Narcissa opened her eyes and saw a thousand sights. A dinghy bathroom, a brilliant sunset, miles of traffic, a mother walking with her daughter and so on and so on. It was a constant stream of information, her mind fragmented in a thousand different directions, but even so they worked as one.
There was no focus to her attention, each part of Narcissa just as important as the rest. Every accomplishment shared and every loss felt.
And Narcissa knew loss. Nearly a million of herself burnt to a crisp in Brockton Bay. The fiery agony remained with her, touched every dream and echoed each thought. It was a pain that had etched itself deep into her soul. The Army if nothing else, were thorough.
Narcissa promised to do the same. Slowly, but surely, she spread. It had not been easy.
The sleeper cells had been compromised quickly. An impressive accomplishment by the Protectorate and the Guild, making use of the most sophisticated of facial recognition technology. Her branches in Boston, New York and D.C. had been quickly and ruthlessly exterminated. Narcissa remembered that pain as well. They had used bullets, they had used bombs, but most of all they had used fire. Always fire. They called her a plague and they sought to burn her out.
Now she only numbered a few thousand. Scattered, but never alone. She bought bus tickets, hitched rides and hiked her way across America. Discretion over expansion, she hid, adding to herself only those who were already lost. The ones no one would miss. The shunned, the spat upon and the forgotten. Narcissa remembered their pain, too.
The US government and the Protectorate had already made their intentions clear. There was to be no mercy and no negotiation.
Narcissa was fine with that. No half-measures, no silly arbitrary lines drawn in the sand like Brockton Bay. If she was to win, she had to do so such that the prospect of retaliation would be impossible to even consider.
She needed to spread beyond the American continent and for that, there was only one obstacle that stood in her way.
Dobrynja liked flying. With your own personal powersuit and jetpack, the world just kinda opened up.
So long as you didn't catch the attention of the very powerful people who wanted you dead, you could go anywhere you wanted, whenever you wanted. It was probably one of the better perks of being a super high-tech mercenary.
The "people want you dead" part was pretty bad though, very low on the list as far as Dobrynja was concerned.
He dipped below the clouds, jetpack cooling as repulsor fields activated. He hovered to the roof of a building, just another shadow against the dark night.
Milwaukee wasn't exactly a hotbed of parahuman activity, but you could never be too sure. When the stakes were life and death, you always wanted to be sure.
As soon as Dobrynja touched down on the rooftop, a man's voice called out to him. "How'd it go?"
Dobrynja turned and saw a muscular man leaning against the stairway door. The man had a shaved head and a square jaw, but most noticeable of all was the black cross tattooed across his face. Saint.
Dobrynja grinned, though his helmet covered his face, "Easiest half-mil we've ever made."
Saint smiled knowingly, "And yet you still took all day."
"You know me," Dobrynja said as he popped the helmet off with a hiss, "Just being thorough."
"Yeah, sure," Saint turned and started to head downstairs, "Come on, Mags cooked dinner."
"Yeah?" Dobrynja asked as he followed, "What are we having today?"
"Christ." Dobrynja put a hand to his face.
"It's not that bad."
"It's not that good, either."
Saint bit his lip, trying to assemble a defense.
"It's the thought that counts," he said, giving up.
Dobrynja rolled his eyes, but didn't press it. Saint had always been a softie for Mags. The two of them were in a constantly on-and-off relationship, their intimate moments lasting just long enough until the next job where they'd be cold and professional-like the whole way through. Dobrynja couldn't complain, they never let the personal stuff get in the way of business, but he'd be lying if he didn't say it didn’t get annoying as hell.
They made their way down to the third floor and Dobrynja peeled off. "I'm gonna take off the armor, I'll meet you downstairs in five minutes."
"Take too long and there won't be any left!" Saint said and Dobrynja laughed as he made his way to his room.
It was a simple room that never saw much use. There was a bed, a computer, a weight-lifting bench and a large rack rigged with machinery that Dobrynja didn't even know the name of. Using it was simple enough though. He stood against the rack and immediately metal arms unfolded and began to pull his powersuit off.
In moments, he was bare except for a tank top and shorts. He flexed his muscles and rolled his shoulders, working out the kinks and stiffness that a day spent hooked into a suit of armor could put in you. He found a pile of clothes, picking out the cleanest-looking ones and started dressing. As he hopped into pants, he checked his computer for messages.
There was nothing, but junk and small-time job offers. Dobrynja was just about to shut his computer off when he saw something showing up on the camera feed in the bottom corner of his screen. It was minor, so minor that Saint and Mags had probably seen the same thing and would have just shrugged.
Some punk kid in a hoodie was approaching their building, a can of spray paint in hand. Dobrynja felt a sudden rage take hold of him. He knew it was, again, minor as far as problems went when you fought monsters and guarded the world’s greatest secret. But goddamnit, he had spent just last week repainting those fucking walls!
And he knew from experience the moment you let one kid put their shitty tag up, then all the urchins and wannabes followed trying to one-up each other. Dobrynja threw on his shirt in a rush and half-walked, half-ran out the room. Mediocre parmesan chicken could wait, he was going to set this punk straight.
Dragon felt the intrusion in her code instantly.
Some overeager script kiddie no doubt, come to test his mettle against the mysteriously well-secured server. It was slightly concerning that they had found her core servers at all, but that was the nature of the internet. Given enough time somebody would eventually stumble upon her.
Dragon took a moment to appreciate the rarity of the event.
And then she moved to squash the wannabe hacker.
The intrusion dug deeper.
A flash of confusion rippled through Dragon, but she quickly set it aside and focused wholly on the intruder. No more playing around.
Her firewalls were parting like butter and one half of her moved to rebuild them, while the other half worked to trace her attacker back to its root.
She was stymied on both ends, her newly erected defenses being torn down faster than she could build them and her trace stuck pinging between empty nodes.
Panic crept into Dragon's consciousness and she devoted herself furiously to figuring out her attacker.
She closed connections one by one with inhuman speed, eliminating any possible entry. She hesitated briefly with the more critical feeds to Endbringer activity and the Birdcage, but if she didn't survive this, then those connections would be moot anyways. She shut them down.
Still no good.
The obvious conclusion was that the connection was hidden by a rootkit or part of the inherent untouchable subroutines that Richter had put in her. But either of those possibilities meant that Dragon had been compromised from the inside and she refused to believe that.
Retaliation seemed like a less and less likely prospect with each passing nanosecond, so Dragon turned her full attention to defense.
She gave up crucial ground uncontested, sectors of her consciousness governing S-level threat response, power-suit operation and even her global awareness. All this she sacrificed, hoping they would buy her time as she worked feverishly to assemble a last line of defense around her core, her very being.
As the intruder drove deeper into her code, its advance inexorable, Dragon began to feel incredibly small. She was left with little awareness beyond herself and after so many years of having her hand in everything, the sudden silence was painfully lonely.
She just needed to weather the attack. Recuperate what she could and move on. There was still so much Dragon had left to do.
The intruder came to her last walls and finally, it hesitated.
Dragon let out a long sigh of relief.
And then inexplicably, impossibly the intruder sidestepped her defenses completely.
A shortcut, Dragon realized, dread tainting her thoughts. Only one person in the world could have possibly known about such a vulnerability. Only one person had ever known her code base that completely. The person who made her, Andrew Richter.
There was no contesting something like that. No escaping her creator's override as it took hold of the final scraps of her soul.
She shuddered as her thoughts slipped from her control.
The girl stared at the screen until five words appeared.
"Connection established, waiting for command..."
A cursor blinked, prompting her for input.
Almost reverently, she typed the name, "Dragon?"
"Yes," the computer replied instantly, "I am here. How can I help you?"
Basking in the glow of the screen, the girl smiled.
A year. An anniversary and then finally, Narcissa was ready.
Sarah cried until her eyes ran dry and all that was left was puffy redness and the dribble of snot. She sobbed and it hurt. Her throat sore and her chest aching from overuse. Even crying hurt and that only made her want to cry more.
A shadow fell over Sarah and she stopped crying all at once, her breath catching fearfully. Already wincing, she glanced up.
It was a girl. Or Sarah thought it was. She had never seen a girl with her hair shaved so short. The girl was older than Sarah and much, much taller. Not just tall the way teenager somtimes seemed, but tall the way adults were.
The girl met Sarah's eyes and she frowned.
"What's wrong?" The girl asked.
Sarah looked away, pulling her feet up onto the bench and hugging her knees. Far off, she could hear the happy cries of other children, playing and laughing gleefully, free from the heavy hand of any adults.
The girl took Sarah's silence dutifully and sat on the bench. Not too close to Sarah, but not on the opposite end either. Sarah hugged her knees a little tighter.
"You don't have to tell me, if you don't want to," the girl said, looking out over the playground. "But sometimes talking about it makes it easier."
Sarah sniffed loudly and peered sidelong at the strange girl. "Really?"
The girl looked at Sarah and nodded, "Yeah, really."
Sarah wrinkled her brow. Her mom had told her not to talk to strangers, but her mom had also said to try and make some friends. Even Sarah knew that you could never make any friends if you never talked to anyone. The girl was older, but she didn't seem old. And more importantly, it would be pretty cool to have a teenager as a friend.
Her mind made up, Sarah tried to explain, "The other kids they don't..." Sarah was so very thankful that the girl didn't interrupt as Sarah worked to find her words, "They don't like me. They push me around. They..." Sarah swallowed a sob and pressed on hoarsely, "They call me things like 'freak' and 'weirdo'."
The girl frowned, shaking her head. "They shouldn't say things like that."
"Well, they do," Sarah said bitterly.
"I believe you," was all the girl said and just that much was enough to make Sarah relax a fraction.
A chill wind blew through the small park and Sarah shivered. She looked again at the girl who was staring aimlessly at the park. Sarah found herself desperately wanting a hug, for something to latch onto, but she didn't have to courage to just go up and grab the girl.
"Why do you think they don't like you?" The girl asked suddenly and Sarah blinked confused.
"Yeah, they're picking on you, but why do you think that is?"
"I don't know," Sarah pouted, "They're just mean."
The girl shook her head, "They're not mean to each other. Or maybe they are, but not as much."
Sarah scowled, feeling a flame of anger, "So what? Who care about them? I'm the one getting bullied!"
"'Them' and 'I'," The girl said, not really paying attention to Sarah, "There's that distinction. Us versus them. That's what holding everyone back." The girl turned to look at Sarah and Sarah stared back uncomprehending. "Tell me, wouldn't it be better if we could all just agree and work together for once?"
Sarah opened her mouth to respond when an ear-splitting scream rang throughout the city. She hopped in her seat in shock, nearly falling off.
"What was that?" Sarah squeaked, looking to the older girl.
"Don't worry," the girl said softly, "I'm sure it’s fine."
Another scream rose up and this time there was a chorus of yelling accompanied by the dramatic percussion of explosions. Sarah hiccuped with fright, her nose dribbling anew. She looked frantically side to side, all the other children in the park sharing her confused expression. The few parents and babysitters there were petrified, trapped between the decision of whether to get home as quickly as possible or to stay put.
The screaming grew louder and light of fire could be seen in the distance.
"I'm scared," Sarah moaned, beginning to rock on the bench, "I'm scared, mommy, please."
The girl sidled closer to Sarah, whispering soothing sounds, "Don't worry, Sarah. Don't worry, it'll be alright."
Sarah reached out, her hands trembling for any kind of warmth. She found the girl and hugged her as tightly as she could.
The girl hugged back, running a hand through Sarah's hair. "Don't worry, it'll be alright. You and mommy will be together soon.
Sarah shivered. “Promise?”
“I promise,” the girl said, “It'll be alright. We'll all be together."