As I sit in the driver’s seat of my car in the underground garage of the PRT building, I consider the message I’d spent the last five minutes composing. By now, Dragon has likely heard of my taking leave but hasn’t said anything to maintain the illusion of her humanity.
‘Going incommunicado. Opsec dictates that you must not keep track of me. Will contact you when I resurface. Trust me.’
Four short sentences. I’d briefly considered adding a fifth - the three words to which so much meaning is ascribed - but decided that it would not be appropriate. Doing so would only complicate matters.
Besides - my message needs to be innocuous enough that it won’t twig for Saint that I’m going hunting for him, but meaningful enough that Dragon will do as I say and keep my movements from her systems.
I chew my lip for a moment, before I catch myself and cease the action. The first, third and fourth sentences are good, but I don’t think the second passes muster. Too obvious - I need to be more subtle.
I let out a sigh. That’s just it - isn’t it? Since I came back, subtlety has been the name of the game. I wish I were more experienced with it - I’d like to believe that I’ve managed well so far, but…
Well, I’m the one who’s dithering over the subtext in a simple text message. I consider the problem further, rewriting the sentence.
‘Going incommunicado. There must not exist a record of this mission. Will contact you when I resurface. Trust me.’
It’s… suspicious, to say the least. It makes it sound like I’m going off to perform a Protectorate black-op. But, it will give her the implication that I don’t want to be tracked - lest she sees something she shouldn’t have, and be forced to act.
It’s better, but not perfect. I need to give her a good reason to become willfully ignorant of my activities. I tap the delete button once more, rewriting the message.
‘Going incommunicado. In this case, ignorance is bliss. Will contact you when I resurface. Trust me.’
I nod. It will have to do - I could sit here and ponder this message forever. This one’s vague enough to not let any of the specifics on, but still gets across the message I need to.
I hit the send button and wait a moment. The bubble that indicates that she’s typing a reply appears. I pull the battery from the phone before the message arrives, replacing the cover I had removed earlier over the empty slot.
I turn the ignition, pulling out of the garage. My gear is stowed safely in the trunk of my car - riding across the country on my motorcycle in full armour is far too conspicuous for my purposes.
I drive westward out of the city. My destination is in Canada, but before I get too far I need to plug any potential leaks. Once I’m properly out of the city, I pull up on the side of the road. This part of the road passes through a forest, and isn’t particularly well-travelled. I should have a few minutes to do what I need to do.
I pull out the toolkit I keep in the centre console. Working quickly, I grab my phone and take out the screws holding it together. I pry out the tracking chip - powered by a second, internal coin battery - and deposit it inside a resealable plastic bag. I grab my pliers and likewise pry off the secondary tracking unit soldered onto the main board of the phone.
I’ve probably wrecked a few of the traces, but it’s nothing I can’t repair with a little bit of time. The secondary tracking unit joins the first one, and I throw the rest of my disassembled phone into a second bag.
Now for the dangerous part - if anybody sees me do this, my identity is as good as blown. Quickly glancing about to confirm that I’m still unobserved, I clamber into the back of my car. Folding down the back passenger seats gives me access to the trunk and reveals my armour, bodysuit, halberd and a portable toolkit.
There’s eight trackers that I need removed. Two in the halberd, one in the helmet, one for each of my suit’s limbs, and one in the chest piece. Normally, they’d be tucked away - stubbornly out of reach behind layers of tightly packed components. Thankfully, I’d had the foresight to think ahead when I had been doing the final maintenance check two days ago.
Rather, the trackers were conveniently waiting just underneath the exterior casing panels ready to be pulled right out. It’d taken a little bit of finagling, but thankfully my sabotage hasn't otherwise affected the performance of my equipment.
I set to work, hastily popping open casing, depositing the tiny chips inside the bag. My body serves to block most of what I’m doing from the road, but it wouldn’t stop a determined rubbernecker from seeing as they drive by.
My concerns were unwarranted, however - I finish my work without incident. I shake my head at my own worries - it’s ten in the morning on a Thursday - the chance of someone else being out here is close to zero.
I clamber back into the driver's seat, getting back on the road. The bag of trackers weigh heavily in my pocket. I’ll need to dispose of them soon. Throw them in a river as I pass? No - that wouldn’t do. Flush them down the toilet when I reach the next town?
I nod to myself - that would work. To an observer, it would look as if I were simply moving about the town. Not as immediately suspicious as following the flow of a river. Of course, my civilian identity is known to the PRT, so if they decide to track me down, they have the means.
No - this line of thought is not productive. While removing trackers is suspicious, it isn’t grounds for such drastic action. The Protectorate guidebook itself has an exception to the prohibition on the practice in the form of an ‘unless absolutely necessary’ clause. I’ll have to trust that anybody in the PRT keeping track of me realises as much.
And, in this case, the clause definitely applies. I can’t risk doing anything that would tip Saint off - and I don’t know how much access he has to the PRT monitoring tools through Dragon. If he checked the position of my armor on a whim and found it was mere miles away from his base, I can’t be certain he wouldn’t panic and do something drastic.
The paranoid bastard has certainly taken drastic action before.
Still, my plan isn’t flawless - for one, I don’t know for certain that the Dragonslayers will be where I think they will be. My information on that front is a little over two years premature - Dragon had given me a play-by-play of her hunt for Saint, and even then, the most specific information I’ve got is that their hideout is relatively near a town on the northern shore of Lake Huron.
If my search does not turn up anything, I do have a second avenue of investigation in the form of the civilian names of each of the Dragonslayers. It isn’t something I’m eager to pursue, but if it comes down to letting the Dragonslayers run free or breaking the unwritten rules…
Well, there isn’t even a contest.
The trip’s going to be a long one - twelve hours of driving, at the very least. Crossing the border into Canada will be a trick, too. As a member of the Protectorate, I have some discretionary powers I can exercise, but being forced to use them may tip my hand.
I don’t really see a way around it, though. Causing an international incident is not something I need credited to me.
Niagara Falls is a tourist destination, and I look anything but the part - my rumpled collared shirt and creased slacks betray me.
“Passport, purpose, and duration of visit?”
I hand the man my passport. “I’m making a trip of the lakes. I don’t expect I’ll be staying more than two weeks.”
He nods, taking my papers. “Keep the car parked. I’ll run you through the system.”
He turns, walking over to the console in the checkpoint. I’m reasonably confident that his check will reveal that I’m an employee of the PRT in good standing - being as much gets me a handful of allowances when travelling between the US and Canada. Forgoing a vehicle search being one such allowance, thankfully.
To my knowledge, the privileges are entirely to conceal the identities of Heroes crossing the border - a border guard stumbling across a costume during a routine search is an unacceptable level of risk. It isn’t a perfect solution - I’ve no doubt that less scrupulous employees exploit it for more nefarious purposes - but the cost has obviously been judged to be worth the benefit.
I’m not terribly worried about showing up on Dragon or Saint’s radar - unrestricted access to the database of people crossing the border isn’t something Dragon has, to my memory. It’s a risk, but not one I can avoid without a prohibitive cost.
I shake my head, leaning back into my seat. The trip so far has been an exhausting one. Driving non-stop all day on unfamiliar roads without the assistance of a navigator isn’t my favourite way to travel. But, it has at least given me time to think.
As a result, my to-do list has done nothing but get longer.
Figure out a way to pacify the Endbringers. Deal with Jack Slash and the rest of The Nine. Prevent Echidna from becoming a problem. Prevent Coil from getting his hands on the Alcott girl. Finish work on the nano-thorn technology. Ask Dragon to build me a set of prosthetics. Get evacuation portals to alternate Earths. Deal with Bakuda before she becomes a threat.
Many smaller things I could do for smaller gains, too - prevent New Wave from falling apart. Stop Mouse Protector from being targeted by The Nine. Ensure Weaver receives a positive introduction to the Protectorate.
There’s a handful of Villains I could potentially flip to the side of the angels - Purity, The Undersiders, some of The Travellers. Likewise, there’s a handful of Villains that could potentially become bigger issues than they are now that need to be neutralised - Nilbog, The Fallen, Heartbreaker, Blasto.
But, I’ve only got so much time. Maybe I’ll be able to do everything - but it would definitely come at a cost. An opportunity cost - in addition to whatever resources other than my time that I also expend in doing so - influence, material, money, secrecy.
Sooner or later, I’ll need to decide what’s worth pursuing directly and what can afford to either be delegated or take a back seat altogether.
The man comes back, my passport in hand. He passes it back to me. “All cleared, sir. Enjoy your trip.”
He steps back, and I put my car back into drive. There’s still quite a trip ahead of me, but at the moment I need to find a place to park and catch some sleep. An inconvenience, and a waste of time to boot. I’ll have to be sure to pursue a set of cybernetic enhancements sooner rather than later.