Prey 14.8

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“How did it go!?”  Tattletale called out to me before I’d even landed.

I set Atlas down on the ground and hopped off.  “Whatever the fuck they just dropped on the city, it apparently took out Crawler and Mannequin.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Tattletale said.  “I think that was Bakuda’s stuff they just used.  What about the other members of the Nine?”

“They’re on the run.  Last I saw, Siberian’s creator looked pretty rough.  Not sure if the spider bites and stings will kill him or if Bonesaw will manage to counteract it.  Depends on whether Legend and the other heroes can keep up the assault long enough to keep Bonesaw from getting to work.”

I could see Bitch react to the mention of Siberian’s creator.  She looked startled, then scowled.

“You found them?”  Tattletale asked.  “Siberian and Legend?”

“Yeah.  Legend told me to scram, in case Bonesaw deploys the threat she’s been holding over our heads, and so I don’t get in the way.  I would have fought to stay, but he’s an intimidating guy to argue with.”

Grue nodded.  “I wouldn’t feel bad about it.  It means we can serve as backup if the heroes lose.”

“And this threat?  Do we know what it is?  Some zombie apocalypse?”  Regent asked.

“No.” Tattletale shook her head.  “She sees herself as an artist.  She’s going to want to do something that catches us off guard, something that scares us in a way that simple horror movie monsters don’t.”

“I don’t know about you guys,” Sundancer spoke up, “But monsters scare me enough.”

“Says the girl who can vaporize buildings and give Leviathan pause for thought,” Regent said, giving her a sidelong glance.

“Leviathan broke half the bones in my body.  The only reason I’m standing here is Panacea,” Sundancer said, a little defensively.

“You two do raise a point, though,” Tattletale cut in.  “Capes are powerful.  If she wanted to scare the locals, she’s done that.  I’d be willing to bet the ace she has up her sleeve is going to be more aimed at scaring people like us, like Legend.  She wants to terrorize the strongest, target people who everyone looks up to and fears.”

Just us?” I asked.

“She’s shown she knows how to disable powers,” Trickster said.  “If she did that on a larger scale, then-”

“No,” Tattletale shook her head.  “She wouldn’t have used the dust and the darts if that was the big reveal.  It doesn’t make sense tactically, because we could have come up with a way to deal, and Skitter’s partially immune anyways.  And it doesn’t make sense artistically, either.  You have to think of her as less of a scientist or doctor and more of a performer.”

A thirty story skyscraper tipped over and crashed to the ground in the distance.  The rumbling crash of the building’s collapse seemed delayed in getting to us.  I could see Legend, more through the flashes of his lasers than anything else, but everyone else was out of sight, specks I couldn’t have made out if they weren’t on the ground.

“If we’re lucky, we won’t have to worry about Bonesaw’s plot,” Trickster said.

“Plan for the worst,” Grue replied, staring into the distance, “If you’re right, you’re prepared.  If you’re wrong, you’re pleasantly surprised.”

“Heard that one before,” Imp commented.

“Still true,” Grue replied, sounding annoyed.

“Can’t plan for this,” I said.  “I’m growing to hate tinkers.  People with enhanced senses and tinkers.  And fire manipulators.  Sorry, Sundancer.”

She shrugged.

I turned back to the subject at hand, “We can’t guess what she’s come up with because her tinker abilities make her so versatile, and that means we can’t preemptively set up any countermeasures.”

Tattletale tucked her hair behind her ear.  “Fits in a vial, assuming that vial she was showing off was the real weapon, something to do with water, she said… you guys haven’t been drinking anything except bottled water?”

There were head shakes and the occasional muttered “No” from the rest of the group.

“I’ve even been making my tea with it,” I said.

“And we know there’s going to be a strategic purpose behind it, beyond causing terror,” Tattletale went on.

“You’re getting into that headspace again, Tattletale,” Grue said.  “Tunnel vision.”

“Right.  I’m done now,” Tattletale replied.

“Is it such a problem?” Trickster leaned forward, “If you can give us answers about this thing, that’s good, right?”

Tattletale shook her head, “If I’m digging deep enough for answers that I’m losing sight of other things, it means I’m probably speculating, and that tends to mean I’m generating false positives, heading down the wrong path to the wrong conclusions.  I told Grue to stop me if I’m doing it, and Skitter’s right when she says we can’t anticipate what Bonesaw’s going to do, so it’s pointless anyways.”

“If we did want to take countermeasures,” I said, “We should maybe think about tracking down Amy.  Or figuring out where she is.”

“Panacea?”  Grue frowned.  “She didn’t exactly leave us on good terms.”

“I know.  But she can counteract whatever Bonesaw does.”

“Unless she falls victim to it,” Tattletale said, sighing.  “After two bad incidents downtown, I’d lay odds she’s heading up toward the docks.  It gives her the best odds of finding a place that’s empty, where she and Glory Girl can hide out for-”

“Heads up!”

I wasn’t sure who had shouted the warning, but I turned to look in the direction of the fighting, and I instantly knew it was Bonesaw’s work.

The water was turning crimson.  Where it was only one or two inches deep above the pavement, it turned a dark red that resembled blood.  That alone might have been spooky enough, but it was spreading over hundreds of feet in a matter of seconds, and there was a thin red mist rising in its wake.

“Run!”  Grue shouted.

I was on top of Atlas in an instant, and in the air a second later.

“How is it spreading so fast!?”  I asked, while the others seated themselves on the two dogs.

“She must have set it up beforehand!”  Tattletale called out.  “Just needed the catalyst!”

She checked to make sure Trickster and Sundancer were seated and had Bentley at an all out run a heartbeat later.  Sirius followed just two steps behind, carrying Grue, Imp, Bitch and Ballistic.  Regent joined me in the air, hanging in a less than dignified way from Shatterbird’s embrace.

I needed only one glance to know they weren’t running fast enough.

“Sundancer!”  I shouted.  “Cut it off!”

It took her three or four seconds to pull an orb together, no larger than a basketball.  It grew to twice the size as it flew, raking across the street to turn the pooled water into clouds of steam.  I rose higher in the air to avoid being caught by the plumes of hot water.  The steam turned from a clean white to pink and eventually red as the effect reached it.

Sundancer’s miniature sun had slowed the progression down our flooded street, but it wasn’t enough.  From my perspective, I could see the water on adjacent streets undergoing the same transformation, moving forward until it was adjacent to the others, then extending forward.  It was a matter of time before it reached far enough forward that it passed through the side alleys and cut them off.

“Get to high ground!”  I shouted.

Bentley leaped for the side of a building in an alleyway, scrabbled for a hold, then leaped to the building face behind him, attempting the zig-zag movement that the dogs had done so many times before.

Except he wasn’t as agile as the other dogs, and I suspected he wasn’t as practiced at it as Brutus, Judas and Angelica had been.  Added to that, he was carrying a heavy burden.  One of his paws went through a window, he slipped, dug his claws into the wall and shifted to climbing the wall instead.

It was too slow.  The water turned crimson beneath him, and then the vapor began to rise, faster than Bentley was climbing.

“Tattletale,” I breathed.

I massed thick clusters of bugs between them and the vapor, while Regent and Shatterbird followed Sirius and the others.

It was enough to buy them time, but that meant precious little.  No matter how much I pressed the bugs together into an airborne barrier, the vapor made its way through.  Worse, the mist was rising to either side of them, approaching the top of the building.

They reached the rooftop and Bentley heaved himself over the edge.  They hopped off his back as they reached solid ground, and Tattletale stepped over to the corner of the roof to watch the rise of the red vapor.  It was only a floor beneath them.

Trickster pointed at the top of a building nearby, then looked up at me.

I gathered my bugs there, again, pressing them together.  Trickster looked increasingly impatient as the bugs massed, and the vapor reached the edges of the roof.

I hurried over to the building, instead, then hopped off, sending Atlas over to the other rooftop.  Trickster swapped me with Tattletale, and I hopped over to ferry myself to the roof again.

Didn’t trust my ability to use Atlas to carry someone else, when I had to struggle to process his sensory inputs.  Add someone else’s shifting weight and movements, and I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t drop them.

I was on the building again when Trickster swapped me for Sundancer.  It left him, myself and Bentley standing on the rooftop.

I was on top of Atlas a second later, flying.  The red mist crept in from the outside edges of the rooftop.  He got on top of Bentley, looking less than comfortable holding the reins, and Tattletale whistled.  It wasn’t as good as Bitch’s whistles, but Bentley perked up and ran, leaping for the side of a nearby building.

He and Trickster reached the second rooftop quickly enough.  The mist was still rising, not just below us, but up around buildings nearly as far as the eye could see.

“Shit,”  Tattletale said.  “Not good.”

“There’s a taller building over there,” I pointed.  “We should head there before the mist gets up here.”

“I’d call it miasma,” Tattletale said.  “And is there really any point?”

“It might stop rising,” I protested.

“It won’t.”

“Is that an educated guess or-”

“It’s not.”

I found myself at a loss for words.

“What does it do?”  I asked.  “Poison?  Something else?”

“Probably something else.  Or it’s poison, but it’s designed to do something besides kill us.  How are the others doing?”

I looked for Grue and Regent using my swarm sense.  Grue, Bitch, Ballistic and Sirius were on a rooftop lower than us, Regent directly above them.  Cursory exploration with my bugs revealed a glass dome extending around the rooftop.  My bugs could fit through gaps in the glass, which meant the miasma would as well.  I did what I could to block up the holes, and I knew it was useless.

Brian.  Rachel.

“I think they’re caught,” I said.  “I-I don’t know what to do.”

“You have a gun.  You have your bugs.  If the Nine are going to let their guards down, it’s going to be now.  All the ones who are still left are priority targets.  Finish off Siberian and taking Jack and Bonesaw out of action will be doable.”

“You’re saying I should leave you.”

“Yeah.”  She looked down at the rising mist.

“No.  That’s ridiculous.  Let’s get you to higher ground.”

“It’s futile.  You’d be buying us a little time, but this is looking pretty inevitable.  Your time is better spent going after the Nine.  If you can’t find them, or if it’s too dangerous, find Panacea.”

“This isn’t negotiable.  I- I can’t do anything for Grue and Rachel and Ballistic, Regent tried and he failed.  Let me do this for you.”

Tattletale frowned.  “Fine.  But you’ll have to hurry.  That’s a lot of distance to cover, and the miasma’s nearly here.”

Trickster cut in, “Gather bugs together like you were doing, remember that they’re not as dense as our bodies are, so we need more than you’d think if I’m going to swap them for one of us.”

I nodded and flew for the tallest building in the area.  I turned around and waited for Trickster to swap me.

He didn’t.  They stood at the roof’s edge, looking my way, and the dark red miasma climbed up the sides of the building around them.

It felt like my heart dropped out of my chest.  Brian, Rachel, now Lisa?

I couldn’t afford to turn around and confront them -time was too short- so I focused on gathering my bugs.  I clustered them together, pressing them into a largish human shape.  How many was enough?

I felt a jarring sensation as Trickster swapped my bugs to his location.  Sundancer appeared beside me.

“Why?”  I asked.

She shook her head, “They didn’t say anything.  They were both really quiet while you flew off, and then Tattletale said ‘It doesn’t look like her plan will work out.  Tell her I’m sorry.’  Trickster teleported me here before I could say anything or ask what she meant.”

“Why isn’t he telporting Tattletale out?  Or himself?  There’s still time for…”  I looked at the cloud.  Not enough time to save both, now.  “He could save one of them, and I could probably get Atlas there and get out of harm’s way before the miasma reached me.”

“His power gets slower with distance and difference in mass,”  Sundancer hugged herself, “Maybe it’s too slow, and he doesn’t think you’d have time to run.  Or-”

“Or.”  I said.  The sentence didn’t deserve to be finished.  There was the other reason.  The notion that he was deliberately avoiding using his power, because he knew I didn’t have the time to get back to them before the miasma reached them.  “Are you going to be okay?”

“I don’t know.  When you’ve left, I’ll use my power, and I guess I’ll wait here until-”  she stopped.

Until when?  There was nothing saying this miasma of Bonesaw’s would disappear or settle anytime soon.

“I hate being alone,” Sundancer said.  She settled into a sitting position.  “It’s like, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually been on my own.  When I was little, I was always with my mom, or always in school, always in afterschool activities.  Ballet, violin, lyrical dance, voice lessons, acting lessons… never a moment to think for myself.  Even after I stopped all that, I was with my friends.  Always in a group.”

I stared at Tattletale and Trickster.  I couldn’t make out their faces, but my bugs could make out the shapes of sounds that had to be words.  They were having a conversation, just like we were.

“I remember you said it was lonely, being in the Travelers.”

“It was.  It is.  But I was still with them.  Part of the group.  The time I’ve spent in my territory is the longest I’ve spent on my own.  Actually managing the territory, scaring off Hookwolf’s people, that was easy.  Being all on my own was unfamiliar ground.  Soul crushing.  I wound up going back to Coil’s base and spending time with Noelle and Oliver.  I didn’t even really like them, before all this began.  But being alone, agonizing over everything that’s been going on, no distractions…”

The miasma had reached the rooftop where Tattletale and Trickster stood.  Trickster was pacing, while Tattletale stood with her back to me, her hand rubbing Bentley’s blunted snout.

It took only a few seconds for the mist to close in around them.  There was no immediate reaction.  The two teenagers and the dog simply stood, silhouettes in a stirring cloud of vapor that ranged from ruby-red to crimson in shade.

I swallowed past the growing lump in my throat.

“And now I’m alone,” Sundancer said.  “You’re going to go after the Nine, and I’ll wait here, all on my own, going crazy as I wait and watch and see just what happens to them.”

“If I’ve picked up on anything over the last few months of wearing a costume, it’s that humans are stronger than you’d expect,” I said.  It was as much to myself as to Sundancer.  “We can endure a hell of a lot of punishment before we break, and even after we’re broken, we tend to keep on going.  Could be physical punishment: getting stabbed, getting scarred, broken bones.  Could be mental: losing a loved one, being tortured, even the way I feel like breaking down and crying over the fact that just about every other member of my team is probably fucked, but I’m holding myself together?  Humans can put up with a hell of a lot.”

“I don’t think this is the right time for optimism,” Sundancer said, bitter.

“Optimism?”  I shook my head.  “No.  It’s a double-edged sword.  If we weren’t so resilient, so tenacious as a species, I don’t think we’d be having this much trouble with Jack.  I don’t think Mannequin or Siberian would even exist like they do now.  I’d almost call it pessimistic.  Almost.”

She didn’t reply.

“Speaking of Jack and Siberian-” I started.

“Go.”

I left, taking off and heading for the spot I’d left Legend.  Looking over my shoulder, I could see Sundancer creating her orb and bringing it down on top of herself.  As it had done back during our fight with Lung, it didn’t burn the area directly around her.

And Tattletale and Trickster… were still standing in the midst of the miasma.  They weren’t reacting or doing anything, but they weren’t signalling for me to come back, either, and they weren’t hopping on top of Bentley to rejoin the action.

Something was up, I just had no idea what.

I consoled myself with the bittersweet idea that Bonesaw would want to draw this out.  It wouldn’t be as simple as murdering my teammates.  It wasn’t exactly reassuring, especially when I thought back to what had happened to Brian, but it gave me hope that this wasn’t the last time I’d see my teammates.  My friends.

I rose higher as I approached the epicenter of the miasma.  It had continued to rise, and the place she’d used the catalyst was the place where the vapor had spread the most.  I could see how it was threaded through the streets like veins, surrounding buildings in a crimson embrace, spilling out into the ocean.

The water of the bay, I noticed, hadn’t changed.  Was the salt killing whatever organisms she’d designed to spread this effect?

There were areas of high ground where the effect was diminished or gone.  There were hills here and there where the area hadn’t flooded and miasma wasn’t reaching so far into those spots.  Hopefully that meant the civilians wouldn’t be so affected; the high ground where flooding wasn’t an issue would also be the place where people congregated for shelter.

A series of bright flashes caught my attention.  Between the distance and the cloud of red vapor, I could only barely make him out, but the staccato lasers let me identify him as Legend.  He was fighting.

I sent my bugs down into the miasma, drawing them together into a swarm and placing them strategically, painting a mental picture of the area, the layout, and the positions of the combatants.

Just to be safe, I drew closer to a rooftop.  It wasn’t safe to land, but I had hopes the building would offer me some cover against Jack.  I held the bulk of my swarm at bay, waiting for the moment I could assist Legend in fighting the Nine.

He wasn’t fighting the Nine.

Legend was shooting at teammates.  He shouted something, but neither my ears nor my bugs were able to pick out the words.

Really wished I could use my bugs to hear.

Had they gone berserk?  Rage?

No.  I could sense others hiding.  In fact, it seemed to be the primary concern of the people in the miasma.  Hiding, staying out of trouble, putting distance between themselves and the others.  Even Legend was pulling his punches.  His lasers were nonlethal, as far as I could see.

Paranoia?

Weld, who I identified by his lack of a costume and the metal growths on his shoulders, was standing with his back to a wall.  His hands were blunt weapons, and he was swinging them through the air to threaten anyone who approached.  A small figure who could only be Vista was backing away from two adults.  She got too close to Legend, and he fired a spray of laser blasts at her.  None hurt her or penetrated her costume, but she staggered and fell.

I could sense the ground bulge, spearing up in a pillar.  As the ground beneath them stretched in the pillar’s vicinity, others staggered or got disoriented.  At the pillar’s top, a roughed-up Vista bent the growth she’d created to place herself close to the rooftop and hopped down onto solid ground.  She coughed.

Okay, at least she wasn’t someone who could kill me if this went the wrong way.  I called out, “Vista!”

She whirled on the spot to look at me, then swiftly began backing away.

I raised my hands to show her I meant no harm, “Hold on!  I’m safe!”

“That’s just what they would say!”  She retorted.

They?

“Who?  The Nine?  In what universe would I be a member of the Nine?”

“Shut up!  Don’t try to convince me!  Just… just back off!  Leave me alone until all this stops!”

She was breathing so hard I could see her shoulders rising and falling through the protective suit she wore.

A thought struck me.  It was working through the suit?  The mask had to have filters for smoke, why hadn’t it worked against this miasma?

“I just want to help.”

“Leave!”

She used her power, extending the pillar she had used to ascend to the rooftop.  It missed me by a wide margin, but the threat was clear enough.

I regretted it the instant I did it, but I moved forward to avoid any further movements from the shaft of asphalt.  If I was going to fall, I wanted to land on the roof, instead of the alleyway a dozen stories below.

“No!”  The word was as much a scream as anything else.  She extended the shaft well over my head and then pinched it off so the top part fell.

I’d seen her fight Leviathan, and she’d done the same thing then, if on a somewhat bigger scale.  I had Atlas carry me out of the way and watched the teardrop shaped piece of asphalt crash to the floor of the alley.

That, apparently, was enough to get Legend’s attention.  He rose from the street level and surveyed the scene.  He’d taken off the hazmat-style mask and filter, and what little I could see of his expression was drawn.  His eyes were narrowed, a vein stood out on his forehead, and he furtively looked from Vista to me and back again.

“Legend,” I started.  How was I supposed to address him when he was like this?  When I didn’t even know what was going on with them?

Not that it mattered.  He raised one hand in my direction, and I veered away, taking evasive maneuvers.  It missed me by a foot, circled around and struck me off of Atlas before I could cancel out his momentum and change direction.

Legend had clearly set his lasers to ‘stun’, but it still hurt.  Hitting the rooftop hurt more.  I could feel a piece of armor crack beneath my weight, hear my things spilling to the ground.

I coughed out half a lungful of air and involuntarily sucked in another breath to cough again.  It was humid, tasting slightly off, almost stagnant.

When I opened my eyes, I was seeing red, and not in the metaphorical sense.  I was in the midst of the miasma.

Still coughing, I struggled to my feet.  The back compartment of my armor had cracked as my weight had come down on the lip of the roof.  My weapons, the epipens, the cell phone and the changepurse lay on the ground.

“Stay down!”  the junior heroine screamed.

If I hadn’t still been reeling from my fall, I might have been able to avoid it.  As it was, the section of rooftop behind me bulged up into a wall and then folded down over on top of me.  It bent to accommodate my shape rather than crush me, leaving only my head and shoulders sticking out.

“If you try that trick on me, little girl, I’ll shoot you,” I heard the threat from the air above us.

This was going south, fast.

“I’m going to turn my back and run,” she responded.  “If you try shooting me in the back, I’ll show you what I can really do.”

There was anger in the threat that caught me off guard.  Was it this miasma that had pushed her to that level of anger?  I wasn’t feeling anything like that.  Had something about the way he had talked provoked her?  Or was that the norm for her?

I tried to think back to my prior experiences with her and found nothing.

What was her name?

Was I suffering from brain damage?  Another concussion?

I did a series of multiplication, addition and subtraction in my head and found no problems on that front.  Not general brain damage, apparently.

Amnesia?

My name is Skitter, I thought, Taylor Anne Hebert.  Sixteen.  Born in Brockton Bay.  Student at Winslow High.  Ex-student.  Member of the Undersiders.

No problems on that front.

My line of thought continued absently, as if I wanted to reassure myself that I was mentally intact.  My parents are Dan Hebert and Annette Rose Hebert.

I struggled, wiggling to try and free myself from the hump of solid concrete.  I could inch myself out.

What would my mom think to see me now?

I tried to picture her expression.

Again, that gap, the chasm.  Nothing.

I could have been hit by five more of those laser blasts on ‘stun’ and it wouldn’t have hit me as hard as the realization that I couldn’t remember my mother.  Couldn’t remember her face, the details, her mannerisms.  Even the happy memories we’d shared, the little moments I’d clung to over the past two years, they were gone.  There was only an empty void where they should have been.

I couldn’t remember my dad, either.

The other Undersiders, their faces, their costumes, their personalities and mannerisms, all gone.  I could remember what we’d done: the bank robbery, fighting Purity’s group, lazing around in the old loft, even the general progression of events from the moment I’d met them.  But the people were blanks waiting to be filled in, and I couldn’t go from thinking about one name to thinking about the events that were related to it.

I felt a rising panic as I struggled to work myself free.  I didn’t know the people who were on the rooftop with me: the man who floated in the air, wearing a sturdy hazmat-style firesuit and a blue and silver mask that left only his mouth, chin and wavy brown hair exposed.  I couldn’t recognize the girl he was shooting in the back.  I saw her fall face first and writhe with pain.  He shot her two more times, and she went limp.  Out cold.

I couldn’t make the mental connection between the Nine and their appearances or their powers.  If I didn’t have the benefit of being able to remember my actions over the past few minutes, it would have been impossible to say whether the two people here were allies or enemies.

Everything suddenly made sense.  The infighting, the tactics they were using, the mixture of hostility and paranoia.  Legend was attacking with nonlethal blasts because he couldn’t be sure if he was attacking a teammate or one of the Nine, so he was striving to take everyone out of action with as little permanent damage as possible.

Sundancer’s worries about being alone struck me.  We were all alone, now.  Every single one of us.  From teams to individuals, everyone was fending for themselves because they couldn’t afford to trust the others.

And it would ruin us.

It would be impossible to mount any kind of defense against the Nine if we were fighting them as individuals.

The man with the blue and silver mask floated over to where I was, ready to dispatch me, to knock me out, just in case I was a threat.

“Help?”  I called out.  It was a spur of the moment response.  My mind raced as I tried to form a plan.  Even a bad one would serve.  I lied, “I’m stuck.  Break me out?”

I stared up at him.  His face was riddled with conflicting emotions, his body language tense.  There was a nervousness there that belied simple amnesia.

We’d been warned about drinking the city’s water.  It might mean the effects were more pronounced for the people who hadn’t been informed.  Or there might be side effects.

“Stay,” he ordered.

He stayed at the level of the rooftop as he floated out above the street, aiming more blasts at the others.

This wasn’t rational for him, it didn’t jibe with my knowledge of him.  That could mean there was something about the miasma that was making him irrational.

I waited for long minutes as he continued firing down on the others.  He cast me one sidelong glance, then flew off in pursuit of someone I couldn’t see.

Even after I was able to start wiggling myself free, it was slow.  I measured my progress in half-inches.  My chest, small as it was, proved an issue.  Coupled with the armor at my front and the remains of the armor at my back, it made getting free an issue.  Several times, I stopped breathing for a good minute before I forced myself back under the concrete sheet to be able to breathe again, then I did it again.  As much through the wear and tear on my armor as anything else, I managed to slide my upper body out on the fifth attempt.  I took a second to breathe and rest, and then began the slow process of getting my midsection and hips past the mouth of the concrete shelf.

I directed every curse word I knew at the belt and armor panels I’d placed around my hips as I tried to work myself free.  My hips and rear end were proving as difficult as my chest had been, and with my upper body being further away, I couldn’t get the same leverage push myself out with my arms.  Minutes passed as I grunted and struggled.  I could hear inarticulate screams, shouted threats, screamed warnings and the noise of destruction on the street below as paranoia gave way to violence.  I brought Atlas to my side, but even with his strength and his horn, he wasn’t strong enough to affect the concrete.  I used his help to squeeze myself out, bracing his horn against the lip of the concrete sheet and pulling.

When I was free, I gathered my knife, baton and gun from where they had fallen and fit them into the few remaining elastic loops in my ruined utility compartment.  Cell phone was a yes, but I didn’t have a spot for it, so I tucked it in the chest compartment of my armor.  Similarly, I stuck the epipens and changepurse through the space between my hip and the belt, wedging them in next to the straps.

I double checked that Atlas hadn’t been hurt by Legend’s lasers and then climbed on top of him.

There was destruction below, and signs of the mad fighting between capes.  Sheets of paper frozen in time, a mailbox destroyed, a light-post toppled, all still in the midst of the red water.  Everyone had fled or been knocked out of commission.  The fighting had migrated to several scattered spots nearby.

I didn’t know exactly what to do, so I focused on helping the wounded, making sure they were okay.  I turned an unconscious girl over into the recovery position, and started to drag a wounded man out of the middle of the road.  I stopped when he started struggling and fighting with me and just left him there.

I felt lost.  Was I helping the enemy when I was propping someone up to make sure they didn’t choke on their own vomit or drown in a puddle?  If I used the plastic cuffs I had in the changepurse, would I be tying someone up, leaving them helpless against one of the Nine?

I checked my cell phone.  No service.

I was alone here.  Everyone in the world was a stranger.

Vibrations rocked the street.  I saw the wounded man stir in response.

A monster.  Bigger than a car, fangs, teeth, claws, and a thorny exterior.  It didn’t act like it had seen me.

One of Bitch’s dogs?  Or is it Crawler?

If it was Crawler, and I acted like he was friendly, he’d tear me to shreds.  I could draw my gun to threaten him, defend myself… except that wouldn’t do a thing to slow Crawler down.

If it was one of Bitch’s dogs sans rider, then there was little point in staying.  I didn’t even know if it was suffering from the miasma’s effect.  If it was Crawler…

I drew my bugs around me as a shroud, simultaneously forming decoy swarms.  I ran, my footsteps splashing, and called Atlas to me.  The second I was out of sight, I climbed on top of him and took to the air once again.

Couldn’t settle down, couldn’t stop.  I had to treat everyone I met as an enemy.

I was beginning to see where the paranoia came in.

“Skitter!” a voice called out.

I stopped.

A blond girl, waving at me.

I drew my gun and leveled it at her.

The smile dropped from her face.  She brought both hands to her mouth as she shouted, “It’s me!  Tattletale!”

I hesitated.

How tragic would it be if I shot my friend, so soon after I’d wanted to scream at the heroes for fighting among one another?

“How did you get here?”

“On the dog.  I don’t remember its name, but it wasn’t as affected as we were.  This effect is tailored for people.”

I looked in the direction of the creature I’d seen.  Had that been the dog they’d come on?

I drew closer, but I kept the gun aimed at her.  I glanced around.  “Where are the others?”

“Most are hiding,” she said.  “My powers kind of let me work around this gas, I think.  I brought Grue, too.”

I looked around.  What she was saying felt right, even if I couldn’t remember her powers, specifically.  “What is this?  Amnesia?”

Agnosia.  We haven’t forgotten.  Just… can’t use the knowledge we have.  Looking at the others, I think they’re hallucinating.  If it’s prions, like Bonesaw used with the power nullification darts, it fits.  Hallucinations would match with heavy prion exposure.”

“Prions?”

“They’re small enough to pass through water filtration and gas masks.  Badly folded proteins that force other proteins into identical shapes, perpetuating the problem.  If she found a way to guide them, or specifically target the parts of the brain she wanted, she might get results like we’re experiencing.  In a really bad case, it’d cause lesions in the brain and give you hallucinations.”

I looked around.  “How long does it last?”

“Forever.  It’s incurable and it’s terminal.”

I swallowed.  “But Panacea could fix it.”

She nodded, then smiled wide.  “There’s hope, right?”

“Right.”

She jerked her head to one side, then used one hand to brush the hair back out of her face.  “Let’s grab Grue and formulate a plan.”

She turned to leave, but I stayed where I was.  After three steps, she turned around.  “What’s wrong?”

I didn’t lower the gun.  “Sorry, a little paranoid.”

She frowned.  “That’s fair, but we’re short on time.  If others are getting lesions on their brain, then that means they could die soon.  Seizures, violent mood swings, loss of motor control…  Creutzfeldt-Jakob was a prion disease, but the progression here’s faster.”

I shook my head.  “Crews-what?”

“Neurological disorder caused by eating the meat of a cow infected with mad cow disease.  You get the prions in your head, and you slowly die while suffering personality changes, memory loss and vivid hallucinations.”

“And it’s faster here.”

She nodded.  Her expression was solemn.  “Hours instead of weeks.  And as people experience mood shifts with anger and fear, or if the hallucinations get worse-”

“The fighting among teammates will, too,” I finished.  “It could get ugly.”

“If we’re going to save everyone, we need Amy.  For that, we need to ask Cherish.”

I shook my head.  “Who?”

“Um.  You remember capturing a member of the Nine?”

Did I?  We’d ambushed them, walked away with captives, yes.  But we’d lost someone too.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“And we confined one?”

I nodded.  This was working.  I could piece together the information.  We’d called that person on a phone, hadn’t we?  “Cell phones aren’t working consistently.”

“Is it safe?” a male voice asked.

“Sure.”

I stayed silent.

He stepped out from around the corner to stand by the blond girl.  “This is Skitter?”

She nodded.  “Skitter, this is Grue.”

I didn’t recognize him any more than he recognized me.  I kept the gun trained on them.

“This is slowing us down.  What’s it going to take to get you to trust me?” she asked.

What would it take?

“The fight with Empire Eighty-Eight’s mooks.  When I made the human-shaped tower of bugs for the first time, and they shot into it while I crouched inside…”

She shook her head “I don’t remember that.”

How many people had I been with, then?  I would have said one, but I felt like someone else was involved.  Had they arrived late?  I could remember hurrying off.

She spread her arms wide.  “I’m sorry.  I might not look like it, but it’s affecting me too.  I’m just using my power to uncover the answers we need.”

I nodded.  That would have been reassuring if I could remember what her powers were, or if I could think of something about her I could quiz her on.  It was like two blind people playing hide and seek.

“Look, come here,” she offered.

I hesitated.

“You can keep the gun.  I’ll keep my hands above my head.  Grue, stand back.”

He stepped away and leaned against a wall, his arms folded.

I landed Atlas and stepped forward.

She got on her knees, and with her hands above her head, she walked through the flooded street on her knees until her forehead was pressed against the barrel of the gun.

“I trust you.  I know I’m a pain in the ass sometimes, I know we’ve had our ups and downs.  I know I’ve kept way too many secrets for someone who calls herself Tattletale…” She smiled. “But I trust you.  Now, even if you don’t recognize me consciously, what’s your heart telling you?”

In truth?  It wasn’t telling me much.  If I didn’t think on it, if I just went with the vague impression I associated with the name Tattletale, the smile, the fountain of information…

I backed away a step.  “I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to trust you.”

“Darn it.  Um.  Let me think…”

“Do you want to go ahead without her?” the guy asked.

I turned to look at him.  The idea of being left alone here-

“Go somewhere safe,” he suggested.

I frowned.

“If the Slaughterhouse Nine find Panacea first, or if things get much worse-”

“I want to help, really,” I said.  “But it’s just that…”

I trailed off.

“You want to help, but you’re suspicious.  And you feel bad for being suspicious, because of everything we’ve been through, our close calls?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  I was double checking everything he said against my own awareness.  Was he saying anything that indicated he knew something I couldn’t?

“I know how scared and suspicious you feel because I feel the same way.  Except I trust Tattletale.”

“I do too,” I said, “And I’d trust her if I could be sure she was Tattletale.”

“Trust your heart.”

I wanted so desperately for it to be like in the movies, where people could trust your heart.  Where you were holding the gun and you had to choose between shooting the evil clone and shooting your friend, and you just knew.

He gestured around us with one hand. “This doesn’t work.  This is going to lose us the fight, and all the danger we’ve been through in our fight against the Nine will be for nothing if they win here.”

I shook my head.  “I don’t disagree, but that line of thinking isn’t going to make me drop the gun.”

“Then can I try acting from my heart?”  he asked.

Before I could respond, he started approaching me.  I backed away a step, kept the gun leveled, but I couldn’t bring myself to shoot as he advanced.

He stepped in close, ignoring the gun, and wrapped his arms around me.  My forehead pressed against his shoulder.  It wasn’t the most comfortable hug I’d had, not that I’d had many.  It felt awkward, stiff, clumsy.  But somehow that made it feel more right, like a real hug would have felt off somehow.

He was warm.

Grue?

Then, without waiting for me to give an answer, Grue stepped back, taking hold of my left hand and pulling.  I followed without complaint.  I couldn’t complain.  If I doubted him now, after this-  I’d be ten times as angry at myself as he was with me.

“Priority number one, we get in contact with Cherish,” Tattletale said, grinning.  “From there, we can decide whether we want to track down Panacea or go after the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“Right,” I said.

“Keep checking your cell phone.  The second we have service, call Coil.”

“Coil is?”

“Our boss, and since he’s hidden away, he won’t be affected, so he’ll be able to place the name and fill us in on the details the agnosia has blocked from us.”

“Okay.”

“It’s not the end of the world after all,” Tattletale smiled.

I nodded.  I was acutely aware of the gun in my right hand.  I felt like I should put it away, but with the way we were moving and my general sense of unease, I couldn’t stop and do it.  Hated this.  It reminded me of school.

The reminder made me angry, and it somehow made all of this seem worse.  I muttered, “Sooner we’re fucking cured of this miasma, the better.”

“Hey!”  Tattletale paused, pointing at me with a stern expression on her face.  “Don’t swear!”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

130 thoughts on “Prey 14.8

  1. Holy hell….Genius, Wildbow, absolute genius. having Bonesaw not make everyone forget, but give them a mental block. I really hope things turn around. Though if they get Amy wouldn’t he be effected? She can’t effect her own body right? Meaning even that plan could fail. (Unless she is outside the city…) Oh is Coil immune to this? Due to his duel time-line ability? I know he has his underground base but no idea if it’s filtration system could get rid of this red mist.

    Can’t wait till tuesday. :)

  2. …when did Tattletale have a problem with swearing? I’m also remembering Jack having some kind of possible control of emotions, or something? That last line has me thinking that this is just Jack and Bonesaw. Tuesday can’t come fast enough. Hopefully it will prove me wrong.

    • I don’t know; I’m worried but I have no idea how the Nine would know about Coil’s association with the Undersiders. Cherish potentially, but I’m not sure how much information she’s capable of gleaning by using her power.

      If this is Jack and Bonesaw though, then things just went from awful to horrific.

      I’m still hopeful for the city at large even assuming the worst though. Coil’s not to be trifled with, and I’m holding out hope that either Armsmaster or Hookwolf will mount some sort of surprise offense.

      • If it is Bonesaw and Jack then their are one of two ways the next chapter would start.

        Either Skitter immediately realizes that it’s Bonesaw and Jack and goes into panic/attack mode or she apologizes to Bonesaw and goes along with them because she didn’t remember whether Tattletale had any problems with swearing or not.

      • I had a doubt that Grue would go along with it. He’s been pretty paranoid lately, and I couldn’t see why he wasn’t having the same troubles Taylor was, but the last line is what cinched it, yeah. Next chapter is going to su~uck to read, waiting for the other shoe to drop (unless it happens immediately), I can hardly wait.

    • Actually, my first thought was “This is totally Bonesaw!!!” What a way to sign off.. I’m wondering what my reading experience would be like if I had followed the story as it was being written!!

    • I knew something was off about that whole interaction. Brian was way too relaxed and trusting for someone being affected by the fog, Tattle was a bit too knowledgeable and there seemed something off about her against cursing. I definitely read these comments though until after I read the next chapter and started kicking myself for not putting two and two together. So darn obvious and yet off course I trust the untrustable narrator. You’d think I’d have learned this lesson from dealing with Imp and constantly forgetting she is in the story since Taylor has such trouble with her too.

  3. Oh man, Bonesaw is a fucking genius. At first I thought the girl and man that Skitter saved were Bonesaw and Siberian, but dear god the nine recruiting her services temporarily this way is even sweeter.

    • Who says it is temporary?

      They need to rebuild their ranks and they need to make this a win. The Miasma alone won’t do the latter, and they know damn well that this a very dangerous point for them since one more serious hero turning up will be the end. If Dragon enters this fray for instance, the nine will be done for.

      Skitter is more or less the perfect candidate to start twisting a nice new member for their group. Her powers are outright terrifying anyway and if they get her trust they can (in the ‘worst’ case for them) just modify her to be one of Bonesaw’s things.

      Regent is going to be a problem right now. Hopefully he has the sense to keep control of Shatterbird.

      • Oh wow, yes. The Dragon/Armsmaster is still hanging out there, and who better to deal with this than them. Dragon CAN’T be affected by the miasma, and Armsmaster is a Tinker with in-built tech and something very big to prove.

        Hg

        • I also think that the Chosen could be in a decent position to strike at the Nine. Piggot seemed reasonably confident they’d be willing to join the assault, and given that they have an aerokinetic, they seem like they might be able to avoid contact with Bonesaw’s countermeasure. I also think Hookwolf’s power might make him outright immune to anything Bonesaw could throw at him.

  4. Wildbow, you do an absolutely amazing job at tragic scenes. When Taylor realized there was nothing she could do for Tattletale and Trickster, and then her little talk with Sundancer… It was just beautiful.

    • Thanks.

      I’m bad at being objective about my writing, so I feel like I’m flying blind half the time and I can’t tell what’s going to work and what isn’t. Getting that validation is nice, haha.

  5. I was expecting a lot of things to be Bonesaw’s surprise, a plague that may or not involve zombies foremost amongst them, but what you came up with took me off guard. Seriously, I don’t think too many people have ever even heard of the word agnosia let alone know what it does.

    And the ending… damn, Skitter is in deep trouble now. And maybe the only person to have ever been hugged by Jack (or Siberian) and not be immediately killed/maimed within a second of it ending.

    • Sometimes I need to think on something for a while. Let ideas steep in my head. I keep some of the more curious and interesting things as tidbits I can draw on at a later date. Prosopagnosia was one – I once considered writing a sort of modern alternate reality setting where every country had a monarchy, politics were literally cutthroat and the protagonist was a prince with prosopagnosia. The inability to recognize people.

      So it was floating somewhere around my brain over the past few weeks, and I was thinking about the plague in terms of what the Nine would choose and why (trying to meet many of the points raised by Tattletale/Skitter/Grue in the discussion at the chapter’s beginning), just sort of letting my brain free-range for things that might work, and it sort of clicked. Some research and broadening of the effect, and I settled on it (with, admittedly, a bit of nervousness that it would make Taylor appear uncharacteristically stupid – the response to the chapter so far has assuaged that worry).

      Then I thought of how it could be taken one step further. I think I was in the shower, and I just let out an evil laugh.

      I like those moments. One of the reasons I write.

  6. Bonesaw is the Lady Gaga of supervillains.

    This is all I hoped for. All I hoped for.

    I really wanna know how this will interact with Imp’s power.

    “got seated.” might be redundant but might wanna note that they’re getting on the dogs and not Atlas.

  7. Haha! According to the wikipedia article for prosopagnosia, it’s possible to measure “an emotional response to familiar people even though no conscious recognition takes place”. Which means that your heart DOES know! :P

  8. I thought Weld would be immune to this. In 9.1 it said that that anything that worked on inorganic or organic matter does not work on Weld.

    • I just assumed that Weld WAS unaffected, but that he was stuck as the only sane person in the asylum, and all the patients are loose and well-armed. Back to the wall sounds like a great idea to me.

      Hg

      • It seems there’d actually be a fair few capes immune to this for one reason or another, however that wouldn’t change much since they’d be too spread out to do anything much.

        • Even if Weld is immune, he still can’t trust any of his teammates. Isolated like that, they still suffer from the effects just due to everyone around them becoming paranoid and aggressive little mad cows.

    • Weld isn’t affected by powers that are limited by the Manton effect, but the miasma isn’t a power, it’s just something Bonesaw created using the knowledge her power provides (presumably).

      That said, even if he is unaffected (since he apparently doesn’t need to breathe), Skitter doesn’t know who he is now or whether she can trust him, so that information isn’t of much use to her at the moment.

  9. There was a bit of a weird part where Skitter references his actions ‘not matching what she knows’ about the laser guy (Legend) after taking a header into the miasma. It just doesn’t seem to fit with the miasma’s effects.

  10. Okay…Wildbow this entire chapter was just…

    All my hats are off. The drama of the sequence when they’re fleeing was immense and wonderful…but this! Oh my word is it brilliant. This is the kind of idea you could build an entire series around. And you just made it even better with poor, poor Skitter getting hurt yet again.

    Here’s hoping she remembers and then kills them both…though I am a little confused as to how the hell they did all this. The Miasma is superpowers but the amount of knowledge they had seems suspect. Did they get info out of Brian and Imp?

    Speaking of which, Imp has vanished quite a while ago. On the one hand she is likely to just have hardlined her powers…but if she is immune to this and with her powers…

    Worst bit is that I assume they will now be heading to the Docks, Skitter’s Territory and where her dad is. With the nine in tow. Oh fuck sticks.

    • Could’ve been one of Bitch’s dogs, could have been Genesis, am sure there are still more possibilities… none of which would means that it’s for sure NOT Crawler, but there ARE other options.

      I’m expecting Siberian to have survived, somehow, but I keep wondering what’s going to be happening with Battery and that little thread, if that’ll rear its head.

  11. Something seems odd with the Reply box right now.

    Wildbow, I was really feeling bad that a city-wide gas attack was launched. See, I did attempt to put together a long narrative at one point and like so many other things, you and I seem to get thoughts that ricochet off each other a little bit.

    In my case, it was 3-Quinuclidinyl benzilate. It’s a handy little gas that affects people for a day or two. Mostly harmless, except for the mass hallucinations and illusions. In testing, one guy asked another for a cigarette. The second guy, also affected, held up an imaginary pack. Since Guy #1 didn’t want to take his last cigarette, they smoked it by passing it between each other. In another instance, two test subjects played a game of tennis with imaginary equipment.

    Good stuff, but takes a little to work and is temporary. For a nonlethal attempt to terrorize the city, it’s an interesting choice. Had a bit where one crowd imagined themselves zombies while a group of National Guard in the city also imagined that crowd was zombies, only for some odd hallucinations to redirect each group. If only there were a sneaky person being nonlethal during that situation.

    This, on the other hand, is interesting. Bonesaw gave them very fast advancing Mad Cow disease, which involves increased aggression too. If you’re William Shatner, is also has the side effect of turning you into a great lawyer, but that show’s already been canceled.

    Not only can the heroes not trust anyone, but the civilians obviously can’t either. And..you know, this is interesting…but if Siberian’s creator suddenly can’t remember who he based his creation on, I wonder what that does for his ability?

    If it wasn’t lethal, that would be extremely interesting as a method to level the playing field. Heroes become villains, villains become heroes. Changes in management. A complete social reordering. What if everyone forgot each other and settled in as someone else? Wouldn’t quite work that so well as I’m about to imagine since they can remember who they themselves are, but could be your girlfriend or boyfriend winds up hating you since they don’t remember you. And then maybe the one you wind up with is someone you hated, or someone you just never considered. While your boss isn’t looking, you change a record or two and take his boss’ name.

    Oh, by the way, I think another even bigger wham line, once you’ve read the main one, is to notice the part where “Tattletale” is talking about Skitter and the Undersiders’ boss, Coil.

    • Oh, and forgot to add this in with all that.

      There’s always the possibility that the creature she saw was a Dragon suit and that the man she saw with the hazmat style mask on was Armsmaster.
      When Pre-brain wammied Skitter sees Legend:
      “He’d taken off the hazmat-style mask and filter, and what little I could see of his expression was drawn. His eyes were narrowed, a vein stood out on his forehead, and he furtively looked from Vista to me and back again.”

      But after she’s got the brain wammy, he’s in a silver and blue hazmat style mask with filter. Could be he put it back on. Not the most rational of choices, given that he’s clearly already affected and it can be constricting, but at the same time he’s not making rational choices in general if affected by this stuff.

      But doesn’t some of that irrationality and tension about helping Skitter also make sense if that was Armsmaster finally joining in the fray, having made his own filter that can handle that stuff? Skitter does so hate those versatile Tinkers, after all.

      • The appearance of the blue and silver mask did raise an eyebrow for me but I think Skitter would, at least, know the difference between a giant robot and a giant organic monster… Unless Dragon has started going Bonesaw on us herself…

        • In a chaotic enough atmosphere, with red fog everywhere (I’d have gone with purple haze all in their eyes, but that’s me), and not being sure what Dragon, or Genesis, or Crawler is exactly… I can see a potential mixup there.

  12. Oh clever Wildbow.

    I’ve never seen a writer take an Achilles Heel in their writing style and turn it into brilliance quite so well.

    You have an incredible ability to depict relationships, actions and emotional atmosphere — but unless you’re working at it, you tend to forget to describe physical characteristics beyond a character’s introduction. So we come to know and care about what’s happening to the characters, and to some extent we stop thinking about what they look like and what they’re wearing. They’re the kind of details someone wouldn’t be likely to put into a diary or journal anyway (I mean, come on, why would you waste time saying “Thursday Brian wore a red shirt….. Friday it was purple.”)

    So Skitter isn’t thinking about those little details anyway, just her interactions with people. Now, the agnosia means she can’t visually recognize people despite having cognitive procedural memories of who they are. So she literally can’t connect the fact that Tattletale has a scar and Bonesaw has artificial hands with the visuals in front of her, she can’t even think about drawing the comparison unless she takes time to go through her procedural, narrative memory for details about her friends and actively compare them to what she’s seeing and what they’re saying. So we’re left on the edge of our seats freaked out by ambiguity folding over certainty like a fog… or a miasma.

    Well done, sir. Well done.

    • You can thank 1114 for reminding me/making me aware of that particular flaw in my style just in time for me to make use of it. I’d already had the idea about the agnosia, but the stylistic choices here were largely thanks to him.

      I like how it turned out. There were a few evil laughs-out-loud on my part while I was plotting out the chapter in my head.

  13. Ha, I expected it to be Bonesaw from the moment she said Prions. She knew way too much about what was going on. The fact that Grue trusted “Tattletale” implicitly when they weren’t even together was icing.

    I don’t know how this illness works, but there are a few things that seem a little off. Skitter had no problem recognizing Atlas when she couldn’t recognize the beast roaming the streets. She apparently couldn’t even recognize the species of that beast.

    Also, nobody was using the code. I can see Skitter being too dazed to think of it, and obviously Bonesaw wouldn’t know it, but that would be a good way of telling each other apart.

  14. A big thank-you goes out to Gregory for his generous donation.

    Scheduling the bonus chapter for October 11th, as I’ll be busy next week with preparation for my writer’s circle & Thanksgiving weekend.

    I’m open to suggestions for the bonus interlude, though I do have a couple of ideas in mind.

    • Hey, you’re Canadian! Of course! That’s what all the Toronto and BC and Newfoundland references are about. And here I just though you were an American who was using Canada as someplace close but exotic.

      Hg

      • Haha.

        My first superhero story was set in my hometown. Realized very quickly that superheroics in a place without tall buildings is awfully hard to write.

        So I made up a US town, to force myself to write a different sort of city, and Brockton Bay gradually came to be.

        With the oddity that I’m a Canadian writing for a U.S. setting.

        • Well, the genre as it stands clearly favours large American cities. Gotham/Metropolis and all those other made-up stand-ins in the DCU, and New York (primarily) plus L.A. for the Marvelites. Personally, I haven’t really felt like you needed a large city with tall buildings specifically to write superhero fiction, but it certainly makes it more likely that more stuff will happen in a large city than in a small town. Of course, there are ways to write around that, like Jim is doing in LoN. However, for me, the challenge was to force myself to NOT use generic American cities, and instead choose actual Canadian locations. Most of them are still big cities (Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver), but it’s definitely nice sometimes to use actual locations, places you’ve been and seen, instead of just making stuff up in your head (which is its own fun challenge).

          So then, the big question is, are you a Leafs fan or a Habs fan? Or maybe you’re glad the Jets are back in Winnipeg, or disappointed with the Canucks performance last year (and the ‘fans’ performance thereafter). Perhaps you favour the Flames or the Oilers, or maybe, just maybe, you feel that the Sens are your team. (Of course, there’s also the small chance you like Detroit or Chicago, or even New York or Boston, or you followed your beloved Nordiques to Colorado, or you grew up on Disney films and still have a soft spot for The Mighty Ducks….)

          Hg

          • Oh boy.

            You’ll have to keep this on the down low, else they’ll revoke my citizenship… but I’m not that into hockey.

            Not that I don’t enjoy myself when I attend a game – been to a few Sens games.

            By the by, you’re Worm’s 4000th commenter.

          • @Wildbow: Cool! And, actually, I’m not all that into hockey myself (or any other sports, for that matter), but I’ve identified as a Leafs fan since I was young.

            @Bobby: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the Nordiques. I disagree with Lindros in that regard. I was just saying I thought it less likely that there were a lot of ‘diques fans who had kept up their allegiance to The Avalanche after all this time. Without a true Nordiques franchise, I would guess that those who don’t still call themselves a Nordiques fan would likely identify as Habs.

            Hg

        • Cities with big buildings also work better for people with grappling hooks, webslingers, or who glide.

          Small towns would require more travel to get to the important things. No good reason for a small town to have a super arms dealer, the PRT, or much reason for a supervillain of very high caliber to target it. All the traveling you would need to do means a lot of time driving unless your character has a power that helps with traveling. It gets boring very quickly to write, “And so once again the hero of our story lets his thoughts wander during yet another 2 hour drive back to his hometown from the big city.”

          • There are ways around that, perhaps the simplest of which is for there to be something about the town that attracts baddies to the location or creates them there. This can be the hero themself, something related to the origin of the hero’s powers or unrelated.

            Smallville, for example pulled off a mix of (a) and (b). (They did eventually move the story to Metropolis, but that’s essentially unavoidable if you want to cover Clark Kent’s transition to Superman. And they got multiple seasons-worth out of Smallville first).

            I think Power Rangers was similar too but I never really watched that…

    • Wait, never mind. He only controls her body, not her mind, and that control is mediated through his miasma-afflicted original self.

      Hm…hopefully Coil will be able to figure out what’s going on.

  15. So, review posted for various comments (such as how to get the thing onto the requested site) on SpaceBattles. So, more informal and spoilery comments.

    1. Shipping? Yes. Dragon/Armsmaster. Glory Girl and Panacea too, with Glory Girl’s hatred and disgust NOT making me squee any less. Grue/Skitter honestly don’t do much for me. Grue’s honestly probably the least interesting of the Undersiders (which is easy considering his teammates). Hm, not sure who would fit Taylor, really. Sundancer is actually the only one who came to mind (and isn’t dead) when glancing over the Cast page. Not really a major concern, of course.

    2. It took me WAY too long to realize that “Tattletale” was really Bonesaw this chapter. Looking forward to the next one.

    3. Hm, right now the main loose end that interests me would be Emma and Sophia/Shadow Stalker. I imagine Shadow Stalker moved to Portland after Regent, assuming she’s not planning something.

    4. Speaking of Regent and Sophia, I’d be really surprised if she didn’t tell someone and bring people down on the Undersiders. I’m pretty sure the Undersiders broke major unspoken rules that day.

    5. Having noticed a comment about Panacea and Glory Girl being the original heroines of this story, I’m curious if the Undersiders offering Panacea membership was in that draft.

    Just stray thoughts. Subscribed to the story.

    • Regarding #5, the Undersiders were a relatively late creation in the setting. In terms of general progression, just going by story title (skipping stories below 5 pages in length and the ones I have handwritten on paper rather than hard drive)…

      Runechild, Runechild v2, Guts & Glory, Guts & Glory v2, The Events Leading Up to That Thursday (TELUTTT), TELUTTT v2, Supreme Earth, Cat and the Canary, The Wards, TELUTTT v3, Guts & Glory v3, Finding Fault, Sovrano Academy, Lucky Girl, Heartbreaker, Sovrano v2, Dealer, Versus Dragon, Ziggurat, Ward v2, Daddy, Doll, Caprice, Travelers, Guts & Glory v4, Circus Triumph, Slaughterhouse, Grue, Grue v2, Schism/TELUTTT v4, Circus vs. Elite…

      And it’s only with that last one that the Undersiders appear at all (BItch makes first appearance, Regent is conceptualized but not a member of the team, Ditto for Grue, Tattletale not conceptualized at that point).

      Taylor/Skitter didn’t even appear until the Undersiders had made their third appearance in my stories, and she was a background character in a rewrite of Circus vs. Elite. I got back to her in a roundabout way, but it took a while. The result of bad (if well intentioned) advice.

      TL;DR: No, they weren’t in the original conception of the Guts & Glory storyline.

      (If anyone’s interested, I can give details on any of the titles above, what they were about and/or why they were relevant in the creation of Worm. Pretty crazy nostalgic for me.)

      • If you feel like it, certainly. I’m always one to be interested in that kind of thing. Personally I am rather interested in Guts and Glory, and who the different ideas for the protagonists were at different stages. Glory Girl and Panacea always struck me as two of the most interesting side characters. I loved Gallant and really like(d) the Wards team dynamic as well. Well, I could go on for a while listing the side characters I like, so I will stop now.

        • @ Wyldcard4, re: Guts & Glory…

          The first draft extended from the day that The Brockton Bay Brigade found Amy to the day she got her powers. Kind of unique among those early stories because it remained relatively unscathed through multiple drafts & the worldbuilding that followed. Almost to the point that I could point to it and call it all canon. This was where I first introduced the Nine. Jack (Jack Knife), Crawler (‘Skitter’) and Shatterbird (‘Breaker’) and Mannequin were all in the group, more or less as they are here, along with others that included Nice Guy and Murder Rat. Glory Girl got sliced up by Jack, Amy had her trigger event, healed her sister and the tide was turned enough that the Nine retreated for another day.

          The second draft took place much later. Amy discovers who her dad is, and much as she does in Worm, she begins breaking down, the facade she had up begins to crack. Marquis was introduced here, and the family was fleshed out.

          The third draft was pretty much an attempt to join the previous drafts together, with material to flesh them out and fill in the gap. Victoria’s relationship with Gallant was built here, but he was different. He had a friend who had the emotion reading ability (who was set up with Amy) while his own abilities were a little more offensive, and he played up the gentleman angle more. I tried my hand at the ending, decided it was too dark, and basically gave up on Guts and Glory at that point.

          • Definitely interesting. Of course, going to assume the ending of the third draft was either Amy going to the Birdcage or Amy mindraping Glory Girl permanently until I get counter evidence. Because I am like that.

            I do consider the idea of Amy dating an emotion reader quite interesting.

          • Wouldn’t call it dating, haha. She was nervous/resentful about the forced double-date, and the empath’s first reaction on seeing her was to tell her to chill, there were no expectations, and they should hang out as friends.

            In retrospect, I should have involved him more in the same way I’ve sort of involved the Undersiders here.

        • @ Wyldcard4, who the protagonists were:

          Runechild: Runechild. Think amateur Dr. Strange. Never made it into Worm, though I stole one of her powers for Rune. Runechild v2 featured Dragon and the Dragonslayers (Dragon recruiting the junior hero to help her), making Dragon the oldest character in Worm.

          Guts & Glory: Amy Dallon/Victoria – Guts and Glory swapped focus between the two with each chapter.

          TELUTTT: Each draft featured rotating viewpoints attempting to incorporate everyone I’d added into the story by that point in one overarching story. First draft focused heavily on Faultline, introduced Scion, Legend, Narwhal, Hero, Alexandria and a major heroine named Mary Sue. Introduced Faultline’s crew, which was composed of Newter, Slug (Gregor), Spitfire and a scandanavian girl with Genesis’ power. Later drafts introduced Endbringers, Dauntless, and Cauldron.

          Supreme Earth: Ramrod.

          Cat & The Canary: Canary, obviously.

          The Wards: Aegis. He was sometimes a girl. I went back and forth.

          Finding Fault: Faultline, again. She was the go-to protagonist for a while.

          Sovrano Academy: Regent. Very different person, same power as demonstrated in the Parasite arc, not the general use ‘I make them twitch/convulse’ power. Attending a cutthroat school for villains with Bonesaw as a classmate.

          Lucky Girl: Shamrock. I can note it’s only around here that the setting started coming together with a place for each of the major players.

          Heartbreaker: Cherish

          Sovrano v2: Caprice

          Dealer: The Dealer/Battery

          Doll: Parian

          Caprice: Caprice

          Travelers: Trickster. Others are as seen in Worm.

          Circus Triumph/Circus vs. Elite: Circus

          Slaughterhouse: Burnscar

          Schism/TELUTT v4: Everyone. Mary Sue gets a sex change and becomes Eidolon. Same power, minus the ‘everyone adores me’ aura (unless he needs it).

          • There is something fitting about Dragon being Worm’s eldest.

            TELUTTT sounds interesting. Hm, did Hero originally live longer, or was this set earlier in whatever timeline there was?

            I like the idea of Aegis as a girl. I liked him in this world, of course. Any reason for the sex change? Hm, now I have the idea of his power allowing for gender changes that I can’t get out of my head…

            Eidolon does make me curious. Mary Sue is an awesome code name for someone with that power set.

          • Honestly, all of these sound really interesting and I find it kinda surprising how just many previous iterations Worm has. Personally, I think it’d be kinda nice to see some these drafts some time probably after Worm has finished.

            Although I will admit, I’m glad you didn’t go with Sovrano Academy. The whole hero/villain school thing is bit overdone in my opinion.

          • TELUTTT – One of the cases where I can’t really tell you the story, because some of it extends into spoiler territory. It took place in an earlier timeline (which is why Hero appeared more), stretching from a point before Faultline’s group was brought together, her forming her gang, and all that.

            Aegis – well, I was cognizant of the fact that, then, pretty much every notable character I’d done was female. Runechild, Victoria, Amy, Dragon, Narwhal, Mary Sue, Faultline… I think writing from the female perspective is easier on a level, because the emotions aren’t held back, and, heck, I find girls more interesting anyways. But it was getting to the point where it was ridiculous, so I started experimenting on that front.

            Mary Sue/Eidolon – See the bit on Aegis, above. The change was made last minute – even as I got four or five arcs into Worm, I was debating whether it would be Mary Sue or Eidolon in this universe. The decider pushing me to make the change was (as with Slug/Gregor, Disaster Area/Faultline) that the name was already taken.

            Sovrano – I agree on the school thing, Spaceman. I think I was writing it more to get a sense of why people did it in the first place, and to try my hand at it, than to tell a story I wanted to tell. I wasn’t that into it, and it was kind of a slog.

          • Interesting to see that there once was a story about Ramrod, when now he’s only a passing mention in some interludes. Though he’s kind of impressing, in a way: he was first sent to the Birdcage (only to be broken out in transit by Madcap/Assault) in Battery’s backstory, yet he only actually entered the birdcage after Lung, according to his prisoner number. He must have been evading capture for a good while.

            Can you tell us a bit more about this tale of supervillainous conquest?

          • Not a lot to say. It was fairly early into my stint of writing for the genre, and I was mainly exploring things. Supreme Earth was an alternate reality that featured villains operating like terrorist cells, destablizing society in ways that were both major and minor (from offing world leaders to destroying city power grids), and putting the world in a situation where they were dependent on superhumans to get energy, food and safety. Basically put, a world with superhumans that had no superheroes. Takeover on a global level, with non-superhumans as second class citizens.

            Ramrod was kind of similar to Skitter in that she was an (arguably) good person in a cynical – she was new to her powers, entering the Supreme’s organization from the ground level, but her priorities were mainly ensuring that her family was taken care of. As she ascended in the ranks, keeping that perspective would have been the main challenge. In terms of the greater plot, there was the question of why the villains were so organized and why Goddess, the leader of the superhumans, was able to keep every superhuman in line.

            As far as I’m concerned, Supreme Earth is canon in the Wormverse. It probably won’t ever show its face, but it’s an alternate reality that falls in close parallel with Worm’s. Beyond the use of the name Ramrod, Supreme Earth’s characters weren’t really reused (though I think Regent might have poked his head in for one draft).

          • Oh what I wouldn’t give to have all this in a wiki. You seem to have this world so fleshed out that I doubt I can even hope to spring a difficult question.

            You missed out the ones I was most intrigued by, Versus Dragon, Ziggurat and Daddy.

            Also, when abouts did Armsmaster appear in all of this? Was Dragon an AI from the start and if so what was her origin story before the end bringers?

          • Well, there -is- a wiki. Just nobody’s really contributing. Some people, like Valravn, are creating the pages, but there’s no synposis – it’s just a framework. I’m grateful for his work and for the ability to reference it (which I use sometimes), but it’s thin as resources go. The deal I made at the time of the wiki’s conception still stands. If people edit the actual character/chapter pages, I’ll add trivia, detail and author’s notes.

            Versus Dragon: If I remember right, it was the first chapter featuring Circus. You’ll notice she recurs – she was a protagonist for a stretch. She, a ‘Miss Miasma’ (tinker specializing in gases) and ‘Highbrow’ (with Browbeat’s powers) robbing a bank when Dragon shows up. The approach was very different (kick the door in, and they ran instead of trying to fight, despite being a more offensive team than the Undersiders, ironically) but I did use the same blueprints for the bank layout.

            Ziggurat – Junior villains take advantage of a Endbringer attack to take over a city, trapping the residents in a ring of stone walls. Switched perspectives from the villains to the heroes (protagonist was Narwhal) fighting Hadhayosh, with the idea that it would merge together into a singular storyline where Narwhal tries to deal with the captured city. I think I might’ve done a second version with some civilians in the mix, just to show the effect on them, then dropped it quickly.
            Relevance? Well, I think it marks one of my first in-setting attempts to show a hostile takeover by villains (Supreme Earth was such on a much larger scale) and their attempts to manage a city once they’d seized it. Why didn’t it work? Narwhal was too powerful for a protagonist, and the length would have put it into an awkward place, too long for a short story and too short for a novel or even a novella. Once I realized that, I lost steam.

            Daddy featured Triumph, who wasn’t in the Protectorate (he wasn’t until this draft of Worm, in fact) – or more specifically, his daughter. An attempt at a real-world perspective on what it’s like to live with a superhero and the difficulties of managing real life. If it resembles any chapter, it’s close to the first interlude (though she knew what her dad was doing) Even now I picture where Triumph’s daughter is when I mention him, even if he’s sort of a background character. I’m imagining he’s still in the city. A similar scene appeared in the fourth and final stab at Guts & Glory, featuring Victoria and Amy (the latter of which didn’t have powers) after Brandish came home to tell them Flashbang was cut up by Murder Rat.

            Armsmaster… hard to pin down. He was one of those characters where his name kept cropping up but he didn’t have a fixed place for a long time, and even his powers were free to change from iteration to iteration. (Bonesaw’s probably the biggest offender here – she must have appeared in no less than ten different teams/places with a variety of names & variants on her power). He didn’t interact with Dragon until this version of Worm. Dragon might have been a tinker who turned herself into an AI out of necessity, but the details would be in one of the notebooks I’ve got on my shelf, so it would take time to dig up.

          • Thank you.

            That’s just parahuman stuff, and it’s only half of what I really came up with, not even getting into the number of drafts I did in anticipation of writing Worm.

            As for non-parahuman stuff, I’m thinking that when Worm draws to a close, I might put up samples and see if anything piques enough interest from my readers to be worth taking on as a shorter serial (more conventional in length).

  16. Wow, just wow. Definitely the most terrifying last line of any chapter so far…actually, just one of the most effective last lines in any kind of twist ending scenario I can recall reading lately. Had to go back and reread everything after their meeting to picture it with Bonesaw and Siberi-man or Jack.

  17. Jesus Christ. One bad thing after another.

    I can’t help but feel that you are deliberately dragging this whole Nine thing on and on….

    Not a bad thing, but it is really annoying. Legend is supposed to be the leader of the Superheroes, the one who fought against Leviathan etc, but even he falls flat against the Nine.

    Can’t help but feel like either you are deliberately making the heroes out to be weaker than they should be to make the Undersiders look good, or something else. Because seriously, as fun as reading about the Nine is, it is just dragging. :/

    • Worm has always been a world where the heroes are outnumbered and, at the pointy end, outgunned by villains. The only real exception is Scion. Without him the world would be in an even bigger mess than it is. And even he seemed limited to temporarily driving Leviathan away.

      In this setting, the world’s most powerful team of villains significantly overpowers the world’s most powerful team of Heroes.

  18. Found another small continuity error:

    “Siberian was there?” Tattletale asked. ”And Legend?”

    In the previous chapter, Skitter already mentioned this to Tattletale:

    Hovering over the library, I got my phone out and dialed.

    “Tattletale?”

    “Sup?”

    “Legend’s fighting Siberian here, but the maker isn’t in the truck. I think he’s in the vault with Jack and Bonesaw.”

  19. “The two teenagers…”
    Huh. I had always imagined that the Travelers were in their early 20′s or so.

    “…I couldn’t get the same leverage push myself out with my arms.”
    Is there a word missing?

    And “Tattletale” messed up a bit there, at the end.

  20. “This wasn’t rational for him, it didn’t jibe with my knowledge of him. That could mean there was something about the miasma that was making him irrational.”

    The sentences before this one was about how she couldn’t recognize who this person was…

  21. Gyaaah. Even after all you’ve pulled off in this great story, this was probably the most tense chapter so far. Fantastic stuff. I had a mental image of Tattletale as dark haired, which made me suspicious of the girl at the end, but that (with a slight uncertainty) just made it even more tense.

    Missing punctuation here:
    She shook her head “I don’t remember that.”

  22. This looks like a mistake, so I’m going to write “typo” here in the hopes it catches your attention.
    “This wasn’t rational for him, it didn’t jibe with my knowledge of him” – the miasma should have prevented Skitter from knowing anything about Legend at all, at this point.

  23. “I know I’m a pain in the ass”
    Either Bonesaw is willing to sacrifice for the act, or she’s acting out of character, using such a word.

    • I’d hazmat a guess that it falls under the category of slightly rude rather than ‘Very’ rude so she can deal with it. Just compare the word ‘ass’ to the word ‘fucking’.

  24. Just started reading this recently; I’ve just been tearing through it. Are you still reading comments?

    I’m wondering if I’m not fully understanding how the miasma works or if there is a plot hole here. But consider:

    “I couldn’t make the mental connection between the Nine and their appearances or their powers.”

    and

    “That would have been reassuring if I could remember what her powers were, or if I could think of something about her I could quiz her on.”

    From these lines, I take it that the miasma’s effects include an inability to connect powers with people. Moreover, if that weren’t the case, you’d expect that it would be trivial for the capes to identify each other just by having a demonstration of powers. “Oh, all those bugs — you must be Skitter!” “If you’re Grue, show me the darkness.” Taylor and others must be smart enough to figure that out if it were possible.

    And yet, there are points in this chapter where it seems like Taylor can associate powers with people, and various other things.

    Taylor at least recognizes “Tattletale” when the blonde girl calls herself by that name.

    Even though she couldn’t remember Legend’s name while she was stuck (narrating him as the “man with the blue and silver mask”), she later called him by name and associated him with lasers:

    “I double checked that Atlas hadn’t been hurt by Legend’s lasers and then climbed on top of him.”

    Also, she seems to remember Panacea as a healer:

    “I swallowed. ”But Panacea could fix it.””

    So, am I missing anything here? Am I misunderstanding something?

    • Of course memory doesnt really work that cleanly.. there are bits of information that are easier to retain and few things that are harder.. each bit of information probably has sub-parts that are even more complex of which only parts can be recalled. So I actually thought that this portrayal was pretty realistic. Though consciously, we can classify things into people, powers, personalities etc., we probably keep them “stored” as tandom sensations.

      From what I’ve read on how memory works, it is largely associative (and heavily visual as well as spacial), but I can totally picture a tinker made gas having this kind of effect. Actually, when you consider Bonesaw’s tinker abilities, you could account for just about any kind of effect, but I think this works fine.

  25. OK — this sentence near the beginning makes no sense to me.
    “You found them?” Tattletale asked. ”Siberian and Legend?”
    Given the fact that TT & Skitter had talked on the phone while Skitter was watching the fight, and that they were now talking about “how it went”, why would TT even ASK that? She KNOWS Skitter found them!

    I could see maybe asking if she had STILL seen them AFTER the bombing, but even that seems odd, given what Skitter is saying just prior to the Q.
    ~~~
    ” … get the same leverage push myself out …” Missing [to].

    • If I keep going back and re-reading for clarification, and getting tempted into reading all the commentary, I’ll have read a bajillion words before the end.

      Plus — all the theories and cross-talk, plus Wildbow’s info about his nascent writings that lead up to Worm, leave me struggling to be clear on what is/isn’t canon. To say nothing about what PG’s variations on a theme do to me! Still …

      SO worth it! Wormverse has been more engaging than things IRL of late.
      ~~~
      Oh — and remember the comment thread a bunch of arcs ago, about “boys are blond, girls are blonde”? Still true.

  26. This is the part where I am so glad that I discovered Worm later rather than earlier. Intense as always, but this is bordering nervewrecking.

  27. What an ending man!! One of the best twists you’ve given. This is second only to the chapter when Skitter discovers Shadow Stalker’s true identity!! Brilliant!!

  28. I had a bad feeling when Tattletale began speaking about the different parts of the brain and what the poison does in such depth and confidence. It gave me flashbacks to when Bonesaw was attempting to cut Skitter’s head open. But I was a bit relieved when Grue was standing in a familiar way (arms folded, he tends to do that alot), but by the ending sentence I was like “Holy Shit” and my stomach dropped clear to the floor. Kudos wildbow for anxiety-inducing chapter.

  29. Oh god.

    “He shot her two more times, and she went limp. Out cold.”

    Imp.
    Bonesaw got Imp before she got Grue. She had Imp longer. This funny amnesia- forgetting people but not events or places- this is Imp’s power, weaponized. And generalized. Forgetting about the Nine would be bad enough; this is… it lives up to Bonesaw’s promise, I think. Grife.

  30. Before I could respond, he started approaching me. I backed away a step, kept the gun leveled, but I couldn’t bring myself to shoot as he advanced.

    He stepped in close, ignoring the gun, and wrapped his arms around me. My forehead pressed against his shoulder. It wasn’t the most comfortable hug I’d had, not that I’d had many. It felt awkward, stiff, clumsy. But somehow that made it feel more right, like a real hug would have felt off somehow.

    This is excellent. I love how they don’t kiss.

  31. “Hey!” Tattletale paused, pointing at me with a stern expression on her face. “Don’t swear!”

    Way to make the bottom drop out of the world. Jesus Christ.
    No wonder Grue trusts her.

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