The setup was the same, but there were undeniable changes. More people, and just about everyone was showing up in force.
Thirteen panels, glowing lightly to light the individual groups from behind. Each had a symbol on it, now, representing the teams.
Rachel stood at the corner at the end of the hallway, her back against the panel. Her hair was a little out of sorts, and she wore her jacket with the heavy fur collar. With stray dog hairs sticking to every article of clothing, each individual hair and strand of fur seemed to glow luminescent. Bastard sat beside her, and his eyes reflected the same light.
We entered the booth as a group, Tattletale leading the way, with Rachel falling into step beside me. We settled into a similar formation as we joined the others. The booth was framed by a railing, same as before, but there was a crescent-shaped desk on our side of the railing. Tattletale had already laid out handheld devices, a phone and several documents.
She took her place at the center of the desk. Our spokesman, apparently.
I glanced over my shoulder. The others were present, Parian and Foil included. Grue’s presence made for a dramatic effect, tendrils of his darkness coiling around the base of the panel. He was making himself larger, moving the tendrils more. It signaled a higher degree of emotion.
The logo was the name of the team, drawn out like a gang tag.
I took a deep breath, then looked over the rest of the room. The other booths were crowded as well. Every face was shrouded in shadow, the groups lit only by the glowing panels behind them.
It pissed me off. I was surprised at how much it bothered me, at the vehemence of the emotion, the impulse to act, to react. To yell at them and call them all imbeciles, because they were busy trying to protect their identities and be secretive when that was the lowest priority right now.
I managed to make myself stay still, instead. If I was a little unhinged right this moment, then I needed to be calm, logical.
It wasn’t really working. I couldn’t keep that sense of outrage over this trivial thing contained. I settled for channeling it into my swarm, having them crawl in a slow rotation over me, flowing over and around one another. It was the equivalent of drumming my fingers or pacing, if somewhat more mental than physical.
It barely helped.
Cauldron was present. Doctor Mother stood behind their desk as Tattletale stood behind ours. Contessa and the man Tattletale had identified as the Number Man stood with her. Our god damned accountant, from our supervillain days, a major player in Cauldron. They’d managed our bank accounts, just like they’d controlled virtually everything else from the shadows.
Chevalier was here, alongside Revel, Exalt, Golem and various team leaders from the Protectorate and Wards programs. I saw the dirt, dust and bloodstains. I looked as bad as they did. Chevalier had laid his cannonblade across the curved railing, and the elaborate, heavily embellished weapon served to help frame the group. The Protectorate logo marked the back of the panel.
I looked at Golem, and he averted his eyes, very deliberately turning his attention to the other groups around the perimeter of the room. Was he ashamed? Angry? I couldn’t parse it.
The Guild, with Dragon absent. Narwhal stood beside Defiant, both of them ridiculously tall. Masamune stood beside them, not old but still stooped and frail, with a thin beard. A D.T. soldier stood by the man. I could guess which soldier it was. The Guild’s icon, the spear-pole with the ribbon-like flag flowing from it, marked the panel.
“…and I’m not going to appeal to emotion,” Defiant was saying. “I’m not going to tell you how brave she was, how selfless and noble. You were watching us, before you pulled the plug on her. I know that, and I know you saw all that. No. You don’t care. So I’m going to talk about the facts, Saint. You’re failing.”
Saint, standing in the booth opposite the Guild members, had been ignoring him, focusing on a computer as he typed ceaselessly. At those last two and a half words, Saint paused for a fraction of a second. The other Dragonslayers were situated at either end of the crescent-shaped desk, seeing to their own tasks. The woman glanced at Saint, and that seemed to be enough to remind him to get back to the typing.
“Dragon could evacuate. She could minimize damage, manually control the forcefields instead of relying on automatic overrides. New York’s forcefields went up too early. Golden beam sheared through, knocked it down. A third of the city gone. Dragon would have succeeded, you failed. Two point two million estimated deaths. I want you to know the numbers. I want you to be aware of every single one of those deaths. Believe me, I’ll remind you, and I’ll make sure everyone else knows as well.”
Saint reached up to his helmet for a second, then dropped his hand back to the keyboard.
“Don’t bother,” Tattletale said. “He muted you.”
Defiant stopped talking, setting his hands on his spear instead.
All of the other major players were present, minus the Birdcage contingent. The Thanda had six members in near-identical robes. Their logo was a block of letters arranged in a five-by-five grid. Moord Nag had a ring of skulls around a black circle. Faultline’s crew had a wavelength, like a reading on an seismic monitor.
Looking at them, I was startled to realize Dinah was in the group, standing right beside Faultline.
Which didn’t parse. I turned my head to look across the room at another little girl.
There was a nine emblazoned on the panel, well above her head.
I glanced back at Grue, saw how he was deliberately looking away, and connected the dots as far as why he was withdrawn and generating more darkness.
“We…” I started to speak, and found the pitch of my voice to be a little skewed. Quiet, I continued, “We invited Bonesaw?”
“Cauldron did,” Tattletale said. “Hard to see, but she’s restrained.”
“That doesn’t make me feel any better.” Custom made organisms could erode metal or break glass. She could have a breakable capsule that released a plague throughout the room..
“No,” Tattletale said. “But Cauldron okayed it.”
“Fuck me,” I said. My bugs stirred in much the same way Grue’s darkness was. It wasn’t enough of an outlet. I settled for gripping the railing in front of me. “Fuck them.”
“Do you need to leave?” Tattletale asked, her voice just as quiet as mine. “I could send Rachel with you.”
I shook my head.
No. I was pissed, but I wanted to stay.
What the hell was Grue experiencing? This was the girl who had cut him open and spread the still-living contents of his body around a walk-in freezer, complete with augmentation that would allow him to experience pain on a level that a normal human couldn’t.
For kicks. Because she was curious.
We were joined by a group of the Yàngbǎn, in flowing uniforms that fit somewhere between martial arts outfits and army gear, with masks like multifaceted gems. Faceless, with only numbers to identify them. There were capes I knew to be the Elite: Nonpareil and Patrician, Agnes Court and Blueblood. They were the opposite of faceless, taking great pride in their appearance and their powers. The Elite were an organized crime syndicate, shutting down anyone who tried to use their powers for profit, unless those people worked for them.
I recognized Adalid, a South American cape, hero to the people, alongside Califa de Perro, who had one foot propped up on the desk, an elbow resting on his knee. There was a man I assumed to be an interpreter beside them. The representatives of the Suits were present as well, each with costumes stylized after different card suits from the original and newer decks – heart, club, spade, diamond, sword, wand, coin and cup.
I was surprised to see them. The Suits were capes from the United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom had been obliterated. The leader of the Hearts, Swords and Cups weren’t present, leaving me to assume they were among the ones who hadn’t made it. The Suits managed different duties, classifying capes into groups for public service, fighting, intrigue, fast response and watching for malfeasance in other areas of the public. I’d read the PRT’s pages on them when I’d been investigating possible vectors for the end of the world, only to discover that the Suits were barely treading water as a group, in terms of funding and membership. Too many deaths to Endbringers, even before the pace had picked up, and the merchandising wasn’t working out, with the group accepting handouts from the PRT on a regular basis. Not exactly the image they’d given to the public, of an elite group that was hipper, cooler and more effective than the King’s Men.
The King’s Men hadn’t made it, I noted.
The three blasphemies were standing at one booth, young women with masks depicting ruby-lipped faces, a smile, a frown, a snarl. Alabaster white skin, white hair, white flowing dresses. The frowning one held hands with the other two. They were silent, still, and their very presence seemed to be bothering the nearby Suits and Protectorate members.
The final group was arriving, stationing themselves opposite Cauldron. I glanced up at Cauldron’s icon, marking the upper half of the glowing panel – a stylized ‘c’, tilted upward at a forty-five degree angle.
That same mark, in different sizes and at different angles, marked the various members of the new arrivals. Weld’s Irregulars. Weld had altered his look, a little more edgy, a little less human. Segments of his metallic flesh stood out like horns or scales, and the veins and crevices were deeper.
Strangest of all was that he was wearing another of the case fifty-threes, in addition to his thick canvas pants. Tendrils encircled his arms and legs, wound around his fingers. Loops of metal, in turn, bound the tendrils, locking them into place, or helped direct them into and through his limbs. All of the tendrils led to the same point, to a pale girl’s face, with Cauldron’s mark on her cheekbone. She had no body I could make out, no hair, only the tendrils.
I saw Gully, standing a little taller than she had the last time I’d seen her in person, a muscle-laden young woman with braided hair that trailed on the floor. Sanguine, with red hair and red skin. Gentle Giant, a placid-faced young man who stood head and shoulders above even Gully, and innumerable others.
The moment they were settled in, their icon appeared on the screen above them. A three-fingered hand.
“We’re all here,” Doctor Mother said. Civil, pleasant, unruffled even though the world was being dismantled.
Weld wasn’t so inclined to be polite, nor was he unruffled He spoke with a harsh tone that overrode his faint Boston accent, “I’m trying to think of why I shouldn’t tell my Irregulars to murder you three right here.”
The Doctor didn’t reply. She met his stare with one of her own.
The tendrils around Weld’s body tightened to the point that they bit into the metal. I saw some people shift position
He continued, “I know what your Contessa does. I know about Number Man too. Hell, we know about the ghost girl who keeps you company.”
“We call her the Custodian.”
“Is she one of your mistakes, like us?”
“Yes,” the Doctor said.
“And did you brainwash her to keep her servile?”
“No. For one, she has no brain. Is this really necessary, Weld?”
Weld didn’t show a trace of hesitation. “I think it is. Everything seems to tie back to Cauldron. To you.”
“You’re blaming us for this.”
“You’re the most likely culprit,” Weld said.
“No,” the Doctor replied. “Our issue here is a lack of information. We have four sources that can corroborate the same story. One of those sources is in the Birdcage, where they’ll remain until we decide it’s time to free them.”
“There’s Bonesaw, who isn’t our most reliable source, and I’m guessing Tattletale is the fourth,” Weld answered. He saw the Doctor respond and nodded a little. “Convenient. For those who don’t know, the Undersiders got their start working for Coil, who was linked to Cauldron by two degrees of separation at most.”
“You have done your homework,” Tattletale said. “But no. No ties to Cauldron here, aside from the rare clandestine meetings where we do rock-paper-scissors to figure out who plays a big part in the latest Endbringer attack.”
Weld shook his head a little, and then turned his attention to the Doctor.
I didn’t hear the question but a large part of that was the fact that I wasn’t listening.
“You knew?” I asked her.
“No. I only figured it all out just before it happened,” Tattletale murmured, not taking her eyes off Doctor Mother.
“But they knew?”
“Yup. Marquis did too, but they told him to stay quiet.”
I clenched my fists.
No. I wasn’t going to be able to suppress this.
I could leave, stalk from the room.
Except why the fuck should I? To spare these people’s sensibilities?
“You knew,” I said, interrupting Weld’s angry monologue about Cauldron’s monstrous parahumans. I spoke loud enough for everyone to hear. I didn’t care anymore. “You knew Scion would do this?”
Doctor Mother looked my way. “Yes.”
“And you did nothing. You stood back and you let this happen,” I said. I was aware that every set of eyes in the room was on me.
“It’s better that this happens now. From what we know- and I do want to express that I’m eager to compare notes with the other parties- it was inevitable. Now or later, Scion was going to go rogue. If we waited until a decade had passed, we might not have the numbers or the powers we have now.”
“You knew,” I repeated myself, staring at her. “We could have put this off. Bought ourselves time to deal with other crises, to find an answer, a way to stop him or…”
I trailed off, lost for words. To stop him. That’s enough.
“We did try,” the Doctor said. “We offered as much assistance as we could without hamstringing ourselves for the next part of this.”
The Number Man spoke, “All of the statistics point to a decline in population over the ensuing few years. We were already in the midst of the breaking point. You experienced much of that yourself, Undersiders. Enough capes in one place, and it becomes the equivalent of nitro waiting to blow. Brockton Bay wasn’t managed quite so well as other clusters like New York or New Delhi.”
He gestured towards Chevalier, then the Thanda as he named the cities.
He continued, “You yourself took part in the chain reaction of events that followed the attempted ABB takeover.”
I didn’t move.
“Cause and effect. A local gang leader by the name of Lung was arrested by Armsmaster, the leader of the local Protectorate team.” He paused very deliberately, very knowingly, before continuing, “A subordinate member of the gang goes on a rampage, escalating violence and