January 4th, 2011.
It was a little after nine o'clock in the morning on a school day, and the halls of Winslow Public High School were deserted. None of its sixteen hundred students were shuffling between classes or taking bathroom breaks. No teachers puttered the halls during their plan periods to run photocopies or grab coffee. There were no security guards or janitors anywhere in sight.
Dragon picked a random door — for a Japanese heritage language class, according to the floor plan and schedule she'd downloaded — and walked inside. Her arrival tripped a motion sensor designed to conserve power when the windowless classroom wasn't in use. Overhead lights snapped on. Pitch blackness give to the sight of: rows of desks and textbooks left open atop them, and worksheets scattered on the floor, and thirty-odd backpacks left unattended.
And empty clothes.
"I'm getting pings from both of Shadow Stalker's cell phones. Third floor, northwest corridor. That'd be her first period algebra classroom." Dragon asked, "Move to investigate?"
"It's been an hour," Director Emily Piggot replied over the comm. "She would have reported in by now if..."
"Focus on the Class-A threat. S&R for survivors will have to wait."
Dragon didn't bother acknowledging. Other survivors? Her suit's sensor suite hadn't picked up so much as a single housefly since she'd entered the containment zone—seemingly nothing organic had survived. Shadow Stalker's survival had been a stretch at best, but she'd owed her fellow cape the effort, if only for Colin's sake. The Ward was under his command, but it wasn't safe for her friend to conduct such a search. Everything was up to her and her 'telepresence' suit. If she couldn't meet this challenge then the intercity missiles were prepped for launch.
Dragon exited the impromptu graveyard of a classroom, and resumed her path toward her target: the one warm body in an almost a mile-and-a-third radius. It couldn't be Shadow Stalker. Her file noted no special resistance to airborne toxins outside her breaker state, and in that case her body heat wouldn't have registered on Dragon's scans.
The AI's heart, to the extent Dragon thought she could be said to have such a thing, held out hope that the heat signature belonged to a survivor of this slaughter. Perhaps an unregistered parahuman immune to the Class-A's chemical agents, or someone who had triggered due to the day's trauma. That would be one small victory against all this senseless death.
Dragon's intellect, which definitely existed, hoped it was the Class-A parahuman responsible. At least then this crisis could be brought to a close, and the threat hanging over Brockton Bay ended before it claimed more lives.
She moved to the second floor, taking care to not scatter the meager remains strewn on the stairs. Not an easy task in her seven-foot combat suit, but she managed.
The heat signature was in a biology classroom. The door had been left open.
"Toxin levels are rising sharply," Dragon said.
"You must be getting close to the source."
Weapons primed, she moved inside.
Puffy eyes met her headpiece's LEDs.
"G-GET BACK!" the teen shouted, back-peddling until his back was up against the classroom's far wall. "RUN! GET THE HELL AWAY FROM ME!"
A facial recognition search took mere moments.
The boy jolted at the sound of his name. Dragon held up her 'palms'. "I'm controlling this robot remotely, Gregory. My real body is hundreds of miles away in my laboratory."
The sheer animal panic left the teen's eyes. He dropped back down to the floor, as if he was a puppet himself whose strings had just been cut. "I—It's j-j-just Greg."
"You're... you're Dragon? The big tinker."
She nodded. "Are you all right?"
Greg's wrists were a mess of cuts. There was a bloodied scalpel, likely meant for frog dissections, discarded on the biology classroom's tiled floor. If he'd been trying to commit suicide, the boy had taken his cues from Hollywood. The cuts ran across Greg's wrists rather than down the length of his forearms. All he'd manage to accomplish was to bleed a lot all over his clothes before the wounds had clotted.
"I... I can't die." He blinked back fresh tears. "I'm a brute. Or I heal. I don't know."
She knelt down on the floor, bringing herself eye-level with Greg. "Do you know what happened here today?"
He hesitated, then quickly jerked his head up and down.
"What happened, Greg?"
"You can tell me, Greg. I'm here to help, but I need to know."
"They all...d-died." The next part came out as more moan than speech, "Because of me."
"Did you mean for them to die?"
"NO!" Greg clenched his fists. "I just—I didn't mean for any of this to happen! You have to believe me! I didn't want to hurt anyone! They just started screaming and I—I—"
Greg doubled over, retching, but there was apparently nothing left in his stomach. Dragon moved to side, rubbing his back as he struggled to calm himself. While she comforted him, Dragon reviewed the files a background program had been collecting.
Gregory Leonard Veder. Age fifteen. Strong science and math scores, above average in his other classes aside from PE, but overall nothing extraordinary. On the PHO forums his handle, XxVoid CowboyxX, had been temp-banned in September of last year for flaming other posters while defending the length of Glory Girl's skirt, but that was the closest thing to an offense she could find. No criminal record. Greg's name didn't turn up in any police reports.
"Yeah," he said, sniffing weakly.
"Before all this started, did anything bad happen to you?"
"You mean w-why I triggered?"
His time browsing Parahumans Online apparently hadn't been a waste. "Yes."
Greg swallowed. Hard. "...I... it's was because of those b—girls. Emma and her friends."
There were five Emmas at Winslow, and two in Greg's sophomore class, but a quick search of popular social media sites over the last forty-eight hours pointed to one candidate being particularly prominent. Emma Barnes. Lots of references to a bullying incident on Monday involving another student. Miss Barnes shared her first period with Greg.
Dragon set those aside a deeper search for now, to focus on her conversation with the Class-A while he was still coherent. "Did they do something to you, Greg?"
"Not me. T-Taylor. My friend Taylor."
"You mean the girl Emma put in that locker?" Dragon asked, already looking at the police report filed the day prior. Taylor Hebert. Almost no social media presence, except in terms of people cyber bullying her. Currently under psychiatric observation at Saint Jude's Hospital.
Nothing in Greg's online footprint even vaguely suggested they had a personal connection.
"Y-you know about that?" he asked.
"So, Taylor is your friend, and you triggered over how Emma treated her?"
Greg bowed his head. "...She... we didn't talk that much... but I... she was a nerd like me, you know? We—it's stupid." He wiped his runny nose on the back of his hand. "I never said anything. I'm a coward. I didn't say anything when it counted."
"You mean yesterday? You didn't say anything to the police?"
"Nobody said anything. She was in there for three hours, screaming, and after they took her our those bitches were laughing. S-Somebody should've stepped up. But they didn't. I didn't. And now Taylor's in the hospital and they got away with it. I should've gone to the cops."
"Why didn't you, Greg?"
"I went to Mrs. Blackwell today." The principle. One of the missing. "She wouldn't believe me. She asked why I waited so long, why I didn't step up if what I was saying was true. She was right. I was a coward. Taylor was my friend and I let her down. I d-didn't say anything when it counted."
Greg buried his face in his hands.
On the private comm, where the boy couldn't hear, Dragon said, "That may have been his trigger event. If he saw Emma Barnes at the start of first period, it might have spurred him to go to Blackwell's office out of guilt. Timeline-wise it'd match up with the start of the incident."
Director Piggot replied, euphemistically, "That information will be relevant to the investigation, but not to the matter at hand."
No reply. He didn't look up.
"Greg, we need to talk about what happens next."
"Don't drag out his misery," Piggot said. "Just do it."
Dragon muted her.
"You're sending me to the Birdcage," he said, quietly.
"I'm afraid that's not possible." That news got him to finally look her in the eye. The boy was almost comically small huddled beside her seven-foot tall combat armor. It was very hard for Dragon to think of him as a Class-A threat and not someone's child. "The toxins you emit kill organic tissue. Vaporize it over time. People. Bugs. Plants. Everything. Sending you to the Birdcage would be a death sentence for the inmates there. Even if you were put into isolation, the threat you'd pose if those toxins somehow reached the other cell blocks..."
Understanding dawned in his bloodshot eyes. Greg started to tremble.
Dragon raised her arm-mounted laser and aimed it at his head. The boy stared down the barrel.
"I'm going to make you a promise," Dragon said. "As far as your parents will know, you weren't involved with what happened here today. Taylor too. None of them will ever learn the truth." A lie. The public would be screaming for answers with almost three thousand civilians dead, half of them teenagers. The local PRT branch had staff members with children at Winslow. A cover story would never hold. Someone on the inside would leak the truth.
But it was a white lie that calmed Greg, just a little, and maybe gave him some peace of mind. Enough that he broke eye-contact with her weapon and looked up at her 'eyes', grief and fear mixing with a sort of relief.
It took one shot.