Although our "chase" began with us moving in the wrong direction, it wasn't a complete waste of time. After all, what really limited our effective speed was how well I could spread my bots out. So, while we were stuck in New Hampshire for an extra day or two, I spent the time spreading my bots out. I wasn't just going to keep an eye on the city I lived in any more; I would have to search the entire country for targets as slippery as the Nine. More than the country actually, probably even parts of Canada and Mexico. But anywhere they could go, I could go. Eventually there would be no place to hide.
The real question was not how fast I could make it, but how much I should actually consume. At what point would I be drawing attention to myself to a dangerous level? There was no doubt it would take a massive amount of carbon-rich materials to do it. Would anyone notice if I consumed a tenth of a percent of every forest? Or one percent of people's lawns? I wouldn't even kill any trees, merely scraping away a few leaves here and there, some rotting wood, and so on. Every landfill and garbage can near each city was just a reservoir of mass for me to use that nobody would miss, but some people would notice. Would a farm really miss a tiny portion of their crops? Especially if it was just the chaff and other scraps?
On top of that, I was constantly refining my design. It had been less than a day and I was already on my second iteration against Amy's upgraded bacteria. By the time we actually caught up with my clone, my bots would probably look nothing like the ones I currently had. It would be inefficient to build a bunch, then have to dismantle and rebuild them constantly. It was probably better to have my most efficient construction version of my bots spread around, then rapidly build whatever final bot-to-bot combat design I would end up with when I found my clone.
I only needed what was effectively a layer of dust to keep watch over the entire country, but also against my clone I needed a higher number of brains, too. The Nine were notorious for going into hiding, often in small towns or remote cabins or something. But they wouldn't be able to hide if I could see everything. They needed to come out for food, and they always had their psychopathic urges. Their powers were easily recognized.
My main issue was getting bots into private property. Physically it was obviously easy. I could probably get my bots into the Oval Office even with all the Tinker/Thinker security the President had. It was just a matter of how much it could blow up in my face if they got found out, and it would be easier to get found out. I didn't want to be labeled a terrorist.
Screw it. I had been caught with my pants down trying to play by the rules, and as a result our parents were dead. I'd have bots in every home. Every car. Every building and every street. Sure, there were still some places I wouldn't go into, to respect peoples' privacy. It wasn't as if Crawler could fit inside an average bathroom. Even so, it would elevate me to somewhere close to S-class if I became a threat, but I just hoped the Triumvirate wouldn't have a problem with that. Which made me a bit nervous when Alexandria and Legend approached us while we were healing people.
"Dragon. I see you've found some healers. Are they willing to help?" Alexandria asked.
I tried to avoid her gaze and let Dragon and Princess do the talking. I concentrated on the patients to heal as many as possible at a time, just so we could be done with this faster. Even with my eyes turned away, I could tell that Alexandria was studying me, Panacea, and Aglaea intently.
"Yes," Dragon replied. "They've lost their parents to the Slaughterhouse Nine. I've decided to help look after them for now while they are healing others."
"They would do better in the Wards," Alexandria said.
"Unfortunately, their experience with the two previous directors of the ENE division have soured their impression of the PRT," Dragon said. "They would like to remain independent, though I believe they remain open to collaboration."
"They still need adult supervision and guardianship."
"I'm applying for the position myself, if Lady Photon doesn't," Dragon said. "Aside from Lady Photon, they have no other accessible next of kin, and few other adults that they trust."
I almost snickered when Dragon said she was an adult. But then I felt Alexandria's eyes on me again, and I focused on the patients again. Even though Alexandria was most well-known for her strength, toughness, and flight powers – having that particular set of powers named after her – I, like any true Alexandria fan, knew she was a Thinker as well. How that Thinker power worked wasn't public knowledge, but I figured she had some kind of hyper-intuition or able to read her opponents. Or maybe enhanced strategy?
Either way, I was still afraid she could just see right through us and force us into foster care.
After looking at me and Panacea again, all she said was, "Very well. Make sure you fill out the proper paperwork." Then she flew off.
I was shocked at how quickly and easily that went over. Princess's voice came over Dragon's Drone. "Ugh, I hate Thinker battles," she said. "Although that's the closest thing you're going to get to an approval from the Protectorate. Unwilling approval, I might add. Alexandria doesn't want to let you run free, but someone above her is telling her otherwise."
"Director Costa-Brown, perhaps?" Dragon suggested.
"Maybe," Princess said. "Can't say for sure. Don't know who else it could be, though."
"Well, we still have to speak to the rest of your team about the trip. Let's see how New Wave is doing."
"Come on, it's not that much different from when we went to Vancouver," I pointed out to our team leader as she lay on the stretcher.
"You had an escort from Narwhal, though. And Armsmaster was there, too. Not that I don't trust you, but there should be some adult supervision," she responded.
Dragon poked her drone's head forward a little. "I'll be monitoring them and they will have one of my drones as escort. They'll be quite safe," she said.
"Dragon, while you have my greatest respect for your heroism and innovation, I still don't think a remote-controlled drone could ever be a true replacement for an in-person chaperone. Especially when it comes to looking after teenage girls," Manpower pointed out.
"We can handle ourselves! It's not like we're having a sleepover with any boys or anything," I said. "Not that we even have boyfriends," I added quietly.
"Never underestimate the power of a road trip on that front," Lady Photon said with an amused glance at her husband. "But given what's happened lately, I don't want the team to be even more fractured."
"Maybe we should go with them instead," Shielder said, a bit louder than he probably meant. Everyone looked at him. "What? Have you seen that RV they're living in? It's way better than these tents. And I don't know about you, no matter how much they clean our house, I don't wanna live in any building that was used by Bonesaw."
Manpower put a firm hand on his son's shoulder. "No, we can't all go on a road trip right now," he said. "It's going to be tough, and we need to settle in a home, a job, and school. Now's not the time to be spending money on a trip."
"The trip can actually raise more awareness and increase donations to New Wave," Princess pointed out. "By our estimates, the donations could increase by as much as…"
Manpower let out a frustrated sigh. "It's not about the money…"
"But money sure helps," Princess said. "You can't deny that."
"It's about making sure you're safe," Lady Photon said. She gave a slow, sweeping gaze going from myself, to Dragon's drone, to Abyssal, to Aglaea. "I suppose it's fine. You stay in touch – and by that I mean you call us every night. Let us know if anything unusual happens."
"Will do!" I said happily. "Thanks!"
"All done," Panacea added. "Thank you, auntie."
"But I want to know more about you before you go," she said directly to Aglaea. Vicky. Ugh. We'd gone over it quietly, but we still weren't sure how well her story would sell. While she still resembled the original Vicky, with many small changes to her face and hair, even Amy agreed that her own family would have a hard time making the connection.
"Hi. Um, I might want to join New Wave eventually, but for now I'm taking the name Aglaea. I'm basically an Alexandria package, but I still got hit pretty bad by the Nine. I think I got Mastered and ended up losing my memory, but Panacea and Eunoia fixed me up, so I'd like to repay them and help them any way I can," she said in earnest.
Both Lady Photon and Manpower scrutinized her silently before they extended their hands for a shake. "It's good to have another hero. Sorry you had to experience… whatever it was you did," Manpower said first.
"I'll want to talk with you some more when we have the time, and a few team meetings by videoconference," Lady Photon said. She turned to Dragon's drone. "Thank you for looking after them. It really does help us get back on our feet. I'll let you know when we're ready to take them in again."
"Oh, don't worry about that. Take your time. It's no trouble for me at all," Dragon replied. "Well then, I believe the girls have some work to do before we get going."
I nodded, but I didn't need bots in my teammates brains to tell something was bothering them. Something they didn't want to say in front of us. As we departed, I eavesdropped using my bots. The Pelhams had already forgotten the full extent of my abilities as they started talking amongst themselves.
"Okay, it's not just me, right? That Aglaea… don't you think she reminds you of Vicky?" Laserdream said.
"You mean her powers? Yeah, I mean, Alexandria package and all," Shielder said. "Okay, maybe height and build, kinda."
"That just might be the grief talking. We've all lost important people today, and we're grasping for anything to remind us of her," Manpower said. "Alexandria packages are a common power set. It's not like they work the same, I didn't even feel anything like Victoria's aura."
"The problem is, are they having the same issue? Amy and Taylor? Maybe they're trusting her too quickly because she reminds them of Vicky, too."
"It's a possibility. Everyone deals with grief differently. Why don't you two kids go and chat with them some more before they're gone, see if you can get a better handle on her." Lady Photon ushered her kids away.
When they had gone, she slouched down and rested her forehead on her hand.
"Something on your mind?" her husband asked.
"Yeah. Funeral arrangements. Not something kids should have to deal with," she said. "My sister… my niece… my brother-in-law. They're gone. We don't even have bodies to bury." Her body started shaking as tears welled up. She tried to hide it with little success as her husband pulled her in to console her.
"Maybe… maybe keeping busy will help them keep their minds off the loss. Maybe that's how they're coping. That's why you let them go, wasn't it?"
Lady Photon only nodded silently.
"It'll be alright, dear. We'll get through this. They'll come back when they're ready. And we'll be ready for them. Let them have their distractions," he said.
I paid less attention with those bots to give them a little extra privacy. But to me, this wasn't a distraction. Bonesaw had taken my father, and Amy's parents. She hadn't killed them. I could rescue them. There was still a chance. I believed it, because it was all that I had to look forward to.
It was a rather tiring day for all of us, and we hadn't even gotten on the road yet. Aglaea didn't have much to do other than play assistant, while Shielder and Laserdream hung out with us for the rest of the day, volunteering along with us. There was a humongous demand for me and Panacea. It really wasn't a surprise, I had seen a lot of the destruction firsthand. Honestly it was just a miracle there were this many survivors to heal.
"Should we stay here another day or two?" I asked Amy once we were in the privacy of Dragon's truck.
"I'd rather get going," Amy said. "I… I really want to do something other than heal right now."
"Don't worry, my bots can still keep doing some subtle work, enough that the regular medics can handle the load," I told her, just in case she was feeling a bit guilty. I knew she used to work extremely long hours at the hospital, but I guess she had gotten used to the forcibly reduced hours lately.
"Get some rest while you still can. We have reports that people are already camping outside the UPenn hospital awaiting your arrival. Looks like word got around even faster than I anticipated," Lisa's voice said over the speakers.
"Great. And that's only an overnight drive before we get there?" Amy asked.
"We should arrive by noon tomorrow," Dragon said.
"Can we stop a few days?" I asked. "I'll need time to build up the number of bots to make sure I have enough in the area. And to decide where to head afterwards." To be honest, the direction didn't matter to much, as my bots were spreading outwards in a roughly spherical shape. It was just that I couldn't possibly spread them as fast as we were driving down the highway. I had actually been thankful for the extra delay healing people here in Manchester, it gave me enough time to get my bots to the outskirts of Pittsburgh.
"How long do you need?" Amy asked.
"Only two or three days per city. You should include a bit of time off for yourself there, too," I suggested.
"That won't be enough to heal everyone there…" Amy said.
"I thought we went over this. You don't have to heal everyone, Amy," Vicky said.
"No, it's not that… what happens if they get angry and try to chase after us? The hospital security and intake staff were good at managing everyone, but what if they, I dunno, try to follow us back to the trailer and ambush us…"
"Don't worry, I can handle them," three of us said at the same time. I looked at Vicky, who looked at Dragon on the screen.
Amy looked at us. "Right. Right. Well, I'm going to get some sleep now."
Amy woke up before I did, but I watched her get out of bed while my body was still asleep. We were still driving along the highway.
"Hey, Taylor, you awake?" she asked in a loud whisper.
"For certain definitions of awake," I told her through my bots. "What's up?"
"Oh, nothing… I was just hungry. Wondered if you wanted anything to eat," she said.
"We can stop at a diner before our arrival, if you like," Dragon said.
"Uh, no, I'd rather not have to deal with other people yet," Amy said. "I just wanted to know if you were, uh, willing to eat something I want to try making."
"You're going to cook?" I asked.
"Uh… for certain definitions of cooking," Amy said. "Dragon, could you pull over at a rest stop or a park by a forest? Preferably one with less people."
It didn't take Dragon long to find one, and by that time I was curious enough to see what was going on to wake up properly. Amy had gone out into the woods, and it hadn't taken her long to return with some… berry-like things. For one thing, they didn't look like any kind of berry I had ever seen before, and second, I was pretty sure the type of tree branch she was holding didn't produce berries at all.
"Could you taste test these?" she asked.
"Is it safe?" I replied.
"I'll heal you if it isn't," she replied. As confident as I was in her healing ability it seemed to be sidestepping the question.
"I'll eat it. Stop being such a chicken!" Vicky said, flying towards us straight from her bed. She plucked one of the berries and popped it into her mouth. She started chewing, then made a face. But she didn't spit it out, at least.
"I was expecting something sweeter," she said.
"Oh. I was going for something high-protein. Lots of omega-3's. Maybe like fried egg," Amy said.
I tried one of them. It wasn't quite fried egg, but it wasn't bad. "I guess it's nice if you know what you're in for. Taste is still a little off, though. Didn't you try it yourself?"
"I can't heal myself if I messed it up," Amy said sheepishly.
"Well, if you can make a bacon one, then we'd be all set," Vicky said.
"I can do that," Amy said. With a touch, half the berries she was holding changed slightly in colour.
Vicky gleefully popped one in her mouth, and made a face again. "Okay, I think the taste is kind of close, but the texture… just no. I don't think people want to eat liquefied bacon."
"Oh. Right. I'll work on that," Amy said.
"Well, this isn't what I was expecting when you said you'd be making breakfast," I said. "But I'm hungry and it's not terrible."
"An interesting use of your power. But I have to check, can those berries reproduce?" Dragon asked.
"These ones? No. I could make them, though…" Amy said.
"It's better that you don't. Invasive species are a major environmental issue, even before biotinker regulations. At the same time, I'm sure there is a large market for quality plant-based meat-flavoured foods. A few biotinkers elsewhere have made them but they usually end up being too expensive due to machine maintenance requirements," Dragon told us.
"What's the PRT's stance on seeds that grow into sterile crops?" Amy asked. "I can't individually make the berries myself all the time."
"I'll look into that," Dragon said. "Just keep this quiet for now. But if something like this takes off, it can greatly reduce agricultural land use and ease famine."
We ate our potentially revolutionary breakfast. But potentially changing the world still didn't taste quite right.
There were far more people than I expected when we arrived at Pittsburgh. I guess I was used to Brockton Bay's patient load. But back then, I guess people had gotten used to Panacea and were familiar with the rules that Brockton General had set up. People knew there was a low chance of ever getting to see Panacea, and she often only treated the worst cases.
Here, there was no shortage of people who were desperate, who had only heard about Panacea through cape rumours and culture. No amount of posting and clarification online would stop the hype train. They swarmed Dragon's truck as we arrived, and it took the combination of hospital security, Dragon's drone, and Abyssal to clear a path inside.
When it came to the actual healing… well, it was back to old routines. Well, actually, it was a little different. Since this hospital was also part of the university, there was a whole lot more research going on as well. So more doctors observing us working, and more documentation, and occasionally cameras and additional devices. But in terms of the patients, the load was about the same. We cleared out the ICU, some palliative patients, and most of the emergency patients. It took quite a bit of time before we could even start on the people waiting outside.
Honestly I felt for a lot of them. I knew most of them waited outside the hospital and hadn't checked in simply because they couldn't afford the medical bills. I overheard a lot of them talking about that. Some were there because they were cape junkies, here for no reason other than the chance to be cured of something minor like acne by parahuman power.
We couldn't get to many of them on the first day, but with many of the hospital's inpatients cleared out, it would leave us more room for extra healing of the random people next day.
Even as we tried to explain that, some of the crowd got angry. Even worse, it was the people who didn't even have any critical diseases. We had spent a little extra time trying to cure anyone who had a chance of dying the next day or anything especially painful. But some people were just entitled twats.
Some of them tried to follow us, even grab us and hold us back, but they quickly found themselves being pulled away by Aglaea and Abyssal while staring down the barrels of Dragon's drone. That got them off our backs in the short term, but we could tell they were already going to make noise and complain about being mistreated online.
Thankfully Princess had anticipated it, and uploaded videos captured by Dragon's cameras to pre-empt any biased complaints. Probably adding in some bias of her own – though it was highly arguable whether they really intended (or ever had the capability) of actually detaining or kidnapping or forcing us to do any healing, she did imply as such when she posted those videos online.
Amy and I ignored all the online drama. Stirring up trouble and sending people's reputations down the drain was Lisa's forte. The two of us played another "game" of bots versus bacteria. All the while, I spread my bots well past Pittsburgh, looking for the best direction to take us for our next city.
The second day of healing brought not just more people, but also more media. I honestly didn't know how to deal with them. Sure, New Wave occasionally had journalists try to get some info out of us whenever there was something newsworthy. But, in Brockton Bay at least, healing wasn't really newsworthy. People had grown used to Panacea. My own limited abilities were uninteresting by comparison.
But in Pittsburgh, free parahuman healing was new and intriguing. Only a few people had picked up on the story yesterday, but after we had proved ourselves to the people in this city, reporters were quick to jump on the latest hot trend in headlines.
If only they reported things accurately. Dragon and Princess were our primary media management team, trying to make sure people didn't say anything too blatantly false. However, there was freedom of the press, and people were allowed to speak their opinions – personal biases and all. Heck, it seemed like half these reporters didn't even read our post on PHO.
Panacea tried to ignore them and let the others do the talking. I, however, still had to use Abyssal for some crowd control, so I had to pay attention to things people were saying to each other. On top of that, I tried to use the brain-machine interface device to keep several brains scouring for text on the internet – mainly because I didn't want to look unprofessional by checking my phone while there was a long lineup of people to heal. Dragon and Princess were far faster than I was, but at least this way I could keep abreast of any developments and discussion that was happening online.
Some of them had actually tried to include our policies in their articles, such as things like no aging reversal or genetic issues. They gave us a fair evaluation – people could come and have a chance at being healed for free, and we wouldn't get to everyone. Some even added in our donation links in their articles.
Fair and level-headed news articles didn't generate clicks though. Lots of less reputable, lower-quality journalists were going with headlines like YOU WON'T BELIEVE WHAT THESE KIDS ARE SKIPPING SCHOOL FOR to the outright stupid HAS DRAGON DECIDED TO KIDNAP MORE KIDS? I remembered my mom telling me that if there was a question in the headline, the answer was almost always no.
Even the people who were trying to write something positive about us didn't get things right. There was at least one article written by someone who did nothing but ask questions to people in line. Not to us. Maybe they were intimidated by Abyssal and Dragon's drone, but they could at the very least try not to base everything on secondhand information!
A lot of these news articles and sites didn't have any comment or reply section, so there wasn't really any way to address the issues directly. We could write letters to the editors and simply hope they would be nice enough print corrections. Unfortunately, the less accurate they were, the less they were probably willing to make changes. The dumb, sensationalist tabloid types thrived on their readers never double checking facts, so they didn't put in any effort into accuracy.
At least today's patients hadn't been too bad. Most of the patients who had lined up for today came because we didn't get to them yesterday or simply couldn't make it in time. They had arrived mostly based on what we had posted ourselves, so most of them behaved well and knew what to expect. It seemed like many of the reporters were the ones who knew less than the patients.
I was just anxious as to what all the extra media coverage would bring upon us on the third day, when that could end up flipping around.
The third day was even worse than I had thought. I probably should have forseen this, but it was primarily the crazy people who believed dumb theories like secret illuminati lizard people that also believed poorly written, unsubstantiated news sites. Normal people knew to ignore the poorly written and unreliable news sources. The dumb and crazy ones didn't. And a whole lot more of them showed up.
While it was a bit of extra trouble for us to manage, I could always bring in a second (or third) Abyssal for more crowd control. Two days in this city and I had already managed to start churning through the landfills, garbage cans, and street litter for plenty of bots. I was tempted to start fighting crime in here as well, but only subtly. I didn't want to give away too many of my secrets if there were weird villain captures wherever we visited.
While our security – along with police and hospital security – managed to stop people from fighting or hurting each other, nobody really foresaw people hurting themselves. The highlight of the day came from one of the crazies, who read one of the poorly-written articles. Maybe the author meant it only as a joke, but at least one reader took it seriously. Or maybe they had come up with the "brilliant" plan themselves. Since we worked by a triage system, if they had a more life-threatening condition, they would be seen first. Which, for the most part, was true. They had the bright idea that maybe if they shot themselves they'd be put at the front of the line.
So at least one person believed them. They stabbed themselves in the leg while in line. Thank goodness they didn't manage to get their hands on a gun, because I didn't want to think about someone that stupid or crazy being allowed to hold a firearm.
They didn't get treated. Triage aside, we were still volunteers, not paid professionals. Not only were we protected by Good Samaritan laws, we had no obligation to heal everyone. On top of all that, there was no way were letting Panacea anywhere near a knife-wielding maniac.
There might have been a second person who tried it too; there were reports of someone who had shot themselves in the leg. They had been taken by ambulance to a different hospital entirely, so we didn't see them at all.
After all this, Dragon and Princess REALLY had to emphasize the fact in all our media that we were not, in fact, going to heal everyone, and we could refuse anyone for any reason – especially if they were crazy enough to stab or shoot themselves just to jump ahead in line.
I just hoped that the rest of our tour wasn't going to be this bad. I thought Pittsburgh was one of the less-crazy cities, too. I was worried about what would happen if we visited Detroit, Albuquerque, or anywhere in Nevada.
In the end, though, we bid the city goodbye while considering it mostly a success. We had a few small issues, but nothing we couldn't handle. While Panacea, Aglaea, and I took a few hours off to do some tourist-y things, Dragon and Princess helped determine our next destination. Oddly enough, when we got back to the trailer, they hadn't quite figured it out.
"I'm telling you, I think they're keeping north. Look, why don't we have Taylor and Amy decide?" Lisa was saying.
"Good idea. Taylor, we're having a bit of a disagreement here. My data analysis puts the possibility of a potential serial killer moving southwest towards Nashville. A string of suspicious deaths or missing person reports. Princess's intuition is pinning it on another direction. Possibly even another villain."
"There were two murders and two missing persons reported days ago from small towns between Detroit and Chicago. That's a huge spike out of the norm. They're probably heading west or even northwest."
"So what do you think, Eunoia?" Dragon asked.
I hadn't found the things that Dragon and Lisa had, but they had access to a lot of data beyond my bots. Within my own radius of control, I hadn't found anything particularly suspicious. Although to the northwest, I had been losing control of a few of my bots. There were natural reasons for that, including something as simple as wind – blowing freshly-made bots away and out of my control range before I had them properly attached to things. Or it could be some other influence, anything from a street cleaner to some other parahuman.
It wasn't much to go on, but I was inclined to go northwest. "I think I'll go with Lisa's suggestion," I said. I turned to Amy for her own thoughts.
She shook her head. "I'm good with anything."
With that unenthusiastic endorsement, we quickly adapted our plans. Lisa announced our next stop online as Cleveland, which would be a short stop before hitting up Detroit. I just hoped we were going in the right direction.
- Sorry for the long delay. Combination of a lot of things, including the curse that always plagues me: I think of a better idea while I'm writing a fic and end up rewriting a bunch of it. Oh well.