Piggot handed the file to Weld and he took it. The helicopter wasn't the best place to read, but Weld's grip on the paper was tight and he started to skim through it.
It was two dozen or so pages. A brief history prior to trigger event, combat logs for the first encounter, medical records, and almost inexplicably a school report card. Still the folder seemed remarkably thin for what the media was calling "the next Nilbog."
Weld glanced up at Piggot, "Is this everything?"
Piggot's frown deepened, the wrinkles in her brow tightening even while the skin under her eyes and cheeks seemed to sag. She had the look of a woman who had gone too long without sleep and had aged years in weeks.
"Some files had to be omitted." Piggot looked out the window of the helicopter, watching the landscape blur past them. "Narcissa targeted us early in her campaign and managed to infiltrate us before we understood the full extent of her abilities. That," Piggot pointed at the folder, "is all the information we could gather on her with certainty that it wasn't tampered with."
"She infiltrated the Protectorate?"
When Weld didn't get an answer, he looked up to see Piggot tired as she was, glaring at him, the muscles in her neck tensed.
Weld closed the file and focused on the thrum of the helicopter's blades. The Protectorate therapist had encouraged him to take up meditation to make up for his lack of sleeping. People needed time to rest, to center, to refocus. The therapist had encouraged him to focus on his breathing before belatedly realizing he couldn't - Weld didn't breathe.
Still, her advice had been sound and Weld used the ambient white noise to clear his thoughts. It was easy to take Piggot's stand-offishness as hostility, but the reality was that this was a woman who had just lost everything. Her friends, her charges, her very city. In all likelihood, her job was next. She was probably feeling the pressure from the higher-ups.
Weld leaned back, setting the file down. "Sorry, I didn't mean anything by it. I was just surprised."
Piggot closed her eyes and she relaxed all at once, practically sagging in the seat as she sighed. "Yeah. So were we."
Weld stared at the hut. It was tiny from where he stood. Set in the center of one the bridges leading into Brockton Bay - one of the few still standing. It looked like a shipping container, although he was told the furnishing on the inside was a little nicer than that.
"Remember," Piggot said, "Don't call her Narcissa."
Weld nodded wordlessly, he focused on the rush of the river below. The only thing separating Brockton Bay from the rest of the world.
"She prefers her name."
"All of them." Weld said, not looking away from the hut.
"All of her."
Weld stepped inside the hut and found her already there. She sat across from him at a plastic fold-out table, her hands folded together primly in front of her.
She looked decidedly normal. Not generic the way people in magazine ads looked, but the sort of ordinary you’d see on the bus. She was on the wrong side of plain with her gangly frame and wide mouth. Thin as she was the only reason to remember she was a girl at all was her curly brown hair which rolled off her shoulders. Dressed in slacks and a business shirt and jacket, coupled with the way she sat, she looked like she was sitting at a job interview.
She frowned at the sight of him.
“I suppose you’re the Protectorate’s representative?” She said more than she asked.
“Yes.” Weld stepped towards the table, eerily aware of the clomping sound his feet made against the hut’s thin floor. He stopped at his seat and with only the briefest moment of hesitation, held out his hand. “The name is Weld, nice to meet you.”
She didn’t rise to meet him and eyed his hand, his chrome skin glowing dimly with the sheen of the light.
“Nice to meet you, Weld. My name is Taylor.” She gestured for him to sit.
No handshake then. Weld sat. Whereas Taylor had an actual chair you might expect in an office, Weld only had a solid plastic block, even then the chair groaned as he rested his weight against it.
"To be perfectly honest, Weld. You were not who I was expecting." Taylor spoke overly formal, but there was a tension there.
"I'm not what most people expect." Weld replied.
Taylor frowned. "That's not what I meant."
Weld tried to focus on the buzz of the flourescent lights, but as far as white noise went, that was a little too quiet.
In his most even voice, Weld spoke. "My apologies, Taylor. Nonetheless I'm the one who Protectorate chose as their representative."
"Someone who's immune to my power." Taylor said.
"Is that fact relevant to a tour of your city?" Weld asked.
Taylor's mouth stretched into a thin, wide line.
"As far as first impressions go, it doesn't exactly inspire confidence." She said icily. "Makes it seem like you come here expecting a fight."
Weld folded his arms very deliberately - he didn't want to scrape them against each other, but as a result it was exaggerated like a stage version of the movement. "I think we're a little past first impressions."
Taylor scowled. "I suppose that's true." The words came out strained.
They stared at one another for a long moment, their silence tempered by the staccato of helicopters in the distance.
Eventually, Taylor stood, running a hand through her hair as if to clear it from her eyes though it had never been in the way.
"Alright, fine." She said with only a hint of a sigh. "Are you already aware of my rules?"
Weld stood to match her. "Yes."
"Good, then do you have any recording equipment or weapons to surrender?" Taylor came around the table until she stood to the side of Weld. She held a palm out.
Weld reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. "This and no weapons to speak of." Besides himself, of course, but that was better left unsaid.
Taylor nodded as she took Weld's phone inspecting it. "An older model, communicator only?"
Taylor handed the phone back to Weld and he pocketed it.
"I'll trust that holds true. I would hate to be surprised." Taylor turned on her heel and headed for the door on her end of the hut. "If you'll follow me, we'll give you a more thorough inspection on my side of the line."
There it was. The door to Brockton Bay. Or what was left of it.
Last chance for Weld to back out. He had been given a disturbing amount of leeway as far as this meeting went. Depending on what he said or did, the Protectorate and the US army were fully willing to just bomb the whole region to dust and be done with it.
It would have been so much easier to do that. So much more straightforward. You never walked into the villain's lair without some sort of plan of attack. As it was, Weld was walking in blind.
But the stakes were too high to do anything else.
"Okay." Weld said as he followed her.
The sun reflected off his chrome skin with a bright sheen. If he stood in it long enough, he might even feel warm.
It was a beautiful day and Weld was surrounded by girls. If he was any other man, he might have been excited. He thought of sailors washing up on the shore on an island of Amazons. The difference was that these Amazons weren't quite as beautiful as the myths told of. In fact, they all looked identical. The same wide mouth, the same thin figure even the same curly brown hair. And like the Amazons, they were deadly.
It was hard to make that connection seeing a dozen of the girls working to repair a building. They wore comically over-sized hard hats and were all as thin as the girl leading Weld, but they worked together in perfect unison. A pair hefted a bundle of steel pipes in silent unison and maneuvered past their fellows without even a word of warning.
"We're working to rebuild some of the more important buildings damaged during the initial fighting." Taylor informed him. He was fairly sure she was the same one that he had met at the hut, but the reality was she could have easily swapped places with any of her doppelgangers when he hadn't been looking. "We're on schedule to get the city back in working order in a matter of weeks."
Weld's eyes widened and he turned to look at her. "What do you mean by 'working order'?"
Taylor stared at him unflinchingly, "Producing, shipping and trading. Hopefully, with the Protectorate."
Hopefully, but not necessarily. Weld filled in.
"What are you aiming to produce?" He asked.
Taylor smiled. "Let me show you."
The screech of metal greeted Weld as he entered the warehouse. A hundred Taylors were at the assembly line, arranging and assembling what seemed to be...
"Phones?" Weld whispered.
"Phones." Taylor confirmed. "I can't reveal all the details, of course, but we've already secured a few contracts." She waved a hand at the Taylors delicately fitting chips into small plastic cases. "There are entrepreneurs out there who understand the practicality of a workforce that can perfectly coordinate."
Sure enough the Taylors at the assembly line worked like clockwork. One fitting a piece together and passing it along just as the other finished.
"We're working to get more of the process automated, so we can free up more of ourself for more contracts, but as it is, demand is high."
Weld noticed one of the Taylors at the assembly line slowing down, the miniscule pause noticeable from how much it deviated and the effect rippled down the line. Without a word said, the other Taylors relaxed a hair and slowed their pace, giving their coworker time to catch up. When she finished, the process resumed effortlessly. There was no foreman to speak of, no one to admonish or criticize her. In fact if there was, Weld suspected that would have just slowed down production.
"And they're..." Weld coughed, "You're all fine with this? Doing factory work while others..."
His guide cut him off. "We all do our part, Weld. No part too large or too small. And if you're concerned about some sort of class system," She pointed to the girl who had first slowed the assembly line. "She was one of the original twenty-eight. She was our first representative to the Protectorate just as I am now. And just like her, I'll work the assembly line when I'm needed to."
"But who decides that?" Weld asked.
Taylor smiled. "We do."
They sat on a veranda at the top of a hill overlooking the city, Taylor savoring a sundae, Weld admiring the sunset. At some point since meeting her, she must have communicated his needs to... herself and they had found Weld a chair he could actually sit on. It was huge, heavy and plastic, but it came complete with a headrest and armrests and that was more than Weld ever got.
Off in the distance, a crane operated at the side of a skyscraper, the sun at its back.
From up here, the city looked almost normal.
"If you don't mind," Taylor spoke and Weld turned to look at her. She was smiling again. "Penny for your thoughts?"
Weld let his head fall back against his chair. "Honestly, this is pretty surreal right now. I mean I'm impressed." Weld added quickly, "Amazed, even. I don't know where to begin. I guess I'm still trying to wrap my head around it at all."
Taylor nodded satisfied, "Not to boast, but yes, we're proud of what we've managed."
Weld looked up at the sky, tinged red and orange, marked by the distant plumes of planes.
Whether it was the mood or the exhaustion he shouldn't have been capable of feeling, Weld asked the question that had been weighing on him the whole day.
"Was it worth it?"
Silence answered him and Weld mentally berated himself. He had overstepped his bounds. After everything else had gone so well, he had ruined it at the end.
He glanced at Taylor and saw her looking down at her sundae, but her eyes were distant.
"Not a very fair question, is it?" She said, quiet.
"I'm sorry." Weld said quickly, "I-"
"I mean, I have to say yes, don't I?" Taylor looked up at Weld, her voice harder, "If I said no, then how pointless would that be?"
Weld had no answer.
"I have to make it worth it, Weld." Her fists clenched, "I have to. That's why I don't want this to end in fire."
Taylor sighed, looking out beyond the city where the faint black shapes of the military stood. "I know they're afraid of me. Truthfully, I want them afraid of me. Afraid enough that they won't just attack when they think they can get away with it."
"The sleeper cells." Weld said.
"A threat." Taylor gave a hard look to Weld, "A real one, make no mistake, but one meant as a warning. Mutually assured destruction and all that."
"I'd rather that not happen." Taylor reassured him, "I want to contribute. I know I can. If today has proven anything, it's that I'm working to help."
"And so we forget about everything else?" Weld asked, "Forget all the innocent people of Brockton Bay?"
"I haven't forgotten." Taylor put a hand to her chest. "I haven't, I swear. Nobody remembers them better than me. They... they're a part of me now."
Weld blinked slowly. The Protectorate hadn't mentioned that in the file.
"I know we all look identical to you, but each and every Taylor is unique in their own way." Taylor ran a hand through her hair. "We carry the memories of our old selves. We understand better than anyone else their thoughts and feelings."
There was nothing for Weld to focus on. No white noise to soothe him. The whole world seemed to have stilled.
"You..." Weld put a hand to his face and rubbed at it, trying to massage his brain back into working condition, "Who were you... before?"
Taylor smiled fondly, "Danny Hebert."
Weld sank in his seat. Things had been surreal before, now it felt like madness. Once the Protectorate learned of this... they'd be more afraid than ever. They would have to be.
It was no wonder the East North East Protectorate had been infiltrated so easily. All Taylor had to do was touch the right person and every Taylor would have knowledge of how to get into the Protectorate database. The Protectorate already knew that the Taylors had a sort of network hivemind, but this went far deeper than that. The Taylors didn't just replace their hosts, they subsumed them.
He looked up and he saw Taylor watching him, her brow knitted together.
"I told you this... this secret of mine because I want you to understand. It's true that Danny Hebert can't sit here and admire this sunset with us." She leaned forward, her hand to her chest again, "But he's here. He hasn't gone. He hasn't even died. None of them have, not really."
Her eyes were wide, almost pleading.
"Is that really what you believe?" Weld asked.
She pulled back as if she had been slapped and for a moment her face twisted, her lips pulling back in a snarl. Weld wondered if she was going to leap and tackle him.
She didn't. She let out a long breath, her expression settling on a more neutral one. She stood and turned to look at the sunset, her back to him.
"The tour is over. We will escort you to the bridge. Please inform your superiors of our proposal. Taylor would prefer to work alongside the Protectorate, not against them."
Weld stood, though he made no motion to leave.
"Why?" He asked.
She looked over her shoulder, clearly annoyed. "Why what?"
"Why do you suddenly want to work with the Protectorate? Why hold back the sleeper cells? You took Brockton Bay over in four weeks and then you just stopped at the city limits. Why?"
Taylor frowned at him before turning back to the sunset. "This was the most beneficial option."
Weld nearly scoffed. Nearly. No reason to ruin this meeting any further. "Right." He said, "Then I guess we're done here. I'll pass your proposal to the Protectorate."
"Good." Taylor said as a pair of her doppelgangers stepped up onto the veranda wearing overalls and suspenders. The construction workers. "We will lead you out."
"Them, not you?" Weld asked.
"We will lead you out." One of the construction worker Taylor's repeated, she had a black smudge across her cheek. She gestured for him to walk.
"Right." Weld said tightly as he followed the worker Taylor's lead.
As they headed down the hill, Weld glanced back at the Taylor that had been Danny Hebert and he saw that she was still standing at the edge of the hill. She hadn't budged an inch. She stood resolutely against the last light of the sun, her shadow stretching out towards him.
As Weld walked further downhill, she faded from view.