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"My God," I said reverently. I'd never been particularly religious, but they were really the only words appropriate.
"You see now why this has all been necessary?" the woman who'd introduced herself as Doctor—Matt Smith she was not—said gently.
"Necessary?" I repeated, my voice high and breathy but not a squeak. "Necessary?"
"Necessary," she said firmly.
"You know," I said in a shock-induced calm voice. "I thought I knew monsters. Lung, who traded in people, the Nazis, the Merchants and their drugs… The PRT and Protectorate who stood by and did nothing because it'd upset the status quo and they thought they needed monsters to fight Endbringers.
"Then I thought you made monsters. Coil. Echidna. Alexandria."
"Rebecca was a hero in every meaning of the word," the woman in the tailored suit said.
"When she was killing my friends—"
"Pretending to kill—"
"Tell me she wouldn't have slaughtered innocents wholesale to achieve her objectives," I replied.
When neither spoke I nodded slowly.
"I thought those were your mistakes. The outliers. That you actually helped good people."
"And now you know the truth," the Doctor said.
"The truth is that they aren't monsters. They do monsterous things, but those pale in comparison to the monsters before me. None of you actually care.
"The reason the PRT and Protectorate was rotten to the core was because Rebecca or Alexandria or whatever she wanted to think of herself as, didn't care. She didn't need it to actually do what everyone thought, she didn't need it to last, she didn't need it to provide a stabilizing influence on humanity after the dust settles. She just needed it to last long enough.
"I could go into the rest of it. The rest of you. But why fucking bother? You know your own failings and crimes better than I could ever hope to. You just don't fucking care about any of it."
"We have done what was necessary to save humanity."
"What good is saving humanity if we lose it in the process?" I asked.
"It is the only Path that gives us a chance."
I looked at the woman in the suit. "Path?" I asked.
She frowned, but it was more directed at herself. It was the same kind that I'd seen very rarely on Lisa's. Had she…surprised herself?
"My power is the Path to Victory," she said. "I specify objectives, and it tells me what I must do to bring them about."
"Combat precog," I said.
"Among other things."
"Does it show you a path, or the path?" I asked.
"It shows me the path. But by subtly altering the objective I can consider others."
"So it really is a matter of asking the right questions," I said.
"'If you can dream and not make dreams your master, if you can think and not make thought your aim…'"
Doctor leaned forward. "What does a quote from Kipling have to do with—"
"Bullshit Thinker powers," I intoned. "Actually, that's on most of us. We rely too heavily on our powers and forget how to do things for ourselves. Thinkers are among the worst at that. They sit back and let their passenger do the driving and forget how to use their brains. But you..." I looked at the creepy-suit-lady, "you didn't just forget how to think for yourself. You're so used to the Path telling you what to do that you've forgotten how to make your own choices. That real people don't do bullshit like this to each other."
I laughed a little then. "You know. I wondered if I didn't have a minor Stranger power, the way everyone underestimated me. Then I wondered if I didn't have a Trump power, the way I'm able to synergize other capes."
"You don't," suit-lady said.
"I know," I said. "It's just…what I am. I think it's because I got a minor power, I mean, bugs? Really? I learned how to leverage it, and learning how to do that for me, I learned how to do that for other capes."
"Lung," I said, "first night out. In less than two months I was facing down Leviathan and controlling a not-small section of Brockton Bay while the Empire 88, ABB, and Merchants were gone."
I looked at suit-lady again. "I bet you've been asking yourself 'how can I save humanity?' or 'how can I beat Sion?'"
"Among others, yes."
"Have you succeeded in saving the world?"
"Not yet," suit-lady said evenly.
"I'll make a deal with you, then," I said. "Let me take a stab at it. If it doesn't work, I'll come work for you. Do whatever nasty little shit you want. But if it does, everyone in your little organization needs to personally apologize to everyone they've wronged, and do their best to make amends."
"This," I said, dropping the tome on the table. "This is how we save the world."
"A telephone book," Contessa said skeptically.
"Yep," I said, popping the P just to be annoying. "The thing is, bullshit Thinker power like yours are dependent upon the variables you feed them. If you put bad or incomplete data in, you are going to get a bad or incomplete answer. Sometimes those answers can be used to refine the question, but that will only take you so far."
"And the phone book will fix that?" she asked skeptically.
"What does your power tell you?"
She shook her head. "We agreed that you would take point. If there is something specific you want me to do, that is one thing. Actually running it myself? That is something else."
I snorted. "Fine. Sure. We can play it that way." I flipped the book open. "Let's see… M, MC…MCM…McMaster, Giger. Here we are."
I punched in the number and put my phone on speaker so Contessa could listen in.
"Hello?" asked a woman's voice.
"Hello. I'm looking for HR," I said.
Soft wait-music issued. I made myself tea, Contessa declined.
"Human Resources." This voice was male, brisk.
"I need a team to save every iteration of Earth from a single cataclysmic event, and ensure the continuation of the human species. Minimal loss of life and infrastructure damage preferred."
"Skitter," the voice gave the name in even, uninflected tones. "Contessa," it said, continuing on in even measure. "l33t. Dinah Alcott. Accord. Dragon, free of influence and observation by Saint. Canary, legally released from the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center. Panacea, legally released…"
This went on for a while more names, then stopped. "Payment included in team."
"Thank you," I said and ended the call.
Contessa raised an eyebrow.
"Cauldron doesn't have a monopoly on bullshit OP parahumans. I mean, okay, you've got someone who can see everything, and someone who can open nifty interdimensional portals, Not to mention all of the Earths' collectively most powerful precog, brute, blaster and trump, and once you had the best tinker. But you don't have HR. If you did, we probably wouldn't be having this discussion."
"Human Resources," Contessa said.
"Human Resources does teams. You tell him what the job is, and he'll tell you the best combination of people for it. You need a team, and he'll crank out a number of people you specify who synergize well together. Coil solicited him for the Undersiders. It took us what, less than two months to drive out the ABB, E88, and the Merchants and effectively control Brockton Bay? Maybe you should get Alexandria to call him and solicit a team to guide humanity once we're done saving the world since the organizations that should be doing that, the Protectorate, the PRT, and Cauldron are—how should I put this?—morally bankrupt at best."
Somer's Rock is just as miserable as I remember.
We got there first, and Contessa signed for two cokes.
"Do you actually know sign language, or is that Path to Victory-ing us a couple of drinks?" I asked.
"Yes," she said, which was Thinker-BS, and her attempt at a vulpine smile would have been passable if I didn't have Lisa's to compare it to.
Über entered first, followed by l33t.
They wore…tastefully generic costumes. Über signed for drinks—of course he did—because Thinker powers are OPBS as fuck.
"I want to commission l33t to build a device," I said.
"Look, I don't know what you've been told," l33t said. "Yeah, I can build anything. Once. After that it tends to blow up in peoples' faces."
"You won't have built something like this," I said.
"So why should I build something for you, that I'll never be able to build again."
"You will be dead within two years if you do not," Contessa said.
Über started to stand.
"I apologize," I said. "My colleague can be a little overly dramatic, but she is nevertheless correct. The people we represent have access to a powerful precog. Her statement is not absolute, but your numbers if you do not help us are very poor."
"Which we only have your word on," l33t said.
"Yes," I agreed. "We will provide any resources you require, and compensate you very generously for your time and effort."
Über and l33t traded looks. "What do you want us to build?" the latter asked.
"A device," I said. "Capable of stopping a cataclysmic event that, if successful, will destroy not just this planet, but every alternative version of Earth in existence, and eradicate any form of the human species."
"That's it?" l33t asked.
"I have more information. Giving it to you grants a few additional percentage points that you will be able to construct the device we need. It also increases, rather drastically, the likelihood of your death, possibly before you can complete the device."
Dinah's role had been easy to figure out. If you gave her endpoints, Contessa could get you to them. But Dinah? Dinah you could lay out multiple scenarios and get a percentage on them coming out the way you wanted. And if you inferred information from her answers, you could use that to refine your questions. Contessa's was infinitely more powerful when it came to getting anything done, but if the matter was determining what you needed to do? Dinah had her beat hands down.
"In which case you don't get the device and the world ends," l33t said.
"Yes, pretty much."
"Okay," he said.
"Okay?" Über asked.
"Okay," l33t said firmly. "I'm going to want stuff. Money. Lots of money. Also hotpockets, the complete director's edition of Xena, and I want a huge donation in my name to Christ Roberts' new project we're hearing rumors of."
"I'll have other payment demands once I've had time to actually think about this."
"And I'm going to need…stuff. Expensive stuff. Stuff that people won't want to give up. Some of it governmental, some of it built by other tinkers. Ask, nicely, and pay for it. None of this 'you'll be dead in two years if you don't.'
Contessa nodded a third time.
"I want full credit for my part, and you need to find a way to tie this into a videogame."
A fourth nod from Contessa.
"Okay, in that case, you have a Tinker."
Contessa was staring at the device l33t had given her. It was a small, flat, grey box. One the top there was a square red button under a clear plastic shield.
l33t had handed it over, taken one last look at it, shuddered, and then stated that he wanted no more part in it. That his and Über's names were not to be associated with it in any way.
"This is it?" Contessa said.
"Not going to use Path to Victory?" I teased, because she wouldn't. It was strange. She was willing to commit wholesale atrocity and was willing to pervert her soul in ways the monsters of history would be hard-pressed to better to try and give humanity a chance at survival, but she wasn't willing to look to see how our bet would play out. "Well? Do it."
Contessa shrugged, flicked the shield up with her thumb, and pressed the button.
My bugs died as the world turned to fire.
I used to rule the world, seas would rise when I gave the word…
"I don't understand what happened," Lisa said.
I tuned out the radio playing in the background to focus on Lisa.
We were watching Rachel lead a dog through paces at some competition or other. The changes that fixed her social cues and body language to 'dog' rather than 'human' were essentially brain-damage. The loss of her passenger had only resulted in her inability to make her dogs grow. In less than two months she'd become one of the most celebrated dog-trainers in New England.
In retrospect, it was obvious why HR had put some names on the list. Accord's planning had been a God-send in the aftermath. Dragon had been just as useful during recovery. The Birdcage had been smaller on the outside than it was within, and nestled inside a void in the mountain. It, and its inhabitants, hadn't survived, but HR had managed to rescue the people who hadn't belonged in there before that happened.
"Multi-dimensional space whales," I said.
"You said that before. Eden and Zion. One was dead, and the other was a hero."
"The other was bored," I corrected. "Heroing was something to do while it…waited."
"For the right time to end the world. Scion…Scion was only a small part of it. The bulk of it was in another dimension. Partially another instance of four-dimension space-time, but it was also spread across many such iterations and existed in eleven-dimensional space simultaneously."
"And?" Lisa asked.
"As near as we can tell, l33t pulled out some OP as fuck Tinkertech bullshit and forced a hard separation between instances of space-time and greater-than-four-dimensional-spaces. It collapsed the portals to Earth Aleph—and all the others for that matter—severed the connections between us and our passengers, and chopped Zion into a bunch of pieces scattered throughout time and space."
"So that's it then," Lisa said. "No more world-destroying interdimensional space whales. No more passengers. No more powers…"
I set a hand on her knee. Lisa had hated her power, the way it had destroyed her family, led Coil to force her into the Undersiders, the migranes, the…seeing, everything, that made it impossible for her to pursue any kind of intimate relationship. But as much as she hated them, she had loved being Tattletale, had love riling people up.
A moment passed.
A fly landed on my hand.