If there were any after-effects as to my little bit of sniping during my intro speech, they were never explained to me. I started going out on patrol like the others, and more or less shifted into being a Ward completely. Weekly duties, public appearances, the works.
None of that stopped me from the occasional nightly hacking spree.
I had been making minor forays into my compromised server and the keylogger's records. Eventually I got a password and started to gently poke around the network. Home share of my victim, his resume, then the likely places he'd access as part of his job that I deduced from said resume. Each time I left a bit of further infrastructure in my wake. Sometimes it was corrected or erased, sometimes it wasn't. Eventually I realized that anything I did directly from the compromised web server wasn't being undone.
This made less and less sense.
I both secured my path to said server more and grew bolder in my adventures 'past' it. I was finding all sorts of stuff left lying around on the network in not-particularly secure places. I also began to realize that virus scanning and other passive countermeasures would fail on any given machine as soon as I made a connection from my 'home' webserver. Like whatever protected the network was deathly allergic to that one machine and any other device connected to it. Not one to question my good fortune, I just stretched out my probing over the nights to more places I could 'black out.' I did not dismiss the idea I had fallen into a gigantic honeypot, however. No backtraces were being attempted.
Eventually I found reference to a chain of e-mails about some dumb employee that got fired for pushing a ridiculous plan too hard to the top even after he had been told no by multiple levels of management. I wouldn't have noticed it but it was a reference in so many nasty e-mails that it had become something of an in-joke across the whole PRT/Protectorate; asking your peers if they were going to pull a Stevenson after getting a proposal shot down. Curiosity got the better of me and I went to try to find a copy of the Stevenson Proposal.
After directing my efforts into digging up various e-mails from further and further back, it became apparent that no digital copies of the proposal seemed to exist. Eventually I found someone (from Brockton Bay's PRT no less) bragging that they had printed it out to serve as a paperweight and emergency blunt weapon. Cruel, but useful for my purposes.
Later that week I had whipped up a batch of sandwiches and made a whirlwind tour of the PRT side of the facility, offering sandwiches and asking if anyone else inside might like any. I was ushered into the various departments and introduced to the various stuff, to mixed receptions. Every one of them changed their tone for the better on getting a sandwich. I made a point of hitting the stagehands' area and rewarding AV guy for the great timing. Eventually I got ushered through the part of the building where the guy that wrote the mean mail was.
He got a sandwich, I swiped the terribly thick packet from his shelf when no one was looking. I smuggled it out under my tray and got it back to my room without much effort.
That night I started to read.
Well, my power let me cheat, so it didn't take long. A fully fleshed out plan of how to globally end human hunger. Every factor addressed, every detail notated. Well, with one glaring pattern of exceptions.
The plan lacked a human element. It decreed all sorts of things be improved or fixed or tweaked in procedures and policies and even law, but didn't account for how the people who would be held responsible for the previous system would be treated. Following a plan like this through would have gotten thousands of people fired or humiliated, and have put thousands more in awkward political situations if they tried to funnel money from local pork to feeding strange foreigners. This became evident from the second page, and the pattern continued. To the very end.
The plan, as it was, was perfect. It just lacked the same meticulous level of detail and thought whenever people and their feelings were relevant. There was a mild arrogance throughout the whole thing, like people weren't good enough to do this before it had been written and should be held accountable for it. Understandable feelings for someone that could think this whole thing through.
The saddest part was that human hunger was likely to be the least of our problems, in the wake of the Endbringers. That alone probably caused anyone with political motivations to simply toss the packet in the garbage.
Still. This . . . wasn't useless. It wasn't worthless. I found myself typing up a fresh copy into digital form over the next couple nights; the original text verbatim, with annotations and corrections for the years that had passed since the original draft, and justifications of the 'human' changes I would make. Insistence that laws be changed were morphed into campaign-able reasons to do so. A theme of hope in the face of the Endbringers added a positive spin on a dreary topic. Massive changes to the Department of Agriculture could be framed in a more liberal progressive light than a searing critique and tearing down of an outdated institution. This continued each night for a week, despite attempts by Clockblocker to pull me out of my 'cave.'
My sun bleached, whitened, damaged cave.
My typing was interrupted by a scream when my monitor shorted out. It was mine. Then I blinked and realized I was almost fully glowing. I had been warned about 'maxing out' and causing the towering column of light to appear when not necessary. I had to sheepishly wait to 'cool off' then go beg Dennis and Missy to submit a request for fresh equipment on my behalf; and for an analysis of the damage I had done to my previous possessions. The whole wards team had cycled through a second set of costumes since starting to work with me; my bleaching effect was not kind to any fabric, heroic or not.
One awkward series of requisitions later, and I had a new PC. Apparently my sandwiches had won me more friends in corporate than I had realized. I resolved to press that advantage.
Interruption finished, I finished my revision and opened up Outlook. Hovering between what identity I wished to use, I settled on my heroic one.
We haven't met, and I apologize for my forthrightness, but I have attached a copy of your proposal to this e-mail complete with some revisions. If this is no longer of interest to you then please disregard this mail. Otherwise, I can summarize my revisions as follows . . .
At an immaculately crafted and polished desk, a well-manicured hand manipulated a spotless mouse. It paused, and a slight twitch betrayed a sharp intake of breath, followed by a shudder of what might have been rage, or the anticipation of such. Two clicks followed by a scroll wheel's soothing spin.
An indeterminate amount of time later, that hand pressed a button on a phone.
"Cancel my appointments for tomorrow, and arrange a list of appropriate gifts and compensation for each party. Secure the raw materials for those and have them delivered to my workshop as soon as feasible."
"Of course sir. Shall I phrase the cancellations in any particular way?"
A relevant question, presented properly.
"Yes. Let them know I received some news that has cost me a good night's sleep."
"Shall I arrange a correction, sir?"
Correction. Their word for dealing with human errors, among other ones.
"That will not be necessary. The news was good."
"Very well sir. Is there anything else?"
"No, that will be all. Thank you."
The button was pressed again.
A handcrafted leather cushioned chair sighed as its burden lifted from it. A mind filled with thoughts of exacting precision considered the odds of subterfuge, juvenile delinquency, and/or a sting operation.
Those odds were dismissed.
A silver-threaded mask considered its reflection for a while over the backdrop of Boston's night traffic. The mask was removed and a bare face of flesh and imperfections stared back.
"It seems I need to confirm," it said.
A day or so later a report came back regarding the damage from my anima. I tossed it on to the lunch table for Dennis and Carlos to look at; Dean and Vista weren't around. Dennis read it aloud.
"Blah blah senors blah blah analysis blah blah conclusion: damage is consistent with four to five hundred years of direct exposure to uninterrupted sunlight."
The three of us kind of sat there for a minute. I was, on some level, kind of relieved that my power HAD some kind of downside. I waited for Dennis' inevitable comment.
He reached to his belt and whipped up his cell. He dialed and waited, nodding as a voicemail reception message played.
"Hey Armsmaster it's Clockblocker. In reference to lab results X3-523D I'd like to commission you for a few gallons of SPF ten billion sun protection in the form of clear gloss paint, clear matte paint, and fabric treatment, respectively. Kaythanksbye!"
He nodded sagely as he hung up the phone. "I'm sure he'll get right on that."
I tilted my head.
"Because he specialized in cramming all sorts of crap into tiny space. I'm sure he could engineer a treatment for any and all surfaces we have around here to make them sun-proof that barely requires a micron of coating on the surface. Also I've always wanted to call him like that."
"Won't you have to pay him for it?"
"Sure, but then his prices will skyrocket when it turns out everyone is going to bug him for it. Better to get in on the ground floor and sell the stuff myself directly, so I make money back and people get it faster. Eventually he'll make a device to mass produce the stuff if you stick around. This is just one of my many genius get rich quick schemes that does not involve abusing my power, you know."
Carlos cut it.
"More like get poor quick. Didn't Missy break your samo-"
"WE AGREED NOT TO TALK ABOUT THAT. EVER AGAIN."
"Right man, sorry. In any case I'm first in line for the super sunblock once you get some. I can't afford new threads every couple of weeks, no offense, Taylor."
"Ah, no problem," I said. "It's not exactly great for me either, since it tends to wreck my everything." Images of the PC, the slightly melted keyboard, and the cracking paint on my room's walls flashed in my mind. "Absolutely everything."
We started eating; today's lunch was salad. I kept coming to the break room finding more, fresher, and better ingredients stocked in the cabinets and fridge. Requests were implied. One of these days Dennis would replace every edible thing with tofu to see what I'd do, I was sure.
Carlos finished his bowl and made an appreciative noise.
"So, Taylor, you tested for tinker ability, right? Did you, ah, try for very long? I don't want to accuse you of making, uh, parafood or something, but I wonder how related to food your skills can bend."
I considered it seriously.
"I was trying see if I had any sudden bursts of odd inspiration; I wasn't actually trying to just make anything, true. Based on my little epiphany I have no reason not to try. Thanks for the thought!"
"Happy to be of service, my loyal minion. Unlike my hormonal counterpart here, I do not simply at-" he froze mid sentence as he reached to pat Dennis on the head. Dennis pulled back his finger from underneath Carlos' wrist, then ducked under the frozen hand as he pushed back his chair. He then proceeded to set tomato slices balanced over Carlos' eyes, gave him a lettuce mustache, and onion fangs. Finally, he whipped out his phone and took a series of pictures.
I just silently watched as he removed all the food, then sat back in his place. He made no attempt to strike a pose to match how he had been when Carlos reached for him, so I kept eating. When the freeze ended,
"-tempt to charm the l- ah," he stopped, hand freezing on Dennis' head. "He got me, didn't he."
Dennis simply turned to his leader, eyebrows raised in mock outrage.
"You wound me, sir," he said as he tossed his bowl in the auto-sink (yes, we have an auto sink) and wandered off.
I, for one, kept from laughing until I was once again safely behind a closed door in my room.
A bit later I was back in one of the workshops, and had sat down to poke at the equipment a bit more. My mind had once again reached that blank spot of 'What the heck do I want to do?' that it visited the first time I had been here. I wandered from the workbenches to some of the machining equipment, completely bereft of inspiration. I walked past that section when my nose caught a whiff of something. Turning, I went back to the last machine, some variety of lathe. I opened one of the side panels and took another sniff. I stuck in a finger and came out with a dab of grease. I rubbed in on two fingers, smelled it again.
It was bad. I was lacking the vocabulary at the moment, but I knew it was breaking down when it got hot, and it was failing at its purpose. I had a few idea on making a replacement, but . . . glancing around the workshop, I saw little that would serve as a proper chemistry lab, let alone a source of petrochemicals to work with.
I blinked and shook my head. Okay. Chemistry apparently got a boost. Smelling machine grease and diagnosing it? Wow.
I washed my hands and hit the computer terminal in the workshop, focusing my efforts on pricing the various tools and equipment and raw materials that would serve to assist in solving this problem.
The dollar amounts were . . . prohibitive, to say the least.
Sighing, I leaned back and idly wondered if I might need to think of some get-rich-quick schemes of my own. Actually, that was a good point. I sat up straight. Dennis mentioned making money without abusing his power. Which implied there were many perfectly legitimate ways to make money using powers freely. My mind began to shift into high gear, and the telltale sign of my forehead sigil lit up the room.
"MEDICAL EMERGENCY AT THE WEST PROTECTORATE PRIVATE ENTRANCE. ALL AVAILABLE MEDICAL PERSONNEL PLEASE REPORT TO THE SCENE."
I snapped out of my thoughts and dashed for the exit. Medical personnel or not, I was certain I would be able to help.
A very hectic trip through the building later, and I was on scene to witness medics waving all sorts of sensors at a boy roughly my age - no, a man - wait, what?
His body was changing. Like, muscles flexing and then growing larger, then shrinking. Limbs stretched a bit and retracted. Bones stretching and retracting.
"ETA on Panacea?" said a medic.
"She was at a hospital upstate today, she won't be here for an hour at least barring a teleport," said another with a tablet.
I stepped up.
"Situation?" I asked.
They both looked at me and relaxed a bit. The first one spoke again.
"We're not sure what happened, but this kid was picked up around the ABB's territory. He's a parahuman, and we think the body changes are his power. We also think for whatever reason it's out of control. He was brought here instead of a hospital for obvious reasons; they can't possibly help him if his body is changing like this nonstop."
I took a deep breath and got closer. He was writing a bit, and bloodstains on his cut-and-removed shirt revealed some serious looking wounds.
Wounds that were healed and scarred over on his body.
Looking more, I saw a bunch of minor scrapes and bruises and cuts, and a few other more serious scars that matched bloodstains.
The portable EKG monitor bleeped irregularly. A glance at it showed a pattern that did not repeat smoothly. I froze, staring at it, a hand on his wrist.
I shook my head and took a deep breath. I could almost map it in my head.
"Internal bleeding, but otherwise heart is fine. Extremely stressed, but not damaged. I . . . I lack the medical vocabulary to describe further." The wrist under my hand warped and flexed and shrank. I repressed a shudder.
My mind whirled with options. Options that needed tools, clean tools, better equipment.
Damn it, damn damn damn! I could SEE his blood pressure falling.
Another deep breath.
I don't need to heal him.
I don't even need to fix what's wrong.
I just need to buy time until someone arrives who can do those things.
"Ah, Lightshow? You okay?"
"Kid froze up, first time seeing something like this. Nothing unusual."
I slowly shook my head and replied.
"No, it's not that. I need . . . I know what I could do with the right tools, but this isn't a hospital, and the hospital doesn't have the scanning equipment, and . . . "
I eyed a spent morphine cartridge that had been injected from a hypo-gun.
"And I don't think any of them will matter a damn if he isn't going to hold still."
Both medics were looking at me when I glanced back. Neither were smiling. Both nodded.
"There are ways we can paralyze a patient, but going beyond drugging is a little . . . " he faded out.
I looked back at the boy. Definitely a boy my age; the face was too young, even for the occasional Olympic-bodybuilder-class frame that he warped partially into and out of.
I could break his spine.
It would be fixed as soon as Panacea arrived. He'd only be paralyzed for a little while. It would barely even hurt.
I rolled him onto his side and considered it. His vertebrae writhed and warped like the rest of him.
No. I don't know if the warping would stop even if I did that. It wasn't a very nice thing to consider, regardless.
The EKG showed the blood loss was accelerating. Whatever holes inside him were leaking were getting bigger and/or having blood squeezed out of him by the warping in turn. He had four or five minutes left at this rate.
I rolled him back onto his back. Little wounds. Scratches.
Scratches? On his chest?
I pried open one scratch. It was actually a hole. I poked a finger inside, heedless of infection risk. Found something sharp. Pulled it out. Metal.
"I need a magnet!" I snapped.
"Ah, we don't exactly have one on hand. What kind do you need?"
They were concerned, but professional. They didn't see that the patient was on his way out; I couldn't blame them, and it wasn't worth the time to berate them for it.
I looked around their assorted supplies. The defibrillator. Perfect.
"Pass me the defib!"
It was slid over. They glanced at each other.
"Ah, Lightshow, maybe this isn't the best idea? He's not actually flat-lining at the moment, you know?"
I faced away from them with the portable pack open in front of me. Two paddles, battery. Perfect.
I ripped the wire from one paddle off and started wrapping it around the other.
This was gonna be ugly.
By the time I started wiring the first paddle's wire to the second's lead and bypassing the charge elements, the medics had moved over to see what I was doing.
"Holy shit- stop her!"
But before they could grab me I hopped over of the boy, kit in my hands, lowered it over his chest, and pulled the trigger on the paddle.
With a sickening meaty sound, a dozen or more shards wrenched themselves out of his body as I passed the makeshift electromagnet over him.
He immediately settled into an average teenager's frame. His heartbeat stabilized.
"Now he can use a hospital. Report me later. GO!"
The look they gave me was conflicted, but they reloaded him into their vehicle and took off.
I looked at the shards of metal frowned.
What the hell was this stuff?
A question for more important capes than me, for now.
I headed back into the building to turn them in and file a report.
In the end, the kid was saved. Long story short, he was fighting some ABB goons and then he was out. He didn't even know what hit him. Panacea confirmed it was a bomb, and took care of all the various damage.
My reckless move was neither lauded nor scolded. After all the reports were in, Director Piggot decided I had acted to the best of my knowledge as well as I could have at the time. She then implied I might want to expand that knowledge if I wanted to be taken more seriously by medical personnel in the future. I agreed wholeheartedly.
Dennis got a bit of flak for not being present to freeze the boy; apparently he had just left the base to spend some free time in the city.
By the time the kid had gotten out of the hospital, he was talked into joining the Wards instead of being a solo vigilante. He took the name Browbeat and cheerfully relieved me of my newbie status.
Before he could settle in completely, however, the morning of February 24th dawned and we all awoke to hear that Behemoth had attacked Canberra.
They hadn't even woken us up to ask us if we wanted to join the fight.
Of course I wasn't going to get answers.
The Director's administrative assistant informed me she would be 'busy' for the foreseeable future, with no idea when she would be free. I didn't voice my suspicion that Piggot was taking a nap in her chair. Well, whatever. I couldn't say I was too surprised at this point.
I enjoyed my time with the Wards so far. Adored it, even. It felt right. However, all was not perfect. I was hyper-aware of the complicated political situation around the organization. There was a tension between the PRT troops and the Protectorate capes. The troops were a bit less stiff with the Wards (or the Protectorate capes that had been local Wards at one point) but they refused to loosen up around a couple of the big names. Assault, for one. Armsmaster, as more of a surprise.
I didn't notice the second one for a while. Armsmaster was curt and brief, and the troops responded in kind. He didn't order them; he didn't rank above them in any fashion. They were parallel organizations. The most he had to do with them was maintenance of their equipment on a regular basis. Eventually I picked up some small signs of ingratitude, and maybe antipathy in general. It didn't become clear until I overheard one trooper mumbling to another that he felt sorry for the capes that had to work under Captain Too Good to Chat.
Miss Militia also didn't talk to the troops much, but that seemed different. There was almost palpable respect there. Veterans acknowledging each other. She, unlike Armsmaster, would occasionally speak up when she noticed weapons in any state of being other than 'ready.' When she did, she was thanked to her face and she was not mocked when she left.
Assault's bombastic personality seemed to grate on them and they just tolerated him until he went away. They didn't really talk much about him afterwards on the occasions I saw it happen. There might have been something else there but they kept it under wraps.
I hadn't seen much of Velocity or Battery. Velocity could spend more time off base due to his ability to change into costume almost instantly, wherever he was. Battery . . . might have been actively avoiding the Wards, from all I could tell. I decided against asking my peers about it.
In any case, no one was going to tell me (or be caught telling me, I couldn't tell) why the Wards hadn't been woken up for the Behemoth attack.
Not that I thought I could have been of much assistance- yet. Sure, I had lots of shiny tricks, but I couldn't punch down buildings or stay standing after taking such a punch. I was better than humans, but not better than the average cape that specialized in any one parahuman ability. It had been implied that I was expected to load myself down with Tinkertech for maximum effect, eventually. Apparently eventually was not today.
I prepared a feast for the returning capes (with everyone's help) and had it sent over as soon as I heard they were done with their post-Behemoth radiation scrubbing. Apparently rad poisoning involved a lack of appetite and a need to eat, regardless. I hoped to be of at least some assistance.
The shrapnel shards that had been embedded in Browbeat came back from analysis. Nothing special, just steel that had been crystallized in an odd pattern before whatever shape it had been in was detonated. Whatever effect caused Browbeat's powers to go out of control had at least one other factor, most likely something about the bomb when it initially went off on top of the metal 'pinning' it to his body. Tinkertech was difficult like that.
I got thank-you e-mails from all of the capes but Armsmaster. Odd. He was usually on target with the little things.
The PRT staff was on high alert; they were pulling double shifts on account of exhausted heroes and potentially fresh villains that hadn't participated in the Endbringer fight stirring up local trouble.
That over the last decade the time the highest statistical number of Villains had been 'accidentally' killed in fights with PRT troops was immediately in the wake of an Endbringer event might have kept mischief on the down low.
Lung had chosen not to fight, this time.
The last three Endbringer events were Behemoth, Leviathan, Behemoth. The Simurgh was almost certainly next. I wondered how I might be able to help. I'd have to study up. And . . . I'd have to have access to some Simurgh tainted.
Yeah, like that was going to happen.
But who knows. Maybe my 'bullcrap' could detect or cure the 'taint.' Of course, the obvious counterpoint is that if I could do that, I might be able to inflcit something similar as well. Which would go badly for me, humanity being what it is.
As an added bonus, now that we had two newbies on the team, we were due for a rotation of some of the less common Wards resources from around the country. This included a therapist, a visit by a couple of the more commonly internally contracted Tinkers to demonstrate their tech, and some legal consultation provided pro-bono by a local firm. On hearing the news, Dennis feigned excitement.
"Oh boy! Now I get another friend to clearly explain to me the virtually any use of my power on people outside of the thrashing of bozos counts as assault and harassment! No, Clockblocker, fun is not allowed. No one cares if you are adding ten minutes onto their life span, or kindly skipping them past uninteresting bits of their boring lives. No, every second is precious and letting people miss out on a single one is bad and should make you feel bad. And liable. Extremely liable."
"That would be the lawyer. I won't ask about the therapist. What do you do with the tinkers?"
"See if I can get any upgrades for my suit. Also any goop that can protect my hands while still letting me freeze through it. That one hasn't happened yet. My power's great and all but the touch limitation means I have issues with the less environmentally friendly foes."
A beat of silence passed as we involuntarily thought of Behemoth. None of our local capes had died, which was a miracle. I changed the subject.
"Ah, nothing else of interest to you? Stun guns, jet packs, that kind of thing?"
"Nah. I can't hit the broad side of a barn, and the more crap I have on me the more complicated my life gets if I have to freeze my suit over myself."
Ah. That made a lot of sense. Before I could respond he continued.
"So, uh, has Piggy hit you up about Arcadia yet? We've had a couple new girls of roughly your size and build and hair color join in, and that's usually the signal that they're about to invite the new Ward if they haven't already."
My mood blackened far more drastically than it did when Behemoth came to mind.
"I have no intention of going back to high school," I stated.
Dennis' eyes widened.
"That's the most serious I've ever heard you talk. Which is trouble, because Piggy is BIG on education. I mean, seriously."
"And I'm big on not going back to a petty hellhole like that. No offense to Arcadia. All schools are the same. Even if I occupy a different social strata, I'm just going to see the injustices from on high and be prevented from addressing them, right?"
He paled a bit and she shoulders slumped.
"Yeah, yeah you hit the nail on the head. We are encouraged to not act as . . . heroically as our cape personas, so as to increase plausible deniability. I'm cynical, but that? That just sucks. I can't even snark freely as a civvie anymore. I can't even talk as much because my voice might be recognized. That's why I always bum around here when I'm free."
"Piggot's revenge for your introduction stunt?"
He looked at me oddly, tilted his head, then grimaced.
"That- that makes too much fucking sense. I didn't even see it. Damn! I was played! Played!"
I rubbed my chin.
"I need a GED and a bachelor's I can get online. By the end of the week."
He froze mid indignant fist-shake.
"You are totally serious, aren't you."
"You realize Piggy will try to make you go back to high school even if you get a PhD, right?"
"I'll refuse to acknowledge her unless she calls me Dr. Hebert or Dr. Lightshow for the rest of my career, if she does."
"Dr. Lightshow. Sounds like the name of Legend's destined nemesis."
"Perhaps it is inevitable. If I fall to villainy, will you be my minion?"
"Only if I get dental."
"Does being punched in the teeth if you cross the line count?"
"My dear, the only thing that would break if Alexandria punched me in the teeth would be her momentum. As such, I will accept those terms graciously."
"Then I will consider it, prospective minion. Now, scurry off and fetch me a Coke. I have evil to accomplish."
"Yessssss Misssstressss!" he hissed, as he lurched over to the fridge.
Just another day in the Wards.