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.
So this is a revisit of an old fic idea I had. A much better version in my opinion, this one actually has things happening in it! And a title!
Anyways, thinking on how a society of totally like-minded individuals would work was pretty fun, though I didn't go into as much detail about it as I could have.
Weld was also a really fun character to use as the POV. He's so distinctly not human, it's interesting to see how normal things that we take for granted fail to apply to him.
I had originally conceived this story as three-parts, but I wasn't sure if anyone would be interested so I wrote the first chapter as a more or less complete one-shot.
And then a whole lot of people liked the first chapter. So yeah, here's the second chapter, with a third on its way.
Men. It was strange to see men again.
The man before Weld was gruff, grizzly, once the very definition of masculinity before age caught up to him. He was bald, a conscious choice made after most of the hair had already gone and to compensate he sported a thick well-trimmed mustache. On his chest, across from the words 'US Army' was his name: Tagg.
He leaned against a desk, radio against his ear as he grunted his consent or dismissal intermittently. Around him, lieutenants scurried to and fro while specialists manned complex machinery. As he saw Weld, he gave a jerk of his head and held up a finger. Wait a second.
"Good. Have it ready by oh-five-hundred and check-in at oh-four-hundred. Good hunting." He set the radio down and turned his gaze to Weld appraisingly.
Weld wasn't military, but he felt the urge to stiffen and stand at attention.
"Alright," Tagg said finally, folding his arms, "What do you got for me, son?"
Weld blinked, "Sorry, what?"
Tagg's eyes narrowed, contempt in his voice, "Report. Debrief. Fill me in. And be quick about it."
"Right. Sorry. To summarize, Taylor is looking to establish trading-"
"Hold up," Tagg ordered and Weld obeyed. "We know this already. Narcissa," He said, pointedly emphasizing her codename, "Sent us a message shortly after receiving you. Let me just make sure we got the same 'proposal.' In short, she wants the US to give her Brockton Bay and in return she sells us cheap phones and junk. That about sum it up?"
Not at all the words Weld would have used, but… "Yes. That about sums it up."
"Right, well at least she's got her story straight. As for you, I take it no one's told you what's happening right now?"
"I came here straight after returning," Weld shrugged, "No one's told me anything so far."
Tagg pulled out a cigar and put it between his lips without lighting it. Clenching the cigar between his teeth, he gave a lopsided grin. "We - as in we, the United States of America - are declining her offer."
Weld closed his eyes, feeling heavy. Heavier than usual, like he was going to sink into the ground and disappear. It wasn't that he hadn't expected something like this. He had. Everything about Taylor had "doomsday" written all over it. Knowing however, didn't make the prospect of all-out war any easier to swallow.
"Come morning, there are gonna be some serious fireworks." He chomped on his cigar, relishing it. "And we've got front row seats."
She would have called it a waste.
"So," Tagg took the cigar from his mouth and pointed it at Weld, "The information I need from you is numbers, locations and arsenal. How many of them are there? Where are they shacking up? And what are they equipped with?"
The noise of the headquarters was discordant and off-beat. Words came out sharply as terse orders and machinery buzzed and beeped with no sense of rhythm. But none of it sounded as bad as what Tagg was saying.
"What about the sleeper cells?" Weld asked, his voice quiet.
Tagg’s expression darkened. "Not your department, kid. Don't worry about it, we've got it handled."
"She's had four weeks to prepare for this," Weld went on undeterred, "She's threatened Boston, New York, and D.C., but she's had plenty of time to go even farther than that."
General Tagg stared at Weld silently, his mouth setting in a grim line. His eyes took on a hard glint, cold and unfeeling, they were eyes of distrust.
"I'll say it one more time, son." He put the cigar to his lips and spoke around it, "I need numbers, location and arsenal."
He didn't need to add "or else." Weld could feel the stillness that had taken the headquarters. All eyes were on him.
"Right. Sorry." Weld bowed his head, "I'll tell you everything I know."
Oh-five-hundred. Five in the morning.
Brockton Bay burned.
Sharp lights dropped from the sky far above the clouds, crashing through skyscrapers and erupting in fiery bubbles. Buildings toppled, hills flattened and everything else cratered.
Weld could feel the rumble of each and every explosion from a dozen miles out. He was a tuning fork, vibrating in time with the earth. He wondered wildly if he would start to hum and a laugh slipped out of his mouth.
It was ridiculous.
He had warned them. Told them about the wordless instant communication. There would be no surprising her. Every Taylor in the United States - or the world - would know what was happening the moment one of her saw the first light. The sleeper cells would activate instantly. They probably already had.
He had told them about the Endbringer shelters, her work to restoring them - or reinforcing now that he thought of it. He told them about the factories where they worked, the dorms where they slept and the market where they shared food, clothes and ice cream sundaes.
He regretted telling them about her power, though he knew he had to. The possibility of Taylor having the knowledge and expertise of Armsmaster and Kid Win only solidified their conviction.
"Then we'll just have to be thorough," was all Tagg had said to that.
A streak of light plummeted from the heavens and struck the ground with a horrendous noise, the earth screaming in pain as the fire drove deep into the dirt. The scream stretched out, fading out to a whine and then like a volcano erupting, fire burst from the ground.
The bunker busters as Tagg had affectionately called them.
A dozen more fell from the sky, alongside countless bombs, artillery shells and whatever else that went "boom."
So it went on until oh-eight-hundred - eight in the morning, when it finally ended.
Where Brockton Bay once stood, nothing but ash remained.
Corporal Shaun Weathers was Weld's "escort." Sandy-haired with freckles and round cheeks, he looked more like a high school student than a soldier. Nevertheless, he was for all intents and purposes Weld's jailer.
Weld wasn't chained up or confined, but to his mounting frustration, he wasn't allowed to leave.
"Sorry," Shaun shrugged when Weld asked, "General's orders."
Weld's jaw set. "Can you at least tell me how Boston is doing?"
"Look," Shaun sighed exaggeratedly like an overwrought teenager, "I have no idea, man. Just sit tight, alright?"
"My team is in Boston. My friends."
The corporal fidgeted, shifting foot to foot, positively squirming. "Alright," he conceded, "We can go to the communications tent."
Weld relaxed, fingers uncurling from the fist he didn't know he had even made.
"Just don't bother'em too much," Shaun said, "We can ask if there's anything big going on, but that's it. No personal messages or whatever."
"Thank you," Weld said, meaning it.
"Yeah, don't mention it. Really don't."
Weld let out a long sigh and sat on the hill overlooking the remains of Brockton Bay. Behind him was Corporal Shaun and behind Shaun was the camp, much more subdued than it had been hours before. Soldiers milled about, chatting and joking, riding off the tail-end of adrenaline.
Boston was safe. New York and D.C. as well. As far as anyone could tell there had been absolutely no incident.
Was there a range limitation to Taylor's power? Or maybe the network backfired, all the Taylors overloaded with the agony of thousands of herself dying at once. She could have even been bluffing about the sleeper cells.
Weld remembered Taylor's annoyance when he had asked why she had stopped with Brockton Bay and not continued subsuming the whole country. Had she been annoyed because he had seen through her bluff?
There was any number of possibilities and Weld thought on them for a long time.
When he was finally clear to leave - "no longer a security threat" - he was no closer to knowing the truth. He wasn't sure if anyone would be.
He boarded a helicopter, the machine groaning with his weight, but holding. Tagg saw Weld off himself, even going so far as to shake Weld's hand. This time there was a grudging respect in his eyes, the product of two men who had fought a battle together though neither had even held a weapon. Enduring the fire, waiting vigilantly for the monsters that would leap at them from the shadows, that had been more than enough battle for them.
As the helicopter took off for Boston, Weld closed his eyes and let himself drift off with the rhythm of the rotor.
He was just glad it was over.
The girl stepped off the bus, shielding her eyes from the sun. The air smelled of the sea and with each wave that struck the beach, she felt a light mist touch her face.
A city by the water, it reminded her of home.
The boardwalk was sparse, most the shops not yet open. It was a weekday when most would be working and too early for those who didn't.
This was good because the girl did not like crowds.
She shouldered her backpack and started walking, keeping to herself. She wore a ballcap and a jacket, her hands deep in her pockets. If anyone were to look at her, they might've commented how overdressed she was for the weather, but no one did.
The girl did not know where she was going, but that didn't matter. A search didn't need a destination.
Her walk took her to the south end of the boardwalk where the shops became rattier and more worn down. Even the beachfront was dirtier, trash and seaweed accumulating where no one cared enough to clean it up. If the regular boardwalk had been sparse, here was a ghost town, several of the shops abandoned for what might have been years.
Without an iota of hesitation, the girl made her way to one of the run-down shops and tried the door. The knob rattled, but remained locked. She moved to try another, then another and then another until finally she reached a knob that turned all the way. Even then the door didn't open, but the girl had a good idea as to why.
She got down on her belly and peered through the crack beneath the door and saw the shadow of chair legs. Beyond that she saw a faint orange glow.
The girl got to her feet and started to circle the shop.
These older shops had little alleyways between one another. These alleyways would have windows and with how hot today was, these windows would be open.
Sure enough, the girl found an open window seven feet off the ground. It wasn't very large, but for how skinny the girl was, it would be large enough. Reaching the window only took the patience and effort necessary to move and overturn a trash can next to it. Climbing through took sweat and quietly endured pain as she squeezed to fit.
The walls were bare with little to hold onto and halfway through, the girl fell and tumbled to the floor.
Her landing was not quiet and she heard a gasp in the next room over. The dim light that she had seen earlier went out and a silence fell over the shop.
The girl took her time collecting herself, brushing off the worst of the dust and readjusting her backpack before heading into the room over.
Candles lined the room, unlit but still smoking. At the center was an old mattress, springs sticking out one half. Atop the mattress was a boy. He was brown-skinned and thin with long untamed hair. The clothes he wore were baggy and spotted with brown stains. In his lap was a book and in his hands was a knife.
As far as knives went it was puny, a pocket-knife to put on a keychain. What was worse was the way his hand trembled and the sheen in his eyes that betrayed the tears he was barely holding back.
"Back the fuck off!" His voice cracked at the "fuck" eliminating any threat in the word.
He was young. Maybe the girl's age.
She made a show of looking around, though she had already seen everything.
"Nice place," the girl said calmly.
"You fucking deaf?" He got to his feet, the knife held out in front of him the whole time. "I said back the fuck off!"
The girl raised her hands in the universal sign of "I am unarmed."
"This is my place, you hear?" The boy cried out.
"So get out!"
The girl did not get out. Instead she said: "I'm not looking to fight. I'm not trying to steal your place."
He laughed, a single derisive sound. "Yeah? What do you want then, huh? People always want something."
The girl's smile was small and weak. "I'm new to this city, I don't really know my way around. I was hoping to find someone who could help with that."
"So what?" His breathing steadied, the fight or flight instincts wearing out as the conversation went on. "What's in it for me, huh?"
"I'll share what I have." The girl gestured to her backpack. "I've got food, extra clothes."
"A little bit."
The knife lowered though it stayed pointed in the girl's direction.
"Okay," The boy said grudgingly, "Maybe we can work something out. What exactly do you want?"
"Show me around the city," the girl shrugged, "Show me where the soup kitchens are, the shelters, the good neighborhoods, the bad ones, the ones that'll spare some change, the ones that won't, et cetera."
"Okay. Yeah." The knife went down to his side as he nodded. "Yeah, I can do that."
The girl smiled, "Who knows, maybe we can even be friends."
The boy suddenly burst into laughter, the air of seriousness broken as he wheezed to catch his breath. "Sorry, no, I don't think so. I mean, not likely." With a shrug, he added, "I'm gay."
"I said friends!" The girl laughed back good-naturedly, "Just friends."
The boy let out one more chuckle, shaking his head. "Alright, sure." He put away his knife and held out his hand. "Nice to meet you, my name's Samar."
The girl smiled and took his hand with her own. "Call me Narcissa."
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."
I said there would be only three parts last time, but I was a little off. Next chapter should be the final one.
Snow, grey and rough, drifted down from above, piling on the shoulders of man making his patrol round a makeshift wall of logs. His footsteps were heavy and made with wrenching effort as they fought to make their way through the four feet of snow. No, the man thought to himself, not snow. Four feet of frozen ash. Grey as dust, it clung to him and left black streaks where it melted.
The man’s clothes, a form-fitting undershirt and shorts were pockmarked with bullet holes and black with scorch marks. He had never needed them in the first place, the clothes offering him no protection to the cold. He still wore them for no reason other than the fact that it felt important. Shedding his clothes felt too much like a loss and the man had already lost too much.
The metal man kicked at the snow in front of him forcefully and it puffed into a thick cloud in his face. His jaw clamped, frustration welling in him and he plowed through. Stomping a circuit around the wall of logs, more in his thoughts than in his supposed duty, he would not have noticed the shadow of movement off in the trees. Silent as the night, the shadow darted away and disappeared.
“Weld.” A hand settled on his shoulder and Weld flinched. The hand pulled back just as quickly and Weld looked up to see a small blonde girl by his side. Small and blonde. Weld relaxed a hair. The blondeness could have been faked but shortness would have been tricky to pull off.
“Weld, you need to rest,” the girl said firmly and Weld was finally able to place her name. Missy. Vista. She looked better than she had yesterday. Her eyes were no longer red, though they still bore the dark circles of the restless.
“No, I actually don’t,” Weld corrected her, “I don’t need sleep, remember?”
Missy blinked slowly, her eyes closing for a solid second before opening again. “I remember,” she said with more patience than any thirteen year old had a right to, “But you’ve got to take a break. You’re going to lose your mind if you keep this up.”
Weld shook his head, “Not happening.”
“Not happening as in you won’t lose your mind? Or not happening as in you won’t take a break?”
“Both.” Weld stood, flexing his shoulders. His eyes were fixed on the wall outside, a ramshackle stack of logs, hastily erected to circle a cluster of squat buildings. It made sneaking into the base a little harder. Just a little.
“Weld, you need to take care of yourself.” He looked back at Missy and saw her eyes wide, her brow etched with worry.
“You’re looking pretty tired yourself,” Weld commented wryly.
“I’m exhausted,” she said with an enormous sigh, “I’ve spent all day moving people and supplies, the whole time watching my back and I’m just about ready to collapse. I’ve done enough for today.” She put a hand on his arm and this time he didn’t flinch. “And so have you.”
“You don’t understand, there’s… there’s still more things I can do. I can’t just sit around.” His fists tightened, “I need to do more.”
The only surviving member of both the Brockton Bay and Chicago Protectorate gave him a rueful smile, “Believe me, I know the feeling.”
Weld grimaced, feeling like a fool. “Of course, you’d know. I didn’t mean anything by it. I wasn’t-”
Missy’s grip on him tightened and shook him slightly. “Weld, listen to me. Don’t worry about it. I’m not the only one who’s lost people, you have too.” Not as much as you, he thought grimly. “Everyone here has lost someone. We’re all hurting, but we can’t kill ourselves over it. We need to rest, Weld.”
The look in her eyes didn’t offer much room for rebuttal. She was nearly the youngest of all of the survivors and yet she had seen more than most. In a sick way, she was the only one of them with any experience dealing with an apocalypse.
With more than a little reluctance, Weld nodded. “Alright. Let’s go back.”
Missy smiled and together they walked back to the dorms.
The pianist began strongly, announcing himself to the world and then in sharp succession, his fingers rolled over the keys in a flurry of notes and sounds. Rising, falling, the song moved in waves and the listener felt himself carried along. As the pianist increased his tempo, the waves grew larger and larger until suddenly it stopped. The silence hung from the peak and then with a resounding crash, the pianist’s fingers dropped down again. A wild medley of notes rained down like a furious storm. Wave after wave struck, rocking the song further and further off course, until it resembled nothing more than horrendous chaos. The notes grew louder and louder, until suddenly they stopped. As the song returned, it continued on lethargically, like a man ready to drop dead. Now the waves were as gentle as a lullaby, and slowly, but surely the song returned to port.
Weld tapped the rewind button on his phone and let the song play again.
Music more than anything else kept Weld sane. Losing himself to the flow of the notes eased his stiff body. Though Weld had never slept, he imagined that maybe this was something close to it.
The lullaby of sounds was interrupted by the most obnoxious blaring. A wailing klaxon that swallowed all other sound. It reverberated through Weld’s skin and he stood ramrod straight, the wire of his headphones whipping wildly as his phone unhooked and clattered to the floor.
Weld ignored it and tore the buds out of his ears as he ran for the door.
A variety of men and women met him in the halls, haggard, tired and half-dressed. Most were still pulling on costumes or the many layers of clothing necessary to stay warm in the frigid weather. They were just as lost as Weld was and so he pushed on, his feet coming down against the concrete floor with a heavy clomping sound.
He burst outside, cold air immediately clinging to him in a ghostly fog and he had to wipe at his eyes to clear them. He whirled around, looking for the breach in the walls. Weld had nothing like adrenaline to push him forward, but the cold fear of what was to come was more than enough. He turned and turned, expecting each time to see a tall brown-haired girl step out of the shadows. Each time there was nothing, but as the alarms continued it was getting harder and harder to feel assured.
Something was wrong. And not knowing what only made it worse.
Grunting his annoyance, Weld turned to the command center, the squattest, thickest building in the area and jogged his way to it.
Halfway there, a woman stepped out of the command center, waving him down. “Weld!” She called to him.
Weld picked up the pace and as he drew nearer he recognized the woman. He hadn’t seen her for more than a year and though there was little chance of him ever forgetting her. She had slimmed down a little, the effects of rationing and stress, but the tightly bound blonde hair and the stern face were unmistakable.
“Director Piggot,” Weld said, slowing as he neared her, “What’s the situation?”
“I’ll explain in a moment.” She waved him inside and he followed. The building was busy, but not as busy as he would’ve thought. He had expected packed hallways and soldiers marching this way and that, but for the most part anyone who needed to be somewhere was already there. They walked past rooms and rooms of people manning monitors and displays reading incomprehensible numbers until finally they reached what seemed to be a conference room. The table was lacquered wood, polished to an impeccable shine, there were a dozen seats but only three of them were occupied. Two of them were men dressed in stiff military uniforms and the other was a dark-skinned woman in a lab coat.
“Take a seat, Weld.” Piggot said pointing to a chair. Weld only had to take one look at it, fine leather and rolling wheels, to know that it wouldn’t hold him.
“I’ll stand, if that’s alright,” Weld said as patiently as he could, “So. What’s the situation?”
Piggot sat next to the two generals, the three of them on one side, the woman in a lab coat on the other. In lieu of answering directly, she reached over to the table and set a device down. A holographic image sprang up into the air, hovering in the center of the room, an image of a figure standing out in the snow. Bundled up for the weather in a heavy coat, scarf and mittens, the figure held over its head a sign bearing only one word: “TALK?”
Just the image of her made Weld tense.
“This is a live feed just outside our main gate. Her face is too covered to get a positive ID, but we don’t have to rely on our thinkers to know that’s Narcissa,” Piggot said dryly.
Weld grit his teeth. “She wants to talk.”
“And we’re going to.”
Weld looked at Piggot. “What.”
Piggot sighed, leaning forward in her chair. “If she is willing to negotiate we have to take her up on her offer.” She spread her hands out. “We can’t keep doing this Weld. We need time to rebuild. And unless she gives it to us, we’ll be dead before spring comes.”
Weld’s eyes wandered back up to the image of the sign-holding girl. Though the snow was no longer falling, she was still waist-deep in the grey mush. A heavy wind buffeted her, making her scarf flap wildly.
“You want me,” Weld said, his voice oddly devoid of emotion, “To go out there. And talk. To her.”
“Yes.” Piggot nodded.
“The last time I saw her, I pissed her off,” Weld frowned, “And then not a day later, I watched her home city get burned to the ground. I’m pretty sure she hates my guts.”
Piggot shrugged, “I really doubt she likes any of us.”
Weld’s mouth opened, searching for a retort, but nothing came. He knew the real reason why he was being asked to do this. It was the same as it had been last time. He was someone that could go out there, meet the monster face-to-face and actually come back. Narcissa wouldn’t be able to subsume him and anyone else that went was in danger of betraying every secret and vulnerability they knew.
He was the safe choice. And, in terms of firepower, expendable.
“Fine,” Weld said grudgingly, “I’ll do it.”
The gates opened with a lazy groan, almost as if they were demanding to be left alone.
Behind Weld was all the Protectorate had to offer. Vista, Revel, Rime, Myrrdin, Chevalier and many more. In total, they numbered hundreds, a decent showing for an Endbringer showdown, but not enough to take on the world. To his side, was the last of the Triumvirate, Legend.
Legend spoke quietly, his words meant only for Weld, “Good luck.”
Weld nodded as the gates parted fully. Directly before him, some hundred yards out was the girl standing in the snow. She was longer holding her sign up. She simply stood there, waiting.
Letting his thoughts drift with the fall of snow, Weld went to her.
“Hey,” she greeted him, her face still covered by a scarf, but her voice too familiar.
“Hey,” he replied.
She put her hands together and peeled a mitten off one hand before offering it out to Weld. He stared at it for a long time.
After several seconds passed, she started to pull back, but Weld caught her in time. Taking her hand in his, he shook her hand gently, but firm.
She nodded at this, passing silent approval and pointed behind her where the forest lay. “Follow me, please.”
Having come this far, there was no other choice. Weld followed her.
He had expected an army. An encampment of thousands of soldiers, instead he found a lone tent. Spacious and well put-together, a generator hummed at the tent’s side and as he stepped inside, he could immediately tell it was heated by the way his skin fogged up. The tent was empty save for a small circular table, the sort you’d find at a cafe. Suitingly, on the table was a teapot and already full teacup, steaming and ready to be drunk.
The girl took her clothes off, each piece coming off like layers of an onion until finally, the girl was left with just a sweater and snowpants. It was a face Weld had seen a thousand times and the little differences popped out at him as clearly as a stranger’s face. Her hair was tied in a ponytail and her face was marked by a scratch here and a cut there, punctuated by a large scar that ran down from the top of her cheek all the way to her jaw. She sat on a brittle fold-out chair and gestured for Weld to take the large plastic armchair
It was not the same one as Brockton Bay’s, but it was close. Weld settled down, the contours of the chair fitting to his body snugly. It would be perfect for listening to music or meditation. But that wasn’t what Weld was here for.
“So,” he looked to her, his expression grave, “What do you want to discuss?”
The girl took her teacup and blew gently on it before taking a small sip. She closed her eyes, taking the time to savor the taste before swallowing. She set the teacup down and then with a clear voice, she asked, “What do you want to talk about, Weld?”
Weld raised an eyebrow. “You’re the one who called for this meeting.”
She looked up, locking eyes with him, “Yes. To talk.”
“Well, wasn’t there something you wanted to talk about? In specific?”
“Something I wanted to talk about? Yes. Specifically? No.”
Weld frowned. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“Sorry,” she smiled apologetically, “Communicating with words can be difficult sometimes. It’s so easy to lose your meaning with these…” she gestured to her mouth, “With this.” She set her hands down on the table and faced him directly, “But sadly, you and I have no other way of communicating. So to clarify as best I can, my intentions are: To talk about whatever you want to talk about, Weld. You and the rest of humanity. I’m sure you all have a lot you want to say.”
“I…” Weld blinked and shook his head, “I’m not sure if I speak for all of humanity. Just the Protectorate and the US.” Or what’s left of it.
“Then you speak for a significant portion of humanity.”
“Did I offend you, Weld?” The girl leaned forward, her eyes wide with concern, “Did you mean your form? Do you not consider yourself human? Because I do, Weld. I consider you the most human person I’ve ever met and I’ve met a lot of people.”
“No, but thanks, I guess,” Weld said, feeling awkward at the unwarranted earnestness, “I just meant I’m here on behalf of the Protectorate and the US.”
“Ah,” she sat back down, frowning, “My mistake.”
“It’s, uh, not a problem.”
“Hm.” She murmured, clearly unsatisfied with herself.
A quiet fell over them, the girl taking another sip while she stewed over her thoughts. Weld watching her bemused.
“So,” he said, his voice straining against the silence, “You don’t actually have anything you want to talk to me about?”
Her eyebrows shot up. “Did I not convey that clearly before? No, Weld, I’m here to listen and respond to you. I anticipated that you would have a lot of things to discuss with me?”
Weld overcame his confusion. If this was how she wanted their meeting to go then that was fine by him. “Okay, sure.” Weld sat a little straighter in his chair, “Sure, I have some things I’d like to discuss.”
“Excellent.” She set her teacup down and leaned forward, rapt with attention.
“Well, let’s start with the basics. What should I call you?”
She spread her hands out. “Feel free to can call me whatever you like. Taylor. Narcissa. Samar. Sarah. Whatever you like, it’s all applicable.”
Weld smiled as politely as he could. “Taylor, then.”
“Taylor it is.”
“Okay, Taylor.” Weld folded his hands neatly in front of him. “What is it that you want?”
Taylor shook her head gently, her ponytail swishing behind her. “I want a lot of things, Weld. Too many to count. You’re going to have to be more specific.”
“Then I’ll be more specific,” Weld said plainly, “What is it that you want with us? With humanity?”
Taylor smiled wryly, “Well, that is more specific. But that’s a very complicated answer that has changed quite a bit over time.”
“I’m mostly concerned with the now and the future.”
“Hm,” Taylor mulled over the question while she poured herself a fresh cup of tea. When she filled it about halfway, she set the teapot down and addressed Weld very simply with the words: “I don’t know. I haven’t made up my mind yet.”
Weld forced a smile as he asked, “Do you have any inclinations? Leaning one way over the other?”
Taylor sat back in her chair, drawing in a large breath and then letting it all out in an equally large sigh. “I suppose by the virtue of this meeting, I’m leaning towards not adding what’s left of humanity to myself.”
Weld nodded curtly at this news, though on the inside he was dancing with joy.
“But like I said before,” Taylor added, “I haven’t made up my mind yet.”
“If you don’t mind me saying,” Weld spoke carefully, enunciating each word as formally as possible, “We’ve already fought enough. Why not end the war?”
Taylor leaned back in her chair and sighed. “Many reasons, Weld. Fear. Pain. Knowing that the only way people can peacefully coexist is if they’re a part of me.” Taylor smiled as a misty-eyed look came over her, “I wish I could show you, Weld, I really do. Within me is a world where hate and fear don’t exist. A world free of pain, disease and unfairness. A world where there’s no reason to fight or steal because we’re all in this together.”
Her smile shrank as she went on, “With humans on the other hand, there’s always something to fight about. Always some injustice. They’ll draw lines between one another, screaming ‘this is mine!’” She shook her head, her smile gone. “It’s nonsensical. The only times people cooperate is when it puts them ahead of someone else. They refuse to just... progress together. They have to beat someone. Somebody always has to be the sacrifice, somebody always has to be exploited or abused or left behind. No matter how hard you work as a ‘hero’, Weld, you’ll never be able to stop basic human cruelty.” Taylor looked at him, pity in her eyes, “It’s simply a part of who you are.”
Weld opened his mouth, but quickly closed it again. He had clenched his teeth as she spoke, clenched so tightly that he had cracked a tooth and now a metal shard hung on the roof of his mouth. With conscious effort, he swallowed it and began reforming a replacement. It was, he realized, a blessing in disguise. He had almost spoken too quickly, but now he had been given a moment to gather his thoughts.
Taylor stared at him expectantly, but patiently. She was almost serene, as if she had all the time in the world.
Finally, with a new tooth in place, Weld made his reply, “I think I figured out why you wanted this meeting. I think I know why you don’t know what to do.”
She humored him with a smile, “Please, do tell.”
“You needed perspective. You wanted a second opinion.”
Taylor blinked, “I’d say I have more perspective than anyone who’s ever existed. I have the memories of billions.”
“The memories,” Weld pursed his lips, “But of all those people you’ve taken, is it their voice you hear? Or is it your’s?”
She frowned and that was answer enough.
“Taylor,” Weld said, his voice as soft as silk, “You’re an echochamber. You have billions of voices in your head all with the same opinions and views because you’re all the same person. You’re talking to yourself. And you wanted to talk to me because not a single part of you can imagine what life is going to be like when you’re the only one left.”
Her tea had gone cold, but she made no move to clear it out.
“The truth is, Taylor, your perfect world could just as easily exist if it was just one ordinary person completely alone on the planet.” Weld leaned forward, his words deliberate, “And although there wouldn’t be anything like injustice or cruelty, I think at the end of the day, that one person would be very lonely.”
She stared at Weld, but otherwise she was expressionless. Her eyes searched him, but there was little Weld would reveal from his exterior. He would not tremble or jitter with nerves, his body was honed steel and he met her gaze unflinchingly.
“And that’s why I should let you live?” Taylor asked, her voice quiet, “To keep me company?”
“Well,” Weld sat back in his chair, exuding a confidence he didn’t really feel, “If you want my company, you can start by not threatening me.”
She rolled her eyes. “We’re done here.”
And Weld hadn’t even been torn apart or thrown into a giant magnet. A wave of relief struck him, but he kept his poker face intact as he stood. “I guess we are.”
Taylor waved a hand at him dismissively. “You can go.”
He didn’t. “What should I tell everyone else?” Weld asked.
“What?” She asked irritably.
“Should I tell them to get ready for war? Or to start rebuilding?”
Taylor scowled. “I’m still making up my mind. Now get out of here before you tip the balance.”
“Sure,” Weld said as he stepped out of the tent, “See you later, Taylor.”
Taylor didn’t respond, watching silently as he left.
The trek back to base wasn’t long and Weld took his time.
"And do you remember the look on Pastor Davis' face when he stumbled in on us?" The old woman asked, already giggling like a schoolgirl.
"He was as red as a tomato," the girl replied, sharing the old woman's smile.
"Oh, I thought we were gonna get it then. He just about ready to whip us good and then you... then you said..." The old woman clapped her hands, snorting with laughter, unable to get the words out.
"'She was choking, sir! I was just performing CPR,'" the girl filled in.
The old woman pulled back in the bed, her giggles intensifying and she had to fight to breathe again. Gasping, she set a hand on her chest and calmed herself down. "Oh my, I haven't laughed like that," she wiped a tear from her eye, "In a long time."
The girl smiled patiently, letting the old woman settle down.
It was quiet in the hospital, a respectful silence that was only disturbed by the gentle murmur of life outside and the old woman's laughter. The machinery that monitored her vitals were silent and reported that the old woman was, for the time being, safe.
Safe and as healthy as she could possibly be at her age, which was to say, not very. Her eyes still carried a sharp light, but she was above all else, old.
The last of her giggles subsided and slowly all that was left of her smile was a small turn at the edges. The old woman looked out the window, watching the silent picture of the city. Cars humming along, people going about in the street, dipping into shops and restaurants when the urge filled them. It was only barely a city, the number of people not enough to fill the hundreds of buildings that still stood. But despite all else, it was peaceful.
"Tell me," the old woman spoke up, the humor in her voice faded, "Will I see him?"
"No," the girl answered.
The old woman turned to face the girl who sat at her bedside. "Then why even bother?"
"Because I remember him." The girl held out her hand. "And if you let me, I'll remember you, too."
The old woman looked down at the girl's hand and stared for a long time.
And then with one last smile, she touched the girl's hand.
The girl made her way to the park, mindful of crowds, taking the long way around each time. It wasn't strictly necessary, the girl was covered head-to-toe, but it was safer this way. The clothes she wore were normal albeit overly warm, high-tops and jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and gloves. The only item truly odd was the mask she wore, it was sculpted to resemble the face of a sleeping woman. Every inch of her body, save for her hair was covered.
As the girl entered the park, people took notice of her immediately, some watching her every move, others quickly picking their things up and walking the other way. It wasn't the worst welcome she ever had.
The girl made her way up a winding path, and began climbing a hill. The steps were uneven in places, the stonework damaged to nubs and she had to skip more than a step or two. Halfway up, she could hear the pleasant melody of a piano, dancing through notes. The song was like the call of a siren and the girl increased her pace.
By the time she reached the top, she was, to her embarrassment, a little winded.
"You sure took your time," a voice called out.
The girl looked up and saw a metal man sitting on a stone chair. Beside him was a small circular table, complete with a radio, tea set and an open chair.
As the girl took her seat, he picked up the teapot and filled her cup.
She pulled off her mask and smiled. "You know how it is."
He set the teapot down and sat back in his seat. "I suppose I do."
Nothing more was said. Nothing more needed to be said. As sunset came, they enjoyed the view together.
That's it for 28 Taylors Later.
I know that I left certain questions unanswered, questions that I seriously considered adding to the story, but in the end I decided it was better to leave them alone. My focus was always on the characters of Taylor and Weld and to that point, I'm happy with the story I managed to write.
Thank you for reading 28 Taylors Later.