them.
The other two were unpowered members of the PRT. They were totally loyal and willing to forget everything they saw. They were wearing Hazmat suits, which was a step more than was probably needed, but it was better safe than sorry.
"You are all clear on what you have to do?" she asked.
"Door!" Contessa called out.
A moment later a slender rectangle opened in space, no larger than the size of a school locker.
A screaming girl covered in toxic sludge slid out onto the floor. She looked up.
"Alexandria?" she asked.
From the doorway into the locker could be heard the sounds of a crowd of children laughing and taunting the girl on the ground. Contessa held her hand up, gesturing for everyone to be quiet. The doorway behind the girl snapped shut and a moment later she slumped to the ground.
"She won't remember any of this," the villain said. He hand a hand on her forehead.
Contessa handed one of the syringes to one of the PRT members.
"Anyone with powers is not to touch her once the injection is done. I don't think you would care for the results."
A moment later it was done, and a moment later the two unpowered members were shoving the unconscious girl back into the locker, along with as much of the sludge as they could collect. It looked to be composed of weeks old tampons and other detritus and the scent was overpowering.
Shoving the girl back into hell was yet another of the steps that had to be taken. The needs of the many outweighed the needs of any one person, even if the girl reminded Contessa of herself as she'd been at that age, all gawky and uncoordinated.
The real reason she hadn't been able to obtain more vials was that she'd spent part of that twenty two minutes kidnapping one of the precogs from that world. Unlike any shard based cape, he really was able to anticipate the Endbringers.
She had a drawing in her desk of exactly this happening, a cartoon, but enough to identify the girl and the moment.
As the door closed the girl into the locker once again, Contessa felt sure that they were finally making progress.
There was a price for everything, however, and wearily she consulted the Path about a way to remove the stench from an extradiminsional conference room.
This was going to take a while.
After three days in the hospital it was a week before I realized that I was a cape.
Sophia had been quiet for most of that time, doubtlessly waiting for the shoe to drop, but the administration didn't do anything. In order to pay for my hospital bills, we'd been forced to give up our ability to sue, and this gave the administration all they needed to ignore me.
That was like giving permission to Sophia and Madison and Emma to continue doing what they were doing.
If exposing me to hepatitis and who knows what other blood borne illnesses hadn't been enough, they'd left me there throughout the entire school day. Apparently I'd passed out almost as soon as I'd been forced inside and I hadn't awoken until hours later. In a way that was a blessing. At least I hadn't had to experience most of it.
Without a passing school janitor, it was possible that I might have been there overnight or even longer.
If that wasn't enough to get them punished, then nothing short of murder would. Principal Blackwell had insisted that there were no witnesses and that I hadn't seen my attackers, even though they had been there surrounding me as I'd opened my locker.
It took a week before Sophia attacked me again, and at first it was the usual shoulder checks and trying to push me down stairs.
However, it wasn't until I was surrounded again that everything changed.
"I thought I knew how weak you were," Emma said. "But you passed out less than thirty seconds after you went in there. How lame is that?"
The other girls around me snickered. I wanted to push past them, but I knew from experience that I would only be able to do that by using physical force, and if I did they'd go to Blackwell and claim that I was the one bullying them.
For some reason their claims against me didn't need the same kind of evidence that mine did against them. It didn't take anything at all for them to get me in trouble, whereas I would need camera footage and eyewitness testimony from Legend himself to get anything done.
All I could do was try to not let them know how it was affecting me.
"I think I still smell it on her," Madison snickered. "Maybe we should start calling her Skunk Hebert."
For a moment I wished that I really did have Skunk powers. Spraying the entire crowd of girls would be incredibly satisfying, even if attacking people with parahuman powers would earn me a one way ticket to jail.
"Smells like a homeless person," Emma said. "Have you and your father been kicked out yet? Have you been living off free samples from the grocery store again?"
"Won't ever get a period if you don't eat enough," Madison said. "Which means you'll never be a real girl."
"Are we sure she is?" one of the hangers on leaned forward helpfully. "Maybe she's not really a she. Maybe he should be hanging out in the boys' locker room."
"Boys wouldn't have her," Sophia said finally. "Too weak, too wimpy."
"Her mother would be so ashamed," Emma said. "Worked for Lustrum herself. Maybe that's what happened to her father."
She made a snip snip gesture with her fingers.
Lustrum had went to the Birdcage for encouraging her followers to castrate men.
I found myself suddenly enraged. Talking about me was bad enough, but insulting my parents was something else. She'd been my friend once, and my parents had never treated her as anything other than their own child. They'd loved her and now she was talking like this about them?
Despite myself I found myself taking a step forward, and a moment later I found myself being grabbed, my arm being twisted up behind me and my face slammed into the lockers in front of me. My glasses twisted and almost broke.
"You're a loser, Hebert," Sophia gritted into my ear. "And you'll always be a loser."
As she moved to let me go her hand brushed against mine, and my knees suddenly felt weak. I almost fell as a sudden feeling of pleasure caused shivers up my spine.
Sophia stared at me for a moment before she and the others moved away.
I staggered to the bathroom to look at my twisted gasses. I was leaning against the sink when I felt...something...in the pit of my belly. A moment later the world around me went gray and I fell forward, passing through the sink like there was nothing there. I stumbled through the wall and fell to the floor, my head sticking out of the other end of the wall into the boy's bathroom.
Fortunately no one else was there.
As I lay there I suddenly felt excruciating pain. Apparently I had to keep moving or I was in trouble.
I scrambled back through the wall, sprawling backward onto the dirty floor of the girls' bathroom.
I was a cape!
Somehow I instinctively knew that this wasn't my power. It hadn't kicked in until Sophia had touched me, and I suspected that the power had come from her.
There was only one cape in the Bay with this sort of power, and she was a Ward.
Suddenly everything made a sickening sort of sense. The Protectorate needed people with powers, They were outnumbered by the villains three to one. Getting Blackwell and the teachers to cover up anything Sophia did was probably easier than finding someone to replace Shadow Stalker.
I'd always wanted to be a hero, but if the real heroes were letting people like Sophia do anything they wanted to people with no possibility of repercussion, then did I even want to be associated with them?
I remembered a quote from somewhere. "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."
What they were doing was considerably more than nothing. They were giving Sophia the green light to do anything she wanted to me.
I was a cape now, but I had no idea how long these powers of Sophia's would last. Most power copiers were limited by time. I'd read that somewhere.
Still, getting them back from her would be a trivial matter.
I stared at the computer in front of me, a chill going down my spine. It had been a week, and I still had my powers.
I'd done research online, and the PRT had power categories that they divided Capes into. I was apparently what was called a Trump, someone who could manipulate powers in some way.
Shadow Stalker hadn't been seen in a week, and this morning the PRT had made an announcement that she was taking a leave of absence due to family matters.
My mind raced. I listened to the girls around me even when they thought I wasn't, and there hadn't been as much as a peep about any problems with Sophia. She'd been out of school for two days, and when she'd come back she'd seemed angry and maybe even a little scared.
Was it possible that I wasn't copying powers, I was stealing them?
If that was true, half the plans I'd been making were never going to work. If I was stealing powers, and if it was permanent as I was beginning to suspect then the plans I'd been making for copying Glory Girl and Panacea were off the table.
I'd have to limit myself to villains, and even that was a problem. I hadn't gotten Sophia's powers until I'd touched her bare skin. Most heroes and villains had costumes that covered their entire bodies.
It was much easier to maintain a secret identity after all if you weren't leaving fingerprints all over every crime scene. The more a costume covered, the less you could be identified by hair or tattoos or inconvenient birthmarks.
The only capes who didn't bother were capes who were stronger than everyone else, people like Lung and Hookwolf. They'd kill me before I ever got close enough to touch them, easily.
Even worse, once they realized what I could do they'd all be after me. Every cape out there would feel incredibly threatened if I could permanently remove their powers. It was only a step away from that to deciding that I needed to be permanently removed.
The moment I used my powers in public, everything was over. I'd be facing snipers every time I went out, and I suspected that they'd decide that the unwritten rules wouldn't apply to me. They'd come after my dad, come after my house.
Even the heroes...if they were willing to let Sophia all but murder me, what would they do when they realized what I was?
I'd always thought that being a hero would make everything better, but somehow this felt like it was only the beginning of everything getting worse.
I'm Taylor Hebert, and this is the life I've been given.
Despite everything I can't help but feel a sense of excitement. I'm a cape! Even if I never use my main power again I can still be the hero that Sophia should have been.
If I dressed up like her I might even make the PRT think that she was lying about losing her powers, and there had been some rumors about Shadow Stalker being on probation.
I found myself laughing on the dirty floor of the girl's bathroom.
It might take a while, but I had a feeling that my life was about to get a lot better.