Narwhal, Armsmaster, Dragon, Hardcase, Corona, Gelid, Masamune, Leet, Flechette and myself. Ten Capes - more than many Protectorate departments - and that's not even considering the clout that Narwhal, Dragon and Armsmaster bring to the project. As Armsmaster fiddles with the projector, about to begin the briefing, the realisation strikes me.
It isn't enough. Not for what we're up against. Armsmaster had said it himself - this is only the first round of recruitment.
Armsmaster begins his presentation - stiff and impersonal, he makes formal introductions of everybody, mentioning their roles. It's wooden - say what you will about him, but Armsmaster isn't personable. My power had previously informed me that he'll make an effort, if he thinks it necessary, but it just doesn't seem to come naturally to him.
Narwhal is on the project only in an administrative sense - she gives things the rubber stamp, but is otherwise content to let Armsmaster and Dragon steer this ship.
He introduces Leet under the name Peerless. It's suitably heroic for the Guild, if nothing else - it remains to be seen whether he'll live up to the name. Personally, I'm doubtful.
His clothes don't exactly scream Heroic, either - he's in jeans and a graphic tee, with only a thin domino mask to hide his identity. Compared to the other Tinkers, he looks second-rate at best. His bearing doesn't help - he's slouched over, timid.
Not a good first impression to make, to say the least.
Hardcase, Corona, Masamune and Gelid are introduced in turn, each giving an overview of their specialities as Tinkers. Armsmaster quickly wraps up the introductions, moving on to the next item on his agenda without so much as a pause.
"Almost two months ago, we came into possession of a highly detailed, reliable, precognitive account of the events of the next two-and-a-quarter years. Its veracity has been verified - without action, we are near-certain that the events detailed within will come to pass."
Armsmaster's declaration has the room silent. Narwhal sits, inexpressive - she's already informed, I can tell. For everyone else, this is the first they're hearing of this.
"This information paints a dire picture of the future. Unless we act to prevent it, In a little under two-and-a-quarter years, Jack Slash will convince Scion to embark on an interdimensional genocide of humanity. Should action not be taken, he will be largely successful."
The room erupts - knee-jerk reactions of disbelief, horror and shock, mixed in equal parts. The information is incendiary, to say the least. Hardcase is sat, still - he doesn't quite know what to think. Corona is arguing with Gelid, a frenetic energy to her gestures - she's afraid. Gelid is slumped, making only token responses to Corona - she can't quite bring herself to believe it.
"You knew this already?" Flechette asks me, an unsteady waver to her voice.
I nod "Armsmaster briefed me when he recruited me. Had to know it to do my job. I've had some time to mull it over." I don't bring up that this information source is really Armsmaster himself - if he wants to keep that close to his chest, then I see no reason not to let him.
She slumps. "And you obviously believe it…" trailing off, she falls silent.
I let her sit and think, looking to the rest of the room. Narwhal and Armsmaster are speaking to each other quietly. Leet - or rather, Peerless - has leant forward, chewing on his lip. He's already accepted it as given, and is thinking action plans. Masamune is leaning back in his chair, a look of grim understanding across his face - he appears to have come to terms with the situation well enough, too.
Armsmaster reclaims the attention of the group. "This threat - that of the extinction of humanity not only in our world, but every world - is why we have gathered you. Our ultimate goal is to neutralize the potential threat to humanity that Scion poses."
Pausing for a moment, he regards the room with a look through the impassive face of his helmet. "Let me be clear - according to our information, Jack Slash may be the one to provoke Scion into his genocide, but we cannot discount the possibility that something else may do so at a later time."
Clicking the remote in his hand, the projector changes to a new slide. Shown to the room, are two images, each taken from afar. Jack Slash, captured in a moment of vanity as he slicks his hair back with gel, looking into the reflective surface of a shop window. And Bonesaw, hypodermic needle in hand, injecting an unfortunate civilian with one of her concoctions.
"These two are our first targets. Jack Slash is our foremost priority - Bonesaw is a secondary target. Of course, we will be aiming to eliminate the rest of The Nine, but these two are our focus."
With a flick, he slides a loose bundle of dossiers onto the table. "Our source has us well-informed. Information about The Nine previously unknown has come to light. We hope that this information will allow us to successfully eliminate our targets where others have failed."
There's a grim determination to Armsmaster - I can tell this is personal for him. He's got a grudge - I'm certain of it. I don't think it's obvious to anyone else - except maybe Dragon - I don't think I'd have caught it without my power.
The Nine… they've built up an aura of untouchability around themselves - sure, they lose members, but never without taking their pound of flesh in exchange. Even the Triumvirate steers clear - and here Armsmaster is, setting his sights squarely on their heads.
Can we really do this?
He continues. "This will not be a quick operation - a great deal of Tinkering, preparing and planning will be required. It is our hope that by eliminating Slash, we will move the timeline for Scion's attack backwards, giving us time to refocus and begin formulating a solution to that particular problem. Now - the remainder of this session will be spent detailing our immediate courses of action."
Flicking to the next slide, he gestures to the image presented. It's an artist's mock-up - a soldier, clad in gunmetal-grey power armour similar in style to the standard PRT gear, but with a slightly menacing blue tri-lens helmet.
"Some of you may already know about the Dragon's Teeth project. Elite PRT troopers equipped with Tinkertech gear, mass-produced thanks to Masamune's speciality. These troopers are at this point a central part of our intended strategy with regards to taking down The Nine."
He continues, detailing the specifics of the project. It isn't long before the meeting turns into a brainstorming session for the Tinkers - each chipping in with their own expertise, hashing out an overall plan of action between them. Narwhal soon excuses herself - and Flechette and I are dismissed soon after - copies of the dossiers issued for us to review on our own time.
As we leave the room, Flechette is quiet. She's shaken, my power supplies. Naturally - the sort of bombshells that Armsmaster was dropping would shock anyone. That just won't do - better try to help take her mind off of things.
Otherwise, I have the suspicion she'll work herself to exhaustion in the gym. "Hey - you want to grab some coffee? You look like you need it."
It takes a moment for my words to register with her. When they do, her expression brightens. "Yes. Please - I'd appreciate that."
"Everyone seems to have taken the news as well as could have been expected." Dragon's voice comes through my personal lab's speakers.
I nod, unlatching the catches on my armour, slowly leaving my suit. "I'm sure it was distressing to them, at least on some level. However, I'm more than satisfied with the progress we've made with the Dragon's Teeth so far - we're very well on track."
"And your other projects?"
I shrug. "There's been less movement than I'd like on that front. Nanothorn is mostly functional, but has a few creases that I'm still ironing out - unless you've made progress on those components I mentioned?"
Especially later on in my time as Defiant, Nanothorn hadn't been entirely my own creation - it had been as much Dragon's as my own at that point. Without those components, I've been set back quite a bit on that front - it works, but it's rather crudely made.
Her avatar, displayed on the lab's main screen, shakes her head. "No luck."
"A shame. I'll keep working at it. The Combat Prediction software is progressing nicely, at least."
"I've seen - it's really quite impressive, honestly. I've half a mind to tweak it a bit and stick it in my suits."
"Feel free to do so - though I believe you had a little trouble getting it to play nice with your biological computers last time."
She hums. "I'll have to give it some more thought, then."
I don't mention that the trouble had been more so to do with her restrictions on automated action.
Hopefully, she won't have that trouble forever.
The Ascalon project is still chugging along at a painfully slow pace. Understanding it is an absolute slog - I've made progress in dribs and drabs, but I can't help but to think I'm months and months away from even beginning to understand the whole.
Calling in outside help isn't an appealing prospect. The less people that know about this, the better. Narwhal is informed of my efforts to understand the device - but it goes without saying that it's far outside her capabilities to assist me.
Still, I'm leagues ahead of where I stood when I started. There's nothing to it but to keep chipping away.
When it's time to move forward on this, I need to get it right the first time.
The more I learn about the machine behind the woman, the more certain I am of the truth of my initial hypothesis. As I suspected, much of the trouble I had trying to lift her restrictions last time had been due to her subconscious being compelled to fight the changes to the point of self-destruction. If I can maintain her ignorance of my intentions, I'm confident I will be successful.
Unbeknownst of my thoughts, Dragon changes the subject. "Blasto has me worried. He hasn't resurfaced yet - not in Boston, and not anywhere else we have eyes."
Packing away the last of my armour, I strip out of my undersuit, putting on the set of civilian clothing I keep in my lab. "It doesn't bode well. I don't recall him disappearing like this last time - though I can't say I'd been tuned-in to the cape goings-on in Boston."
"You think someone's gotten to him because we were looking for him?"
"Either that, or the PRT agents we sent to confirm the location of his hideout spooked him."
His lab was clean - we got absolutely nothing of use from it. Irregular, perhaps - but not out of the question for either situation. Someone doesn't want Blasto found - whether that's his kidnappers, or Blasto himself, I don't know.
"Is that what you believe?"
"I don't know what to believe. All I know is that I don't like it. If we can't secure Blasto, we need to make sure that Bonesaw is taken down."
Silence falls as I finish dressing. I put my earphones in and my glasses on, waking them and linking them to our network. Compared to the rest of my tech, they're rather simple. They contain the absolute minimum to keep me discreetly connected to our network even in my civilian guise. I'd whipped them up in an afternoon, and already I've found them very useful.
Dragon makes the connection, speaking through my earphones. "Are you finished for today?"
I nod, leaving my workshop to head to my room. "I am." Entering the elevator, I key in the appropriate floor.
"Well, if you weren't averse to the idea, there's a movie set to air tonight that I think the both of us would like - if you're interested?"
Oh? Dragon's movie recommendations are usually spot-on. Smiling despite myself, I answer. "I'd like that - definitely."