I was told her name was Agent Inessa; they never gave me her last name.
The train station's office had been turned into an information network. Metal suitcases with computers inside sat on the desks, monitors buzzing with a constant flow of information. Agents--men and women dressed in sharp black suits--occupied several terminals, typing away steadily while issuing orders into their headsets.
Inessa looked like she was in her forties or fifties; her hair was a tangle of rust-red barbed wire. A streak of gray started at her temple and wove its way to the back of her skull; her nose was a misshapen, doughy lump--like it had been broken several times over and never set right. She wore a suit that did nothing to flatter her and kept her hair bound up in a tight, conservative pony-tail--but she still exuded the sort of feminine charisma that seized you by the throat and refused to let go. When she smiled, people watched. When she talked, people listened.
I was listening right now.
"The mask," she said as I entered, flanked on either side by agents. "Take it off."
"I'd rather not," I said.
"Your name is Sue Daysdale. You're a sixteen year old student at Brynswood High. You live on Montgomery Street, and your interests include cars, ridiculously bad movies, and collecting stuffed unicorns."
"I--I don't collect stuffed unicorns!" I said. How the hell did she know about Mr. Sparkles?
She snorted. "I'm sure you're used to dealing with idiots, but not everyone in the public sector has their head lodged up their ass."
"Hairs from your discarded armor. Voice analysis from records during the Cape-Buster incident. Testimony from Mr. Donovan--what little he was willing to reveal. We knew who you were a week ago, Daysdale. Take off your mask."
I took off my mask.
"Your campaign as a cape officially ends tonight. You will submit everything in your bunker for analysis by the government. You'll spend the rest of your life avoiding so much as getting a parking ticket--because if you do, you will find yourself spending the rest of your life in a prison that does not exist on an island that you will never find on any map."
My jaw clenched. My fists tightened.
Several agents around me shifted, as if to remind me of their presence.
"Oh, I forgot--you have 'rights'," Inessa said, stepping around the table. "You're still in high-school--probably have a Civics course--so maybe you think you know what those 'rights' are."
She came closer. Her face was nearly in mine. "Except the rest of the country has rights too, Daysdale. Rights that I am here to protect. Rights that involve not letting little teenage shits go joyriding in mommy's power armor."
The door behind me opened. Both agents darted their hands underneath their coats; Inessa stepped back. I felt Sumerset's hand on my shoulder.
He'd seen better days. His other arm was in a cast--he had bruises across his face, and a patch on his temple. He was breathing heavily--he should have been in bed.
"You're supposed to be in a hospital, soldier," Inessa said.
"I'm too old and ornery to die. Or take orders," Sumerset said, before adding: "Sir."
"I'm not wavering on this, Sumerset."
"Bullshit," he said. "What, they clip your balls when you got promoted? The old Inessa wouldn't spank this girl and send her home. The old Inessa would've liked her moxie. The old Inessa would've offered her a damn job."
Inessa laughed--the sound was violent and short. "You think you can play me, son? She's finished. That's final."
"No, I'm not," I said. "And you know it."
Both Sumerset and Inessa turned to stare at me.
My heart was hammering. My throat was clenched. My fingers were trembling. But still, I pressed on: "You need me. You need the Skull."
"Sue," Sumerset said. "Don't--"
"Oh, no," Inessa said, smiling. "Don't cut her off. I've got to hear this one."
"You said it yourself. You sniffed me out with a squeaky voice and some hairs in my helmet," I said. "You probably did the same to my mom. But you didn't stop her, did you? And you sure as hell didn't stop me."
Inessa watched me, stoney and silent.
"My mom killed the Grin--you didn't stop her. You knew I was up against the Scourge--you didn't stop me. Why?" I asked her. "You could have done something at any time. But you didn't. Which means one of two things: Either you're incompetent, or you're up to something."
Sumerset's grip tightened. Inessa started to smile. I wasn't sure what either meant.
"I think you needed her. You needed someone operating outside of the system," I said. "And I think you still do."
"You really are her daughter," she said, and then she gestured to the door. "Get out of here. Sumerset and I need to talk."
Sumerset released me; with my legs and hands shaking, I walked out of the room.
Out in the hallway, I nearly collapsed.
Somehow, I had projected a sense of fearlessness to Inessa, but the fact was that she held my life in her hands--and I knew it. Everything my mother had worked toward--everything she had left behind--could be snatched away in an instant.
There was a time when that wouldn't have bothered me. But the more I learned about who my mother was, the more I valued her legacy.
Sumerset emerged from the room a few minutes later. His face was grim. He leaned on his cane heavily, pausing for several long moments--as if assembling what he wanted to say.
"Sue, a few weeks ago, we were talking about putting the Skull behind you--burying it once and for all. A few minutes ago, and Inessa was offering to do just that. You threw her offer right back in her face and basically offered to do this gig full time."
I took in a breath, waiting for it.
"Do you actually want to be the Skull?"
"I think so. Yes."
"I--I don't know," I said. "I loved my mom. She was wonderful, and caring, and always did right by me. But I feel like I didn't really know her. And when I'm wearing this suit, and when I'm doing all the things she did, I feel like--for the first time, I am getting to know her. I feel like it's a second chance to learn who she was, to meet her all over again."
"Sue, if that's the only--"
"It's not just that," I said. "It feels right. I guess that sounds kind of stupid, but it really does. Mr. Sumerset, in the past two days I've been attacked with boomerangs, beat the snot out of the Scourge, come face-to-face with a time-traveler, been told to save the world, and met the most powerful superhero alive." I shook my head. "And--it's been terrifying, and emotionally draining, and I've never been this exhausted or scared in my entire life, but--"
"But you like it," he said, and then he sighed.
"Yeah," I said. "I... I guess I do. And I want to keep going. It's all so crazy, yeah, but it's also exciting, and a weird kind of wonderful, and--"
"We'll need some ground rules. First one: This is not a goddamn democracy," he said. "I am in charge. You do what I tell you to do, because if you don't, people will die. Second rule: See rule number one. Third rule..."
I never let him finish. I threw myself to my feet and hugged him, squeezing as hard as I dared.
Anna's car was waiting for us; Sumerset sat up front with Anna driving. I wanted him to go to a hospital, but he just shook his head and muttered something about living through worse.
"So," Anna said, looking back to me with a grin. "How was your day?"
"Punched some dudes. Met Sovereign. Told the head of the BPA to go piss off," I said. "Y'know, standard operating procedure." A thought occurred to me--I turned to Sumerset.
"Hey. The time-traveling girl--what happened to her? Is she okay?"
"Afraid not. She was dead by the time the paramedics reached her," he said.
We all got quiet for a little bit.
"Do we even know what that was all about?" Anna asked.
"No," I said. "I guess it might come up later."
Sumerset reached for the radio, clicking it on. We pulled out of the parking lot and into the street.
"Sumerset. I wanted to ask you something else," I said.
"The letter I found--the one that lead me to my mom's bunker. I was thinking--if she really didn't want me to take up the mantle, she could have done things differently."
"What do you mean?"
"She could have just, like, set it to self-destruct after a certain period of inactivity or something. She didn't need to show it to me," I said.
"You said the letter was never sent, right? Maybe she realized that," he said.
"But she never did set it to self-destruct or anything. And she left the letter somewhere where I could find it," I said.
Sumerset fished a cigarette out of his front pocket, pausing to light it. "Maybe she wanted you to see it."
"She was never happy about leaving you behind to fight crime," he said, puffing out a slow trail of smoke. "Always felt guilty about it. S'why she retired near the end--to take care of you. But maybe she thought if you saw why she was absent so often, you'd understand. Maybe you'd even be a little proud."
I sat back in my seat, thinking about that. "I am."
"I think she'd be proud of you too," he said. "'Course, pretty sure she'd beat both of us up before saying so."
"Ma'am. We've found something you should see."
Inessa stopped, half-way out of the office. She turned to the technician, who was holding up a print-out--a photocopy of a newspaper article.
"Need help doing the crossword puzzle, Jim? Four words across, begins with F, ends with E; 'What I do to people who interfere needlessly with my lunch break'."
"It's a newspaper clipping we found on the dead girl in the train station," he said. "Look at the date."
Two minutes later, she was on the telephone with the Pentagon, organizing an emergency meeting between herself and several heads of state.
"Yes, sir," she said. "If our source is to be trusted, in one year's time, the Sovereign will go rogue."