In loving memory of Stan Lee (1922-2018), Rest in Peace.
Director Piggot sat in a cramped office on her secure, home notebook writing a report. And even struggled with her budget and how to stretch it for the full year.
"You can't go in there," one of her plain clothed PRT troopers said from outside the office.
"This is really suspicious," a teen girl said.
The director tilted her head and then quickly tapped a text message to her bodyguard.
"Um, you can go in now," he said a couple of moments later.
The door opened and in stepped a pretty, blonde girl who looked surprised to see a heavy set, middle-age woman.
"Victoria Dallon, I assume as you are not wearing any sort of an outfit. I am Director Emily Piggot. Can I help you?" she asked as she secured her computer until after this meeting.
"I- Uh. I can't think of a good reason for you to be here. Are you really the director?" Vickie asked a bit nervously.
"I am merely taking advantage of Fulcrum's offer to help PRT personnel with long term injuries. A certain person pointed out that refusing parahuman treatment left the city and the PRT here weaker," Piggot explained in a bland tone.
"Oh, okay. Why didn't the guy outside just say they are here for some of the healing?" she asked petulantly.
"Operational security. If the villains thought I was seriously injured or in an unprotected area, they might attempt a kidnapping."
"Guess that makes sense," Vickie said. "Well, hope you get better soon. How much do you have to heal?"
"Just some tissue damage to my leg and damage to my kidneys."
"Cool. Amy's power is pretty useful, if not directly combat effective. We're pretty sure that she cured Dad of his depression and Mom is acting a lot less stressed these days." Vicky lifted off the ground.
Piggot narrowed her eyes. "Really? I'll have to see if that works on PTSD. A lot of good people have been left damaged by extreme experiences."
"I'll check with Fulcrum on that." Vicky gave her a wave and floated out the door.
Taylor grabbed her backpack from near the door and stepped out. The door locked behind her as she spotted her best friend exiting her own room at the nicest hotel in Brockton Bay. "Hey, Emma! Ready for our first day at Arcadia?"
"Not really. All my best outfits are at home. Everyone is going to think I'm some frumpy stay at home girl," the redhead complained.
Taylor shook her head in mock despair.
They both walked to the stairs. Taylor checked for anyone in the stairwell even as she nodded to the security guard hired by her company. "Good morning, Jeremy."
"Good morning, Miss Hebert," the black guard said with a guarded smile. "Been a quiet night so far. A vetted PRT plainclothes officer has been by and your other bodyguards have been briefed with passwords and counter-signs."
"We'll be using the roof to leave for school, so keep our families safe, okay?" Taylor said as she opened the door.
"Of course, ma'am."
The nanobots started to shimmer across Taylor's form as her Iron Lass armor reformed on her. "Mirage field is set up. You see that on your phone?"
"I do," Emma said as she looked over the security options on the phone. "I can't believe you chipped us."
"I chipped myself, too."
They exited onto the roof and a glowing ring appeared on the level area in front of them. The Iron Lass Mark 2 decloaked in the middle and opened up so that Emma could climb in. "I can't wait until you upgrade to a new armor."
"I didn't build this one. I just helped get it repaired," Taylor noted.
"You could build it, I bet," Emma replied as her eyes tracked the startup list on the HUD.
"All I need is about fifteen million dollars worth of workshop and about three million in supplies," the genius replied in a snarky tone.
They shot into the sky and a quick arc to land in front of the large and modern high school of Arcadia. Students gathered around but left enough space for them to debark. Emma let the armor unfold as she casually stepped out. The Iron Man mark LI shifted back to a more normal outfit and backpack for Taylor.
So both girls nearly freaked out as a blond shot towards them through the air.
"Oh, wow! Two more public heroes! Uh, what are you pointing at me?" Vicky Dallon asked as two palm repulsors filled her view at eye level.
"You do realize that we were attacked at school yesterday, right?" Emma said as she retracted the holdout repulsor to its bracelet form.
"Vicky! You have got to quit flying off the handle," her sister said as she palmed her face. Amy walked over to them. "Sorry about that. Vicky is impulsive."
"Hey kids? How about you move to the side so that other students can get to class?" a really old teacher with white hair and a large mustache called out. He ambled to the other side to keep an eye on all the student. "Heroes these days, they don't know how good they have it."
"Um, right Mr. Lee!" Vicky called out. "Come on."
Taylor nodded. "Thanks. Which way to the office?" she asked as she stepped through the door into the school.
"This way," Amy said as she set out down the hall and then turned right.
The wall and lone door of bullet resistant glass filled the next seventy-five feet around that corner. Taylor frowned.
"What's wrong?" Emma asked her best friend.
"Not looking forward to a whole day of assessments to find out which classes we'll be put in."
"Yeah, that doesn't sound fun. But it's not going to go away if we ignore it."
Their very, very long day of testing ended at two thirty in the afternoon.
"I think I sprained my dumb brain," Emma complained as they walked outside.
Taylor rolled her eyes. "I really hate it when you put yourself down. You are not dumb, Emma."
"I know that, but that was really hard."
"Yeah. I feel like my brains are about to leak out of my ears, too. Do you have any plans for this afternoon?" she asked her best friend.
"Not really." Emma pulled out her phone and checked for messages. "Mom, Dad and Anne are checking out houses and said they'd be back to the hotel by five o'clock. Did you have an idea? Or just more Tinkering?"
"Tinkering. Dad got Friday and the most important equipment moved to a new warehouse that I had already rented. They even got most of my cyclotron roughly laid out so I can set it up and calibrate it," she explained as she led Emma over to her own concealed armor as its cloaking system deactivated.
It opened up to let Emma step in and then started to wrap around her in. By the time it finished, the nanites of the Mark LI finished deployed around Taylor. Both armors launched into the air and then shot east over the bay and the Atlantic, then arced north in a wide curve only inches above the waves.
Taylor deployed sound baffle drones and activated their cloaking systems again. They landed behind a warehouse with barely a sound as the human-sized door opened in front of them. The robot arm Dumber closed the door behind them.
"Hey, Dad!" Taylor called out as her helmet flowed back into the rest of the armor.
Emma popped up the blank faceplate of the Mark 2. "Hello, Mr. Hebert!"
Danny stepped out from behind a row of crates. The Mark 1 tromped around in the background as it worked with Dumber, Baka, Idiot and the other armatures to assemble the two hundred foot wide circle. "Hey, kids! How was school?"
"Placement tests," Emma said with a scrunched up face of dislike.
"I'm pretty sure my history memories are a bit messed up, but I'm confident on most everything else," Taylor said with a nod of her head.
A masked female hero stepped out a second later from the same direction. "Hello, Taylor. Emma," Challenger called out as she waved her green gloved arm at them.
Taylor held up a finger. "Just so you know, I knew you and Exceed were there from all of the other cameras in the room."
"Good instinct, but I could be a Stranger masquerading as a Protectorate hero," she replied as a counter-argument.
"I did check my messages to see which heroes were bodyguarding Dad."
"That's fair. So what are you doing here, anyways?" Challenger asked as the Earth-Aleph Brute came out from behind the crates with one of them on her shoulder.
"Hello, kids!" Exceed called out. Her scarlet bodysuit looked a bit mussed.
"Hello!" Emma called out to the Earth-Aleph hero.
"I'm manufacturing some more Starkium." Taylor tapped the center of her chest. "It's just not feasible to use the old ARC reactors, they just don't produce enough energy."
"And I think you just terrified Armsmaster, Kid Win and Wraith," Exceed said with a hint of humor in her voice.
Challenger blinked, then nodded. The one part of her face you could see, her mouth, quirked into a smile. "Yeah, probably."
The next hour passed quickly as Taylor orchestrated all the robotics and parahumans into assembling and aligning her cyclotron. She personally assembled the bulky 'consumer' palladium ARC generators. Each ARC reactor massed about the size of a laundry machine.
Far larger than needed, so she stuffed it full of redundancy and safeguards and security. Taylor verified all of the connections. Then she turned it on and started to do a calibration.
"And here we go," she said after Friday validated all of the tests.
The four ARC generators whined up to full load as the hum grew.
Challenger looked around. "And?"
"And what?" Taylor asked in confusion.
"I was expecting a light show," the second in command of the ENE Protectorate said in a droll tone.
An image of a small triangle of white, glowing metal appeared in her mind's eye memory. Taylor shook her head. "If you can see fireworks, you are probably getting a bit irradiated. And radiation is bad unless you have an enhanced genetic structure." She blinked several times. "Which I'm not even sure is a thing on Earth Bet."
"Earth to Taylor, don't get lost down a rabbit hole," Emma said as she swatted her friend's shoulder lightly.
"Right." Taylor turned to a readout. "This is going to take a while. So I'm going to get started on another project."
"We are going to do an outside sweep that will take a half hour or so," Challenger stated as she and Exceed headed to the back alley.
Taylor tapped the side of her glasses. "Back alley is clear."
"Thanks," the red garbed and masked Exceed called back as she waved back. The domino mask did not hide her face that well, but it showed her smile in a nice way.
"I'm going to head back to the hotel and watch some TV to rest my poor brain," Emma called out as she triggered the MARK 2.
"Sure! Thanks for coming. We'll have to go shopping sometime," Taylor called out as she waved goodbye.
Danny chuckled as he headed to his office to do some paperwork and check online for how the world reacted to his daughter.
Four hours later, Taylor loaded two of the industrial ARC reactors into a truck and one into the back of a PRT transport.
"Just sign here, here and here and you will be the proud owners of very clean power," Taylor explained to the representative of the city's power plant and the PRT building engineer.
"And you can just bolt the heavy power leads on the back? Well, that should be easy enough," Pablo Bullman said to finish.
"Yeah, that easy."
Sgt. Farris nodded. "We'll probably have this running as the primary, with our own generators as the secondary backup. Well, until you start to produce these in any numbers." He sounded unconvinced of that idea.
"You would not believe how much work that will take. These are essentially gifts so the Nuclear Regulatory Commission only has to be informed. It's like a five year process to certify a power plant." As long as you had friends in high places helping, anyways. Taylor gave them a smile.
Ten minutes later, only her father and the robots remained.
"Stranger check, Friday," Taylor ordered.
"The sensor anamolies have not reappeared in over an hour. I have found four bugs," Friday stated.
Baka rolled up and handed her a plastic baggy with a flat, gray circle about the size of a medical device battery.
"Thanks, Baka," she said as she took the device and then moved to one of the work benches. Twenty minutes later, she gave Friday the specific frequencies and magnet resonance to scan the entire building.
The three robot arms quickly finished catching and destroying all the bugs.
"Was that really necessary?" Danny asked.
"I should scrub my entire plan, but if I can get this to work right I can get a big boost to my armors. Okay, Friday, start assembling the Haywire Mark I."
"Estimated time: Two hours and twelve minutes," the A.I. chimed out.
"And why should you not be going on with this?" her father asked in a slow voice.
"Because dimensional portal technology is a banned technology. Luckily, I'm getting around the really illegal parts." She looked over to her father who waited impatiently. "I'm not studying any lost or stolen devices from Dr. Haywire, because I got a good look at what the Simurgh made during Madison. I've been crunching numbers and reading physics papers and I think I've got it licked. Maybe even improved it."
"And the PRT is not going to throw you in prison because..?" he drawled out as he scrubbed his hand through his balding hair.
"I will be fixing an unresolved issue with the Guardian Alliance and then never using it on inhabited alternate Earths." Taylor did not understand why Haywire's device had so many limitations. Literally only a millionth of a percent of possible Earth. And she could improve it. "The second reason that I'm pretty sure our Stranger danger today is Wrath of the Guardian Alliance."
Danny chuckeled at that. "Oh, I see. You are going to send them home, so it's in their own best interest."
Hours later, a ring-like device that shared a parentage of a generator and cyclotrons hung from the ceiling on a track.
"Power it up, Friday. And then start scanning with the signature I've set up," Taylor said as she formed the Iron Lass armor around her.
"I have detected a small subset of Earths that match. Now filtering out any advanced technology emissions. Randomly picking one of the ten thousand targets and matching with a livable biosphere," Friday stated as the portal device rumbled with energy.
The energy built up and reverbrated through the building as a point in space at the center of the ring expanded. Through the ten foot wide portal, a crater miles wide filled the view under a night's sky. Even covered in lush, jungle vegitation spired of stone and metal poked through.
And vein's of purplish light peaked through.
"Look at all that vibranium. I am going to do so many things!" she said with a very wide smile on her face.
Danny coughed. "You are sending robots through to mine that, right?"
"I was just going to zoom in there and grab enough to upgrade the Haywire I. Why?"
"And who is going to fix the portal if it breaks or shuts down and leaves my daughter on an uninhabited world?"
Taylor opened her mouth. "Um, Friday could fix it."
"I agree with your father," the A.I. said. "We should send drones through to get the vibranium. Drones are expendable. You are not."
"You guys are ganging up on me," the genius noted in a stubborn tone.
"Fine, Dad. I'll make some drones and then send them.