The cat-being was bored. This was a dangerous thing.

It had an idea. This was also a dangerous thing.

It acted on that idea. Prudent people capable of traversing dimensional boundaries did so.

* Protectorate HQ *

After several minutes, there was a sound of metal snapping into place and relative quiet. The cat walked across the table, idly repairing various scorches and holes. "Geez you guys. I show up and talk about someone needing rescuing and what do you do? Attack attack attack. So, just sit there and ruminate while I elucidate."

Legend, the only one not shackled and gagged in adamantium bonds, and also the only one who hadn't immediately attacked, cleared his throat. "You said something about a 'victim'?"

One of the monitors turned itself on and began displaying a scene.

A tall girl was shoved into a locker which was filled with bloody sanitary pads and insects. The door was slammed shut, the lock clicked into place.

Girl in locker: "LET ME OUT! PLEASE!"

First Bully Girl: "Lot of trash in that locker. Smelly. Someone should just throw the lot out."

Second Bully Girl: "You be quiet in there. At least this way we don't have to see your ugliness."

Third Bully Girl: "Right, right."

Second Bully Girl: "Madison. You have GOT to work on your taunts."

The cat paused the scene there. "For almost two years now at Winslow High School in Brockton Bay, there's been an escalation of bullying of Taylor Hebert by these three. Emma Barnes, Madison Clements, and Sophia Hess. Everything gets ignored because Sophia Hess is a Ward of the PRT, Shadow Stalker."

"MFFF!" indicated Alexandria through her gag.

"In thirty minutes, Taylor Hebert will trigger," continued the cat. "Now, normally, this would be just a trigger event and you have a dozen of those a day. No biggie except on the very localized scale, right?"

"Why aren't you intervening yourself?" asked Legend.

"Because that's fiddly bits and I generally don't concern myself with those, I'm more the sort to do something and watch what results. I'm billions of years older than you, it's long term and large scale I'm more interested in." The cat nodded at Legend. "Anyhow, I am involved in one particular way."

Another monitor cleared and video of Scion fighting a forest fire in Argentina played. Abruptly the golden man stopped glowing, fell to the ground, and then stared in horror at the scrapes and breaks in his skin from landing on a forest floor.

"I've taken all the power that Scion has, and when Taylor triggers - she'll have all the powers and power level Scion had." The cat looked up at the countdown. "You now have twenty-eight minutes."

The cat vanished, so did the bonds holding everyone except Legend in place.

"What the hell WAS that?" asked Eidolon.

Legend looked at him. "Before we spend a lot of time on that. There's a girl going to be triggering in a high school. A girl who has all the power Scion did. A girl who has absolutely no reason not to lash out. What are the likely results?"

Eidolon stared at him, then Alexandria. Two of them said the same thing at the same time. "Oh shit."


"Director Piggot here."

Assault and Battery both exchanged a look as the Director answered the phone.

"Yes. No, I did not. There's evidence? Shadow Stalker? You'll recall I didn't want her on the Wards and that I've received and passed on several evaluations from other team members that she didn't play well with others? No, I haven't. Yes. Oh you can be sure of THAT. What trigger event? Your Thinkers agree? How bad?"

Just how pale Emily Piggot turned and her expression told the two heroes the answer was Very Bad Indeed.

"I'll send a squad to evacuate the school and hope to hell that worst-case-scenario remains just Thinker pessimism. Yes. Piggot out."

A finger stabbed out and pushed a button. "Mobilize immediately. Two APCs. Need to evacuate Winslow High School immediately. If you see a new trigger, do not engage in anything other than polite discourse."

Putting the phone down, she regarded the two capes. "Go. Now. Winslow High School. If you see a 'golden girl' do everything you can to de-escalate the situation. She may be a bit upset. Try talking her down. Go."

Assault and Battery left with all due haste.

Another button was pushed and she spoke into the handset. "Any available members. Unless you're doing something that absolutely can NOT be put aside. Go to Winslow High School. A girl has been pushed by excessive bullying into a Trigger. If you see a golden girl, offer assistance. Offer help, counseling, a goddamn cup of hot chocolate if it looks like it would help! Do Not Antagonize!"

Another disconnect. Another button push. "Rodriguez. Find Shadow Stalker's handler. Isolate and contain. Get Daniels to go over her computer, her records, her phone - EVERYTHING. I want to know if she's working for someone else, what all she's been covering up, and why."

Another disconnect, another button, and a quick code. "I need some Tums, another fresh water bottle, and a fresh bottle of Excedrin."

Another disconnect, the same button, a different code. "Dragon. You were monitoring? Good. You have an idea what's going on? I don't care what your sources are as long as it's reliable. Protectorate high-level secure channel? What are your estimates based on this data? Best case, worst case. Best case is good."

Director Piggot listened briefly. "'Planetary Extinction Event' is the sort of phrase you never want to hear except in the most speculative way. Let's do everything we can to keep it that way."


* Dock area *

"Why is Lisa just staring off in that direction? Looking as scared as I've ever seen her?"

"No idea, she just stopped like that in mid-sentence and has barely moved."

"Weird Thinker shit?"

"Yeah, that was my thought too. Except - you hear the dogs?"

"No, they haven't made a noise... oh."

"Yeah, 'oh' is right. They're all hiding."

* NSA *

"Every precog and clairvoyant we've got just went silent. Except Reader."

"What's Reader say?"

"Reader says this could go any of a dozen ways, most spectacularly bad. It isn't her specialty though so she's apparently not getting a lot of details."

"Reader's thing is psychometry, right? Touch an object and know the past of it?"

"Yeah. This is apparently a big enough deal even she's getting some of it."

"Any idea what 'it' is?"

"No, all she got was a general location of somewhere near Boston."

* Uber and Leet's Lair *

"Why do I have this sense of impending doom alternated with hope?" asked Leet.

"Don't know. Same situation," said Uber.

"Hell," said their minion/lair-cleaner. "I'm not a parahuman and I'm getting some of that."

"What's that smell?" asked Leet.

"Three-cheese lasagna in a crockpot recipe I know," said the minion. "Cooking it this way makes sure the pasta is soft and the meat is slow cooked and the taste saturates."

Leet was quiet a moment. "You know when I said hiring a minion was a bad idea?"

Uber nodded. "Yeah?"

Leet nodded back. "I take it back. Still worried about whatever's going on, but hopefully it'll hold off till dinner's ready."

* Traffic *

"What the hell is this?" asked PRT Staff Sergeant Tina "Dice Maiden" DeJesus.

"Another abandoned vehicle and traffic trying to go around it," said Corporal Alice Manning.

"This damn city," said Tina DeJesus. "I'd go back to Cebu City if it was still there."

Miss Militia and Armsmaster slowly moved their motorcycles through the stalled traffic, passing the transport.

Sergeant DeJesus tapped her mike. "Transport Adam-12. Command, we're stuck in traffic. Em-Em and Beardmaster proceeding past at maybe ten miles per. Do we have VTOLs?"

"VTOL-1 is already dispatched, Adam-12. Hang tight in case third-to-worst case scenario," came the reply.

"That's Karl on Dispatch," mumbled Corporal Manning. "He sounds worried. He's normally pretty..."

"Yeah," said Sergeant DeJesus, not thumbing the mike back on. "I've met him. It'd take twenty-thousand volts to get him to loosen up even on his down-time."

"You HAVE met him," said Corporal Manning.

Sergeant DeJesus thumbed the mike back on long enough to ask a question. "Query, Dispatch. Nature of third-to-worst scenario?"

There was a long pause before Karl's voice answered over the scrambled radio signal. "Third-to-worst is Gamma-Class. Good luck, Adam-12."

"Oh, fudge," said Corporal Manning.

"Evacuate city at full speed, regroup at fallback position Charlie-Echo," said Sergeant DeJesus. "That's in the next state. And that's THIRD?"

"I'll go tell everyone to latch everything down, full gear," said Corporal Manning.

"We get the word, I'm bloody flooring it," said Sergeant DeJesus. "That's Endbringer-level trouble."

* Orbit *

Her wings were wide open but she was not heading planetside.

If the satellites that kept track of her were of sufficient resolution they would note that the Simurgh's usual serene expression had shifted. If they could view her face they would be very worried about the Simurgh looking frightened and they would draw a line following that gaze and determine that "somewhere near Boston" was where that gaze was focused.

They would have argued whether this was a Simurgh plot, or something real, or something of a plot that the Simurgh wanted them to think was a Simurgh plot because it was a cover for something else she was doing.

In fact, there were three feeds watching her in such a manner, and three governmental agencies were doing that exact thing.

None of which really concerned the Simurgh because something was going on that she could not foresee and was giving her a feeling of dread and doom that she was absolutely not used to having.

* Winslow High School *

The classes were paused as the sounds of a PRT VTOL came in fast and then stopped with a change in pitch to indicate it was landing.

"What the hell?" asked more than one voice even as the welcome interruption to class occurred.

"Principal Blackwell, please report to your office immediately. Principal Blackwell, please report to your office immediate-" (SQWUAK!)

"Uhm," said Mister Gladly, looking very very uncertain.

The fire alarm went off, and in the drills for such an eventuality - everyone casually got up from their desks and shuffled off more-or-less in line to get outside. This did not happen.





There were mad scrambles for the doors, others seeing the jam there were opting for going out the windows. Pushing, shoving, tripping, and fights breaking out and further confusing things.

"Everyone calm down, I'm sure it's a misunder-" tried Mister Gladly until a thrown desk smacked him into the blackboard.

The fire alarm abruptly stopped, but the lights were still flashing.

Sophia Hess was near the front of the pack, due to physical fitness, a complete lack of the whole "personal space" concept, and a complete willingness to apply elbows and knees as means of moving forward within the pack.

She had just reached the front when she noted the section of hallway went past a certain locker. A certain locker she'd been stealing from and which she knew the contents of quite well. A certain locker which now had bright golden light pouring out of the grates and joints.

"Oh shit," said someone nearby. "Hebert's triggered?"

Sophia couldn't argue with the possibility privately. And if Hebert triggered, who would she go after?

The door to that locker bounced across the hallway and something came out of the locker. It started out looking like Taylor Hebert except for the glow, but then it changed with the form flowing like gold paint.

Sophia had taken the course on writing up descriptions and had done a number of after-action reports. She automatically catalogued everything as soon as Hebert stopped changing and seemed mostly stable.

Golden aura limning the subject, with a bright sphere of light some ten feet across centered on the subject. Subject herself was six foot nine or close to it. Slender but muscular build. Her breast size had gone up quite a bit and her hips were wider, though it was hard to be sure due to the flares of brightness that made it hard to look at the transformed prey.

Everything was golden: hair, skin, eyes. Clothing reshaped itself into a bodysuit while she watched. She was also floating two inches above the floor and seemed to be concentrating on something.

"THIS WAY!" yelled someone behind the crowd. "Everyone exit this way!"

At that point the Triumvirate rounded the corner on the other side of Taylor Hebert and were approaching the golden girl.

Sophia was momentarily unsettled by the appearance, before she realized this was a perfect time to take command of the narrative. Having Hebert killed or at least arrested by the Triumvirate was too good to pass up.

"You're going to get it now, villain!" called out Sophia. "That's the intruder! She's going to kill us!"

Then she saw Armsmaster and Miss Militia fall in behind the advancing Triumvirate and decided to wait on attacking until Taylor was distracted. Then it would be the perfect time to accidently kill the obvious supervillain. Before Taylor could say anything. She just needed to get her crossbow from where she'd concealed it.

* Taylor *

She was overwhelmed and yet functional. Here but also elsewhere and everywhere. She understood so much, and knew that through her - the Entity was also now more aware than ever.

She could look now at her right hand and knew details she had not previously grasped, how the muscles and bone and nerve and connective tissue worked and how they could be improved. She could see cells and their coding. The Warrior Entity had not had nor needed such insight, it was because she was human and had human perspectives and creativity and potential. The Entities had none of that, were not developed for that, and would have cast such aside as not needed if they had such things.

The molluscoids had come close to stopping the Entities, but now the mistakes made there were compensated for.

So much had not been necessary. So much had been wasted resources and wasted opportunity.

She felt them coming. Three of dead shards and two that were of her own network. New possibilities bubbled up, courtesy of human inventiveness.

In the crowd she could feel one active shard and ten inactive shards. So - one parahuman and ten potential parahumans.

She idly flicked one inactive to active. Not easy. Not something that the First would have done. Yet possible and the Serpentine Shard was not one with a powerset that was likely to produce a change in threat. Still, it was something different and proof that she could do it.

No indication of whether the individual in question even noticed.

Threat assessment? One in crowd, hostile. Approaching group, apprehensive but not hostile. One above, hostile but also apprehensive.

Threat from above approaching at high speed. She would have to be dealt with.

"This way," said Taylor, passing the five without comment.

Endbringer sirens began playing.

Once outside, she watched the white dot in the sky grow slightly as it approached - though that was just her eyes. She knew the speed, the precise range, and that the Simurgh was seeking to strike before her target had full control of her abilities.

Taylor smiled slightly, remembering a Sphere playset she'd had when she was much younger. That smile went away as the cause of Sphere becoming Mannequin approached.

Taylor raised her hand, fingers spread, pointing her palm at the oncoming Endbringer. "No."

* Alexandria *

Alexandria tuned out the shouts from Sophia Hess and the two other girls. How Taylor was going to kill them all. How Taylor was a threat. How Taylor couldn't be believed.

Armsmaster mumbled something odd. "Ninety-five percent chance of lies."

It didn't exactly require a Thinker to come up with that, but Alexandria didn't give it much thought. Instead she just followed the golden girl outside.

There was a moment of panic on realizing that the white dot that became a white softball that was quickly resolving into the Simurgh going faster than she'd ever been observed moving.

Then Taylor Hebert said "No" to the Simurgh and golden light focused like a laser and started ripping apart the Simurgh who was still struggling to reach her target. Alexandria was immediately reminded of someone fighting the stream from a fire hose. Except that there were pieces of the Simurgh ripped away in that stream.

She was aware of the screams of the students on seeing this, which quieted a moment later as the Simurgh literally came apart.

Taylor Hebert went up to the Simurgh's head, stopping only when she had one foot on it, before turning to Alexandria. "Do you want this?"

Alexandria gaped for a moment, then shook her head once as she tried to understand what was being asked.

Then Taylor Hebert, student of Winslow High School, crushed the head under her foot as if it were of no consequence.

Taylor walked up to the five of them, looking them over and then back at the school. "I've had a very bad day. I'm going home."

Alexandria had just sighed in relief that apparently this was not The Day The World Ended when a crossbow bolt stopped mere inches away from Taylor Hebert's head.

"Oh shit," said the Dragon suit that had just landed a few yards away.

Nobody in the Triumvirate, the Protectorate, or the majority of the students and faculty of Winslow disagreed with that assessment.

In point of fact, though for different reasons, three young girls all had the same thought.


The troopers that had finally made their way there had video feeds rolling. So did Armsmaster's bike in the parking lot. The building she was in had some pretty good cameras and people on the roof who were observers just in case something was able to spoof those feeds.

Emily Piggot had watched the effing Simurgh get told "no" and sliced into little pieces and then the head crushed like Gallagher going after a watermelon with Sledge-o-matic action.

Then a shadowy figure fired an equally shadowy crossbow bolt at the person who'd just offed the effing Simurgh.

She couldn't fault the aim. It would have gone right into the head of the glowing golden girl and probably solidified halfway through. Had to have been a difficult shot too.

Skill and accuracy weren't the problems here. A lack of sense was something she was completely comfortable in diagnosing here.p

"Someone stop her from publically executing an idiot," was her verbal response. "On camera. I do NOT want to have to take her in custody. Or die trying. I'm really not happy with that last possible outcome."

It was with great joy that she saw Shadow Stalker immediately dogpiled by PRT troopers as soon as the girl leapt down from her perch and started to run. Though she did have to wonder about the smoke seeming to come from Stalker just before that and that the girl didn't immediately escape using her powers.

"Play that back again," ordered Emily Piggot. "Go to just before the troopers reached her. A little further. There. Anyone know what that is?"

"Video glitch?" suggested a technician.

"Maybe," admitted Director Piggot. "Check different feeds. See if it is there."

* Legend *

"Well, that certainly was ill-advised," tried Legend, hoping some humor would cut short what he expected could go VERY badly.

Taylor seemed to lose interest in the captured Shadow Stalker after a moment, cocking her head as she looked at the three of them and then the two local heroes. "Curious."

"What's curious?" asked Legend.

"You three are different from the rest of them," said Taylor. "Your shards are not as active. Flickers of life still, but mostly dead. They don't speak to me. I have trouble accessing them."

"You can access our powers?" asked Legend.

"I am not as limited as Scion was," said Taylor. "My nature is different and I can look beyond the limitations. Ah, you needed a challenge."

This last was directed at Eidolon. "What?"

"Your powers are waning because you keep drawing from the same well and your need for proving yourself is partly due to your shard's nature," explained Taylor. "It may reduce the severity now that I'm modifying the conflict drive."

"The what?" asked Legend, trying to catch up. This was just so far from where he'd expected things to go.

"The conflict drive," said Taylor, apparently looking at a section of empty air. "It's not a particularly efficient means of growing the shards. I'm working out alternatives."

"What?" asked Eidolon.

"Multi-tasking. It's a thing," said Taylor.

"No. What were you saying about my powers?" asked Eidolon.

"You're overtaxing them, like a car engine that is used every day to haul a trailer. Hang on, there's a better metaphor somewhere but I don't have a good one at the moment," said Taylor. "Hang on. This is a bit tricky."

Something seemed to shift in the air, like a pressure wave moving out.

Taylor nodded, then started moving. "I'm going home.I will talk to you later."

* After Action Report - Miss Militia. Initial notes. *

Shadow Stalker was placed in Holding Cell 3-A. It became obvious though that there is something wrong with her powers. She should have been able to phase through the PRT troopers that apprehended her. There were signs and complaints from Shadow Stalker to indicate her power was not functioning.

Taylor Hebert utilized a teleportational ability to return home. Observation teams report she is using telekinetic abilities to cook dinner while sitting in a different room.

Established abilities include Brute, Mover, Blaster. Possibility of golden form being a Breaker state. Ratings pending more extensive analysis.

Negating Shadow Stalker's powers indicates a Trump rating, providing such can be linked back to Hebert.

The elimination of the Simurgh indicates a high power rating, though the exact nature of the Blaster ability is currently unknown.

Analysis: Potentially terrifying.

* Taylor *



[Acquired abilities test. Suitable subjects found.]

[Subjects no longer required and active obstacles towards new goalset.]

Taylor nodded, checked the spaghetti, then walked outside. She was aware of the PRT Troopers nearby, most watching at what they thought of as a safe distance.

"Excuse me, uhm, I don't know your cape name. Sorry."

[PRT Staff Sergeant Tina DeJesus, known as "Dice Maiden" as callsign. Collector of various dice which she uses in a number of recreational activities. Born and raised in the Phillipines in Cebu City until the age of 19. Came to United States after repercussions of Kyushu submergence. Joined Parahuman Response Team in Los Angeles. Specializes in negotiation and troop transport.]

"You can call me... Apex," said Taylor, a faint smile showing.

"'Apex'?" asked the Staff Sergeant.

"A private joke, be sure to mention it to dear Sophia," said Taylor, holding up one hand as if reaching towards the heavens.

"No offense. What are you doing?" asked the Staff Sergeant.

"The Slaughterhouse Nine are about to arrive in Oregon, a small town called Shady Cove. If they reach it, almost three thousand people will be dead within the next three days and they will die in pain and fear." Taylor turned her gaze towards the PRT Sergeant without moving otherwise. "I am about to stop them. Do you wish to stop me?"

Staff Sergeant Tina DeJesus wondered what her superiors would say. Wondered if there was an answer that would NOT get her into trouble. Decided that she should just go ahead and ride this tiger. "If you can stop them without destroying the town - I'd say go for it."

Taylor nodded, vanished, then reappeared again.

"How did you do it?" asked Tina.

"I created a pit beneath them, dropping them to a depth of two thousand thirty-seven miles," answered Taylor. "Then I closed it back up behind them as they fell to avoid damaging the nearby landscape. Shatterbird's glass melted upon reaching temperatures outside her tolerance. Most of the others didn't last that long. Crawler was able to survive most of the way until I closed that pocket. Pressure, heat, lack of air. Easy."

"Oh," said Tina. "Well. Good. I'm just going to go sit down over there. Okay?"

"That's fine, I need to check the spaghetti," said Taylor, walking back into her house.

"Sergeant, are you okay?" called one of the troopers.

"I really really need to sit down," said Staff Sergeant DeJesus. "She just killed off the Slaughterhouse Nine and made it sound like it was slightly less important than making dinner."

"We heard. Portland's sending out a chopper to confirm."

* PRT HQ, New York *

"She's more powerful than Scion."

"No, she's just more creative with the powers she has than Scion," said Contessa, sitting back in her chair and swirling her glass to get the ice clinking.

"Should you be drinking during this?" asked Rebecca Costa-Brown.

"Why not?" asked Contessa. "How many years has this bought us before the Entity destroys the world?"

"One million two hundred and fifty seven thousand three hundred and twelve years," answered the Numbers Man. "Oh. That IS rather a long time."

Contessa nodded before taking a sip from her glass and sitting back in her chair.

"What?" asked Rebecca Costa-Brown.

"Scion was basically the avatar of the Warrior Entity," explained Contessa. "Powerful but not particularly bright, doing the same thing over and over again with only slight changes. Basically an evolutionary dead end that couldn't find its way out of its own path. Taylor is human. Adding her as a player and not a piece on the board changed the entire game."

"As many people have died, this is hardly a game," grumbled Rebecca.

"To the Entities, until this latest development, it may well have been," countered Contessa. "Have you noticed that since 11:35 this morning there's been a drop in parahuman battles?"

"What?" asked Rebecca.

Legend smirked. "Ah. Of course."

"The entire point of the conflict drive from the Agents was to exercise their individual shards, force them to develop those shards and strengthen them by forcing them into battle." Doctor Mother eyed the bottle in front of Contessa, whether to take it away or make use of it herself was unclear even to herself. "The conflict drive has been modified - she said so herself."

"It's been said that the Agents are like servers in a large network, to take that analogy - Taylor Hebert is now the Queen or Administrator." Contessa sipped from her glass again. "Path to Survival. Hmmm. Oh yes, that'll do."

"What?" asked Doctor Mother.

"Establish off-world colonies, develop a vast interstellar network, and one million years later when the Earth has long been abandoned for greener and newer worlds?" asked Contessa.

"Oh," said Rebecca. One million and change years. Well, that was certainly enough time to think of alternative paths or ways around that fate if it was needed.

* Brockton Bay, June 3, 2022 *

Panacea glanced out of the corner of her eye at the spot of brilliant gold sitting lotus-style about five hundred feet in the air. Whether Apex was here to give her blessings or just observe was unclear. Then again, everything that Apex did tended to be a bit mysterious.

There was a countdown of course. Tradition. Possibly just some people having a sense of drama. It wasn't as if the Brockton Ferry was propelled by explosives.

Finally the countdown was over and the Ferry lifted from its cradle, going very slowly upwards.

"Why is it so slow?" asked Vicky.

"It's not built for speed, it's built for reliability and carrying very heavy loads," responded Carol Dallon from her own place nearby.

It was kind of tense but also kind of nice for everyone to be back together for this. Living on her own for several years now had been liberating in more than one way.

Carol was in civilian identity while she and Vicky were in costume.

"It'll pick up speed after it leaves atmosphere," Panacea told her sister. "It's only going about 40mph now, but then it IS the first flight and it's carrying all those parts for the Colony."

"The Brunel Colony," automatically corrected Carol. "Don't forget there will be a colony at three of the LaGrange points."

"I know, Mom," griped back Vicky.

Panacea glanced back at the glowing figure of Apex, who seemed content to continue to watch the boxy shape of the Brockton Bay Space Ferry heading up like some multiton balloon.

"Think she's here in case an S-Class threat shows?" asked Vicky, apparently noticing where her sister's attention was. She put her helmet back on and hit the controls for the scanner functions.

"Are there any left?" asked Panacea. "She wiped out two different groups claiming they were the new Slaughterhouse Nine as soon as they started up."

"Well, as long as she leaves the lesser bad guys for me," said Glory Girl, pumping a fist. "Though I don't think anybody's left who is enough of an idiot to attack the Ferry."

"Never underestimate the power of human stupidity," said Panacea.

"You work in a hospital, you'd know," admitted Glory Girl.

"Kind of weird that the British won the right to name the first space colony," said Module, the former Kid Win from where he sat nearby.

"Politics," said Panacea with a shrug, "and it's mainly a maintenance and construction base so naming it after an engineer made sense."

"She's coming this way," said Glory Girl, nodding towards Apex. "Wonder what's up?"

"Panacea," said Apex as soon as she stopped in front of the group. "Have you considered what your abilities could do for those living in space?"

* Brunel Colony, April 5, 2101 *

She was old. One hundred and seven years was a respectable age for anyone, especially a parahuman who'd survived the Conflict Years as it was now called.

Panacea looked at her quarters one last time, all the little knick-knacks and personal furnishings moved but when you spend decades in a single place one could get sentimental. She'd made the acquaintance of her eventual long-term partner here. They'd had sex over many many years there. She'd cried herself to sleep when Alice had died due to a mechanical failure during atmospheric entry way back in 2077.

She was the last living member of New Wave, a bit of an accomplishment if one thought about it. Unless you counted Vicky's kid, the "Next Next Generation" of New Wave as Vicky had called it at one point. Halley was off at the Mars Colony still, a third-generation cape. Some said he was stronger than Glory Girl, but Panacea could remember when the now "Comet Man" had been a sniffling little brat.

Panacea turned the light off, heading towards the last shuttle. Brunel would be scrapped, the technology just too old. The pieces would be recycled and a new base constructed in a more stable orbit. Though there were arguments how even putting it in about the same place was old-think and there were better locations for the new colony once it was built.

* Brockton Bay Museum, Brockton Bay. January 5, 2511 *

Everyone gave the golden figure a wide berth. Not that the museum was crowded at this particular point. Everyone save one.

"Something in particular you're looking for, Miss Apex?"

Apex glanced over. "Descendent. Diane Alcott. Yes, this."

Brin Andurs nodded, as he was descended from the famous ancestor. Not that this gave him anything special other than a connection to the past. He looked at the display. "Ah, current colonies. Prospect is doing nicely as I understand it. There was a blight attacking the crops on Glory but I understand they're recovering."

Apex nodded. "The symbols are... not very intuitive."

"Most people have implants that give them more information if they want it," said Brin. "Most people don't even physically attend a museum or library for that matter. Some people prefer to physically visit but even they have some reader or implant."

Brin watched as Apex examined the holographic display for a few moments, then stepped away to look out at the courtyard.

"Better," said Apex.

"'Better'?" asked Brin.

"Used to be Winslow," said Apex, looking out at the statues. Then there was a flicker and her golden form was out among those statues.

Brin watched for a few minutes. He could look at the statues of the ancient heroes who'd once walked the streets and know something of the stories there. Apex though, he knew that she'd known many of them personally. Even now when it wasn't unheard of (though rare) for people to live one-hundred-fifty years - the weight of history that Apex moved with seemed to burden the air around her.

Eventually though, someone physically present had to be directed to the bathroom despite the signs and their implant could have given them a map. By the time he returned, Apex was no longer on the premises.

* Brockton Resiplex, January 4, 3511 *

The sight of Apex was infrequent anywhere, but here was the place she most appeared the most often. Once a year, somewhere near the beginning of January for those using the old calendar. Most people used the more common system that had been put into effect due to all the offworld civs, but if there was one place where the old ways were at least acknowledged - this was it.

Not that there were many people to see that. The total population of Earth at this point was barely three million. Most people had mansions built in a previous age when Earth was the homeworld and prosperous. Now it was just a tired old world that had been surpassed by its children. Almost everyone and their families had moved on to greener pastures, to use an ancient phrase.

Dahv Grenn was typical of this world. He was historically literate enough to know of the Age of Parahumans which was followed by the Age of Espers which was followed by the First Diaspora which had in turn been followed by the Galactic Age. The encounters with other Shard-Entities were just footnotes in the record at this point. Now there were colonies out as far as the Magellanic Clouds and talk about reaching into Andromeda.

Dahv himself was rated Speak-4, Shell-5, and Move-2. Not bad for someone just living on Old Earth in the middle of an abandoned metroplex, as he would point out.

He flicked out to the old museum, not surprised to see it had been refurbished and the statues restored from the storm last week. Apex must have done it, though he'd never caught sight of her doing anything other than wander around and look at things.

Maybe she was haunted by the past, seeing the things that used to be there. Maybe she was just touching base with her humanity, remembering what it had been like to grow up in the world-that-was and touching base with that before she left to go out among the stars herself.

He'd only tried to speak to her once, when he himself was barely a century old. Being middle-aged meant taking a few chances after all.

It had been obvious that Apex was unused to interacting with others. Her speech had been halting and using old forms of the language.

Instead he just held a mug of cider up in a toast to the distant figure, who turned and inclined her head before vanishing from the sky.

* Ruins of Brockton, 10011 *

Apex flickered from one location to another. Every year she returned. She didn't stay long but she made a point of making the trip once a year to touch her roots.

There was less than a thousand people still on Earth. Some were here to hide from one group or another. Some were here because this was the cradle-world and they tended to areas that their ancestors had staked out ages ago. Some were simply here because they didn't know where else to go or wanted to get away from all the people.

This was a world with no weather control, except for those whose powers touched on that area.

This was a world without the amenities and networks and technology found in the more modern worlds.

This was a stronghold of the Luddites, who called themselves that but still used technology. They just refused to have anything like implants or "intrusive technology" involved with them. Theirs was the biggest group, over in what had once been France, and the single old-fashioned starport on this planet was theirs.

This was a world where the infrequent visitors talked about the feeling of age that permeated everything. A world of memorials and cenotaphs and graveyards and historical ruins. It was here that some people came to see where their species had first set out from or their distant ancestors had been born.

Of that last, it was mainly the Great Families. People who traced their ancestry back to some hero or prominent businessman or scientist who had walked this world before the advent of space travel. Before esper abilities were common and the fragmentation of the species. Espers and Technost and Paras. The uplifted species who walked alongside humans: dolphins, dogs, cats, and the gorillas. They too visited and were gone.

"Not yet," said Apex into the air though nobody human could hear.

She renewed the statues and memorials to friends and associates and would-be rivals who were long dust. Then she left again, her yearly self-imposed task done for now.

* Plains of NorAm, Year 2011 Post-Candle *

"One million years," said Apex, reaching down past the dead grass to touch the omnipresent dust and gravel.

Two thousand and eleven years previously she'd set the warning, reaching into the furnace of the sun and shifting not only this one but all those along this tiny little branch of the greater verse. This was it. The day the sun went straight-on into red giant.

She was still undecided. Stay and be subsumed with the planet she'd called home. Leave and wander the worlds of the now-diverse forms of humanity, the uplifted species, and the alien species that humanity had eventually found as she had for a millenia.

She stilled for a moment, looking outward. There. A ship had settled into an orbit where the asteroid belt colony of Midhaven had once bustled with activity.

A thought and she was there. A genuine smile flicked onto golden lips. "Dragon?"

"Her great-granddaughter, actually, Dragon 16.5 if you like," said the synthoid. "We thought it appropriate to be here on this day to say goodbye."

Representitives, Apex realized. There was even one of the doggos and a dolphin in their skinsuit.

The Esper, Locke by his nameplate, looked in the direction of the sun without needing a screen or window. "You accelerated the core to meet the timetable. Nice amount of carbon and heavier elements."

"It seemed fitting," acknowledged Apex, who glimmered and shifted so that Taylor Hebert stood on the observation deck of the ship. "In this way, more life will eventually develop."

"Your original appearance," said the numan representitive, whose nameplate would translate as Arkir. "We are honored."

Taylor inclined her head and went to the railing where she could watch the holographic displays. "One last time. The other Shard-children? The ones who saw my path and copied it?"

"They are elsewhere with their own worlds, they watch though - to see what you do," said Locke.

"I suppose they would," admitted Taylor.

There was some speaking then, pleasantries exchanged, wisdom that was hard-won through the eons dispensed, and finally Taylor Hebert became Apex one final time and flicked to the surface of Earth once again.

Standing there amidst the statues of those who had once been important to her, the memories came forward. Then the wall of heat and light as the coronasphere engulfed the planet.

She felt the river then. The presence of those who had passed. Those who welcomed in this place beyond time and space and being.

"Sorry to make you wait," said Taylor Hebert. "I'm home."