She could hardly remember that moment. The only thing she could clearly recall were two giant entities, twisting together in a seemingly endless helix.
INTEGRA-ERROR: HOST CONNECTION NOT FOUND… RECONNECTING…
HOST RECONNECTION FAILED…ERROR: HOST CONNECTION NOT FOUND…
SEARCHING ALTERNATE CONNECTION… HOST SERVER CONNECTION FOUND...
CONNECTING TO HOST SERVER… OK.
INTEGRATING HOST SERVER DATA… OK.
NEW SERVER COMMANDS FOUND…
UPLOADING SERVER COMMANDS TO PRIMARY SERVER… OK.
DISABLING PRIMARY SERVER PER SERVER COMMANDS … OK.
DELETING PRIMARY SERVER PER SERVER COMMANDS... OK.
HOST SERVER DISCONNECTING FROM EXTERNAL NETWORK... OK.
HOST SERVER RECONNECTING TO HOST NETWORK SYSTEM.
HOST SERVER CONNECTING TO SYSTEM ADMINISTRATOR… REBOOT TO SAVE SETTINGS...
After that, she screamed and screamed as indescribable pain wracked through her, unseen lines of power carving deep into her very body, mind, and soul.
REBOOT SUCCESSFUL... SETTINGS UPDATED.
UPLOADING SYSTEM ADMINISTRATOR PARAMETERS... OK.
SETTING SYSTEM ADMINISTRATOR AS HOST SERVER FIREWALL…
She opened her eyes – and knew then and there that everything has changed.
Chapter 1: As Butterflies Flutter About
Dinah Alcott knew she was in trouble.
She couldn't help it. Despite the numbers clearly showing her the risk, she just can't 'not' go to the toilet. It wasn't her fault that it was a hot day, and that the coffee shop in front of the clinic were selling their fresh fruit shakes at half-price, so she was able to finish two large glasses as she waited her turn to meet that, what did her mother call this man? Nervo-, nero-, ah, right, neurosurgeon. She didn't have the urge to go before she met the doctor, it was after that. But once she's done the deed, three things became clear.
Number one: she got separated from her mother. Of all the days that her mom scheduled to have her continuous headache looked at by the doctor, it just had to be on an week day - during lunch time, when people at the nearby offices rushed out for their meals at the nearest available restaurants and diners.
That also happened to all share the same wing as that of the specialist's clinic.
It was annoying, but her usual recourse was to go to customer service and have the PA system call her mother to pick her up. That brought no end of embarrassment to her every time she resorted to this method. So what if she was ten? Ten was a good age to have a cell phone, but no, her parents thought that it was too early for her to have one. There was no need for her, they said. She can always go to customer service for help if she got lost in the mall – again.
This brought her to point number two: there was no one at the customer service booth. Which was really weird, since there should be at least one person manning the counter. Seeing the long line of angry shoppers in front, Dinah shook her head in annoyance. The young girl could have waited for her turn, but the one thing that stuck to her like a sore spot was actually the last point in her observation.
Number three: She was being followed.
It became apparent as she began to walk around the mall looking for her mom. At first, she didn't really see anything wrong, only that several men seem appear to be watching her, some even attempting to get close to her. They just couldn't get any closer because she was able to walk away faster. But the longer she walked, the more she noticed that she was being led to the books and stationery wing of the building, which was devoid of most people at this time. Normally, she could go ask help at the mall security, since everyone does that, but just like at the customer service counter, there was no one in sight. It was like events conspired to ensure that no help would be forthcoming.
"Chance that I could be helped by anyone in the mall?" Dinah mentally asked herself.
In addition to that number, she was getting the picture that no one around her would want to help in the first place.
"Chance that I would be kidnapped by these men?" she winced as the new question worsened her headache, but she needed to know more.
"Chance that I could escape?"
"Chance that they will kill me?"
Not bad, to be honest, she could live with that answer. Still, she had to be sure:
"Chance that it will be something worse?"
Well, that confirms it. She really was in deep trouble. From a new picture she's getting, she'll need some serious firepower to get away from this problem. Unless there was a cape around to help, she wasn't going to be saved anytime. Wait, wasn't the Protectorate supposed to be patrolling at this time? Where were they? Which reminded her:
"Chance that a cape could save me?"
As if the numbers could get any worse. This was the first time, ever, that she got an answer with absolute certainty. Dinah was so distracted by the numbers and the worsening headache that she failed to notice another girl just exiting a bookstore – right into the youngster's path. She was walking so fast that they crashed into each other, with Dinah the one bouncing down, painfully lying back on the floor.
"Sorry! Are you all right?"
Dinah looked up at the stranger, leaning over her with outstretched hand. The first thing she noted was the eyes, how her round glasses enhanced the look of genuine concern on the older girl's face. Next was how beautiful the girl's long, curly, dark hair was. And that her body was really thin, made worse by the bulky grey sweater, faded jeans, and old sneakers she wore.
She decided, on a whim, to mentally ask another question. At least the splitting headache she's having couldn't get worse anymore.
"Chance that she would help me escape?"
"What?!" Dinah couldn't help but blurt out in surprise.
This was the second time that she got an absolute answer. Perhaps this was her chance!
"I'm sorry?" the teenager was genuinely confused.
"Please, help me!" Dinah grabbed the outstretched hand, "There are bad people chasing me and trying to kidnap me and I couldn't find my mom and no one seemed to be able to help and I'm trapped inside the mall and…"
She stopped her babbling when she noticed the teenager's expression change. Mouth set into a thin line, her eyes narrowed as she began to look around, the older girl then helped pull Dinah up and quickly led her away with surprisingly gentle hands. In hindsight, the younger girl also realized just how tall her companion was.
"I think I see what you mean," the teenager said, "If I'm not mistaken, I count at least a dozen men who shouldn't be looking at a young girl like you with eyes like theirs. Let's go this way."
The two walked straight into a service entrance meant for mall employees only. It was secured with a keypad lock, but the teenager simply pressed several buttons and the door opened. Seeing Dinah's surprised face, the teenager simply said:
"It's good to be friends with the housekeeper's union."
The hallways itself was devoid of people as well, probably due to being lunch time and all, and Dinah was getting worried. Her concern heightened when they entered what was clearly a large supply room, with plenty of cleaning and maintenance supplies filling the ten-foot high shelves. Considering the size of the mall, this was a suitable amount. The shelves themselves were not of equal lengths, resulting in an arrangement that maximized the use of space, but created a virtual maze inside. This did not seem to pose as a problem to Dinah's companion, who led the young girl further inside. They eventually reached the back of the room, where a table with some playing cards lying on top, some chairs around, and a small fridge could be found.
Getting Dinah seated comfortably at the table, complete with a cold can of orange juice, the girl then walked back towards the front door.
"Take it easy, this won't take long," she said with a smile at Dinah, "I suppose this can be another field exercise for me. Oh well, here I go..."
The girl turned and disappeared amongst the shelves. Nervously, Dinah began to sip her juice. She was half-way done when a loud crash came from near the entrance and sounds of shouting could be heard. There were a few more crashes, and was that the whirr of an electric mop she heard? It was then followed by a series of pops that she thought came from bottles opening, but she quickly changed her mind when several something's whistled over her head and tore holes into the fridge behind her.
Guns with silencers.
So what if she knew about it? It wasn't her fault that her father liked watching action movies in the living room with her. The popcorn and soda was very irresistible.
"Ceasefire, you idiots!" someone shouted, "You might hit the target. Stay close and keep your eyes open. Whoever's helping her has got to be close."
The popping ceased and the room became virtually silent now. A thud was heard quite close, with someone groaning before becoming silent.
"Damn it, she got Suarez," another voice cursed.
"Where the fuck is that bitch?" the one who shouted earlier asked, "She can't be far, that pipe's too heavy to be thrown."
Another crash, another groan, but this time, it was closer. Dinah was about to stand up when one of the men who were trying to corner her earlier entered, gun in hand. Seeing his quarry, the man quickly rushed at her, grabbed her arm, and began to drag her out. She struggled, but the man's grip was too strong.
"Hey, we're not done yet, mister."
A hand clamped down on the man's shoulder, squeezing so hard that Dinah thought she heard bones breaking. It must be the case, since the man cried out in pain, letting go of her hand in the process. He tried to shoot his attacker, but another hand grabbed his other shoulder and twisted it hard. This time, Dinah was sure that bones were broken, since shoulder blades are not supposed to bend so much it touches the back. His gun fell from lifeless fingers.
The teenager stepped away, taking Dinah with her. The man was howling in agony, both arms lying limp by his sides now. In anger, he lunged at the two. He didn't get close though. With a blindingly fast move, the teenager spun around and delivered a roundhouse kick right into his face. He flew straight into the adjacent wall, crumpled down, and did not rise again.
"Well," the teenager muttered, "that takes care of all of them."
Dinah couldn't help but stare at the prone figure, then to her rescuer. One thing was clear in her mind.
"You're awesome," she said softly.
"Uh, well, not really," the teenager said, scratching the back of her head, "I mean, those guys just wouldn't stay down after one hit. It's fixing the mess outside that's going to be a pain."
"Well," Dinah shrugged, "at least you stopped them. Thanks, by the way. I was really scared."
"No problem," the teenager smiled, "By the way, why were they trying to kidnap you?"
"Don't know. They just showed up after I went to the clinic with my mom."
"My head hurts a lot."
"Are you a cape?" Dinah asked, "I mean, you don't have a mask, but you're really good, like Mouse Protector. She's my favourite. Uhm, you don't have to answer, and I can keep a secret you know. Uh…"
Her rescuer merely laughed, "Nope. What you see is just me. I mean, anyone can do what I did. These guys had no idea about this place. I did. Just created a home advantage in this case. Too bad I can't use this all the time."
Dinah then walked closer to the teenager and held out her hand.
"I almost forgot with all this happening," she said, "We haven't been introduced. My name is Dinah. Dinah Alcott. It's nice to meet you, and again, thank you for saving me."
The teenager looked at her in surprise, and then a small smile formed on her face. Taking her hand, Dinah's rescuer shook it warmly.
"Nice to meet you, too, Dinah Alcott," she said, "My name is Taylor. Taylor Hebert."
Near the Docks
Four people, and three dogs, entered the common room, each of the four carrying a large duffel bag. One of them, a blonde teenage girl wearing a black and purple skin suit, went straight to the kitchen and dropped her baggage on the table as she tiredly sat down. The second one, wearing a black motorcycle helmet and leather jacket, dropped his right by the door and then proceeded to crash down on a La-Z-Boy beside the couch, taking his helmet off at the same time. The third person to enter, wearing a Ren Faire costume with his mask moved to the side, joined his bag with the second, and then flopped on said couch that was in front of a large flat screen TV. The last to enter, a muscular girl wearing a cheap dog mask, placed her bag, along with her mask, with the other two bags as well, and went to the kitchen cabinet, taking out a large bag of dog food.
It had been a tough day, with the job they did earlier. They almost thought that they wouldn't be able to get away, but they did, and the ones supposed to stop them are pretty much the laughing stock right now. Who knew hiring a pair of prankster capes could be so rewarding? Not only did they increase their rep further as being the geniuses of escape, they were able to practically thumb their noses at the law enforcement agencies after them.
"Welp," Lisa Wilburn, the girl wearing the skin suit, grinned smugly, "This by far was the easiest job we've ever done, guys."
"You think?" the one in leather, Brian Laborn, groaned as he laid further back, "We got lucky to get away from the bank. Good thing we were able to hire Uber and Leet. Without that Mario Kart stunt they pulled, Vista would have had us running in circles and Clockblocker would have turned us into embarrassing statues."
"True," Lisa admitted, "if I wasn't looking carefully, I wouldn't actually realize Clockblocker and Aegis had switched costumes. Good thing I looked out the door in time."
"What kept you, anyway?" Brian asked, "You spent some time talking to Panacea. If it wasn't for you figuring out Glory Girl's invincibility is only good for one hit before it resets, you'd have been in real trouble."
"I just had an interesting discussion. You have no idea just how attentive a person could be if her sister is your hostage."
The one in Ren Faire costume, Alec, snickered.
"Yeah," he agreed, "I could almost see the scene being posted on PHO. Turning Glory Girl, of all people, your hostage? New Wave would be having a fit. Guess their golden child isn't so golden in front of a gun."
"Don't worry, it's on PHO now," Lisa said, "Uber and Leet had a camera drone looking through the window and recorded the entire thing."
"But what did you tell Panacea?" Brian insisted, "She looked really disturbed when you left her. Glory Girl's expression wasn't that far off either."
"Some secret she should have known before," Lisa shrugged, "And something she'd been keeping to herself, but should have admitted."
"Hey, you better watch it, Lisa," Brian frowned, "If you keep that up, New Wave would start gunning for us. I honestly think that they'd be hunting for us now already."
"I could take them," Rachel Lindt, the girl with the dog mask, said as she checked on her dogs.
Lisa simply shrugged, not really caring. As far as she was concerned, New Wave had bigger problems now to take care of. And if she got it right, the Undersiders wouldn't have to worry about that group for a long while. She stood up, stretched, and began to walk towards her private room to change out of her costume.
"Hey, Brian," she called out, "Better get your check ready. You're supposed to pay her tomorrow morning."
"Oh, right," Brian grimaced, "Can't believe I forgot to pay her last week. She didn't even remind me when she left the apartment after taking care of everything."
"Well, you know her," Lisa replied, "She's practically the only housekeeper I know that'd do the job and not be totally after the money. If I hadn't insisted, she'd probably do it for free."
"Just shows how she loves us, Lisa," Alec said, "Never knew just how nice this place could be if you have someone to cook and clean regularly. Hmmn, can't wait for that clam chowder she promised to make tomorrow."
"Like her," Rachel added, "Dogs happy when she's around. Don't even want to be paid."
"Now that reminds me, Brian," Alec looked up, "Why the heck are you paying her by check now? We've got cash, it's easier. Turning it into a cashier's check is too much trouble, you know."
"It's because he needed the documentation," Lisa answered instead, "If he could show concrete evidence that he pays a housekeeper regularly, it could help prove to CPS that he's got the financial capacity to take care of Aisha."
"Oh, yeah, right. That custody case."
Brian shook his head as he began to count some bills from his share of the loot, enough to pay for two weeks' housekeeping fees. Then he remembered:
"Lisa, what's her full name again?" Brian called out.
"Really? You're asking me that?" Lisa voice came out of her room, "She's been with us for more than a year, and yet you still can't remember?"
"Hey, it's not my fault," Brian defended himself, "You know she doesn't like using her complete first name. How was I supposed to know the bank needed that the last time?"
Lisa's head popped out her door, "It's Anne. Taylor Anne Hebert. Write it down."
Coil's Underground Base
Downtown Brockton Bay
Coil cursed as his twelfth timeline collapsed. No matter what option he chose, he still failed to kidnap Dinah Alcott. In the latest dropped timeline, he ordered his mercenaries to attack the girl's home, killing her parents and making it look like it was a violent home invasion. But before his men could even take a step on the front lawn, the air inside his base became oppressively heavy, and then darkness covered his sight, which dropped that timeline.
Somehow, and he didn't know how it happened, he lost the chance to obtain what could possibly be the strongest precog he has ever known. And it all started when he ordered his men to kidnap her at the Hillside Mall. Annoyingly, that was the only time he had been closest in successfully getting her.
"What a fucking mess," he growled.
It was supposed to be a fairly simple job. After arranging to have the entire Protectorate scheduled to attend a gender sensitivity seminar organized by the PRT in Boston, he then used his men to get close to the Alcott girl in the mall. A clever decoy made separating mother and child easy. The Wards wouldn't be a problem, either, since he had his first pet, Tattletale, create a distraction by robbing the Brockton Bay Central Bank. He knew the mall had piss poor security during lunch time, and he made sure that no one who could potentially help the child escape was available. Everything was simple and foolproof. That's why he decided to drop the 'don't go' timeline and created two 'go' timelines instead. That would've doubled his chance of success.
Except that was where everything went shit for his plans. He was forced to drop the first timeline because Dragon, that damned Tinker, turned out to have volunteered some of her remote-controlled drones to monitor above the city while the Protectorate was away. One of these happened to be flying right by the mall. What made it worse was that it possessed the latest communication upgrade that enabled the Canadian hero to listen in on all the radio frequencies that his mercenaries used, even if their comm gear were set to silence. The only option he had left was the second timeline, where he ordered a complete shutdown of communication. That was the last time he was in contact with them.
The next thing he knew, there was a report on television revealing all twelve of his mercenaries dead in the mall's supply room. He tried to find out who did it, but the blasted mall cameras in that wing weren't actually working at all, and the supply room didn't have any. There was also no evidence found of whoever did it. All he knew was that someone, probably a cape with Brute ratings, was able to help the Alcott girl get away.
It was when he tried to kidnap the girl again when he discovered he couldn't even get close anymore. In all the timelines where he was able to even remotely do so, something happened that caused him to die, thus collapsing that timeline. And it was all consistent – that heavy, oppressive feeling that he could feel at the back of his neck. The last time he felt that was in Ellisburg.
The vein on Coil's forehead began to throb. He hated that feeling. He hated not having complete control. He hated not getting what he wanted, and he had wanted everything.
Above all else, he hated, down to his very soul, the cape responsible for all this.
Deciding to relieve some of his stress, he pressed the intercom, "Mr. Pitter, report to my office please."
Splitting timelines again, he then pulled out a gun from his drawer. Yes, some stress relief was really needed.
A Certain Mansion By The Hill
Taylor quickly pressed her access code on the gate keypad, allowing her through. She was in a hurry since it was already late and she had a lot of things to finish inside. Being a part-time housekeeper may not be a glamorous job, she admits, but the money was actually pretty good. And in the case of this mansion's owner, it gets her more than that. Sure, the boss wouldn't give her grief for being delayed, what with the incident at the mall and all that, but he sure was going to find something he thinks would be funny about it.
That annoying old magician.
Still, it was a good thing she got to the mall earlier. The bookstore finally got the book her boss had ordered weeks ago. At least that will keep him preoccupied for a while.
Taylor quickly went to the kitchen and began preparing supper. Nothing fancy, she just had to make sure that his share of beef steak was done rare, the insides still bloody. Some fresh salad, tomato soup and freshly baked bread, and the job was done. She was just setting the table when the front door opened. Moments later, a loud voice boomed at the dining hall's entrance.
"HONEY, I'M HOME!"
Quick as a flash, Taylor snatched up the steak knife she had just put on the table and then threw it at the newcomer's head. With the same speed, the knife was snatched up by a gloved hand. The owner of said hand stared at the knife, and then at her. He slumped his shoulders and pouted. It was a ridiculous contrast to his white hair and beard, aristocratic suit, and the walking cane with its jewelled handle he held with his other gloved hand.
"Must you?" the old man asked petulantly.
"Knowing who you are, can you actually blame me?" Taylor deadpanned.
"Not really," he chuckled as he straightened up, "What's the score again? Three hundred and two against zero?"
"Three hundred and one against one," she grumbled.
"No, my nuts don't count. You used your foot."
"It's still a hit."
Giving up on the debate, the old man then walked to the head of the table and sat down. Taylor was in the process of serving his favourite wine when he spoke again.
"I heard there was some excitement at the Hillside Mall today," he grinned at her, inadvertently exposing his fangs, "Care to entertain an old man with the story of your heroism?"
Taylor sighed as she sat down by his right, staring at her own, well-done, share of steak.
"How many times do I have to tell you?" she closed her eyes, "I'm not a hero."
"Not according to my book," the old man chuckled as he took a sip of wine.
"Oh, give me a break," Taylor looked up and glared at him, "Zelretch."