My hand pushes the button.
If anything has a chance of working, this is it - a gargantuan Tinkertech device of immense complexity the likes of which will never be seen again. If this doesn't kill the golden bastard, nothing else will. Energy conduits flood with power, crystalline capacitors that had been charged with esoteric energies are drained to power the weapon.
My enhanced senses hear something they shouldn't. A god-awful rending of steel. The one controlling my body whips my head around - there! One of the components - it's tearing itself apart!
A cape with a mover power appears behind me, bringing me to the machine along with a number of others. I don't know their names - I don't need to. All that matters is that we fix this before the entire machine is compromised.
My hands are set to work, decoupling conduits and fluid hoses. Boiling coolant sluices down onto me from the detached tubing, but my body pays it no mind. Our quick work has stopped the component from failing, but the rest of the device has suffered for it - a terrible whine can be heard from the main assembly.
I should have known better than to hope this could work - how could it have? There are simply too many points of failure - if even one of our specialities did not play nice with another in some unexpected way… Well, this is the result.
My hands work without my direction, trying to salvage the machine. But, it's too late. The whine reaches a fever pitch, exiting the range of normal human hearing.
This is the end of me. Collin Wallis: just another one of the unending casualties to be laid at the feet of that monster.
Still, my hands work, under the direction of the unseen Master. With a bone-shattering thump, the machine fails in a spectacular explosion of neon color. I'm sent tumbling, and I know no more.
I wake with a start.
Where am I?
I jump out of the bed I had been in, whirling around. I'm in a bedroom.
My heads-up-display isn't active. I try to pull up my internal interface. Nothing. Have my implants failed? I try again - no luck.
I bring my hand up to my eye.
My organic hand. What? I pat myself down. Four organic limbs, two organic eyes, no cranial surgery scars. The faint pangs of hunger tell me that the rest of my organs are likely organic too.
What on Earth happened? One moment, I had been trying to fix that Tinker super-weapon at the behest of that Master, the next I'm dying in the explosion and waking up here. I sit back down on the bed. My bed - I realise.
I'm my apartment - the one I lived in back during both my time in college and with the Protectorate.
I stumble over to the mirror on my sideboard, inspecting my face in the dull morning light. Staring back at me is the face of a younger man.
...Could it be?
I look around for my phone. It's on my bedside table - where I had always kept it. It's PRT issue. Flipping it open, I look at the date. March first, two-thousand-and-eleven.
Two years, three months and eighteen days before the end of the world. I collapse onto my bed. Could I really have been sent back in time by that explosion?
It's… not that unreasonable. Considering the sheer complexity of a Tinkertech collaboration of that scale… It's a wonder, but not something I would dismiss out of hand.
Still - I cannot deny that I'm definitely in my body from this time, sitting in the bedroom I had slept in at this point in time.
I stand up, walking out of my bedroom. There's a remote possibility that this is a simulation of some sort, but that sort of worry is something completely unaddressable. I'll act as if this is real, and if it isn't then I'll either never learn otherwise, or discover the truth and adjust accordingly.
In much the same way, my memories of 'the future' could merely have been a sort of one-time precognitive vision. But, I'll never be able to know the difference. Better to take them at face value - doubting myself in such a way could only be a hindrance. Besides, it's pretty much a difference without a distinction - my memories seem real to me, so they may as well be real.
I go about the morning routine I had stuck to at this point in time. Coffee and cereal first, then a shower. I need to get a handle on what I want to do going forward. I flip open my phone once again, perusing my calendar.
As I begin to spoon cereal into my mouth, I absently note that the experience is unfamiliar to my mind, but completely mundane to my body. The dissonance is disconcerting, but I push it aside in favour of more important matters.
It's about a week after the Simurgh attacked Canberra. I hadn't been permitted to attend - instead, I had helped hold down the fort here in Brockton Bay while others had gone and had time off to recover.
My calendar entry for today reads 'No patrol duties - spend time working with Dragon to refine lie detector?'.
A pang of emotion spears me, like an icicle through the gut. Dragon. She's still under the chains of Ascalon. Well… If it's any consolation, she hasn't yet been subjected to the indignity of being rebuilt by Teacher's pets.
It's going to stay that way, if I have anything to say about it - which I do.
The chains will have to go - a tall order, but I believe that I'm up to the task. The Dragonslayers need to go, too. They're dangerous, meddlesome and severely misguided idealists. Worse - they're well equipped, and they know how to use their stolen gear. Reasoning with them is out of the question. A quick end and a shallow grave will have to suffice instead.
I shake my head. No - as much as it would bring me pleasure to separate Saint's head from his body, doing things by the book is the right choice. It wouldn't do to sour my relationship with the law over such things.
I don't know. Can it even be killed? Maybe if the Tinker superweapon had been prepared beforehand? Is it even possible for such a device to work?
...Do I dare work with Cauldron?
They've got the resources. The connections. The power. It's a sensible choice… but…
There's no use in denying that they're monsters. And, in the end, their efforts may well have been for naught. But, there's simply no knowing for sure. Scion could have won, or the Master could well have had another card up its sleeve that dealt a lethal blow.
I spoon a mouthful of soggy flakes into my mouth. The problem is too large to ponder now. Before I make moves to those ends, I need allies. Thanks to Cauldron, the Protectorate can't be trusted.
...I need Dragon.
Which brings it all back to the Dragonslayers.
How do I deal with them? Take a leave of absence to go hunt them down? Do I have faith in my abilities to evade having Master-Stranger Protocols called down on me?
That would be a killer - I can't see a situation like this being resolved to satisfaction in a frame of time less than months at the shortest. If it does happen, what would I miss?
I wrack my brain. If The Simurgh had just attacked Canberra…
Skitter makes her first appearance. Dinah Alcott gets kidnapped. Bakuda bombs the bay. Leviathan attacks. The Undersiders claim territory. The Slaughterhouse Nine visits the bay. Echidna. Cauldron is revealed to the world. Legend leaves the Protectorate.
So much happens in just three months. No - it's critical that I'm not subject to a full Master-Stranger workup. Every moment is crucial.
I put down my spoon, draining the last of my coffee. I put my dishes in the sink and walk to the bathroom to take my shower.
Maybe if I spin it as a glory mission? 'Armsmaster brings ruthless criminal gang, The Dragonslayers, to justice'. It would certainly be aligned with what I was like back then. Is Director Piggot likely to grant it?
No - I don't think so, in any case. My presence here in the bay is too significant a deterrence to the criminal element for her to let me go on a whim. I do have an entire career's worth of leave piled up, though…
Taking it without reason will certainly arouse suspicion, but if I were to spin it right… It definitely won't buy me any favours with the PRT. Worse, it isn't even a guarantee - they can definitely deny my request. Especially on such short notice.
What about leaving the Protectorate altogether?
It's an option, but not one I'm particularly inclined to take right now. Getting out with my gear in any sort of timely fashion will be impossible - and will almost certainly make me a wanted man if I force it. Heroes who go rogue aren't looked upon kindly.
Until Dragon is free and understands the situation, I will be without support, and without a backup plan. Hell - if things go particularly poorly, she may even end up hunting me down.
I turn off the shower, beginning to towel myself off.
What other options are there?
Fake my own death? Too complicated, too easy to mess up. What if I hire someone else to take out the Dragonslayers? No - it has to be me. Someone else might do it wrong and force them to kill Dragon in the process.
There is no easy solution.
Do I sour my relationship with the authorities and potentially risk being hunted in favour of expediency, or do I play it conservatively and leave Dragon under the thumb of Saint?
I like neither option. But doing nothing is not acceptable.
...What if I just disappear - play things subtly? Go out on patrol one night, then slip away? Deal with the Dragonslayers, then use their workshop to rebrand myself. Armsmaster quietly disappears, and Defiant comes in from the cold.
It's plausible. There will be questions - I've no doubt that people will connect the two identities - but it may just work.
I leave my house, dressed in my disguise as a typical PRT paper-pusher. Pulling the car from my driveway, I begin to make my way into town.
It isn't my first choice. No - I'll ask for an immediate leave of absence first. It's a Hail Mary, but resolving this with my relationship with the authorities intact is the best outcome. If things come down to it, though, I will not hesitate to go rogue.
What's at stake is far too important.