"They say she died," Lacy was saying leaning forward. "Like, she saved us all and then she died. Isn't it tragic?"
Madison desperately hoped that was the case. Taylor Hebert hadn't been seen since the fight in China that had apparently resulted in Scion's death. It had been bad enough when Hebert had killed Leviathan. Madison hadn't slept for a week, having nightmares of Hebert showing up in her bedroom and drowning her in used tampons and spilled fruit juice.
She'd begged her parents to move. If she'd had her way she'd have moved to those Asian islands in the Pacific, the ones farthest away from Brockton Bay as possible to be. On the other hand, hiding on an island from someone with Leviathan's powers probably wouldn't have been very bright.
Kansas would have worked, probably, but her parents had refused. Her father had assets
After Behemoth and the Simurgh she'd breathed a sigh of relief. Not only were the horrors threatening the world gone, but Hebert was in a coma. The nightmares had stopped and the world had seemed to make sense again.
She was going to Arcadia now, and the school was much, much better than Winslow had ever been.
The city was getting back on its feet, especially now that Uber and Leet had come out as heroes. They'd gotten funding from somewhere and were now sponsoring young Tinkers who had ideas that were going to change the world. It was all for a percentage, of course. Somehow their problems with the law had all been resolved overnight.
However, the day everyone's phone's rang at once had been a morning of terror. She'd been in bed and had sleepily reached for her telephone, only to hear Hebert's voice.
It had been a song in a language that she hadn't understood, beautiful and soul moving in ways that she still had trouble dealing with. The message of the song had been simple.
Stay silent and hide, or die and take your friends and family with you. The song had been an entreaty and a command and Madison had found herself without a voice.
When the red aura had gone up over the city, all traffic had stopped. People had waited in silence, barely able to breathe as titans had battled above.
There wasn't footage, of course, although the PRT claimed to have satellite proof. The gigantic gouge in the moon was proof that it had happened. The fact that the world would never be the same was obvious to everyone, and some people had quietly started talking about her with an almost religious reverence.
Madison deeply hoped that Taylor was dead. After all, if she wasn't, that meant that Madison had tormented someone with the powers of Leviathan, Behemoth, the Simurgh and Scion as well as how many others.
While it was possible that she'd forgotten her, it didn't seem likely. She'd rescued Emma from a fate worse than death, but she hadn't healed her in the way that she'd healed some of the others. Panacea had refused to replace Emma's ears on the basis that it was a cosmetic change and she had more important things to do.
Other healers had refused as well, although no one would give a reason why. Madison had tried to keep in touch as much as she could at first because she wanted any information she could get about what Taylor was like. Then she realized that Emma was likely going to be a bigger target, and being anywhere around her was a recipe for disaster.
Emma was now in a long term psychiatric hospital, and no one had any idea when she would get out. Her family was gone and no one who knew what had happened wanted to take her. It was possible that she would live there until she aged out of the system, at which point she'd be thrown out on the street.
In the end, Madison had decided that the only way she could survive was to become the best person she could possibly be. Surprisingly, it turned out to be almost as easy to be popular by actually being nice as by being a bully and spitting on the people below you on the totem pole.
Assuming Taylor didn't show up and murder her one day, she had plans to become a teacher.
Still, she'd feel a lot better if she knew Taylor was dead.
"There's no indication of where she went after the battle," Eidolon said. He was looking a little better, which was surprising in a post-Endbringer world.
No longer having the weight of the world on his shoulders probably helped. He'd been the last line of defense against the Endbringers for so long that he'd forgotten any other kind of life. It was possible now for him to go into retirement, and his legacy would remain untainted as his role in the Endbringers activities was being carefully managed.
"All the Case 53s disappeared," Doctor Mother said soberly. "The best we've been able to ascertain they were returned to their own worlds back in their original bodies."
"So what do we do?' Contessa asked. "I...I'm not even sure what to ask the Path for."
"We figure out how to fight her," Alexandria said. "Just as we've always done. The power she has is too much for anyone, much less a fifteen year old girl."
"She's not fifteen anymore," the Number man said soberly. "I've found references to her throughout history. There was a recently discovered painting of her that is an authentic Leonardo Da Vinci. We're keeping the news carefully controlled to avoid panicking people."
"Or making her cults worse," Alexandria said sourly. "At least the Fallen were people we could fight. These people are just misguided."
"There are references to her in Pharaohs' tombs, in Aztec ruins. She healed people during the Black Death, helped the Spanish Inquisition implode on itself."
"So the world we live in now might not be the world she grew up in?" Alexandria asked, alarmed. The idea that she might be erased from history, might never be born because a child played around with time travel was deeply alarming.
The Number man shrugged and said, "We'll never know. I suspect that it can't be too different because the risk of paradox and erasing herself from history would be too great."
"She's done it in other worlds too," Doctor Mother said. "We've identified at least six other worlds whose history she has explored. All of them had histories that were very different from ours."
"Wouldn't want to get bored," Tattletale said. At everyone's looks she shrugged. "What? If I had that kind of power I'd be visiting the fun places too."
How she'd become an unofficial member of Cauldron, Alexandria wasn't sure. Somehow she'd wormed her way in, and no one was willing to complain because she was useful.
"The question," Alexandria said, "Is what we do about her."
"Nothing," Contessa said. "If we move against her she will depower the Doormaker and the Clairvoyant, possibly the rest of us, and it won't take her long."
"We can't simply let her rule the world, not without a fight. Wasn't there a parahuman on the other world who was able to suppress powers?" Alexandria asked.
"She'd see it coming long before we were able to deploy him. Worse, it's possible that she's grown beyond his ability." Contessa shook her head. "I've checked the Path, and there's nothing we can do."
How valid the Path was when Taylor Hebert couldn't be precogged Alexandria wasn't sure, but she was willing to argue the question.
"The good thing is that she doesn't seem hostile. If anything her goals seem roughly aligned with ours," Legend said. "She seems to be trying to prepare humanity for the next time an Entity attacks."
"She's pushing technology through Uber and Leet, and there is evidence that she is manipulating the political situation to encourage countries to work together," Doctor Mother said. "Villains who were borderline are having changes of heart and converting to the good side. Villains who are irredeemable seem to be suffering upsets."
"The world is changing, and we need to be at the forefront of the change," Eidolon said. He hung his head. "I've got so much to atone for that I don't even know where to start, but I think that trying to make the world a better place is a good start."
"Why do you think she's let us continue to exist?" Legend asked. "We serve a purpose in her plan or she would have ended us long ago."
That sounded uncomfortably like Hebertologist thinking to Alexandria. The cult was growing in ways that bore looking into.
Some people would believe anything given the chance.
"I'm not even sure what our purpose should be," Eidolon admitted. "We've been trying to save the world for so long that I've forgotten what it's like to do anything other than fight."
There were still monsters out there, human monsters who didn't play by all the rules. However, compared to the thrill of fighting an Endbringer these people weren't a challenge at all. Even with his powers waning, Eidolon could fight ninety nine percent of the villains in the world with one eye closed.
Now that he had a fourth slot it would be even easier.
"So don't," Taylor said.
Everyone reacted, suddenly realizing that she'd been among them the entire time and they just had been ignoring her.
"I will be taking Contessa," Taylor said. "The rest of you may decide what you are going to do as you wish."
Alexandria stepped forward even though she knew it was useless. She hadn't been able to beat Leviathan much less Scion and the power of twenty Endbringers.
"You aren't taking her anywhere."
"I am letting you know as a courtesy," she said. "For preparing the way for My coming."
"Where are you taking me?" Contessa asked. She seemed resigned to her fate.
Apparently one of the tasks the Path had given her was causing this woman's mother to die. Alexandria could understand the need for revenge, even if it had been necessary for victory. None of their hands were clean, not even Taylor's. After all, she'd committed murders of her own and had made decisions involving deaths.
"I am studying the nature of the human conscience," Taylor said. "One of the things that none of my powers give me. I am seeking to discover whether one can be cultivated in people who lack one."
"If you're going to punish her, you might as well punish the rest of us," Alexandria blustered.
Tattletale looked suddenly alarmed. Apparently she thought she was good enough to join the group for decisions, but not for the consequences of those decisions.
"This is the Path she has chosen," Taylor said. "I am including a few others... Sylar and certain other villains I believe can be redeemed. They will not be harmed, unless they harm themselves."
"And you won't... creatively encourage them to do that?" Alexandria demanded. She had the Simurgh's power after all.
"That would invalidate the experiment," she said. "You others will remain as a control group. Can you grow consciences on your own, or will you remain as you have been, miserable worthless shells of human beings?"
"Telling us the purpose of the experiment invalidates it,' Doctor Mother said gently.
"It only sets the beginning parameters," Taylor said. "You became monsters because you thought it necessary. Can you become human beings again for the same reason?"
"Is it necessary," Alexandria asked. "Are you threatening us?"
"The world creates its own punishments," Taylor said. "Especially now. I only help the process run more smoothly."
"Will we be under your yoke forever?" Alexandria asked.
"Eventually I will learn all I can from this world and the worlds it is attached to," Taylor said. "And then I will leave this world and visit Scion's kin and show them what a monster can truly be."
Before Alexandria could say another word Taylor and Contessa vanished in a flash of light.
Contessa found herself on an island. The weather was pleasant and the winds were sweet.
"Where are we?" she asked, looking up at Taylor.
"Polynesia, in fifty thousand B.C." Taylor said. "No human will explore this place for another ten thousand years at least, which means we have all the time in the world to get to know each other."
Walking up the beach she saw a fanciful castle on the side of the beach. It looked a little like the Disney castle, and it looked out of place here in the middle of a tropical paradise.
"My mother loved Disney," Taylor said. "Would you like to meet her?"
"What?" Contessa asked. It was so strange to be at a loss for words after decades of always knowing what to say. The Path didn't work on Taylor, which made conversations strangely interesting.
"You didn't think that I'd leave my mother dead, not when I can go back in time, stop time and use biotinkering to create perfect duplicate bodies for the police to find?"
"Doesn't that run a risk of paradox?" Contessa asked.
"It would if I'd changed things so the world realized she hadn't died," Taylor said. She grimaced. "As much as I hate to admit it, some things are fixed points in time. Saving my mother in the world would tear a hole in the fabric of reality large enough to swallow the planet."
Which was why they were standing here now. If Taylor had saved her mother then the world would have ended.
"Why not bring your mother to the present?" Contessa asked.
"Because my father has found love again," Taylor said. "In thirty years his spouse will die and once he finishes grieving I will reverse his aging and bring him here. To my mother it will seem like a few weeks or months."
That seemed overly optimistic to Contessa. Thinking that parents who haven't seen each other in forty years would be able to find love again, even if it hadn't been long for one of them seemed like a recipe for disaster.
Of course, Taylor had numerous ways to see if it would work or not, so it was possible it would all work well.
"Why do you want to meet your mother?" Contessa asked.
"I want you to be faced with the wonderful person that you murdered," Taylor said. "The same as I'm doing with Sylar. Bonesaw could revive the dead, you know, and I've got resources she never had."
Was that the game, making them have a relationship with their victims so they could understand how horrible what they'd done had been? Contessa had saved the world. She didn't understand how any amount of hand holding or sitting around a campfire was going to make that any different.
Taylor's experiment was going to fail.
"I've made my mother and the others ageless," Taylor said, as though she was reading her mind. "And Sylar already is. You, however aren't. The longer it takes you the less of your life you will have in front of you when we are done."
Contessa tried to imagine being stuck on an island for fifty years, surrounded by people she should have rescued instead of having murdered. She shuddered at the the thought.
Taylor glanced at her and said. "Fifty years seems optimistic, don't you think?"
As they rounded a bend, she saw members of New Wave talking to a tall, dark haired woman who seemed flush with life. They all looked healthy and happier than Contessa had ever seen them. For people who'd had their skulls opened they seemed remarkably healthy.
Contessa wondered if Taylor had removed those memories or if they'd just been here long enough to learn to cope with them.
"It'll be paradise for some," Taylor said. Glancing at Contessa she said, "Less so for others."
"What is your ultimate goal?" Contessa asked. "Not with me; obviously this is your idea of an ironic punishment or something. What do you plan to do with the human race?"
"The same as you should have been doing," Taylor said. "Preparing them to fight the Entities the next time they come back. Promoting technology, spreading humanity throughout the stars. By the time the Entities become aware, humankind will be so widespread that they have a hope of destroying it."
She'd become an urban legend, working from the shadows. As far as the world was concerned she would have vanished forever, even as she made minute adjustments to lead people down the path she preferred.
In all but name, Taylor Hebert was now the Empress of Mankind, with an empire that would last until the stars grew cold. If she answered the ultimate question the Entities had posed, it might even last beyond that.
"There's a line from a cartoon my father once liked," Taylor said. "It goes something like... Being God isn't easy. If you do too much, people get dependent on you, and if you do nothing, they lose hope. When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all."
"And do you think you're God?" Contessa asked.
"Not yet," Taylor said. "But someday... who knows? I'll do my best."
Contessa had a sudden feeling that it was going to be a long fifty years.
"Twenty seven years, seven months and three days," Taylor said absently. "You die on a Tuesday."
She waved suddenly at the tall woman, her face suddenly losing the inhuman look and filled with a sudden joy. She smiled, her face lighting up as her mother spotted her.
It was almost as though all her inhumanity fell away from her, for at least a little while and she was the little girl she had once been in the face of having hr mother again.
Contessa suddenly had an uneasy feeling that this wouldn't be as easy as she'd thought.
Although she wasn't really surprised she'd die on a Tuesday. Nothing good ever happened on Tuesdays.